When I was a child, I used to look forward to Christmas because my sister and her family came for an extended visit each year. I would count down the days until they were expected. Everything was put on hold while they visited. I got away with not cleaning my room. I was allowed to stay up later. We had special meals. We played games around the clock. We had sweets and sodas. It unlike any other time of the year.
Now that I am an adult, I have a bit more insight into that time, though. Sure, things were different when we had family to stay, and it was a wonderful time, but special visits are downright disruptive! If you try to keep normal schedules, normal states of tidiness, normal menus and normal expectations, emotions and relationships could erupt quickly. Ways of living must change to accommodate visitors.
In a similar way, normal practices and ways of living had to change while God came for a visit to our earthly home. In Mark 2:18-22, Jesus makes this exact point. His presence was disruptive because he was unlike any other religious teacher. His presence required new schedules, new habits, new guests, and even new menus.
And the disciples of John and the Pharisees were fasting, and they come and say to him, “Why do the disciples of John and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
And Jesus said to them, “Are the wedding guests able to fast when the groom is with them? As long as they spend time with the groom, they cannot fast. However, there will come a day when the groom will have been taken away from them. Then, in those days, they will fast. No one sews a patch of new, unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new will pull away from the old, and worse, a tear happens. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the wineskins and the wine is destroyed along with the wineskins. Instead, new wine goes into new wineskins.”
No need to fast.
Throughout Mark 2, Jesus’ authority, motives, and teaching are being questioned. Today’s passage contains another question. Some want to know why Jesus’ students act differently than the students of John the Baptist and the Pharisees? The question is about fasting, which is abstaining from food or drink.
The Jews were commanded to fast once a year on the Day of Atonement, but they also fasted when they were in mourning, as a sign of repentance, to petition God for specific aid, and to obtain special insight. Many devout Jews fasted twice a week as a spiritual discipline. We know from Matthew 6:16-18 that Jesus was not against fasting and he assumes that people will fast. He encourages it. But while people enjoyed the physical presence of Jesus with them, the reasons for fasting were null. He explains that when he is taken away, his students will return to the practice of fasting.
Jesus’ particular presence disrupted the need to fast. Why?
The bridegroom has arrived.
When Jesus is asked this question about why his disciples do not fast, he does not give a straight answer, does he? Instead, he uses a metaphor and two micro-parables that give us the setting of a wedding feast. Today, the arrival of the bride signals the start of the wedding. But in ancient, Jewish custom, the bridegroom’s arrival signaled the festivities. What does remain the same in wedding customs is the wearing of new clothes and drinking wine, hence Jesus’ two stories about the garment and the wineskins are relevant to his answer about fasting.
Jesus, comparing himself to the husband at the beginning of a marriage, recalls an ancient metaphor the prophets of Israel used for God. Isaiah taught Israel that “Your maker is your husband.” God said through Jeremiah that “I was a husband to them [Israel.]” Ezekiel and Hosea take the metaphor further to explain Israel’s betrayal and unfaithfulness to her “husband,” the Lord himself. Here in Mark 2, Jesus extends that metaphor and applies it to himself. He is the bridegroom, and his presence is like a wedding feast.
Unlike the famous teacher, John the Baptist, Jesus does not point to what is missing in his student’s lives and then teach them how to fill it through spiritual discipline. Instead, Jesus points to himself. He can fill what is missing. He answers every question put to him with his own identity. His students behave differently because HE is different.
The person of Jesus of Nazareth is a historical fact. Josephus, a Jewish historian in the first century, wrote about Jesus saying, “[Jesus] was a wise man … a famous man in history and he is remembered for the things he did and said.” Other Roman writers wrote about Jesus being crucified in Judea and having many followers. Not only did Jesus live and die two thousand years ago, his life altered the course of history. Regardless of what you believe about the claim that Jesus resurrected after his death, no one can reasonably deny that his life changed the world. Jesus had a particular impact in a particular time in a particular location on earth. This particularity disrupted everything.
Nothing will ever be the same again.
Jesus concludes his answer to the question “why do your students behave differently than other religious students?” by telling two tiny parables. Old patches mess up new clothes, and new wine makes old wineskins explode. The moral of the stories is that new things cannot be forced into old things, because the new will destroy the old. Jesus is the new patch and the new wine. He cannot be added to our old traditions, religious practices and agendas. He destroys them.
Currently, we are seeing evidence of this truth in the skies above us. The new cellular technology, 5G, is rendering some commercial airplane equipment useless. It is causing disruption and stress. The new technology is interfering with the old equipment. Like a new update of operating software which renders old programing obsolete, Jesus breaks old methodologies and ideas. Jesus causes disruption. The new cannot mix with the old. Things are going to get broken. Jesus warns that he is bringing change.
My seminary college professor, Paul Metzger, writes that Jesus’ new wine is disruptive to both social liberals and conservative moralists who want to fit Jesus into their own agendas. One wants him to focus on social justice and leave sin out of the conversation, and the other can’t get over the company that Jesus enjoys and the rules he breaks. Metzger writes, “The real issue is not about this or that tradition…but one’s ultimate point of reference: Jesus is his followers’ ultimate point of reference; all social and religious customs and doctrinal discussions for them gravitate and revolve around him.” (New Wine Tastings, 2) Our schedules, habits, methods, agendas and even menus conform to Jesus.
In this passage, Jesus acknowledges the day when the bridegroom will have been taken away. Then, his followers will return to the practice of fasting as a way to keep their attention and appetites centered on him. We no longer have the physical presence of Jesus with us. But, if we believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be, then we can be assured that his immaterial presence is still impacting the world around us. His presence continues to challenge and disrupt our social and religious customs, as we look for new wineskins hold the new wine of Jesus.