Summary: This passage presents the distinctions between Old Covenant and New Covenant religion.
We’ve noticed that, while Jesus has gotten off to a great start amazing everyone with his teaching, healing and exorcising of demons, he has also started to create controversy. He first seems like he has all the markings of a special man of God – maybe a prophet, maybe…the Messiah? But then he acts in ways contrary to how a man of God should act. He touches an unclean leper; he purports to forgive a man’s sins; he dines with public sinners. He creates as much suspicion as he does anticipation. In this morning’s passage it seems that his disciples cause their own controversy, though it will become clear the criticism is really about Jesus. If it’s not, he will give reason for criticism.
The Problem Raised
The issue raised seems to be a mild one. 18 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?”
Let’s get the context down first. Who are these other disciples and what’s the deal about fasting? Regarding John’s disciples, it is unclear what their status is in this story. It is probable that John is in jail by now, maybe already beheaded. This would explain why they are not with John. It also could be that they are disciples in the sense of following the teachings of John, but not actual followers of him, in the same way that Christians are referred to as disciples of Christ’s teachings. This would have been the case of the Pharisees’ disciples.
Fasting is an act of refraining from food and drink other than water. John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting frequently. We know that the Pharisees fasted twice a week, probably from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., the beginning of a new day. (The Jewish day ran from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.) Jesus’ disciples did not seem to be fasting, at least as an ongoing religious practice. They would have fasted at least once a year on the Day of Atonement, as prescribed in Scripture. It is probable they fasted the other four times of the year that had become traditional for Jews after the Babylonian exile. But fasting was not a regular practice for them or for Jesus for that matter. In reality, this question is an indirect method of questioning Jesus’ own practice.
Why did John’s disciples and the Pharisees fast? People fast for different reasons. Some fast to promote good health; it is an exercise of cleansing their body of toxics. Some fast to make a statement. Gandhi fasted as a means of civil protest in India. Others have fasted to protest some kind of injustice or to identify with the needy. Some fast to exercise self-discipline. I have conducted monthly fasts of specific foods to keep from becoming dependent on them. For that same purpose, I will occasionally fast for a month from an activity such as watching TV or listening to the radio.
John’s disciples probably fasted as an act of repentance and mourning over sin. That’s what the Day of Atonement fast was about. John’s message, remember, was about the need to repent in preparation for the judgment that the Messiah would bring. This was a period, if any, to be diligent in ridding oneself of sin and to grieve over the sins that existed in God’s people.
For the Pharisees, fasting was more an act of piety, another method of demonstrating devotion to God. Jesus indicates this in his parable about the tax collector and the Pharisee who pray in the temple. The Pharisee prays: God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-2). Now they also understood fasting to be an act of mourning, as did John’s disciples, though, which happens when something is developed into a routine, the mourning was more show than reality. Jesus had in mind the Pharisees when he said, When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting (Matthew 6:16).
Understanding that fasting was primarily an expression of mourning puts Jesus’ response in perspective for us. 19 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. To paraphrase Jesus, how can people expect to be mournful at a wedding party? Let me give you the picture that his hearers would have conjured up from that statement.
As today, the weddings of Jesus’ day were joyous affairs, though even more so. On the day of the wedding, the groom and his attendants cheerfully processed to the bride’s home. From there they would escort her with her attendants back to his home. Alfred Edersheim describes the processional: