Mark 2: 18 – 22 Jesus questioned about fasting
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’
Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.
‘No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wine skins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.’
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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.
But what about the next part of the passage?
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.
However, if we look at why Jesus told the parables, we find that the metaphors are back-to-front. He’s telling the parables to rebut the questioners who are suggesting that fasting is necessary. That would be a patch from the old garment of Judaism onto the new faith of Christianity.
In fact, surely the whole premise of the interpretation is wrong? Jesus wasn’t preaching a new religion; he was solidly grounded in Judaism. St Mark, although he was writing his gospel for Gentiles as well as Jews, 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)
So, why did Jesus choose 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 came across this difficulty first when I was studying St Luke’s gospel. I prayed and asked Jesus 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 Mark is that the Pharisees are very interested in the ministry of Jesus. At this point in Jesus’ ministry, they are not necessarily antagonistic.
However, 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 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 as your disciples?”
It was to these Pharisees and teachers that 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 patch of unshrunk cloth. Similarly, the old wineskin is a man who has been thoroughly schooled in the old understanding. He will reject and contradict the new ideas. Jesus is making the point that it is precisely because the Pharisees and teachers of the law are highly trained that they would be unsuitable as his disciples.
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.
It is vitally important that I listen to the Holy Spirit, and that means being open to God’s love, and to his forgiveness.
Thank you for calling me to serve you. Thank you for your continuing renewal of my spiritual life. Thank you for your Holy Spirit’s presence in my life. Thank you for the presence of Jesus with me.
In Jesus’ name, Amen