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Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Bridegroom Is Here

The Pharisees complained to Jesus about his disciples breaking the Sabbath by plucking and eating heads of grain as they made their way through the fields. If you had asked them why this mattered, they would have replied that they were concerned about the commandments of God. “It’s not lawful,” they said.

But when the people asked Jesus why it was that his disciples did not regularly engage in fasting, they were not asking about commandments or laws, but rather about a widespread, optional religious practice of the day.

Yom Kippur and Performance Art

The Law of Moses commands fasting only in connection with the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, once a year. No other obligation to abstain from eating and drinking was ever laid on the Israelites by God. So it was not that the disciples had broken the Law. It was simply that they did not observe the rituals associated with other groups reputed to be especially pious — like the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist. Luke puts it this way: “[They] fast often and offer prayers.” For John’s disciples, this was probably a matter of genuine repentance and sorrow for sin. For most Pharisees, however, it was performance art and an attempt to justify themselves.

Note that the Lord does not answer the question by criticizing the practice of fasting. There is nothing wrong with prayer and fasting, even today. In fact, we see it practiced in a number of New Testament churches, usually in association with intensely seeking the mind of the Lord. Rather, it seems to me the Lord is concerned with a particular set of visible, ritual behaviours associated with self-deprivation. These often involved gloomy behavior and the imitation of mourning.

It is to this public display that the Lord addresses himself.

An Indirect Reply

The Lord’s reply may initially seem a little obscure. He does not address the question directly, nor does he assess the motives of those who practiced fasting. Instead, he replies to them in a figure of speech and two parables:
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.

And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins — and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.’ ”
First we get the figure of the wedding guests and the bridegroom, speaking respectively of the disciples and the Lord himself. Then we get the new patch on the old garment and finally the new wine in old wineskins. Without getting into the details of the imagery, it would seem the Lord is teaching that the customs and attitudes of the old order form no part of the new order he was in the process of establishing. The two things simply do not fit together.

The Bridegroom Taken Away

When the Lord speaks of the bridegroom being taken away, I suspect he is referring to the immediate aftermath of his death, during which fasting and mourning would have been completely appropriate for men and women who had just lost their Master and Teacher. But notice when the Lord returns, so do eating and drinking. He was known to the two on the road to Emmaus “in the breaking of the bread”. He consumes a piece of broiled fish in front of a roomful of rejoicing disciples. He lays out a fish breakfast for seven disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. For the believer, the presence of the bridegroom is always an occasion for celebration.

There may still be times in the experience of an individual or a local church when the necessity of getting before the Lord in prayer and seeking his mind is so great that it drives out all other considerations, including food. But these situations are the exception rather than the rule. And in contrast to the standard Jewish practice of making an ostentatious display of self-affliction, the Lord taught that his followers are to fast discreetly. Fasting, like private prayer, should be between the believer and his God. Those who do it right are seeking closer fellowship with the Lord, not attempting to atone for their sins or enhance their religious reputations.

Joy and Mourning

When we think about it, this change makes perfect sense. The outward, public rituals associated with a nation awaiting physical and spiritual deliverance through God’s Messiah have little in common with those who have already identified God’s provision for us in the person of Jesus Christ, have both claimed him as our own and been claimed by him for eternity, and who walk in fellowship with the risen Son of God daily. Those who observe the way we do business should not come away with the impression that our faith is characterized by mourning, but rather by joy.

There are not many of what we might call “rites” associated with the Christian faith. Even those few acts of obedience that remind us of the Lord’s death, like baptism and the Lord’s table, are infused with joy. We go down into the waters of baptism, dying symbolically with Christ, only to break out of the water with him into newness of life and the anticipation of our own bodily resurrection. We share a loaf that symbolizes a body broken, and pass a cup that speaks of blood shed on our behalf, only to be reminded that a new Body is constituted of which the risen Christ is Head. In fact, we are expressly forbidden to ever forget this. As the apostle Paul puts it in another context, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival.”

New Wine for Fresh Wineskins

For the Christian, the bridegroom is here, whether or not the world can see him. “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

The bridegroom is here. We are his and he is ours. That’s something to celebrate. Rituals and religious drama should be left to those who are sadly unaware of these truths. New wine is for fresh wineskins.

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