Mark 2:18-22

The Kingdom Challenges the Pharisee Culture (2) - Asceticism

The following incident was not a direct brush with Pharisees, but provided Jesus with the opportunity to explain further the difference in approach between them and himself.

Mark 2:18-22 - Fasting

18 John’s disciples and Pharisees were fasting.  
They approached Jesus and said,
“Why are John’s disciples and the Pharisees’ disciples fasting,
but your disciples are not?” 
19 Jesus said to them, “Wedding guests do not fast
while the bridegroom is with them.  
As long as they have the bridegroom with them,
they cannot fast.
20 But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken from them.  
They will fast on that day.” 
21 “No one sews an unshrunken piece of cloth on an old cloak.  
Otherwise, the new piece breaks away from the old one,
and a worse tear happens.
22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins.  
Otherwise, the wine bursts the wineskins,
and the wine is lost and the wineskins as well.  
No, new wine into new skins.”

The Torah required of all Jews that they fast on the annual Day of Atonement. There were no further fasting demands. Yet the practice of fasting came to be seen over time as an appropriate expression of earnestness towards God. Nothing is known of the fasting practices of John’s disciples. The Pharisees, however, fasted twice a week, and on other special days as well.

Their criticism of Jesus’ disciples may have been due to the fact that they did not fast even on the Day of Atonement – though it may just have been a general observation.

Jesus came immediately to the defence of his disciples. He said that the present was not a time for fasting. It was the time of the breaking in of God’s Kingdom, a time of joy, of forgiveness, of abundance – not unlike the mood of a wedding feast.

Commentators question whether the next comment put on the lips of Jesus (about the time when the bridegroom – Jesus himself – would no longer be present) would in fact have been made by Jesus or reflected rather the practice of the post-resurrection Church – when fasting perhaps became part of the practice also of the disciples of Jesus.

In his defence of the disciples Jesus seemed to be saying that his good news was not a cosmetic response to a jaded system but called for a totally new alternative. The Pharisees’ horizon was limited to the present system and expressed an effort to tighten up and deepen people’s attitudes to God within the confines of the accepted cultural, social and political framework. Their approach could be labelled restorationist. Jesus’ vision was much more radical. The current system was beyond mere restoration. A whole new mind-set and practical response were called for. The new wine brought by Jesus could be contained only in new wineskins. Fasting was missing the point and, seen in this context, was a dangerous distraction.

Indeed, for people instinctively comfortable in a world of rules and regulations, as were a number of the Pharisees, fasting was a source of self-satisfaction and congratulation, even if at the price of undoubted difficulty.

More specifically, against the background of the social and economic reality of Galilee at the time, it could be seen as an extreme lack of sensitivity and an affront to the poor and hungry. Voluntary fasting was a luxury for the well off – starvation was the lot of the dispossessed and indebted.

Jesus’ view seemed to be that the energy the Pharisees invested in fasting would have been more appropriately spent looking more deeply at their own possible role in the hunger and oppression in their midst. Fasting could be a diversion.

Next >> Mark 2:23-28