One of the things that drives me nuts is inconsistency. Yet, I work with computers all day, nearly every day. If insanity is defined as, “Trying the same thing over and over expecting different results”, then computers breed insanity. With what other invention of humans can you do exactly the same points, clicks, and keystrokes, but get different results?
And yet, inconsistency seems to be part of this world in which we live, even the natural elements we, humans, did not make. In fact, most languages have a word for “inconsistency”, some have several. It is a universal element to our existence.
So, when Jesus gives two, seemingly incompatible, reasons for something, it should not be a surprise. If our Creator worked that sort of thing into everything He made, why not make it part of His answers?
Spoiler alert: Fasting is a Christian behavior our Savior refuses to clarify. So, you’re not unrighteous if you don’t, but there are benefits if you do. Confused? Then think through this segment of Mark with me:
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. So they came to Jesus and said, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast?”Mark 2:18 NET
Mark first wants us to know that both the disciples of John (i.e. the “good guys”) and the Pharisee’s disciples (i.e. the “bad guys”) fasted. How did they know that each other were fasting? And how did they know that Jesus’ disciples did not?
To our modern ears, this may sound like these two groups asking Jesus how His disciples get away with not fasting. I can almost hear them whining. To their ears, it was not quite like that. There was an assumption about fasting, and the assumption applied to both John’s disciples and the Pharisees.
In the Mosaic law and the prophets, fasting was tied to remorse for sin or to sanctify (or re-sanctify) (see 1 Samuel 7:6 for one, and 31:13 for the other). So, to not fast was to declare yourself unremorseful, or unsanctified. Unless, of course, you are constantly in the presence of God. In which case, you are constantly sanctified by His presence, and forgiven by His “hospitality”.
Now, armed with that, we are ready for Jesus’ two-pronged answer:
Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they do not fast. But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and at that time they will fast. (Mark 2:19-20 NET)
The first “prong” is that He is with the disciples, so it isn’t the right time. Does this speak to the “remorse for sin” or the “sanctification” aspect of fasting? Flip a coin, and either way, you are probably right. It’s most likely both. Jesus sanctifies by His very presence, and, as He tells Peter later, in the upper room, they are already clean (or most of them are) (John 13:10).
But, in case that was actually clear, Jesus continues with His explanation:
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22 NET)
Now we have another two options, unshrunk cloth and new wine into old garments and old wineskins. But think about that for a moment: How is what Jesus does/teaches like a new “patch” for old ripped garments? Typically, I am a huge fan of overanalyzing Scripture, but this may be a place it does us little good. I don’t think there is an easy correlation to be found between the elements of cloth (old and new, ripped and patch), Jesus’ ministry, and that of John and the Pharisees. I believe the point is simply that putting new over old isn’t a good idea.
A lot more ink has been applied to the wine and wineskins “parable”. In fact, modern worship music loves the imagery. The thing is, it is also possible that this can be over thought as well. Keep in mind that, in Luke, we’re told the old is good, so this isn’t necessarily criticizing the old but rather, another illustration of how new things and old things do not mix well.
What we’re sure about is that it was not the right time for Jesus’ disciples to fast, but that the time would come. What isn’t quite as clear is how the meaning and practice of fasting will change. Perhaps what Jesus says on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:16-18 is the “new” aspect of fasting, making it more “authentic”.
We’re not told that the old is qualitatively bad, only different, in fact, Luke 5:39 says the old is good. So, which is it? How should disciples of Jesus view fasting? Is it an old thing that doesn’t belong in Jesus’ new teaching? No, He says the time will come. Is it a new thing not to be done the old way? Possibly. But how many ways are there to fast? Don’t eat. Next. It’s the other stuff that goes with fasting that could be the difference.
With fasting, let’s make sure it’s the right time, and make sure we do it for reasons that build our walk with our Savior. If we do that, we will fast correctly, the right wine in the right wineskins, the right patch on the right garment.