We pick up in the same place we left off last time. Jesus is at Matthew’s house dining with sinners and tax collectors. The Pharisees have been standing around asking Jesus’ disciples why their teacher is hanging out with undesirable people. And now we have another group of people starting to ask questions. Let’s read:
Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:14-17)
We now have John the Baptizer’s students on the scene. We don’t know how long they had been there before they started to inquire of Jesus. They could’ve been there for the Pharisees’ questions or they could have just popped in. Either way, It may be helpful to back up and talk a little about John. John was Jesus’ slightly older cousin. He was born into a sacred mission- to prepare the hearts of Israel for the coming Messiah. He was an outspoken evangelist and would cry out to anyone who would listen to him. He was a bit of an eccentric character- he lived in the wilderness, wearing camel skin clothing and eating locusts. I imagine him to a very self-disciplined person and we know he fasted and spent a lot of time praying. Now we see John’s disciples asking Jesus why he doesn’t fast too.
We don’t know why John’s disciples asked- were they genuinely interested or were they calling into question Jesus’ righteousness? In either case, that they were asking in the presence of the Pharisees would have fueled the Pharisees fire. I imagine them standing around disgruntled because Jesus just put them in their place when he says, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,'” (Matthew 9:13). Now they have a renewed spark in their eyes as they think, “Yes, why don’t you fast?” But why was fasting so important anyway? God ordained only one day that required fasting- Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. The Pharisees, however, required fasting on Monday and Thursday every week. They said it was to commemorate the days that Moses went up and came down Mt. Sinai. In short, they made fasting a means to prove one’s righteous as opposed to a means to grow closer to God. While it is unclear if John’s disciples practiced this Monday/Thursday fasting, we can assume that they fasted regularly.
So they ask Jesus why he and his disciples don’t fast and he responds with a line about marriage. What is that all about? I’m glad you asked! In the Old Testament, the covenant of marriage is often used to describe the covenant between God and his people. God is the groom who promises to love, honor, and cherish Israel, the bride. Unfortunately along the way, Israel strays like an adulterous wife but instead of divorcing her, God is faithful to his part of the covenant even when Israel is not. There was correction and even punishment at times, but God always remained faithful to his covenants. This picture of marriage was well known to all the Jews so to them; Jesus is not making an abstract statement. He is referring to himself as God, the bridegroom! We see Jesus referring to himself as the groom and the current time as the wedding feast, or a time of joy! And who fasts during a time of joy? Nobody! In fact the only day God requires fasting for, the Day of Atonement, is a day of sadness during which Israel is to remember her sins and make atonement for them. For the short time that Jesus is alive on earth, the people should be joyful that God is physically with them because there is coming a time when the “bridegroom will be taken from them” (Matthew 9:15) and then they should be sad and fast. As you may have guessed, Jesus is referring to his impending death here. The original word for the the verb “will be taken” has a violent connotation to it. I don’t know if Jesus knew at that point he was going to die on a cross but he at least had an idea that his death was going to be brutal.
Then Jesus seems to have another random thought as he jumps from weddings to clothes and wineskins. Jesus says that if you sew a new, unshrunk patch on an old piece of clothing, it will tear and make the hole bigger once the garment is washed. The old piece of clothing is the the law and Jesus is the patch. There were some holes in the Mosaic law- for example, you had to keep sacrificing when you sinned. There wasn’t a one time fix that covered any sin. Jesus was going to take care of that. In other words, the law served it’s purpose at the time, but now it needed to be interpreted through Jesus colored lenses. The old law needed to become a new garment so that when Jesus was sewed on, the patch and the garment would hold together, so to speak.
The wineskin metaphor is the same. Old wineskins became hard and brittle, but new wineskins were soft and supple. They needed to be because the new wine would ferment and cause expansion. If you but new wine into the hardened wineskins, they would burst and the wine would spill out everywhere. In both examples, Jesus gives, the message is the same, Jesus is making everything new. This doesn’t mean that the Old Testament is invalid or irrelevant- it means that it needs to be interpreted through Jesus, who was about mercy, grace, redemption and most of all love.