Imagine hosting a potluck. The evening of the party, someone shows up with mac and cheese, another person announces they’re gluten and dairy free, still someone else proclaims they only eat vegan, and yet another says they’re doing a keto diet so they brought a pound of bacon. Food can be complicated.
To quote another biblical writer, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Food or, as we’ll see, the lack of food brings out people’s opinions and puts Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees for the third time.
In the Old Testament, God only required His people to fast for one day a year, the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29, 31; 23:27–32; Numbers 29:7). By Jesus’ time, the Pharisees sought to expanded the Old Testament laws of cleanliness and fasting for the priests of the temple to everyone. They viewed this as a way of protecting the people from hellenization (aka secularization). The motive of keeping the people holy and distinct was good—but they took it way too far.
In Luke 18:12, we learn that the Pharisees fasted twice a week as a sign of piety. Choosing to fast for additional days above and beyond the Law’s requirement wasn’t wrong. In fact, it could reveal a heart seeking to draw near to the Lord. But the Pharisees had other motives. They used fasting (among other rules) as a spiritual measuring stick for themselves and everyone around them.
Some people approached Jesus, asking why His disciples didn’t fast. They pointed out that the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees fasted. We don’t know exactly why John’s disciples were fasting. Perhaps they fasted as their leader remained in prison.
Jesus responded with three different metaphors. He answered their question with a question of His own, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Fasting was a sign of mourning, so it would be wildly inappropriate for wedding guests to fast during the celebration!
But Jesus’ metaphor has deeper themes running through it. The bridegroom was used in the Old Testament as an image of God, and a wedding was a symbol for the age of salvation (Isaiah 61:10; 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2, 32). Jesus’ reply associates Him with God and the arrival of salvation. With this in mind, fasting seems even more inappropriate. Jesus’ presence and the arrival of the good news is cause for celebration!
He furthers His point by using an everyday analogy of old cloth and new cloth. Fabric shrinks—so it makes no sense to put unshrunk cloth over a tear on an old piece of fabric. Don’t miss the detail that the old fabric has a tear! Jesus’ message is new; it cannot just be patched over on top of the old way of doing things.
In his last image, Jesus uses another metaphor that everyone would have understood. New wine released carbon dioxide as it aged, expanding the wine skin it was stored in. After the skin had stretched, it could not be stretched again. As with the previous image, Jesus wants His hearers to understand He is bringing something new! His ways cannot simply be made to fit into the old way of doing things.