We’re in the gospel of Mark, chapter 2:18-22. This is the third story in a sequence of five stories of conflict that we’ve been working our way through.
You have a handout – Five conflict stories on how these stories are put together. I would just quickly highlight three things. 1) You can see in the left and right hand columns how these five stories parallel each other in various ways. 2) Each story tells us something about who Jesus is (center column). And 3) the two parables at the very center reference all five stories, not just ours, the third.
Alright, let’s work our way through our verses for today.
We begin with some background.
“18Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.”
The Law of Moses only requires one fast, a 24 hour fast on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:29). (Although later there were other fasts that began to be observed – Zechariah 8:19; Esther 9:31; Nehemiah 9:1).
In our story we’re dealing with voluntary fasts, that go beyond what is required. These were usually from sunrise to sunset. Voluntary fasting was one of three key practices in ancient Judaism, along with prayer and giving alms. And it was highly regarded as a mark of devotion to God.
In Scripture, fasting is connected to things like mourning a death, repenting for sins, or when you’re dealing with hard times and you’re desperate for God’s help. It’s self-denial – not eating – connected to humility, lowliness and sadness. (In Matthew 9:15 the word “fast” is replaced by “mourn,” the two ideas are so closely related. Also in Matthew 6:16 Jesus criticizes putting on a show of mourning when you fast.)
Fasting is also associated with prayer (Luke’s version of this story adds in prayer to the topic of fasting – 5:33). It’s a way of intensifying your prayers in order to make your feelings or your needs known to God; the urgency of the situation (Matthew 6:16-18).
- Regarding John the Baptist, Jesus describes him as someone who came “eating no bread and drinking no wine” – Luke 7:33. That is, he was known for fasting and not drinking alcohol. His disciples must have followed suit.
- The Pharisees were also known for fasting. They did this twice a week (Luke 18:12) on Mondays and Thursdays.
So both John’s disciples and the Pharisees maintained a lifestyle characterized by rigorous voluntary fasting.
This brings us to the question.
“18And people came and said to him (Jesus), ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’”
There were different religious groups among the Jews, and there is a comparison going on here. John’s group and the Pharisees seem really serious and devout. And so the question is “Are you guys slackers?” This question may well have been raised because, in the previous story Jesus and his disciples are feasting with tax collectors and sinners. And although the question is addressed to Jesus about his disciple’s behavior, it’s meant as a challenge to Jesus who is their teacher.
“19And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.’”
Now, Jesus and his disciples would have fasted from time to time, for instance on the Day of Atonement. And since Jesus gave them teaching on voluntary fasting in Matthew 6:16-18, it seems reasonable that they put this into practice on occasion. But they were not known for fasting. They did not maintain a rigorous lifestyle of fasting. This is the issue here.
Fasting, as we saw, would more likely be linked to funerals, where there is mourning and lowliness. But Jesus makes the case that his presence among the people is like a wedding. And weddings were all about celebrating and feasting – for seven whole days! Fasting would have been unheard of at such an event. As Jesus says, “they cannot fast” in such a setting.
So he’s making a claim about himself – Jesus is the bridegroom. The image of God as the husband of Israel was well known in the Old Testament (Isaiah 54:5-6; 61:10; Ezekiel 16; Hosea). But here Jesus has this role (See also Ephesians 5:22ff; Revelation 19:6-9; John 3:29) – and his disciples are his groomsmen or wedding guests.
His coming signals the enactment of the new covenant between God and his people – his bride, seen as a marriage renewal. His coming also signals the arrival of the promised kingdom of God which was also depicted with wedding imagery. (For the coming of the kingdom and wedding themes in the New Testament see Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13 and Revelation 19:7-9)
And so it’s a time of celebration. This is why Jesus was a “feaster,” not a faster. He maintained a lifestyle of celebration and joy, not mourning and sadness. As he says about himself in Luke 7:33, in contrast to John the Baptist, “the Son of man came eating and drinking.” And he celebrated so much that some slandered him as “a glutton and a drunkard.” And this is why he and his disciples were feasting in the previous story.
So Jesus is saying, the new has come! I’m here! The kingdom of God is here. And this has an impact on some traditional practices. The old has to change.
If these other Jewish groups had recognized Jesus’ claim, they too would have changed their practices from a lifestyle of fasting – to a lifestyle more associated with feasting. But they didn’t accept Jesus’ claim, and so they didn’t change their practices.
“20The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”
If v. 19 emphasizes Jesus’ presence with them and what this means, v. 20 emphasizes when Jesus will be absent from them. The phrase “is taken away” is ominous. It’s a veiled reference to his death. (It’s likely an allusion to Isaiah 53:8) Jesus is saying that after his death, in those days, his disciples will fast. (Fasting and death/mourning/a funeral are once again connected.) (See John 16:19-20 for a similar idea)
So this new thing, a lifestyle of celebration, is a change of practice specifically related to Jesus’ presence on earth.
Next comes two parables about the new and the old.
“21No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.
22And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins.”
These both make the same point, there’s an incompatibility between the new and the old. In the first, the new is the unshrunk cloth. If you sew this onto an old garment, the patch will shrink and everything will be ruined.
In the second, the new is the new wine. If you put it into an old wineskin that has already been stretched out and is brittle, when the wine continues to ferment and expand, it will burst the wineskin and everything will be ruined. There’s an incompatibility.
Jesus draws out the positive point in the last line –
“22But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
The new of Jesus’ presence and the kingdom requires some new practices, not grafting the new onto the old (the patch) or putting the new into the old (wine). With Jesus’ coming – things get changed up!
Some things to take home
1. Jesus’ divine identity. As we have seen several times now, most recently when Jesus forgave a person’s sins, Jesus takes on the role of God. Or to say it another way, he is the Son of God.
In our text today he identifies himself as the bridegroom of God’s people, who of course, is God. This is who Jesus is. He is not just a prophet. He is not just the Messiah. He is not just a son of God – a powerful ruler or heavenly being. He is the Son of God. This is who our Savior is.
2. Do you fast? This is a challenge that this passage presents to us. Jesus specifically says that after his death, “they will fast in that day.” This is the time we live in now.
If you don’t already, I encourage you to try fasting as a way of engaging in intense prayer, lifting up your sorrows and problems to God. And God will hear you since he is especially attuned to the lowly.
Although, remember to do it according to Jesus’ teaching – so that we don’t advertise our fasting by playing the part of a mourner, as he teaches in Matthew 6:16-18.
3. Are you living in the new that Jesus teaches? As we saw, the change with regard to fasting was temporary, being specifically related to Jesus’ bodily presence with us.
But as I pointed out, the two parables on the new and the old, at the very center of the five stories of conflict, also point back to the first two stories and forward to the last two stories.
- In the first two stories – with Jesus’ coming the kingdom brings in a time of mercy and forgiveness, so that Jesus now announces forgiveness and extends mercy even to notable sinners.
- And in the second two stories – with Jesus’ coming the kingdom brings with it a new way of observing the Sabbath for Jesus’ Jewish followers, that emphasizes that it’s made to bless people, and doing good to others on the Sabbath is encouraged.
The coming of the kingdom changes our practices in these ways also. And if the fasting example is mostly temporary, these are long-term changes that clarify for us what God’s will is with regard to how we treat “sinners” and how we might observe Sabbath.