Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” - Mark 2:18-22
Since the fall, the kingdom of God has been attacked both from the outside and from within. Even the law of God was misused. By the time Jesus arrived, the Jewish world was weighed down with laws. Some were from God. Those were to be obeyed. But some were from the Jews themselves, additions to the law of God that, in the end, distorted God’s law and had the reverse effect of his original intention. That’s how it always is with us, isn’t it? We have an amazing ability to complicate the purposes of God.
When Jesus appeared, the Jews expected him to fall in line with the status quo. When he didn’t, it proved troublesome. It angered the Pharisees, and it confused the common Jew. That’s what we see in verses 18-22. It’s not the Pharisees who question Jesus but the “people.” They want to know why the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Jesus’ did not.
God’s law really only required one fast—on the day of Atonement. But over the years, other fasts were added to the calendar: important holidays and so forth. And if you were a Pharisee, you were so holy that you fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. They must have made a show of it because later on, Jesus told his disciples, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matt. 6:16).
But Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast at all, and that was confusing. So Jesus answered by appealing to a cultural norm: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” No, he says. They cannot. That wouldn’t be right. When something joyous occurs, no one thinks of avoiding food. When something joyous occurs, everyone wonders what’s for dinner! How are we going to celebrate? Weddings in Israel were not an afternoon affair. They lasted a full week. All week long, everyone would eat and drink. No one was fasting. Everyone was celebrating. Jesus is saying his disciples are doing the same.
He didn’t say his disciples would never fast. Indeed, a time would come when they must—when the bridegroom is taken. But while he is here, it makes no sense to fast. Jesus is merely saying his disciples know the time of things. They’re aware the feasting is here, even if the fasting will come later. He’s saying to them that something new has come, and as long as the new is here, the old way of things cannot be forced to work.
To illustrate, Jesus uses two brief parables. “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins” (vv. 21-22).
Both parables serve the same purpose: the new cannot fit with the old. You can’t sow a new patch of cloth on an old garment without creating more harm. Why? Because the old is shrunk down by washing. A new piece of cloth isn’t. When it’s washed, it’ll shrink and tear a hole greater than the one it patched. In the same way, you can’t put new wine into old wineskins without them bursting. The expansive, fermenting new wine will cause the skin to stretch and burst.
What’s he saying? You can’t fit the kingdom of God into old religious forms. Man-made traditions and ceremonies and tired religious structures are simply not suitable for the new wine of the gospel. It’s too expansive. The joy is too great. It’s growing too fast. You can’t put it into the status quo. God’s kingdom isn’t just for Jews; it’s for Gentiles, too. It’s not for the righteous, but sinners—the unclean, the ungodly, the tax collectors and their friends, the losers of this world! Christ has come, and he’s filling God’s purposes up. He’s the new patch. He’s the new wine. The times, they are a-changin’!
Jesus is not the poster boy for old-time religion. He’s not the Bible Belt co-pilot. He’s not the post-modern homeboy. Jesus is the covenant-making God filling up the old in himself and pouring out the newness we long for. He’s the perfect Jew, obeying the law to the fullest as it was originally intended. And that’s so radical, so different-looking, that everyone wonders, “Who is this guy?” Well, he’s the King of God’s coming kingdom, that’s who. Doesn’t his kingdom look better than the one you’ve been living in—the one where you never measure up, where you never find a place, where you never have peace, where you never have joy? Well, forget all that now! Yes, there’s a time to fast, but even then, with Jesus, the joy is deep. No gloom! God’s kingdom is a happy one! The gospel is fermenting, and it tastes good!
Here’s the question: will we hold onto the status quo or will we make room for Jesus and join the wedding celebration?
To hold on to man-made religion when the entire purpose of religion is standing before you is to reject the pure, living water for the sewer. It’s to make mud pies in a slum instead of accepting Jesus’ offer of a holiday at sea as C.S. Lewis writes. It’s to miss the point entirely. And Jesus is here, saying to us this morning, “Don’t miss me! I’m here for you!”
The call of the gospel is actually mind-blowingly simple. It seems too good to be true, but it’s the truest thing in this world. As we swim in the ocean of counterfeits, Jesus stands to proclaim the good news of the gospel, and it’s so real it takes us aback. Jesus Christ has come to save sinners, and you can’t fit that inside any man-made religion. It just doesn’t work. All that we need to do, Jesus did. All that we needed to avoid, Jesus avoided. All that we need to be, Jesus was and is. So give it up your self-salvation project and come to him. You will never be successful, but he already has been! He will justify you by his life, death, and resurrection. All you have to do is accept his free gift of grace!
Gerhard Forde puts the shock of the gospel this way:
We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age-old question, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ the confessional answer is shocking: ‘Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!'
When we accept that, we start to look like people having too much fun. We are freed up. Yes, we still struggle. Jesus never promised a life with him apart from suffering. Quite the opposite, actually. But he also promised a joy and peace that surpassed understanding—to ourselves and to the watching world, especially to stiff religious people.
So do we look like people freed from something? A church where people are freed from something is compelling. It makes people wonder what’s going on. And when they ask, we get to say, “Jesus is here!” That’s it! His newness has come and filled up all our sadness, cleansed all our sin, removed all our excuses.
We are professionals at building barriers between God and ourselves, but God is a professional at tearing them down. Way back in the Old Testament, he told the prophet Isaiah to “remove every obstruction from my people’s way.” The prophet Malachi said the Great Day of the Lord for God’s people would make them like “calves leaping from their stalls” (Malachi 4:2). Don’t we want that freedom, that joy?
Let’s refuse to put weights on our already weighty life. Let’s refuse to add rules where God is silent. Let’s refuse to make following Jesus a burden. We’re here to enjoy the journey with him together! That’s so maddening to serious religious people. A joyous church, full of the Spirit’s freeing power, following the Lamb wherever he goes is a threat to the status quo. Fine! Let’s be that threat! Jesus was. If we’re following him, we will be as well.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at David's blog, Things of the Sort.