As far as we know, there was only one day of fasting required for all first-century Jews, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was like one day in what we have come to know in the Islamic fasting during Ramadan—no food or drink from sun-up till sundown. Jewish tradition suggests that the more fervent, however, fasted twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays. This may be what is meant by Mark’s statement that the disciples of John the Baptist and of the Pharisees “were accustomed to fast.” When some people ask Jesus why his followers don’t fast like those other reformers, the implication seems to be that if he was a really serious reformer, he would be asking a similar discipline of his disciples.
Jesus’ response is startling: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is still with them?” Obviously, a wedding party connotes feasting, not fasting. But why is Jesus, who after all is going about calling people to repent, all of a sudden comparing himself to a bridegroom? Because he is announcing the advent of the end-time kingdom of God! And that event was sometimes pictured in his Jewish tradition as a joyous wedding party.
The Hebrew prophets had spoken of God’s relation to his people as a spousal relationship, Yahweh initiating a covenant of love with his beloved people, like a husband with a wife. So here comes Jesus, announcing the beginning of a new relationship of God with his people, the kingdom of God. And as a deliberate prophetic sign he calls his follows to a deliberate non-fasting. Jesus seems to be referring to this difference in another place where he contrasts his style to that of John: “For John the Baptist came neither eating food nor drinking wine, and you said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:33-35).
He elaborates that symbol with other images. What he is inviting people to is like new wine—this new relationship with God can no more be contained in conventional ways than new wine can be held by already stretched and stiff wine skins. There will be plenty of time for traditional discipline when his followers memorialize his death with fasting on Fridays. Meanwhile, the Jesus people are to celebrate the freshness of the new life of the Reign of God by setting themselves apart from the other renewal movements and deliberately not fasting.
Does that mean that Christians today miss the point when we fast? Not really. There is that statement, after all, about followers fasting when the bridegroom is taken away. But the point of this Gospel is to remind us that Jesus—precisely by his life, death, and resurrection—really did introduce a wholly new way of being into this dark and troubled world. He calls us to a new life in the Spirit which, without removing the realities of cross carrying and Good Friday suffering, is still meant to be mainly life in a community of faith characterized by hope and joy.
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