THE THREE MOST COMMON ACTS of piety amongst many Jews were prayer, fasting, and alms-giving (i.e., giving money to the poor). So when Jesus’ disciples seemed a little indifferent to the second, it was bound to provoke interest. The Pharisees fasted, the disciples of John the Baptist fasted. But fasting was not characteristic of Jesus’ disciples. Why not? (Mark 2:18-22).
Jesus’ response is stunning: “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast” (2:19-20). Here is Jesus, profoundly self-aware, deeply conscious that he himself is the messianic bridegroom, and that in his immediate presence the proper response is joy. The kingdom was dawning; the king was already present; the day of promised blessings was breaking out. This was not a time for mourning, signaled by fasting.
Yet when Jesus went on to speak of the bridegroom being taken away from his disciples, and that this event would provoke mourning, it is very doubtful if anyone, at that time, grasped the significance of the utterance. After all, when the Messiah came, there would be righteousness and the triumph of God. Who could speak of the Messiah being taken away? The entire analogy of the bridegroom was becoming opaque.
But after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after his exaltation to glory, and after the promise of his return at the end of the age, the pieces would fit together. The disciples would experience terrible sorrow during the three days of the tomb, before Jesus’ glorious resurrection forever shattered their despair. And in an attenuated sense, Jesus’ disciples would experience cycles of suffering that would call forth days of fasting as they faced the assaults of the Evil One while waiting for their Master’s blessed return. But not now. Right now, sorrow and fasting were frankly incongruous. The promised Messiah, the heavenly Bridegroom, was among them.
The truth, Jesus says, is that with the dawning of the kingdom, the traditional structures of life and forms of piety would change. It would be inappropriate to graft the new onto the old, as if the old were the supporting structure – in precisely the same way that it is inappropriate to repair a large rent in an old garment by using new, unshrunk cloth, or use old and brittle wineskins to contain new wine still fermenting, whose gases will doubtless explode the old skin. The old does not support the new; it points to it, prepares for it, and then gives way to it. Thus Jesus prepares his disciples for the massive changes that were dawning.