Photo by gleangenie on Morgue File.
(Okay, pardon the pun in the title, but I couldn’t help it!)
In our last post on Mark, we looked at Jesus’ dinner party at Matthew’s house. We discussed the reaction of the religious leaders to this event and the hints of the growing tension between them. As we continue to move forward, especially in the next few pericopes, we will see this tension heightening all the more.
As the Holy Spirit inspired Mark, he ratchets the tension and conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders until it is almost palpable. It sits large and heavy upon the page. Even a general perusal of the text would discover it. All of this, of course, foreshadows the culmination of this conflict in the betrayal, mock trial and crucifixion of Christ.
Today’s post will then be the next pericope we find in Mark, 2. 18-22.
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And 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. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No 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. And 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. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” (Mk. 2. 18-22, ESV)
A rather interesting pericope we have before us today!
First things first, there is a question posed to Jesus concerning the actions of his disciples as opposed to the disciples of John the Baptizer and the disciples of the Pharisees. Three sets of disciples then, two of whom are doing the same thing (i.e. fasting) while the third bunch (i.e. Jesus’ disciples) are not.
It’s like that old game where you have two pictures and you try to find what is different about them. Well, in this case, two of the groups (i.e. John’s disciples and the Pharisee’s disciples) all practiced fasting; while Jesus’ disciples did not.
The question was posed to Jesus simply as Why?
Let us make a few comments concerning Jesus and fasting and then we will observe a few things about our current pericope.
First, it is clear that Jesus was not anti-fasting. It would have been hard for him to have been, since it is prescribed in the Torah! For example, we know that Jesus fasted himself. As he was tempted in the wilderness for forty days, Scripture tells us he fasted for that period of time (cf. Mt. 4.2). Also, Jesus taught us how we should fast when we do fast (cf. Mt. 6. 16-18). In other words, it was not a question for Jesus if his followers were going to fast, but when they did fast here is how it should be done!
As always, we must consider the context of this pericope. This pericope follows on the heels of the discussion of the calling of Levi (i.e. Matthew) to leave his occupation as a tax collector and to become a disciple of Christ. In turn, Matthew invites Jesus to his house and prepares him a tremendous feast.
The first question posed to Jesus, was not why did his disciples not fast; but rather, it was this question: Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners (Lk. 5. 30; Mk. 2. 16)?
Jesus responds, Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Mk. 2.17). In Matthew’s account (whose house they were in at this time) he adds a reference to Hosea 6. 6 in Jesus’ reply, Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Mt. 9. 12-13).
So then, while Jesus and his disciples are eating like kings, the disciples of John the Baptizer and the Pharisees are fasting and feeling the pangs of having so much food so close, yet unable to enjoy any of it!
It is quite clear they did not approve of Jesus’ lifestyle! I know that sounds really odd to us, doesn’t it?!
They didn’t approve of Jesus’ lifestyle?!
We tend to think of such a thing only being said of one of our black sheep in the family or a disgraced personality in society . . . but Jesus?!
Jesus understands the depth of their discontent with him. It goes beyond fasting.
Jesus in turn answers their question with theological reasoning.
He identifies himself as the bridegroom. A clear reference to YHWH in the Hebrew Bible (i.e. Old Testament) (cf. Is. 62. 5). Since Jesus was then with the disciples, what need did they have in fasting?
Of course, this touches upon the purpose of fasting. Fasting was a way for a person of faith to consecrate themselves to God and seek him fervently and wholeheartedly, as shown by the sacrifice of something as vital as food.
But, with Jesus being present with them, they had no need to do this. They were enjoying his presence then and there. It would only be after his departure that they would be required to fast.
Jesus was the bringer of the New Covenant. The New Covenant brought with it the ushering in of God’s Kingdom under the authority of the Messianic mission and reign. The old skin would be replaced with the new.
Jesus was not simply preaching a status-quo message. He was not simply telling people to keep up the good work and keep on as you were. If this had been his message, why bother coming in the first place?
No, Jesus was preaching and teaching ideas that were revolutionary. The religious leaders understood it. That is why they felt threatened by him. They knew such ideas could easily sway the crowd and cause trouble for, not only them, but for all Jews under Roman control.
As the conflict ramped up between Jesus and the religious elite, Jesus continued to push hard the truth of the gospel. He continued to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God. He continued to preach and teach and demonstrate the power of the age of the New Covenant.
It would be after his departure that his followers would once again need to practice fasting. It would be then that they would need fasting, because Jesus would no longer be present with them (cf. Jn. 7. 33-34).
Life Lessons from Today’s Pericope:
1. Jesus Expected his Followers to Fast (cf. Mt. 6. 16-18).
Fasting, at least in the Christian circles I am acquainted with, is not a topic that is emphasized by many. It tends to be regulated to all things Leviticus: ignored and swept tidily under the proverbial rug! Yet, it is clear, Jesus expected us to fast. Do we? Do you? Do I?
2. Fasting Points to a Desire by the Faster to Seek God.
The real question when it comes to fasting is: do we hunger for God enough to abstain from food. That is to say, is our spiritual hunger greater than our physical hunger?! Paul touches on some of the principles that would apply here in his letters to the Corinthians, for example. We must build up the inner/spiritual man/woman. And, we must bring into subjection the outer/physical man/woman.
3. We Need to have an Understanding of the Implications of the New Covenant that Jesus Proclaimed and Instituted.
This, obviously, goes beyond the subject of our posting here. But, this is a key theological truth that followers of Christ should study. What is the new covenant? How does it differ from the Old? Does it differ from the Old? How do we explain any differences? What Scripture passages apply?