Today’s passage is Luke 5:27-39:
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
33 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” 36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”
If fasting isn’t intended to be a public, prideful expression of one’s devotion to God, why do we fast? How do we make sense of the season of Lent, a time in which Christians are called to sacrificially give up a treasure in their own lives and essentially fast for 40 days? Jesus’s teaching in the Gospel of Luke offers some answers.
The Pharisees seem to be initially confused as to why Jesus and his disciples do not fast in contrast to their own public piety. Jesus and his first disciples have been invited by Levi into his home for a great banquet, and it strikes the teachers of the law as inappropriate that a man who claims to forgive sins and know the Father doesn’t fast like the Pharisees do. In a somewhat counterintuitive manner, Christ responds by saying that “friends of the bridegroom” shouldn’t fast “while he is with them,” but will fast once he has left. Although it looks like Jesus is teaching people to not fast, he’s illustrating the true purpose of fasting that the Pharisees don’t understand.
Jesus makes the analogy that his followers ought to long for him and await his presence like the friends of the bridegroom wait in anticipation for the fulfillment of their role in the wedding. At its core, fasting is a form of anticipation and yearning for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” seamlessly and perfectly. Fasting longs for reconciliation. Jesus is illustrating that when he as the bridegroom, the fulfillment of all that Israel and the broken world has been longing for, is with the disciples in the flesh, there is no need for such anticipation — the person they have been waiting for is here. While he is still on earth, the disciples are to temporarily partake in the wedding feast, a mere taste of what is to come when Christ restores all things. He reassures them that the time will come when fasting is the appropriate response to his absence. But if the Pharisees think that they ought to fast while the fulfillment of their ritual walks among them, they are missing the point.
He then tells a parable about how one doesn’t put a new patch on an old garment, or pour new wine into old wineskins. Jesus and his audience knew that if one places a new patch on an old garment, the new patch shrinks when it is washed, and it will in fact worsen the original tear. In the same way, wineskins expand when filled with wine, and pouring new wine into old, stretched wineskins will cause them to burst under the weight of new wine. Jesus is illustrating to the Pharisees that new faith cannot be mixed into old religious rituals. Continuing to practice the old way of fasting while blind to the new reality that Christ is bringing to the world is wholly misguided. Jesus is making all things new; why continue to practice your old ways?
Here in the twenty-first century, I await his return. It was only until about a year ago that I began to understand what fasting is really about. Looking to the past, I see all that God has done to enter into this broken world; looking to the future, I have hope for when Christ completely restores all things. But in the meantime, I grieve. I am hungry for reconciliation. The promised wholeness that is to come is not yet here. The redemption has begun but it is not finished. I have the hope of the gospel, but I still live in a world racked by injustice and filled with broken people (I am one of them.) The assurance that God himself entered his fallen creation in order to lead us back to him is extremely good news, but I cannot deny the fact that continuing to struggle against the world and its suffering brings its own kind of suffering, too. This is one of the central tensions of being a Christian, and I am no exception to it.
I think this is exactly what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to fast in those days when he is gone. That in the meantime, we grieve. We wait. We are hungry for the day that everything is made right again. And while this grieving over our own brokenness and the brokenness we live in is hard, it’s one of the most important things we are meant to do as Christians. This kind of suffering teaches us to wholly depend on God as we struggle to make sense of our world and have a hunger to see it restored. In taking a long, hard look into the mess of everyday life and the grave injustices around the world, we begin to see the world with God’s compassion and mercy. While it’s true that fasting seeks to strengthen one’s personal intimacy and personal relationship with God, it doesn’t stop there. Pressing in to God’s heart for the world ought to orient ourselves back outwards again, spurring us towards empathy and love for those caught in the world’s brokenness. I cannot truly see the heart of God and still choose to do nothing; I cannot walk away unchanged. And just as Christ stepped down into our mess and dirtied his hands with our filth, I am called to do the same. Prayer and fasting aren’t meant for taking Christians out of the world, but sending them into it.
During this season of Lent, it’s common practice to give something up as a sacrifice before God. The season of fasting from good things is hard, but it’s meant to be. I am meant to be hungry. Christians anticipate the restorative display of the gospel that is Easter, but in the meantime, I grieve. I cry from my own brokenness and the suffering in the world. As a Christian, Jesus calls me to a deeper, more intimate relationship with him, but if that relationship becomes ingrown, I have missed the point. It’s not easy to look directly at the brokenness of the world, suffer with its suffering, and be moved to love the lost—but neither was the Cross. Christ came to this world to suffer with us and suffer for us, and he calls me to take up my own cross every single day and follow him. I only pray that I may learn to love God, love the world, and live a life wholly transformed by such redemptive Good News.
Brandon Wright ’18 is a Chemistry concentrator in Adams House.