Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

36. Fasting (Matthew 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39)*

“I fast twice in the week”, boasted the Pharisee in the parable (Lk. 18:12), as he wrote his own testimonial for the Almighty to read. And indeed he did -- every Monday and Thursday. It was evidently on one of these fast-days when Matthew's great reception was held (Mk.). To the Pharisees this splendid feast became a welcome opportunity for criticism. To the disciples of John, who also had adopted this fasting practice, it was an offence and a source of perplexity. These, of course, knew of the witness their leader had made regarding Jesus, but the sharp contrast between John's austerity and the social spirit shown by Jesus reinforced their natural loyalty to their teacher, and they were offended. So they came to Jesus about it: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft (and make formal prayers: Lk.), but thy disciples fast not? they eat and drink.” The form of the phrasing in Greek makes a subtle distinction, as though implying that these followers of Jesus were not as whole-hearted in their discipleship as they themselves we re of John.

Gentle Correction

The rebuke of Jesus could hardly have been made more gently: “Can the sons of the bride-chamber (ie. the wedding guests) fast whilst the bridegroom is with them?” It may be that before Jesus began his ministry John had taught his disciples to fast as an expression of their eagerness for Messiah's coming (Mt. 11:18); a prophecy of the Last Days has the same idea and purpose (Joel 2:15, 16).

It is to be noted that the reproach took once again the form of a question, so that they might supply their own answer. Jesus might have treated their enquiry peremptorily by bidding them go home and read their Bible; for, when, except on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29), did Moses enjoin fasting? But the Lord avoided a head-on clash of this kind.

Since the imprisonment of their master these followers of John, left with no firm guidance, had come under the evil influence of the Pharisees and needed to be saved from the present unhappy trend of their religious ideas. Of course, they should have obeyed the lead given them by John, gladly attaching themselves to Jesus, to whom their leader had borne such emphatic witness. But it is ever thus with human nature (even today!). Men who recognize the need for reformation are willing to go so far, and then they take fright, and the shackles of conventional thinking exert their restraint on faith once again.

The reply of Jesus unmistakably quoted back at John's disciples the words of John himself. When these disciples had come to John worried about the greater progress being made in Judaea by Jesus, he had bidden them find satisfaction in the fact: “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom, but the friend of the bridegroom which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled” (Jn. 3 :29) -- and so also ought theirs!

Thus Jesus' rejoinder told them again that he was the heavenly bridegroom. In his presence fasting, which Scripture describes as “afflicting one's soul” (Lev. 16:29; ls. 58:5), was utterly out of place. Since fasting is an open sign of mourning, how incompatible it was with the satisfaction and joy which John himself felt at the increasing success of Jesus! In this gentle way Jesus reminded them that their well-intentioned adoption of Pharisaic practice was really an evil thing. They had taken a big step in the wrong direction.

Even the Pharisees exempted bridal parties from the regular fasts which they practised, and that, in effect, is what this great feast at Matthew's house was. Theft Bridegroom himself was present.

“Taken away”

He went on in more sombre fashion: “But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.” Here was yet another hint (like Jn. 2:19) in the Lord's early teaching that his ministry must end in rejection and suffering. The words “taken away” imply violence. It has been well pointed out that there is an echo here of the familiar words of ls. 53:8 LXX: “his life is taken away from the earth”, and that in the Song of Songs the bridegroom is taken away from his beloved, so that in her dream she goes about the city seeking for him in her distress (Song 5:6).

Already, no doubt, these Scriptures were in the mind of Jesus. And the fact that he spoke prophetically in this way immediately after a clash with the Pharisees may have been intended to prepare the minds of his disciples for the unwelcome experience of seeing their Master brought to his death through conflict with these men.

To Fast or not to Fast?

It is a question not to be lightly brushed aside whether these words of Jesus are an implied instruction to his followers in every generation to practise fasting during his absence. At that hope-destroying Passover when they saw their Lord crucified, they were to need no commandment to fast.

But forty days later, when “he was parted from them and carried up into heaven, .. . they returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Lk.24:51, 52; cf.v.17). This was the very reverse of the mourning which fasting betokens. The obvious explanation is that they did not consider the bridegroom to have been taken away from them: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt.28:20). “For he hath said, I will never leave thee nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5; a valuable passage, the Greek of which has five negatives!) Thus the one who practises religious fasting proclaims not his closeness to the Lord but that he lacks a present sense of His help and comfort.

Only in times of extreme perplexity or tribulation would the believers perhaps do well to undertake fasting -- afflicting their souls -- as a means of reinforcing special prayers offered before God in such circumstances. It could become another powerful outward expression of their sense of need. If this is a correct understanding, then Christ's ecclesia in the present day has something to learn.

Three Mini-Parables

By means of three pocket-sized parables Jesus now proceeded to generalise the problem which had arisen regarding fasting. They are possibly the first examples of this form of instruction in the gospels, though almost certainly not the first that he had ever employed.

The synoptists' versions of the first of the three emphasize different details. Possibly the one in Luke represents a later version, for it is not unlikely that Jesus had occasion to teach the same lesson more than once.

The Patched Garment

In Matthew and Mark the absurdity is emphasized of using a piece of unshrunk cloth to patch an old garment. What happens? As the new cloth gradually shrinks, it pulls away some of the weaker old material, and the last state of that garment is worse than the first. Thus, in a parable, Jesus prophesied that the ill-found alliance between Pharisee (the old worn-out garment) and disciple of the Baptist (represented by the crude unfinished patch) could not possibly last. The fundamental difference in outlook was too great. The Pharisees clung to a thread-bare philosophy of dependence on a pseudo-righteousness wrought, not without some self-satisfaction, by one's own personal efforts and discipline. John's teaching had as its foundation: “All flesh is grass;” he insisted that only through repentance, baptism and faith in the Lamb of God can a man be acceptable before God. Where was the compatibility?

In Luke's version of this parable, the patch is torn out of a new garment. Here it is not the raw quality of the patching material which makes the procedure unsatisfactory. Instead, there is the ruin of the new garment and the blatant fact that the new does not match the old. The incongruity is obvious.

The new garment represents, of course, the teaching of Jesus. Any attempt at alliance with the Pharisees was bound to mean ruin to this movement which Jesus had begun, because the Pharisees were interested only in absorbing for their own prestige and benefit this and any other surge of religious enthusiasm. It was their intention that in doing so they would modify it into harmony with their own ideas and practices. Jesus knew that any such confederation would bring his work to nought. The “new garment” would be utterly spoiled.

Besides this, there was the hopeless incompatibility between the Pharisees' outlook and the teaching of Jesus. Basically, in attitude to God and man they were as different as could be. How could there be any sort of liaison between two systems of teaching so drastically different from each other? They just did not match.

The Old Testament background to this parable--often overlooked--adds considerably to its force. Before many weeks had passed, in the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus was to appropriate as an apt summary of his gospel, the satisfying sonorous words or Isaiah 61. That passage goes on: “To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes (weddings for funerals!), the oil of joy for mourning (fasting), the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness ... I will greatly rejoice in the Lord ... for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments... “(61:3, 10).

Messiah's work was not a pre-appointed patching of garments, bit complete replacement with a God-provided robe of righteousness, apparel appropriate to a royal wedding, with himself in the role of the Bridegroom.

New Wine, Old Bottles

The variance between the old and the new was further underlined by the parable of new wine in old wineskins, now emphasizing a difference of inner spirit as well as of outward form. A man with the characteristic outlook of Judaism -- that by religious regimen and self-discipline he can make himself worthy of God's approval -- is compared to an old wine-skin. The fermentation still busy in the new wine is more than the old skin can stand. The result--it bursts, and is thenceforth useless, and the wine runs away and is lost.

This similitude was also a prophecy. The strenuous attempts by first-century Jewry to capture Christianity as a sect of Judaism resulted in the wreck of the Mosaic system and also the loss of the Truth (see “The Jewish Plot”, Testimony, June 1974). By this figure Jesus prophesied the hopeless failure of those, whether his own disciples or John's, who attempted to reconcile the new outlook with the venerated but unprofitable religious practices of the Pharisees. A man assimilating the new teaching must himself become a new creature and not a rather more respectable version of the old man. Put new wine in new wine-skins, and both are preserved.

New Wine and Old

At this point Luke includes a third mini-parable: “And no man having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith. The old is better (Lk. 5:39).

It may be that here Jesus was making a kind of half-apology for the attitude adopted by the disciples of John. All their lives they had been accustomed to see in the punctilious devotion of the Pharisees to the tradition of the elders, a way of life deserving admiration. Then it was not to be wondered at if, in their own new-found zeal for serving God, they tried to emulate it. Yet, implied Jesus, in fact it is the new wine of the gospel that is better; so as speedily as possible they must become accustomed to the new, especially since soon there would be none of the old left. The saying became very meaningful in later days when Jews brought to faith in Christ had to let go their innate prejudice in favour of the old Law of works. A Jewish palate would not instinctively take to the new wine of Christ's faith-gospel right away, but salvation depends on learning a preference for the new. (cp. Mk. 4:33; Jn. 3:12; 16:12; 1 Cor. 3:12; Heb. 5:12-14).

These words of Jesus show a gracious understanding of the weaknesses of human nature. There are few people indeed whose conversion to the way of Christ is sudden and complete. With most it is a matter of gradual readjustment of outlook. Peter had to be called by Jesus three times. And there is many a man who dates his conversion from long offer his baptism into Christ. “Peter, when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” Jesus said that at the end of his ministry, not at the beginning.

Notes: Mark 2:18-22

And the Pharisees. There is more than a hint here of collaboration. John's disciples, who should have remembered Mt. 3:7, were being made use of.

Used to fast. A more likely reading: “they were fasting”, ie. on that very day of Matthew's feast. Thy disciples. But disciples take their tone from their Leader, so this was a criticism of Jesus really. The criticism also implies: “they do not practice fasting.” The Lord's followers had been under close observation! Note how, here, the disciples are criticized to their Master; in v. 16 the Master is criticized to the disciples.
The children of the bridechamber. A common Bible idiom for “those invited to the wedding.” Cp. Mt. 8:12; 23:15; Lk. 10:6; 16:8; 20:36. There are many more.

Can they fast...? Lk: Are you able to make them fast (even once: Gk. aoristj? NT. passages about fasting which in modern times tend to be glossed over: Acts 13:2; 14:23; 2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27; also Acts 10:30; 1 Cor. 7:5; Mt. 17:21, Mk. 9:29. There is not a hint in the Bible about fasting being good for one's health, but rather the reverse.

The bridegroom. So many marriages in Scripture anticipate this figure - Adam's, Isaac's, Joseph;s, Moses's, Boaz's, Hosea's, Hezekiah's and also the Song of Songs. To these the NT. adds: Mt. 22:2; 25: 1; Eph. 5:23-32; Rev. 19:7-9; 21:2.
Taken away from them. An ominous allusion to Is. 53:8. Is the Bridegroom taken away now? Consider Mt. 28:20;Heb. 13:5, 6; Jn. 14:16, 17, 21; and also Lk. 24:15, 35, 51, 52.
An old garment. Is. 50:8, 9; 51:6-8 have the same impressive figure of speech, with the same clear lesson: In the spiritual world, don't try to “make do and mend”; instead, scrap the old, and put on a new garment; Gal. 4:3, 9; Heb. 7:18.
Old bottles. Both mini-parables come in Job. 13:28 LXX: “I am that which waxes old like a bottle, or like a motheaten garment” (cp. also 32:19 LXX). New wine. These men are full of new wine” (Acts 2:13). Indeed, they were!

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