Today’s reading is Mark 2:18-22:
The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast. People came to him and objected, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak. If he does, its fullness pulls away, the new from the old, and the tear gets worse. Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.”
In this piece, I will highlight four main take-aways from Mark 2:18-22 that merit recognition. First, Jesus demonstrates that he is quick, knowledgeable, and willing when it comes to defending his followers and their practices, particularly their practice of not fasting. When the “people” question him, Jesus responds, without hesitation, in a way that is comprehensible and conducive to his audience’s understanding (Mark 2:18). Second, Mark introduces the popular bridal metaphor, evidence of the type of intimate relationship that Jesus calls us to have with him. In this passage, Jesus refers to himself as the “bridegroom” and to his followers as “wedding guests” (Mark 2:19). Other biblical passages modify and extend this metaphor by promoting the role of Jesus’ disciples from mere “wedding guests” to the “bride” herself. As “wedding guests,” the disciples are witnesses to Jesus’ great love, but as the “bride,” the disciples become recipients of Jesus’ great love and are called to love him in return. Third, Jesus foreshadows his own death, stating, “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them…” (Mark 2:20). This recognition of his own death, coming at a point still so early in his public ministry, shows Jesus’ humble submittal to his Father’s will, a humility and a submittal that should serve as a model for our own relationship with the Father. Together, these take-aways show that Jesus is willing to not only defend us, but even to die for us, his bride. Fourth, the passage ends with two metaphors, one to “a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak” and the other to “new wine into old wineskins” (Mark 2:21, 22). It is through these metaphors that Jesus, again protecting his beloved bride, provides the bulk of his reasoning for why his disciples do not fast as the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees do. The crux of the passage lies in this fourth and final take-away.
If Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life,” then he is the new way, the new truth, and the new life (John 14:6). The “old” ways of the disciples of John and of the disciples of the Pharisees, particularly fasting, will be futile at best and detrimental at worst for the disciples of Jesus. In the first metaphor, the “piece of unshrunken cloth” represents Jesus, the “new,” and the “old cloak” represents the act of fasting, an example of the “old” way of worship (Mark 2:21). Such a combination of the new with the old, of following Jesus with the act of fasting, ends poorly; the “tear” in the cloak “gets worse” (Mark 2:21). In the second metaphor, the “new wine” represents Jesus, and the “old wineskins” represent the act of fasting (Mark 2:22). Again, the combination of the new with the old, of following Jesus with the act of fasting, ends poorly; “both the wine and the skins are ruined” (Mark 2:22).
The root of the discord between Jesus and the old ways of worship, such as fasting, lies in the fact that such ways of worship are the result of mere rule-following and may be seen just as something to cross off of one’s spiritual “to-do list.” As Mark writes, “The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast”; they were used to it and so it did not fully challenge them to grow in their faith (Mark 2:18). The “new” way of worship that Jesus proposes is one based not on rule-following, but rather on the development of a deeper faith in Him. If the “old wineskins,” such as fasting, are not sufficient for the development of this deeper faith, then what “fresh wineskins,” what new ways of worship, does Jesus propose (Mark 2:22)? The rest of Mark, in its revelation of Jesus’ public ministry and of his passion, death, and resurrection, offers an answer.
If in this passage Jesus seems so adamant that fasting is an inadequate way to worship, why, then, do we fast during Lent, a season when we should worship more faithfully than ever? There is a subtle but powerful distinction to be made between the fasting performed by the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees and the fasting that Jesus calls us to perform this and every Lent. For the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees, fasting is the end, the rule to be followed, the task to be crossed off of the spiritual to-do list. The fasting that Jesus calls us to perform this and every Lent is not the end but the means. Fasting is the means to forming a more perfect union with Jesus, the means to deepening our faith so that we may be more fully prepared to celebrate the joys of Easter at the end of this Lenten season.