Fast while He is with them?
Gaining followers and protesters seems to be the theme of Luke’s gospel from Luke 4:31 to 6:16. While Peter, James, John and Levi (Matthew) have been gathered to Jesus as disciples, the Pharisees and teachers of the law have arrived as antagonists to Jesus’ ministry. It is through their doubts and questioning, however, that we have learned that Jesus is able to forgive sins and that he calls on all of us to come to him as sinners who need healing.
- 33-35 You can’t cry over good news
- 36-39 You can’t mix old and new
33-35 You can’t cry over good news
“They said to him…” Is this ‘they’ the Pharisees and the teachers of the law or the friends of Levi or someone else? We might immediately think it is the Pharisees who had just been talking with Jesus and then go on to ask him other questions. But they talk about the Pharisees in the third person (verse 33). ‘They’ could refer to Levi and his friends although the question appears more of a reflection from the outside looking at Jesus’ disciples rather than a disciple asking the question. It’s possible that Luke isn’t interested in describing who since it’s the questions that are important. Bock argues that this is another scene altogether and not simply carrying on from the last. It is helpful to read the story as a bit of a mystery at this point as if we’ve just jumped into another moment in Jesus’ ministry and it is just the general questions of the crowd asking Jesus why his ministry is so different to the Pharisees and John’s.
“John’s disciples…” It is clear that John had disciples also. They weren’t described earlier when John was baptising and teaching to the crowd. A disciple is simply a student or follower. See Luke 7:18ff for another story with John’s disciples.
“…often fast and pray…eating and drinking.” To fast is to abstain from food in order to practice or experience dependance on God while engaging in a time of prayer. Fasting is always associated with sorrow and pleading. Fasting and prayer go hand in hand which highlights the relational act of fasting rather than being a religious duty or cultural season. One thing that comes out of this passage in Luke is the idea that fasting was in practice before Jesus came and it is expected to continue once he has gone. Christians should consider fasting as a helpful discipline without drawing any attention to it (Matthew 6:16-17). In contrast, the disciples of Jesus were celebrating and festive with their food. If both the Pharisees and Jesus’ forerunner practiced it, what is wrong with Jesus? There are no great prescriptive passages in the bible about fasting nor when it originated or why. Judges 20:26 appears to be the first reference to it. See 2 Samuel 12; Ezra 8, and Isaiah 58 for three Old Testament samples of fasting. Note that fasting is described in Acts 13:2, and 14:23 but never again in the New Testament. We should conclude that it is useful to fast but that the apostles spilled no ink on this subject to promote it. Mind you, neither did the Old Testament prophets. It is possible that Leviticus 23:26-32 refers to fasting on the Day of Atonement, referring to it as ‘denying yourself’ but again, it is not explicitly about fasting from food. The concept of denying yourself can apply to any manner of things. In the Leviticus passage it no doubt refers to or includes abstaining from work. In this sense, every Sabbath day, if we decide not to work, is a form of fasting.
“Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” Jesus’ logical answer is a question of why we might fast to begin with. Fasting and praying is a means of feeling dependant on God in order to cry and plead for his help. Jesus equates himself as the bridegroom who is present and all his friends cannot be bothered with morbid duties while their joy is present.
“But the time will come…” This moment of Jesus’ presence will not last. He will be removed and then the disciples will have reason to fast again.
The bottom line here is that Jesus places himself as the source of joy and contentment. When he is absent, it is time for people to call on the name of the Lord for deliverance.
36-39 You can’t mix old and new
“He told them this parable…” A parable is a story with a hidden meaning. It’s a riddle. The words are not nonsense and they give a picture to be interpreted. But the meaning requires thought and meditation. It is a mistake to think that Jesus told parables in order for people to understand more easily (Luke 8:10). So put your thinking caps on.
“…a new garment to patch an old one.” The image of an old garment and a new is clear but what is his meaning behind it? Notice that in repairing the old with the new, both the old and the new are left damaged in the process. That is, the old is not repaired and the new was torn in order to try and repair the old! Parable A tells us that fixing an older thing with a newer thing does no favours for either. Let’s see what he says next.
“…new wine into old wineskins.” Verses 37-38 actually tell the same message but replacing a fabric metaphor with a wine metaphor. See how the new wine not only damages the old wineskins, making them useless, but that the new wine itself is now spilled and ruined. So parable B shares the same point as parable A. Let’s see where Jesus goes next.
“…no one after drinking the old wine wants the new…” I see two ways to interpret the phrase in verse 39. Firstly, no ‘old wine’ drinker will bother with new wine since they know that the old is better. This interpretation teaches us that there’s no point leading a trained palate to an immature grape since they will reject it. But what if Jesus is not trying to promote old wine but to demote traditional or old school thinking? Well, a second way of seeing this verse is to say that those who have tasted the old wine will never give the new a try. That is, some people will only like what they know they like whether it’s good for them or not. So, is Jesus giving us parable C which agrees with the other two or is he saying a new thing and having a dig at the Pharisees?
How are we to decide what the meaning is?
A side note, the word ‘interpretation’ is misused if it suggests that what you read can come to mean whatever you believe it means. The word ‘interpret’ is about meaning, not feeling. The only times that multiple interpretations can be allowed is when the meaning can, in context, be taken more than one way! If you decide to interpret something out of context and based on what you feel it should mean then you are not actually interpreting the text but importing your own meaning and belief. You have failed to listen to the text correctly. What we want to do is uncover Jesus’ meaning. Don’t ask, “what does this say to me” but “what does the author have in mind when they wrote this.”
Putting verse 39 in the context of verses 33 to 38 gives us this meaning: One cannot expect the disciples of Jesus to fast and mourn while Jesus is still present. That is like putting new cloth on an old garment. It can’t work. It’s like pouring new wine into old wineskins. It can’t work! And it’s like asking someone who knows that old wine is better to go and drink new wine voluntarily. It just won’t happen! Try it this way: “Can you make ‘old wine drinkers’ drink new wine when there’s perfectly good old wine present? No way! But maybe when the old wine is gone, then they might return to drinking new wine.
An alternate view, and a common one, is that Jesus is comparing the new era of salvation with the old era of religion and saying that they cannot co-exist and that some, like the Pharisees, will never give the new a try. I can imagine readers getting trapped by matching Jesus’ words of old and new with Old versus New Covenant or Old versus New Testament. This is an understandable connection to make and does seem to fit reasonably well against verses 36 to 38. But verse 39 is unclear. We can either see Jesus as making three parallel statements or that he is ambiguously throwing in a third to spite the Pharisees. Note that in verse 33 Jesus expects that fasting will happen again when he has departed his disciples. This goes against the idea of an old era of salvation and a new. I could also add discussion on how Jesus elsewhere promotes himself as a continuation or fulfillment of the so called old era rather than saying that he is rejecting the old for the new. If Jesus is telling the Pharisees that a new way of worship has come and you cannot mix the old with the new then he is introducing a new message on top of what he says in verses 33 to 35. This is a common view which celebrates the difference that Jesus has brought into the world. However, if Jesus is underscoring the same message throughout verses 33 to 39 then he is saying over and over again that he is the Christ and while he is here, it is insane for his disciples to mourn.
One last note about Jesus’ parables. It is majestic how he launches from a question about eating and drinking into a parable that fits perfectly – an image of celebrating with food and wine. Then he carries his message along the lines of garments (perhaps a wedding garment? Matthew 22:12) and then wine. What I’m saying is that his metaphors came perfectly out of the question asked of him. And his method of answering leaves the listener thinking and wondering what he means exactly.
Why on earth would you expect someone who is in the presence of Jesus to be mourning and fasting? Salvation and deliverance has come and the King is with his disciples. Jesus brings with him peace and rejoicing. Seeing who Jesus is invites a change of perspective to the mourner who cries out to God for help since God’s help is here! Fasting in prayer has its place but never in the face of God’s deliverance being here already!
- Topic A: Should Christians fast today? Jesus cannot be declaring an end to fasting for his disciples but only while they were with him. Acts 13:2 and 14:23 give two examples of Christians after Jesus’ death and resurrection praying with fasting. Jesus himself fasted in Luke 4. There is no directive in the New Testament, however, for Christians to pursue fasting. What then, can we say about how to fast, why or why not fast? Perhaps Leviticus 23:26-32; 2 Samuel 12:15-23; Ezra 8:21-23 and Isaiah 58 will help your discussion.
- Topic B: Jesus is the bridegroom. In his parable, Jesus told his disciples that the presence of the bridegroom makes a big difference to the celebrations of his friends. Jesus says that he is enough reason to celebrate. He is God’s answer to our prayers. While Christians will continue to suffer and mourn we cannot live as though we have no hope of deliverance. Jesus has come and when you taste friendship with Jesus, you can never go back to wondering and struggling through life as if answers are out of reach. This passage is one subtle message for us to know that the Christ has come!
- Topic C: Interpreting the bible. Jesus answered the Pharisees with a parable which is much like a riddle. It is metaphorical. It requires careful thought to uncover its meaning. The word ‘interpretation’ is misused if it suggests that what you read can come to mean whatever you believe it means. The word ‘interpret’ is about meaning, not feeling. The only times when multiple interpretations can be allowed is when the meaning can, in context, be taken more than one way! If you decide to interpret something out of context or based on what you feel it should mean then you are not actually interpreting the text but importing your own meaning and belief. You have failed to listen to the text correctly. What we want to do is uncover the Author’s meaning. Don’t ask, “what does this say to me” but “what did the author have in mind when he wrote this?”
Prayer of the Week
Our Lord and God, thank you for delivering us through Jesus Christ. We praise you for sending your Son into the world so that through his resurrection we can have a living hope. Please help us to rejoice with you and celebrate because the King has come. And help us to continue to lean on you for our every help in times of trouble. Amen.