The Question about Fasting (From Matthew Ch. 9, NASB) 14 Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the groom cannot mourn as long as the groom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the groom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. 17 Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” – NASB
The accounts recorded by Matthew seem pretty straight forward on the surface. Matthew tells us of things that confirm Jesus as the Messiah. But there is a lot that can go unnoticed unless you do a slow reading of each account. I think the 9th chapter starting with verse 14 is a good example.
Matthew 9:14 tells us that the disciples of John asked those following Jesus to explain why they do not fast. It’s important to notice that their question stipulated how the Pharisees fasted. Fasting was required by the law of Moses every year on the Day of Atonement. But the Pharisees added more days of fasting to go beyond the law. Some say they wanted to show they were more observant than others. It could be they wanted to make it very clear they were following the law by going beyond it. A friend of mine put it this way, “They were showing off.” They didn’t just follow the law of Moses; they added a tradition based on the law. I don’t think this is a small thing. The Pharisees did something some preachers do today: They added to the scripture. Traditions based on scripture may have good intent, but traditions are not scripture and should never be held equal to it. But why would the followers of John have asked about the extra fasting days? Perhaps a better question would center on the reason behind the extra fasting days. Jesus asked such a question and prefaced it with a few others.
Some say Jesus’ questions were asked to give a deep answer to a somewhat shallow question. He first asked them if groom attendants mourned while the groom is with them or after the groom has left. He is eluding to something mentioned in the 22nd chapter. Matthew speaks of a great banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is often referred to as the “marriage supper of the Lamb.” It seems Jesus used this opportunity to open their minds to the bigger picture.
Verse 15 tells us Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the groom cannot mourn as long as the groom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the groom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
Keeping this in the apparent context, speaking of the Pharisees extra fasting days and not fasting required under the law for atonement, Jesus uses a very Jewish way of communicating. Consider, a Passover Seder uses the eating of bitter herbs to symbolize the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. Participants are not just told of the bitterness experienced by slaves; they experience a small bitterness (from the herb) while hearing of the bitterness. The lesson is not only taught verbally but also through the senses. In Matthew the longing for food during the fast seems to be used to teach of the longing of the church for Jesus’ return. It also seems Jesus is letting them know his followers are not going to inflict this on themselves at this time because the bridegroom, Jesus, is still here. So, this is the bigger picture. Now more directly to their question.
Jesus said in Matthew 9: 16 – 17, “But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. 17 Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” – NASB
I believe Jesus is speaking of the difference between the old traditions and what is to come. His answer may have been more obvious to the folks of his time who had experience with patches and wineskins, so let’s look at the literal meaning of Jesus’ metaphors. Cloth shrinks over time. In the first metaphor Jesus describes what happens if someone tries to patch old clothes with a new patch. The garment on which it is sewn has already shrunk. A new patch (which has not yet shrunk) will tear the garment when the patch shrinks. Similarly, a new wineskin has the ability to expand or contract when filled or emptied of wine but an old one is rigid. An old wineskin will break if you try to fill it with the same amount as you would a new one. The crowd Jesus spoke to had experience with patches and wineskins and understood the literal meaning of the metaphor, but did they understand what Jesus was saying?
The extra fasting added by the Pharisees assured that the works required by the existing covenant were done. While these traditions assured to others that the law was followed, consider the effect keeping these traditions would have once the law is fulfilled; something Jesus would do on the Cross. The tradition would become of no use. Jesus’ fulfillment of the law tears apart and breaks the old traditions.
What are your thoughts?