Jesus heals a man with leprosy, a paralysed man, calls Levi (Matthew), and explains why his disciples don’t fast: Mark 1:40–45; Matthew 8:1–4; Luke 5:12–16; Mark 2:1–12; Matthew 9:1–8; Luke 5:17–26; Mark 2:13–17; Matthew 9:9–13; Luke 5:27–32; Mark 2:18–22; Matthew 9:14–17; Luke 5:33–39
John’s disciples fasted; the Pharisees fasted. It was inevitable that Jesus would be asked why he and his disciples didn’t fast. Jesus answer:
Luke 5:34-39 Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. … No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and uses it to patch an old garment. For then the new garment would be ruined, and the new patch wouldn’t even match the old garment. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the new wine would burst the wineskins, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine must be stored in new wineskins. But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. ‘The old is just fine,’ they say.
The old ways
There is only one mandated fast in the Law: the fast associated with the day of atonement. This once-a-year ceremony marked the taking away of Israel’s sins through special offerings, a purification ceremony, and specifically, the laying of sins onto a scapegoat that was driven into the wilderness. (See Leviticus 16, the fast is referred to in verse 29-31—some translations have it as completely denying oneself.)
Interestingly, the fast was held after Israel’s sins were carried away. That in itself would explain part of Jesus’ answer. He hadn’t yet carried off the sins of the people, and so it was not yet time to fast.
But since Jesus kept the Law in its entirety, He and His disciples would have almost certainly kept that one prescribed fast. The most likely explanation is that this fast wasn’t the point of the question: there was no accusation of Jesus breaking the Law (and anyway, who knows just when this question was asked).
The question would have had to have been around the more general issue of fasting: why aren’t you religious types fasting as the others do?
And then Jesus’ answer starts to make more sense. As He often did, He broke with human traditions. The Jews has fasted to humble themselves before God so He would hear them and they Him (for example, Moses on Mount Sinai, Ezra before the return of the exiles, Jehoshaphat seeking God’s guidance). People also fasted in times of mourning (after the death of Saul), in penitence (after regaining the lost Ark from the Philistines), and as part of a traditional fasting calendar (as described by Zechariah). By Jesus’ time, the Pharisees fasted a couple of days a week to show their dedication to God, and some were engaged in continual prayer and (some) fasting as an act of worship (for example, Anna).
So what was Jesus saying?
Well, there was another type of fasting described by Isaiah:
Isaiah 58:6-7No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
It was a similar passage that Jesus quoted in his (in)famous synagogue sermon in Nazareth:
Luke 4:18-19 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.
Religious observance and sacrifice were not only inadequate, but they were now unnecessary. Jesus and His disciples were living the life of the kind of fasting [God] wants (to paraphrase Isaiah). It was Jesus’ mission, as he had announced when quoting Isaiah. Turning around now and missing some meals would be going back to the old ways – much like patching up an old piece of clothing or pouring new wine into an old vessel.
Furthermore, why would Jesus’ disciples fast when they were already with the Messiah? How would going hungry help them get closer to the one they already spent their days and nights with?
In suspending the need for fasting, Jesus could well have been referring back to Zechariah’s prophecy:
Zechariah 8:19 This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: The traditional fasts and times of mourning you have kept in early summer, midsummer, autumn, and winter are now ended. They will become festivals of joy and celebration for the people of Judah. So love truth and peace.
If so, this would amount to a claim of being the Messiah.
And now, that bridegroom claim
We can easily see the logic in Jesus’ point—no one fasts when they’re with the bridegroom (before the wedding). John the Baptist had already called Jesus a bridegroom, and this statement built on it.
In claiming to be the bridegroom, Jesus was drawing any of several possible descriptions of God being the groom and Jerusalem (or Israel, or the Jews, depending on the context) being the bride, for example:
Isaiah 62:4 … Your new name will be
‘The City of God’s Delight’ and ‘The Bride of God,’
for the Lord delights in you
and will claim you as his bride.
In doing this, Jesus was making quite a claim: not only were religious practices of the day about to change, but also, that He was (and is) the Messiah.
Some more reading
- The ritual of fasting in the Old and New Testament
- Fasting In The Old Testament And Ancient Judaism: Mourning, Repentance, And Prayer In Hope For God’s Presence