I’ve been looking at how Jesus talks about fasting. It’s interesting: it doesn’t seem to have much in common with some of the traditional teaching I’ve been subjected to. I grew up in a Presbyterian church, and they never even acknowledged that fasting existed. I finally met Jesus in a Pentecostal church in the Jesus People days, and they maintained an assumption that fasting equaled holiness, or was at least required for it. We couldn’t talk about it of course, but everybody seemed to know when someone was fasting, and how much they were Suffering for Jesus.
Both perspectives always seemed weird to me. In Matthew 9, Jesus talks about fasting; there’s more teaching in both the New Testament and the Old about fasting, but this is the part I’m looking at today.
First of all, Jesus seems to equate fasting with mourning. So fasting is apparently an appropriate response when we’re in mourning, when we’re grieving. Maybe we’re grieved that Things Aren’t The Way They Should Be. Or maybe we have this great promise from God and our experience isn’t even close. It could be that someone we know and love is going through hell and high water. These sound like mourning experiences, and it sounds like Jesus thinks that fasting is an appropriate response to them.
But then Jesus says that the attendants of the Bridegroom can’t really fast when the Bridegroom is with them. That’s us, of course, but the term is literally 'sons of the wedding hall,' and it denotes both wedding guests and [in American parlance] the groomsmen, the bridegroom’s friends. I figure I fit in one of those categories, though I will quickly admit that my aspiration is to be a friend of the Bridegroom: I want to be Jesus’ friend.
The real point here, however, is that when He’s with us, we don’t fast. By implication, that means that we do fast when we’re not sensing His presence, and we want to. If I want to know His presence better, then depriving my flesh may be a wise move, and in this context, He says “…then they will fast.”
Then Jesus turns left and gets weird again. He seems to be a champion at twisting the subject of discussion, and he does it here. After He says the Bridegroom thing, He immediately talks about patching garments and launches into the classic “new wine” passage. Except that I don’t think this is a new subject. I think He’s still on the same subject, but I am just not making the turn with Him yet.
“Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” –Matthew 9:17
Every time this concept of new wine comes up in the gospels, it’s always in this context: this is Jesus’ primary lesson about fasting in the gospels, and it’s always accompanied by the discussion of new wineskins. It almost seems like in Jesus’ mind, one of the places that we need new wineskins the most is in the area of fasting. We need (heck, I need) to bet past the old religious mindsets, and fasting is one of them.
In fact, it seems to me that there are two subjects where we get the most religious: food and money. These are bigger subjects that I want to get into here, but they certainly describe places where I need to get rid of old wineskins and begin to look at them both in the new light of the Kingdom. Yes, fasting is a part of the Kingdom, it isn’t just part of the Old Testament legalism, but it’s part of my new life as a Friend of the Bridegroom, but it’s for a different reason, and it’s following a different model.