33 And they said to Him, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers, the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same, but Yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? 35 But the days will come; and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days.” 36 And He was also telling them a parable: “No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’”
There is quite a bit of overlap between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We return to this incident again where some people question Jesus about fasting. Matthew identifies them as disciples of John the Baptist (Matt. 9:14) and phrases the question as a first person plural, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast…”
Fasting was both a personal and a collective or national practice seen throughout the Old Testament. A person would stop eating. It is usually paired with prayer or a period of spiritual soul-searching or great grief.
Israel as a nation would fast in periods of national tragedy (such as the death of Saul and Jonathan in 1 Sam. 31) or as a way of showing contrition and their seriousness to the Lord. The Assyrians in Nineveh likewise fasted in repentance in the book of Jonah hoping to show God that they were contrite and asking that He would spare them. David fasted in repentance after his first child with Bathsheeba fell ill.
Nehemiah fasted and prayed to God when he heard of the condition of Jerusalem shortly before he was called to go and repair the city.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline that is often neglected now. It causes us discomfort. It reminds us that there are others whose fasting is not by choice. It helps us, as Jesus said, realize that man does not live by bread alone, but by the word of God.
I confess that I don’t like to fast. I haven’t fasted for some time. Given the season, it would seem appropriate to do so this weekend, either tomorrow or Saturday.
John’s disciples wonder why the disciples do not show the same spiritual discipline. Jesus (who did a 40 day fast Himself) explains that while He is with them, there is no need. They have Him right there. They can ask Him questions and make requests by speaking to Him. His presence here is a great joy and blessing. But when He has departed from them, then they will turn to fasting and prayer to commune with Him.
Jesus finishes with an explanation that communicates to them that what He is doing is new. It is different than the traditions they have been taught by the Pharisees. His disciples and He Himself do not act like the Pharisees because they are not the Pharisees. He has come to finish sin and death and proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven to all men through His disciples. This new wine was not simply meant to fit within the constraints of the old nationalist traditions. It was going to be freely shared with everyone.
The commemoration of the Lord’s death is tomorrow. Let us remember Him and seek Him. Let us consider fasting, even if only until sunset (absent any health conditions that would require eating) and calling on Him. Let us remember Him who gave up more than food for our sake, and let us remember those who hunger now and consider their plight and be moved with compassion to aid them.