Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
Matthew 9:14-15 (NRSV)
The disciples of John are a group that would have been familiar with Jesus since Jesus used to be one of them. Although we are not told, it is probably fair to say this group has been continuing on with John’s call for Israel to repent and be restored in light of a coming judgement. Perhaps there is a decent amount of asceticism in this community.
But whether there is or isn’t, they align themselves with the group of fastidious Torah-keepers (the Pharisees) in this dialogue. The idea we’re supposed to get is that fasting is what you do when you care about the state that Israel has found herself in and want to keep the laws concerning fasting. Given Matthew’s typical portrayal of the Pharisees in this gospel, the mention of John’s disciples may add some legitimacy to this question. Jesus has nothing but great things to say about John the Baptist – some shockingly great things, actually – so mentioning that they have this question tells us this may be coming from a place of genuine concern. If Matthew had only mentioned Pharisees, we might get the idea that this was some hypocritical trap for Jesus, but it is unlikely John’s disciples would have similar motives.
One of the things that Jesus’ answer tells us from the get go is that fasting is an act of mourning. You don’t fast to supercharge your prayer requests, and you certainly don’t fast so that everyone can see how concerned and holy you are. Jesus takes what could be considered as a matter of course religious practice (or “spiritual discipline” as we call them in modern parlance) and connects it back to its roots. You fast because you mourn. Something is grieving you. This doesn’t automatically mean there are no other legitimate reasons to fast, but at the very least, Jesus is probably separating himself from the Pharisees by reconnecting the practice of fasting to a genuine, heartfelt sorrow such that you won’t eat.
It is because of this connection that Jesus answers the question – we don’t fast because my presence is an occasion of joy.
The reason Israel would fast as a collective is because of her condition. She had become like the other nations and, as a result, was now suffering under the curse of the Law. She was under foreign dominion, living in crippling poverty, and even her Temple had the tendrils of Empire woven through it. This is an occasion for mourning and longing for a restoration. When will God let up? When will we be faithful, and when will we once again be free, prosperous, and safe in our land as we were in the days of David?
But Jesus has arrived to overturn these fortunes. The historical practice of fasting over Israel’s condition is no longer appropriate at the moment in history when her promised King and Messiah had come! Mourning turns to dancing! It is not a time to weep at what Israel had become, but rejoice in her opportunity to become what she was meant to be! The joy of the Lord would be her strength!
In this sense, fasting is eschatological. You fast now because you are looking for the day when fasting is no longer necessary. Jesus announces that, with his arrival, that day has come for Israel.
But then things get a little ominous.
Jesus hints that this event will not usher in an uninterrupted period of joy. Rather, there will come a day when Jesus will be taken from them, and on that day, fasting will again become appropriate.
One cannot help but think of Jesus’ words later in Matthew 26 when, during the Last Supper, he tells his followers that he will not eat the meal or drink the wine (depending on which gospel we’re looking at) until he drinks it with them in the Kingdom. There will be a period when the Roman Empire will take Jesus away from Israel, and the mourning and expectation and longing return.
But they are not to mourn as those who have no hope, but that comes later in the story.
For now, it is enough that Matthew begins to draw for us the dark clouds gathering. This time that the faithful rejoice in the presence of their Messiah will be brought to a close when Jesus is taken away – taken away by the machinations of the very sorts of people he distinguishes himself from in this brief conversation.
Does this passage tell us anything about fasting, today?
There are some who might say that, on the basis of this passage, fasting is just not a practice we need to concern ourselves with. The Kingdom has come, Jesus is present with us in the Spirit, does this not mean that we no longer have cause to mourn?
That’s actually a very good point and one that should be taken seriously. We live in an age where many of the things that were future expectations to Jesus and his disciples are past realities in some form or another. How relevant, then, would Jesus’ answer here be for us, today? And insofar as fasting was an eschatological practice whose fulfillment had come, maybe it isn’t.
And yet, is there nothing to mourn over the state of the people of God in the world, today? Do we not have brothers and sisters all over the world suffering under the oppression of government, religion, and corporation? Do we not have empty buildings where there were once full churches because of a rising secularism and theological commitments that no longer have any relevance? Shouldn’t our hearts break when we hear that Christians “hate gay people” or “hate Muslims” or “hate immigrants” or any of the other people groups that we should, in fact, be known for loving and caring for? Is it ok to feel anguish when we see pulpits as platforms to advance the wheels of the empires of our own day? Cross-adorned facades to the idols of this age – wealth, power, numbers, ego, self-preservation, self-exaltation, me over you, us over them?
Maybe I don’t fast over the absence of the bridegroom, who is still in our midst. But maybe I might still fast over the restoration of his bride.
- Have you ever fasted? What was the reason? Did it accomplish what you were hoping?
- As we read about those early faith communities, we see a lot of joy in the midst of a lot of great adversity. Does this tell us anything about the emotional state of a faith community living in our time in history?