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?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? 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 on that day.
‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’
Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?
What does ‘fasting’ mean to you? The practice of fasting has been a significant feature of religious observance for a very, very long time. It was, and is, a regular part of the orthodox Jewish faith, hence the references in today’s reading to the many, including John’s followers, who continued to demonstrate their piety through fasting. For many of us in the twenty-first century, fasting is primarily associated with ‘giving something up’ for Lent, or just dieting. However, within all the mainstream religions that encourage fasting there remains the intention to commemorate something significant or to heighten the experience of prayer. Having said that, in today’s reading, Jesus’ disciples are being criticized because they are not fasting; they are not joining in this overt demonstration of piety.
When challenged on this issue Jesus responds by referring to three things that would have been readily understood by those who were gathered around him. He spoke of a wedding feast, of the repairing of an old cloak, and of how to efficiently store new wine. The three disparate analogies focus on something that is core to Jesus’ earthly ministry … how that which is new demands that we reconsider our attitudes towards the old. Jesus wants us to stop treating the old ways with a reverence that is not their due, and to be genuinely and profoundly excited by the new.
As patches of new cloth shrink and change with age they cause worse damage to the old. As the vitality of new wine finds its balance and true character it will tear and irreparably damage old wine skins. As the new union of bride and bridegroom is celebrated it can never be an appropriate time to fast.
Jesus teaches us throughout his earthly ministry that God’s law should be honoured and respected. However, he also encourages us to challenge and reject that which is rooted in human wisdom. While they were in the presence of Jesus (the bridegroom) it could never be right for the disciples to fast. But, once he had returned to his heavenly Father, then the use of fasting to assist in the focusing of their minds and to help them recall his teaching becomes appropriate once again.
Fasting is a tool we can use to help us enhance our prayer lives. Fasting can help us better understand the plight of those for whom we pray. Fasting should not, though, become an end in itself, it should never stand between us and God.
As we ponder on our own methods of prayer, let us constantly re-examine that which is familiar and comfortable. Let us then seek to discern what God is really asking of us, and let us be open to the new, just as his disciples were as they journeyed with Jesus in this world.