Jesus Questioned About Fasting

Synoptic Accounts of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees about fasting:

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One Reply to “Jesus Questioned About Fasting”

  1. Here we have a teachable moment for Jesus to address, but I’m sure his answer in parable form went over the heads of most. Two things caught my attention after reading these accounts a few times and searching for insights: 1) John the Baptist’s disciples and the Pharisees fasted and Jesus’ disciples did not and 2) Luke adds a verse to the parables that is intriguing: “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better'” (Luke 5:39).

    Fasting by Pharisees

    The Pharisees created a new rule which required fasting on Monday and Thursday each week. Apparently, the point was to honor Moses going up to the mountain to meet with God, but as usual, the Pharisees approach was to build noticeable distinctions between themselves as righteous and others who were not quite as good. This assertion is not properly drawn from the reference here, rather it’s a conclusion based on the documented interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees throughout the Gospels.

    Fasting by John the Baptist’s Disciples

    John’s disciples could have been fasting because, at this point, John was in prison and at the hands of a ruthless ruler. They were right in focusing their concern for his life and it made sense for them to appeal to God through this form of sacrificial fasting. On the other hand, Matthew and Luke add the term “often fast” when talking about John’s disciples, so I think they must be complying with some Pharisaic rules or practices that they may have learned along the way. In either case, Jesus is quick to redirect the attention on the subject with short parables.

    Parable #1. Fasting during a wedding feast makes no sense.

    During the traditional week-long wedding feast, even Pharisees that are part of the wedding party would not consider fasting, it just wouldn’t make sense. When Jesus makes this statement, I’m sure they nodded in agreement. The tradition of having such an amazing celebration for a wedding is one that I really like, though wouldn’t know how to pull that off in today’s society with demands on jobs, etc. But the way they honored marriage is something to learn from. Anyway, you simply would not consider fasting during such an occasion.

    What’s difficult to determine from this first parable is if those listening got the thrust of the meaning: Jesus is the bridegroom and the bride is his church. Jesus’ disciples probably understood the double meaning, but I have to imagine the others were scratching their heads and wondering what the wedding feast had to do with the question, like did Jesus hear what we asked?? Perhaps Jesus can sense this, so he adds some more clarification with a few more comparisons.

    Parable #2. You don’t patch a new garment with old cloth.

    Yep, that makes sense. Those listening would certainly agree with the logic here. The last thing you’d want to do is make a new garment look trashy by patching it with old cloth. We get it, but do we really? Was Jesus teaching them about a new covenant here? I think so and again the crowd would be divided between those that understand the physical example and those that start to get the clue that Jesus is talking about something far greater than clothing.

    Parable #3. You don’t pour new wine into an old wineskin.

    Just in case someone wanted to dispute the benefits of finding cloth that matches nicely in an effort to argue how you could potentially patch a new garment with old cloth, Jesus provides an example that no one can refute–you don’t pour new wine into an old wineskin. In those days, wine was fermented in goatskins. The process (as I understand it…I don’t do this at home or anything!) involves pouring the grape juice and fermentation spices into the pouch made from goatskin then letting it ferment for some time. During the fermentation process, the skin would expand as gases build up, thus the pouch would be stretched, probably from lose to taunt. After pouring the wine out of the goatskin, the pouch is no longer useful for making wine; it’s already been stretched. Makes perfect sense.

    Again, there were those who nodded their heads in complete agreement thinking, “that’s pretty obvious Jesus, but will you answer the question?” completely missing the point.

    Bonus Parable from Luke. Everyone knows old wine is better–right?

    And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better’ Luke 5:39

    Luke adds this last twist and then all three Synoptic Gospels move onto the next topic. We have some close friends in California that are wine experts, belong to wine clubs and can pontificate about the virtues of one grape over the other in the process of making the perfect (fill in the blank) wine. No doubt they would agree, old wine is better, the age makes all the difference.

    Jesus knows this is a difficult lesson for them to hear, they don’t want to admit they’re hooked on their traditions, their old ways and simply can’t acquire a taste for the new. It’s really hard to learn new ways after investing a lifetime learning the old. Really Jesus? Do you know how hard it is to be a Pharisee? So many rules to learn…memorizing Psalm 119 took months! The same is true for so many churches today and the price of reluctance to change is costly. Some would read this in two ways:

    1. We must adopt social norms into church to remain relevant or
    2. We must hold tight onto tradition to be consistent, they’ll come back.

    The second option will only result in aging congregations and more churches dying by attrition. I’m torn in some respects because some of the traditions are so wonderful, but not for the sake of tradition. Hymns are rich in theology, but were written during a time of limited instrumentation and certainly in a culture that had little exposure to music.  Each must be carefully considered to extract the richness of each to invite people to experience God in new and relevant ways. This is a great challenge, but many traditional churches are looking for solutions. We need to fan this flame and help them find ways to do just that!

    If #1 includes becoming so compliant that we forsake basic Christian principle and endorse same-sex marriage, etc., I want nothing to do with that church. But there is were the tension lies in this discussion by Jesus–he IS the answer and the Pharisees don’t get it and are holding fast to their self-made laws. The thing we must continuously ask ourselves is this: Are we modern-day Pharisees? Such introspective reviews are hard to swallow and difficult to continue, but so important as we carry out the mission of church today.

    In just a handful of verses, so much controversy arises. Should we fast? Not during the feast, but otherwise, if you want to fast, it must be a private matter between you and God rather than a public show to impress others. Lots to ponder this morning, many challenges lie ahead. May the Grace of Christ fill our hearts and minds and lead us in a direction that draws people to him in sincere humility.

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