Gospel: Mark 2:18-22

When Not To Fast

Have you ever fasted? Why did you fast?

In a culture that extols excess, fasting stands in stark contrast. We admire those who have the self-control to fast. We forgive those who become obsessed with fasting. Super-models who fast as a lifestyle become role-models and objects of desire.

Those who fast should abstain in moderation. Fasting periods should have a starting point and an ending point. Obviously, those who fast should have a purpose. In America, the land of plenty, people fast for vanity and health. In needy countries, people fast as a protest to point out injustice.

In the time of Jesus, Jews fasted for religious reasons. They abstained to show repentance and anticipation for the coming Kingdom. But the followers of Jesus did not fast. And this led to a controversy.

Popular Translation

18 The followers of John and the Pharisees had certain days of the week when they would not eat food. 19 So, someone asked Jesus, "Why do the followers of John and the Pharisees refuse to eat food on certain days of the week, while your followers eat every day?"

20 "Should any guest refuse to eat at a wedding reception when bridegroom is there?" Jesus replied. "No! When the groom is there, everyone eats. But soon, the groom will be taken from his reception. Then, the guests will stop eating."

21 "No one sews a new, unwashed cloth patch onto old clothing," Jesus continued. "If they do, the new piece won't stretch like the old clothing. The new piece will tear off and make the hole larger than before."

22 "No one puts new wine into old wine skins," Jesus added. "If they do, the new wine will ferment, stretch the wine skins more than they can handle, and burst the wine skins. Both the wine and the wine skins will be ruined. No! New wine should be poured into new wine skins."

Mark presented many different views on a religious tradition: fasting. The act of self-denial, whether in the amount of food, drink, or sleep, communicated different ideas to different groups that were present in the time of Jesus. The root of the practice in Judaism connected with the Day of Atonement, when Jews were to humble themselves before God (see Leviticus 16:31-34). Soon, fasting had a public character (a shared experience of repentance that did not last more than a day) and a private character (as a personal repentance, as a treatment of illness, or as a lament for suffering). Traditionally, fasting had themes of self-abasement and lamentation; both were reactions to the consequences of evil; both contained the seeds of hope for divine intervention.

Literal Translation

18 The disciples of John (the Baptist) and the Pharisees were (used to) fasting. (People) came and said to HIM, "Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but you disciples do not fast?"

2:18 The phrase "(used to)" was added in parentheses because without it, the reader would assume a historical event. The sentence actually refers to custom of fasting twice a week, on Monday and Thursday. The sentence with the question does not have a subject in Greek, hence the subject is indefinite; "(People)" is used for "they."

People in the crowd asked Jesus why they did not follow a standard religious practice. Certainly the followers of John fasted in the spirit of humility and hope. They awaited the One John had promised. They were baptized by John with the hope they would see God's Kingdom. While they might have shared the fast in common, their reasons were intensely personal. Fasting was a prophetic sign God's Kingdom would soon arrive.

The Pharisees, however, fasted as a way to keep the Law in letter and in spirit. As leaders in the community, their fast was deliberately public. They demonstrated their piety as a way to inspire others to return to God and keep the Law. Their logic was simple. The spirit of humility before God should extend beyond a single day of the year (the Day of Atonement). The spirit should be constant. Hence, fasting should be a weekly event. By keeping the spirit of the Law always before them, they, too, could look forward to the coming of the Messiah.

But the followers of Jesus did not fast. Why? Didn't they feel the need to repent and humble themselves before God? Didn't they look forward to the Day of Judgment, when the Son of Man would establish God's Kingdom on earth?

19 JESUS said to them, "Should the bridegroom's men fast when the bridegroom is with them? As long as the groom is with them, they are not able to fast. 20 But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them. Then they will fast on that day.

2:19 "Should the bridegroom's men fast...?" is a rhetorical question. A literal translation would be "The sons of the bridal chamber are not able to fast in (the time) which the bridegroom is with them, (are they)?" Scholars are not certain whether "sons of the bridal chamber" refers to members of the immediate wedding party or wedding guests in general.

"As long as the groom is with them" is literally "as long a time as they have the groom with them."

Jesus responded with three analogies, all of which occurred in daily life, all of which had overtones of the coming Kingdom. But all three analogies answered the question in a way the followers of John and the Pharisees did not expect. "Look!" Jesus seemed to say. "The spirit of the Law is fulfilled! The Kingdom is present! There is no need to fast."

In the first analogy, Jesus compared his disciples to guests at a wedding banquet while the groom was present. For the contemporaries of Jesus, the wedding feast symbolized the union of Yahweh and his people. Feasts had overtones of fellowship and covenant (Exodus 24:9-11). Marriage had overtones of God's relationship with his people (Hosea 3). And, since a marriage feast itself lasted for up to two weeks (Judges 14:12), the continuous nature of the celebration foreshadowed the everlasting happiness of the Kingdom.

For Mark's readers, the groom represented the presence of the Messiah. The other gospels symbolize the Kingdom as a wedding feast for a groom (parable of the wedding feast for the king's son in Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:16-24). Revelations 19:6-21 described the victory celebration over the forces of darkness as the "wedding feast of the Lamb." The imagery of the bridegroom resonated in the early Christian community, especially in the feast of the community: Eucharist.

21 No one sews an unshunk cloth onto old clothing. But if so, the fullness (of the new piece) lifts away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse.

Experience taught the futility of mixing the new with the old. In the case of cloth, if the patch does not match the stretch of the old, the inflexible strength of the new will tear the old cloth. In the same way, mixing the practices of a pre-Messianic Judaism with experience of Christianity would tear the believer apart. One cannot have a foot in the old world and another in the new reality.

The new clothing of the baptismal garment represented a radical break from the past, not only morally, but religiously. That white garment symbolized a new creation, based upon a new relationship with God. In one sense, the newly baptized did not await the coming of the Lord as John's followers or the Pharisees did. He or she already experienced the Risen One. The neophyte not only acted differently, they worshiped differently. The separation was so striking, in many ways it forced a choice on the believer. To become a Christian meant metanoia, a change of lifestyle and outlook. The new believer could not go back. It was futile to look back.

22 No one throws new wine into old wine skins. But if so, the wine will rip the wine skins, and the wine is destroyed and the wine skins (too). New wine, however, is (to be poured) into new wine skins.

2:21-22 "But if so..." is literally "but if not..." The negative of this clause voided the warning in the previous sentence.

"No one sews...but if not" in 2:21. "No one pours...but if not" in 2:22. Two negatives produces a positive ("but if so...").

The fermentation of new wine would stretch old wine skins beyond the breaking point. In the end, both would be lost. Like the analogy of the new patch, the new wine needed new wine skins to grow.

Wine was the drink of blessing, especially in the context of the feast. (A wedding feast without wine was considered a misfortune; see John 2:1-11). Wine blessed life with its benefits. It represented God's blessing and was the drink with which a believer blessed God. (Consider the blessing of the Seder supper: "Blessed are you Lord God, King of the universe, for the fruit of the vine...") In dining, wine was the drink with which a believer shared his or her blessings with others.

The choice of the analogy was clearly sacramental. The new wine was the new life of the Christ found in the Eucharist. This new wine blessed the believer and the community. That blessing was the glue that held the community together. Giving the new wine (the life of Christ) to the old wine skins (the community of the Pharisees) would destroy the wineskin (as a scandal to non-believers).

Catechism Theme: Fasting in Christian Life

Fasting, along with prayer and almsgiving, are hallmarks of the Christian penance. Each one represents metanoia, that radical change of self and one's relationships with God and neighbor. Each takes the focus away from self and allows the believer to live the Great Commandment of love. Regular practice of each represents one's daily efforts in conversion.

There are times and seasons for penance (Fridays and the season of Lent). The practices of penance in fasting, prayer, and almsgiving during these times and seasons intensify one's desire for Christ. Like any other practice, however, their misuse only leads to frustration, for their misuse leads away from Christ.

There are also times and seasons when the practice of fasting is inappropriate (Sundays and the season of Easter). These times and seasons celebrate the presence of the Risen Lord. Mixing fasting with these celebrations leads to confusion. The believer could lose sight of Christ in zeal of the practice.

Fasting has a place in the Christian life, along side works of charity and piety. But it should have a goal in mind: Christ. It should not stand alone, nor should it be an end in itself.

Have you ever fasted or "given up something" during Lent? Did it deepen your spiritual awareness? How did you feel at the end of Lent?

There are times for self-control and times of indulgence. We, however, should not lose sight of the goal: Christ. We deny ourselves for our Master. We celebrate with our Master. While one deepens our lament over evil and the other gladdens our hearts, both lead to hope. That is the point of a spiritual exercise like fasting.

What spiritual exercises do you plan for this coming Lent? How will you moderate these exercises? How will you use them to keep Jesus in view?