Luke 5: 33 – 39 Jesus questioned about fasting
They said to him, ‘John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.’
Jesus answered, ‘Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.’
He told them this parable: ‘No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, “The old is better.” ‘
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The first part of this passage seems straightforward enough. The presence of Jesus on earth is a great cause for joy. Just like a wedding, it promises a new start, leading on to new life. When the bridegroom is with his friends, it would be unreasonable to expect them to fast.
The next part of the passage, though, where Jesus tells two parables, gave me real problems.
The ‘traditional’ interpretation that I had been taught was that the new garment and the new wine represented the new religion of Christianity, full of the tumultuous life of the Holy Spirit. If you tried to graft bits of this new faith onto the old faith of Judaism both would be spoiled beyond repair.
You don’t have to look too hard to see that the metaphors are back-to-front. The Pharisees are suggesting that fasting is necessary. That’s a patch from the old garment of Judaism, not from the new faith of Christianity. And what about verse 39 which says ‘And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, “The old is better.” ’? That amounts to saying that Judaism will be preferred.
When you look deeper, it makes even less sense. Jesus wasn’t preaching a new religion; he was solidly grounded in Judaism. St Luke, although he was taking the gospel to the Gentiles, wasn’t setting out to found a new church. On the contrary, the early church was very Jewish in its teaching. Even after Pentecost the believers persisted with temple worship at the heart of their lives (see, for example, Acts 2:46 and Acts 3:1)
I couldn’t understand why Jesus chose those particular metaphors to rebut the Pharisees.
Well, as I’ve said before, this blog is a record of how Jesus has been leading me to be closer to him.
I prayed and asked him what the passage meant, and he led me to this website.
To understand it properly, I suggest you read the whole article; it’s well worth it.
The wider context of the passage in Luke is that the Pharisees are very interested in the ministry of Jesus. At this point, they are not necessarily antagonistic. Luke 5:17 says: “One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village in Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem.” Some of those places were 100 miles apart. They had a deep desire to understand what this new teacher was saying.
But for all their effort and persistence, Jesus was not recruiting any of them as disciples. He was choosing fishermen and tax collectors, people whose knowledge of the law and the scriptures was elementary. They would have learned the scripture by rote, but would have learned little in the way of sophisticated exposition of its meaning.
And, on the occasion of the banquet given by Levi, the Pharisees express their feelings by questioning why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. They’re interested in having an answer, sure, but what they’re really asking is, “Why are you overlooking us, with our education and our experience in understanding the Law and the Prophets? Why are you choosing the unlearned and sinners?”
It was these Pharisees and teachers to whom Jesus told the parables, and they are parables about people. The old garment is a man who has been trained in the old way of thinking about the scriptures. He will not be receptive to new teaching. The old wineskin is a man who has been thoroughly schooled in the old understanding. He will be forever questioning and contradicting the new ideas, because, “no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, “The old is better.””
There is a lesson especially for me in this. Jesus can speak to me through anybody at all, whether they are highly educated or with very little learning. The truth about Jesus may be passed on by anybody who loves him. I must listen with an open heart.
Thank you for guidance, thank for helping me to understand your word, and thank you for reminding me of the need for humility. Thank you, above all, for your love shown in Jesus.
In Jesus’ name, Amen