Jesus and Breaking the Fast

In the previous post, I posted the first part of my sermon notes from Sunday’s sermon on Mark 2:13-3:6, and focused on the first collision that Jesus had with the religious establishment. This post is the middle part of my sermon notes and Jesus is being confronted about not observing the fasting law with his disciples. Are you ready for this? Put on your seat belt!

Collision # 2: Fasting
The next collision Jesus has with the religious establishment of His day was over fasting. Fasting is a religious observance where you abstain from something, typically from food, drink, and/or work for a day, or a short season. So here’s the scenario:

18 Now John’s (Johnny the Baptizer) 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’ Trinitarian Answer
This question tees Jesus up to give three beautifully woven together images that each captures a slightly different angle that will help us focus in more clearly on what Jesus is saying.

But before we cover these images, it’s important to know that the Old Testament law for the Israelites only commanded a fast once a year on the Day of Atonement. The Pharisees however, had “added” to the holiness of God (since God needed help being more holy), and had written their own law book (called “The Tradition of the Elders”) which says that a devout Jew must fast on the 2nd and 5th day of every week (Monday’s and Thursday’s).

So here, Jesus is coming up against tradition that has added to God’s law. It’s important to note that Jesus isn’t coming against tradition that celebrates and honor’s God’s law (i.e. prayer, worship, sabbath rest for the man, celebrating different holy days, etc). Jesus is coming against a man-made law.

Image # 1: A Wedding
19 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.

This image directly addresses the fasting question: “Who would celebrate with the bridegroom and not eat? Everyone knows when it’s wedding time (and in this case, maybe the rehearsal dinner) and the bridegroom has arrived, it’s time to celebrate and feast. It’s not fasting time.” Have you ever been to a wedding rehearsal dinner where everyone sat around tables with food and just stared at it? No, we don’t do that.

Sunday, the day that the early church associated with the resurrection, the day of new life, overrides the command to fast. With Jesus, as we have already learned in chapter 1 of Mark, His physical presence was like an ongoing Sunday. As long as He’s there in person, it’s always time for a party.

What is Jesus doing here? He’s tying their mind back to their own tradition, the good part of their tradition, where Jews, closer to the days of Jesus, would use the picture of a great wedding as a way of talking about the wonderful “new world” or “new age to come” that God would eventually establish.

Another ancient Hebrew idea was that Israel, as God’s people, was God’s bride (Hosea): wayward, rebellious, sometimes running off with strangers, selling themselves as prostitutes, but eventually to be pursued, romanced, and won back again. So when Jesus describes His ministry in terms of a wedding, one where He is the bridegroom, He is giving familiar imagery to Israel’s past which was meant to be provocative.

Image # 2: Sewing Lessons
The second image Jesus gives is about sewing. The wedding feast image tapped into Israel’s past, this image taps into everyday life for the Jews:

21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.

Here Jesus is giving us a picture that the old and new don’t mix, which leaves the Pharisee type with the question or comment, “Then which one is better, the old or the new? If a new piece of cloth will tear away from the old cloth, then just use an old piece of cloth to patch the garment, right?” Not really. Essentially Jesus is saying, “Stop being so surprised that the Messiah (Me!) has come to establish a ‘new age’ and it is not compatible with ‘your age’, particularly, the age that the “Tradition of the Elders” has created.”

Image # 3: The Wine Connoisseur
The final image that Jesus gives is the most quoted image in our day, and it seems to find it’s way into every charismatic young person’s discussion when speaking about the way they think things should be, and that the old people and the old way of doing church needs to go, and in with the new: Hillsong worship, no order or authority over them to determine what they should do or how they should worship, etc. Now, although I’m down with some of this, this is not what Jesus means when He speaks of new wine in new wineskins:

22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”

New wine in old wine bottles will result in wasted wine and shattered glass, to use imagery of our day. They used animal skins then, not glass bottles, but the point is the same. This new thing that Jesus is doing, the establishment of God’s kingdom among His people, can’t be squeezed in to the existing ways of thinking and living.

The Jews needed new wineskins, because Jesus’ new wine is too potent to be held in man-made bottles. We need divine wineskins (new eyes and transformed minds) to be able to see Jesus for who He is. The “new wine” is clearly Jesus and His gospel. The “new wineskins” are the external ways we worship, pray, repent, live in community and in the world, a very relevant message to us in the individual-focused, 21st century Western culture.

This totally threatened the Pharisees, who had built a whole religious and economic system around God’s law, and had created a way to be wealthy, have job security, and make themselves feel powerful, by cowardly using the poor and the least of these to get wealthier. This is what insecure religious people do.

What does all this have to do with fasting?                                                                                                          You see, the times of fasting in Jesus’ day were days where you remembered the great disasters of old, like the time when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, and days when Israel lost their land, and so on.

But Jesus was bringing a “new age”, God’s kingdom which represented a time of restoration, a time of new life. God’s all-powerful and saving presence in the midst of His people was the focus now. The days of Jesus were a time for looking into the future, to the great things God was beginning to do. This was not a time to look back into the past at Israel’s unfaithfulness.

When Christians fast today, they look back to the time of Jesus as the moment when God did this awesome new thing that His children had been waiting for, and long for the final consummation of ‘new world’, where fasting will cease for good, because we will be face to face with the Bridegroom!


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