“Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, ‘Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do'” (Mark 2:18)?
Fasting was considered a sign of religious commitment and holy passion. In their view, denying the flesh of something it wanted demonstrated discipline and spiritual resolve. Such action implied that if one was engaged in self denial, surely they must be on a higher spiritual plain. And the opposite would be true as well. Not fasting was a sign of spiritual mediocrity.
The people who questioned Jesus about not fasting wondered if he was religious enough, and especially if he was who he claimed to be. Shouldn’t the Messiah be practicing all of the religious scruples of the Pharisees? Jesus responded with several statements that went much deeper than their question.
“Jesus replied, ‘Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. ‘Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. ‘And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wine.
In his first response, Jesus indicated that fasting is something people do when they are apart from those they love. When we are around family and friends, eating food is part of what makes our fellowship joyful. But when we are separated, eating isn’t quite the same. We must still eat to live, but the celebrative element is missing, and at times we may eat less, or even go without for various reasons. If you are single and live alone, you know how hard it is to get excited about cooking for yourself.
In relation to this passage, Wayne Manning writes, “Jesus constantly challenged religious practices gone stale, their original meaning long forgotten [had] now become simply public ritual. He warned, ‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them'” (Matthew 6:1).
The question that Jesus wanted people to focus on was why they were fasting. What was their motive for doing it? If it was just a ritual that made them “look good,” they were wasting their time.
Could it be that what Jesus was really referring to was the difference between the old and the new covenants? Before Jesus came and initiated the New Covenant, the Ceremonial law, with all of its feasts and rituals provided the context for how people were to approach God. It largely consisted of ceremonies, fasts, ritual cleansings, symbols and sacrifices—which were often administered and performed in public. But with the coming of Jesus and his new message, the rituals of the past were no longer effective.
After the Passover supper, on the eve of his trial, Jesus made it clear that his death would change everything. Luke 22:20 reads that after supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out.”
Going forward Jesus’ sacrifice would be sufficient to cover all of their need.
After Jesus left and went back to his Father, there were plenty of times when the disciples felt the need to fast. And we may do so at various times in our lives today. But it should never be mistaken as a sign of religious fervor. Remember the story Jesus told about the two men who came to the temple to pray?
“Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ ‘I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted'” (Luke 18:10-14).
The challenge today is for us to move beyond the superficial demonstrations of piety that may make us look more spiritual, but that don’t effect our hearts. Unless we are changed within, on the inside, all that we do will be purely for show.
All scripture references are from the New Living Translation, unless otherwise stated.
Rich DuBose writes from Northern California.