Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, 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 men 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.
At this point, John the Baptist is in prison (Matthew 4.12) but he still has loyal disciples and those disciples are still continuing in John’s path of asceticism in preparation for the end-time judgment. One expression of their asceticism is fasting and, in their practice of fasting regularly, they are on common ground with the Pharisees. Jews were required to fast only on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16.29-31) and on four other occasions in the year (Zechariah 8.19) but Pharisees went way beyond this by fasting twice a week as a mark of their piety (Luke 18.12) and so did the disciples of John. “So why don’t your disciples fast?” is the blunt question that those disciples now put to Jesus.
Jesus answers them out of John the Baptist’s own mouth. John had identified Jesus as the bridegroom and himself the best man. “I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him. The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete” (John 3.28-29). So if that is the case, says Jesus, and if I am the bridegroom, then the fact that I am here means that the wedding feast has begun. Wedding feast. Not a funeral. So why on earth would anyone want to be in mourning!
In the Old Testament, God had been likened to a bridegroom — “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62.5) — and this had given rise to a stream of Jewish thought that equated the messianic banquet that would mark the end-times (Isaiah 25.6) with a marriage feast. This is the idea that Jesus now takes up, not only here but also in his parables (Matthew 22.2; 25.1); and he is always in the place of the bridegroom.
So the messianic banquet/wedding feast has begun … and fasting as an expression of mourning for an absent bridegroom is no longer appropriate. Yes, there will come a time (after the crucifixion) when Jesus’ followers will be plunged into grief and that might be an appropriate time to fast, but that time will not last long: “I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16.20). And that brief period of mourning will not alter the fact that the Day the prophets looked for has now arrived. The champagne is already in the glasses!
Which takes me to the new wine and the old wineskins … the new patch and the old garment. What are they to do with the question of whether one should fast or not?
Well, they have everything to do with it. If the Day of the Lord has arrived and in consequence fasting goes out of the window, what else is going to be affected? What about all the other practices of Judaism — those fixed and unchangeable aspects of life and culture that define and encompass a person’s relationship with God? These two mini-parables are Jesus’ answer to those unspoken questions. “Who I am,” he says, “and the truth I bring simply cannot be simply tagged onto Judaism or assimilated within it. The kingdom that has dawned with my coming is so new, so alive, so different from anything you have imagined that it will simply destroy any fixed and inflexible religious system within which you might try to accommodate it.”
New wine is a living thing. It ferments within the wineskin; so if the wineskin is old and dried-out and brittle, it will burst under the pressure of the gasses that the fermentation process produces. A new, soft, supple wineskin is needed. One that can expand to give freedom and expression to the life of the Spirit within. For when that is the case, both wine and wineskin will be preserved and the new wine will be available to all.
Lord, make me a new wineskin. Lord, make my local church a new wineskin. And, Lord of the Feast, fill me and your church with the new wine of your kingdom. Amen.