So why weren’t Jesus’s students fasting?

by K.W. Leslie, 28 July

And what’s it have to do with wedding parties, robes, and wine?

Mark 2.18-22 • Matthew 9.14-17 • Luke 5.33-39

In the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus taught on fasting, it was namely to say it’s to be private; we’re not to do it to seek attention. Mt 6.16-17 Certain Christians claim it also means we’re not to do it at all, and the basis for this claim is this passage, wherein some Jews complain Jesus’s kids don’t fast.

Mark 2.18 KWL
John’s students and the Pharisees were fasting. They came and told Jesus,
“For what reason do John and the Pharisees’ students fast, and your students don’t fast?”
Matthew 9.14 KWL
John’s students visited Jesus, saying,
“For what reason do we and the Pharisees fast so often, and your students don’t fast?
Luke 5.33 KWL
They told Jesus, “John’s students fast frequently and hold vigils.
Same with the Pharisees—and yours eat and drink.”

Ísan nistévontes/“were fasting” Mk 2.18 can also be interpreted “were [the sort of people who practiced] fasting.” The Pharisees were known to fast twice a week, Lk 18.12 probably on Monday and Thursday. Didache 8.1 Since the context of this story is Levi’s dinner party, some folks speculate Levi was throwing it on one of the Pharisees’ fast days. So part of what irritated Pharisees about the dinner wasn’t just the eating and drinking with taxmen and sinners; it was how Jesus was supposed to be fasting along with them, and instead he was enjoying a gourmet lunch, with better wine than they could afford. You know, jealousy.

Of course it’s just as likely this wasn’t a fast day. But they’d been keeping track: They’d never seen Jesus nor his students fast. (They didn’t know about his stint in the desert.) So this was as good a time as any to broach the subject: Why didn’t Jesus do they did?

And lest we blow this off as Pharisees whining about Jesus violating their customs again, all three gospels point out it wasn’t just Pharisees. The students of John the baptist—and we like John, right?—also fasted. Notice Matthew even had John’s students ask the question. Too often we Christians ignore the Pharisees’ considerations, ’cause we presume they were nothing but self-justifying hypocrites only looking to bash Jesus. And partly because we wanna ignore the Law, wrongly figure Jesus taught we can, and wanna bash Pharisees as legalists.

But most Pharisees were good Jews, earnestly trying to follow God, figuring their rabbis knew best… and unaware their rabbis were too often looking for loopholes in the Law. The reason Jesus wound up critiquing the Pharisees so often, was because he chose to be around them all the time. He taught in their synagogues. He ate in their homes. These were, for the most part, his people—who rejected him, Jn 1.11 but still. They followed him around because they wondered whether he was Messiah.

So they asked questions like this, not necessarily to accuse, but understand. Don’t assume they were trying to entrap him till the authors of the gospels, or Jesus, say so. “Why don’t you fast when we do?” is a perfectly valid question.

Jesus’s response is it’s not appropriate to deprive ourselves in his presence.

The groom and the wedding party.

Jesus began by comparing himself to a groom, and his students to oi yioí tu nymfónos/“the sons of the bridal chamber.” Because first-century Jewish wedding traditions are significantly different from ours, the closest approximation to this in our culture would be “the wedding party.” (The NIV has “guests of the bridegroom.”) But more specifically—and to a lot of good sheltered American Christians, horrifically—these were the people who were supposed to wait outside the newly-married couple’s room while they had sex for the first time.

No, I’m not kidding. That was their custom, as part of guaranteeing the wife was a virgin on her wedding night. Dt 22.13-21 And I’m so glad I live in this century, where now all a Jewish groom need do is step on a glass. (Yes, that’s what that represents.)

I know; some commentators claim “bridal chamber” means the room where they held the marital ceremony. No, it’s the room where they held the marital consummation. I don’t blame ’em for being in denial, but come on, people. We’re going for historical accuracy here.

Mark 2.19-20 KWL
19 Jesus told them, “Is the wedding party able to fast when the groom’s with them?
So long that they have the groom with them, they’re not able to fast.
20 The day will come when the groom’s taken away from them.
Then they’ll fast on that day.”
Matthew 9.15 KWL
Jesus told them, “Is the wedding party able to mourn for long when the groom’s with them?
The day will come when the groom’s taken away from them. Then they’ll fast.”
Luke 5.34-35 KWL
34 Jesus told them, “Are you able to make the wedding party fast when the groom’s with them?
35 The day will come, and when the groom’s taken away from them, then they’ll fast on that day.”

If these were students of John the baptist, here they might’ve recognized John’s similar teaching about Jesus.

John 3.28-30 KWL
28 “You yourselves heard me testify: I said I’m not Messiah.
Instead I’m the one who’d been sent ahead of him.
29 The groom’s the one with the bride.
The groom’s friend, joyfully standing and listening, rejoices at the groom’s voice.
So this joy of mine is full:
30 He has to grow—and I, shrink.”

Now that you know what the groom’s friend is standing and listening to, it may horrify you a bit. Sorry. But bear in mind Jews back then were totally used to the custom. It only creeps us out.

Anyway. Jesus wasn’t speaking about that—’cause the groom was with the wedding party, so they’d be celebrating all the rest of the wedding feast. Lots of food and drink, for days on end. Far too many days, in fact, for a pious Pharisee to observe their typical Monday and Thursday fast days. So custom was to suspend the fasts—hey, it’s a wedding! Even the best Pharisees understood this.

Jesus used an odd turn of phrase: “When the groom’s taken away from them.” In our weddings, the groom (and bride) leave for their honeymoon, so we miss this fact. First-century Jewish wedding feasts were held at the groom’s house, so he didn’t leave; the guests did. But in Jesus’s metaphor, something was gonna befall the groom, disrupt the feast, and cause people to mourn. And fast.

Is Jesus hinting about his death? Maybe.

Since Jesus is now alive, raised from death, we’re back to the wedding feast, right? And it’s for this reason certain Christians teach fasting is no longer necessary. I would point out, since the scriptures never command a fast, it never really was necessary; it’s always been optional. It’s a great way to develop our self-control. But our groom is still with us—not physically, but still—so we have reason to rejoice. Not fast.

What might the Pharisees and John’s followers thought of Jesus’s answer? Well, it’s more confirmation he’s Messiah. That is, unless they didn’t believe he’s Messiah; then it’d bug them. So it’s a polarizing answer. Lots of his answers are.

Patching an old robe.

The other comparisons tend to really confuse Christians. Let’s start with the patch.

Mark 2.21 KWL
“Nobody sews an unshrunk patch to an old robe.
Otherwise it pulls apart the whole of it, the new from the old. It becomes a worse rip.”
Matthew 9.16 KWL
“Nobody throws an unshrunk patch onto an old robe:
It pulls apart the whole of it from the robe. It becomes a worse rip.”
Luke 5.36 KWL
Jesus told them this parable: “Nobody, ripping a piece from a new robe, throws it on an old robe.
Otherwise it’ll really rip the new robe, and the patch from the new robe won’t match the old.”

First-century Jewish robes—the outer garment, the one our culture might call a “coat”—were usually wool. We all know wool shrinks when you run it through a clothes dryer. It shrinks the rest of the time too; just slower. So the idea is a new patch of wool cloth will slowly, gradually, but definitely pull away from the rest of the robe it’s meant to patch. You might think new cloth is an improvement on your old robe, but it’s not. New ain’t better.

Jesus’s parable in Luke is slightly different. Now the patch comes as a result of destroying a new robe—unnecessarily, for it won’t match. Instead we’ve got two destroyed robes. Again, ain’t better.

Christians regularly miss this idea. Miss it entirely. Teach the opposite, in fact. Like in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, my usual go-to for how popular Christian culture ignores historical context when it interprets the bible.

A wedding, new wine, and a new garment are all symbols of the New Age. The main teaching of the parable seems to be that the newness the coming of Jesus brings cannot be confined to the old forms. WBC at Mark 2.21-22

Part of the problem is the commentators leap over this bit about patching an old robe, ’cause they wanna talk about the next bit, Jesus’s saying about new wine in old wineskins. Oh, they have loads to say on that. They miss the fact this little one-verse parable is trying to make the very same point—new ain’t better—because they’re so insistent new is better. Jesus has a new teaching! Mk 1.27 Newer than the Pharisees’ beliefs, right? Jesus is better, so new is better, right?

In fact Jesus didn’t have a new teaching. It was new to his listeners, but it was the same old teaching: The Law. It’s his Law, after all; Jesus is the same LORD who proclaimed it on Mt. Sinai to Moses and the Hebrews. Before Abraham was, he is; Jn 8.58 Jesus is very, very old. Whereas the Pharisees’ beliefs, at the time Jesus ministered in the Galilee, were only a century old. The stuff from the Mishnah? The oldest bits were about 40 years old, and some of it hadn’t even been written yet.

Yep, the Pharisees were the new stuff. They were the ones pulling the valuable old robe apart. You patch an old robe ’cause you wanna keep it, remember? But the Pharisees’ patch of a twice-a-week fast, which God never mandated, was getting in the way of Jesus winning people over to his kingdom.

Whereas our culture, including popular Christian culture, tends to practice the “cult of the new.” As the slogan in Brave New World goes, “Ending is better than mending.” We don’t patch garments; we toss ’em. So we miss the point. We try to upgrade everything. Even Jesus is recast as an upgrade: We don’t talk about him restoring and redeeming us, so much as making all things new. Onward and upward!

New wine in old wineskins.

Part of the reason American Christians get confused whenever Jesus teaches on wine, is because a lot of us don’t drink. Not saying we should start; just saying we should recognize we don’t know squat about wine or winemaking, so it’s a good idea to speak to experts instead of making presumptions.

In fact, too many of us take our prejudices about wine and try to project ’em backwards into the first century. “Alcohol’s a sin, so Jesus can’t have drank wine. And I just read some website which claims all their ‘wine’ back then was actually just grape juice!” So the proper translation of Ephesians 5.18 is “Don’t get drunk on grape juice”? Doesn’t work.

Mark 2.22 KWL
“Nobody throws new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise the wine bursts the skins, and the wine’s destroyed with the skins.
Instead, new wine in new skins.”
Matthew 9.17 KWL
“Nor do people throw new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise the skins really burst, the wine pours out, and the skins are destroyed.
Instead they throw new wine in new skins, and both are watched out for.”
Luke 5.37-39 KWL
37 “Nobody throws new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise the new wine will really burst the skins, it’ll pour out, and the skins’ll be destroyed.
38 Instead, one must put new wine in new skins.
39 Nobody who drank old wine wants new:
One says, ‘The old is good.’”

Jesus’s extra statement in Luke 5.39, “The old is better” flips the popular interpretation on its head. He didn’t critique the folks who prefer old wine: Any connoisseur will tell you the old wine is the good stuff. Trouble is, your average bible interpreter in the United States knows little to nothing about wine at all, and assumes new wine is fresh wine—less stale, less vinegary, less potent, and therefore desirable. It’s not.

Like the Pharisees, we Christians have our own traditions. Sometimes they stretch back a bit, depending on our church. We might assume they’re old, and sometimes they are. Or we might be part of an “apostolic” church which only goes back about 40 years. But we always have something that predates our churches: Jesus’s teachings, and the Law they were based upon.

Our idea Jesus is new wine—that he came to bust the old wineskins of formalism and tradition and complacency and legalism—is wrong. It gets a few things right: Jesus has come to get rid of those things. But those things have nothing to do with the Law. They’re the religion his overzealous Pharisees created which distorted his original idea—that we’d be his people, and he our God. Ex 6.7 Not that we’d be his people, and he’d bury us under rules.

When we assume the distorted version is the original, the devil can slip us all sorts of distorted ideas. Like “God had an original plan, but it didn’t work, so he replaced it.” You know, dispensationalism. But what’s that say about God’s planning skills? Jesus had to overturn the Father’s original plan? The same Jesus who insists he can’t act unless he sees the Father do it? Jn 15.19

The reality is the original—the “old wine”—is the best. Jesus came to serve us the old wine. Despite the people who tried to swap it with new wine, oblivious to how it’d burst wineskins; despite the people who tried to patch old robes with new cloth, oblivious to how it’d wreck the robes. New ideas, new traditions, new teachings: Doubt them. Sometimes Christians repackage an old idea, and that’s fine. But when they invent a whole new thing, which doesn’t match the old thing, it’ll pull apart our faith for no good reason.

Our focus on whether we’re relevant enough—or for that matter whether we’re traditional enough!—needs to be replaced with a focus on Jesus and what he’s up to. We need to study the scriptures and learn from his good ol’ teachings. The old is the good stuff.