18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”
19 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.
21 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. 22 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
(Mark 2:18-22 NIV)
The topic of food and eating is a common thread between our last story of the banquet at Levi’s house (vv. 13-17) and today’s text. In the previous story, Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees about fellowshipping and eating with the likes of “tax collectors and sinners”. In today’s passage, some people ask Jesus why His disciples do not fast like the Pharisees and John’s disciples. The people are confused – why do Jesus’ disciples not follow the cultural norms of either the Pharisees or John the Baptist’s disciples?
The Pharisees fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, from 6 AM to 6 PM. This was part of their oral tradition; they felt this was showing their piety toward God. Luke 18:9-14 (especially verse 12) gives us a hint of the twice-a-week fasting ritual of the Pharisees.
The people also bring up John the Baptizer’s disciples, citing their regular practice of fasting. While the Pharisees fasted to draw attention to themselves, John’s disciples were likely fasting as part of their preaching of repentance.
Before we go any further, let’s pause and see what the Old Testament scripture had to say on the subject of fasting. There was only one day a year that Scripture required fasting, and that was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32). This was a solemn day of confessing sins before the Lord, individually, by family, and for the entire nation. This was the one day of the year that the High Priest would enter into the Tabernacle and present the sacrifices to the Lord in the Holy of Holies, the innermost room of the temple.
So how does Jesus respond? In His wisdom, Jesus uses three commonplace examples to answer the question and teach the people.
In His first example, Jesus draws upon a common rabbinic exemption for fasting – a wedding. Even the Pharisees, with all their oral traditions, their “rules and regulations” on how to live, recognized that fasting was inappropriate at a festive occasion such as a wedding. All members of the wedding party and all the guests were exempt from fasting during the wedding celebration week.
Jesus’ reference to Himself as the Bridegroom was veiled to His audience at this point. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus does not reveal Himself as Messiah until chapter 8. Jesus’ reference to the bridegroom being taking away was also veiled. Jesus knew full well what was ahead for Him – His death, burial, and resurrection. Again, He made mention of the future here but did not fully disclose the events to come until later.
Jesus goes on to use two other commonly understood illustrations to make His point about the necessity of change.
The first illustration is the use of new cloth to mend a tear on an old garment. Anyone would immediately recognize that applying a patch of new cloth to an old garment would be foolish. The new cloth would shrink when washed, causing a bigger tear in the garment than the original hole.
The second illustration is the pouring of new wine into old wineskins. In Jesus’ day, wine fermentation was carried out in a two-stage process. In the first stage, wine was fermented in a large vat; in the second stage, the wine was placed into a leather “skin” (container) to finish the fermentation process and store the wine. They did not have the glass bottles that wine is packaged in today. The new leather containers would expand as the wine emitted gasses as part of the fermentation process. The old wineskins would already be stretched out; if used to hold new wine, they would burst under the pressure, and both wine and wineskin would be ruined and lost.
As Jesus answered His critics, He was pointing out that a fresh start was required. This was not an admittance of failure, but rather, a cause for celebration. Jesus was not against fasting – in fact, He recognized the spiritual value of fasting and practiced it when He was tempted in the desert for forty days.
Jesus’ message was that the old ways of spiritual life were good, but it was time for something new. John the Baptizer’s message was that of repentance in preparation for the Messiah. Jesus’ message was a cause for celebration because Messiah was here. He is Immanuel – “God with us”!
As the Apostle Paul writes:
15 He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
(Colossians 1:15-16 ESV, bracketed text and underlines mine)
May we take some time today to worship and celebrate God’s presence – in person, through His Son Jesus while He was on earth, and now through the Holy Spirit that is present with followers of Christ.