Matthew 9: 14-17
Parallels Mark 2: 18-22, Luke 5: 33-39
14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 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. 16 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
I’ve been a pastor long enough and have seen enough conflicts among people to know that sometimes the action of welcoming someone into a congregation who is viewed as an outsider can create a schism in the fabric of the community. Sometimes the people who are the most invested in the community will be the ones who tear away when the community no longer looks or acts like they expect. In this continuation of the reflection about what the nature of the community of disciples will look like we see some older groups, like the disciples of John and the Pharisees, who are uncomfortable in the way in which this community of Jesus’ disciples practice their righteousness. The question the disciples of John ask about fasting identifies one of the differences in practice between Jesus and these other two groups of people attempting to faithfully embody their relationship to but the two portions of Jesus answer point to a different understanding of time and the inability to fit Jesus’ merciful conception of righteousness in the established practices of righteousness of either John’s disciples or the disciples of the Pharisees.
Jesus did address fasting in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6: 16-18) and as I mentioned there fasting is often conceived in terms of a personal piety, but even though most translations of Matthew 6 refer to practicing piety before others the term translated piety is righteousness. One thing to notice is the difference in the practice, the disciples of John are looking for a visible practice of fasting, while in the community of Jesus’ disciples the fasting does not exempt one from interacting with the community in a normal fashion. Their righteousness is practiced in their relationship with their Father who sees their action done in private and their interaction with the community in public ways. They may be those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who enter this time in the hope that they will be filled, but not so that their practice of righteousness is seen by others.
Jesus’ answer to the disciples of John consists in two parts, one focuses on the time in which the disciples of Jesus find themselves and the second takes the two images of old things being incompatible with new. In relationship to time, the time is now a time of celebration, like a wedding. Jesus is metaphorically cast as the bridegroom, an image that in both Psalm 19:5 and Isaiah 62:5 use to refer to God’s presence and Matthew may want us to hear this echo. Weddings are a time of joy in the ancient world, a time of feasting and celebration where the community is invited to share in the joy of the bridegroom and the bride. There are times that are inappropriate for the joyous feasting and celebration of a wedding, like the context of judgement we see in texts like Jeremiah 7:34, 16:9, 25: 10 and Joel 2: 16, but in Jesus’ view the time when he is present with the disciples is a time for eating and drinking and rejoicing rather than a time of mourning and fasting. The Pharisees and John’s disciples may view the times they find themselves in differently. They may look at the continued occupation of Galilee and Israel by Rome or the reign of Herod Antipas over Galilee, who will later execute John the Baptist (Matthew 14: 1-12), as indicative of a time closer to Jeremiah and Joel where feasting is inappropriate. Yet, Jesus views this as a time where tax collectors and sinners are welcomed to recline around the table with him as evidence of the kingdom of heaven continued expansion to those previously excluded.
The two images of an unshrunk patch on old clothing and new wine in old wineskins also point to the inability to fit Jesus’ practices and authority into old patterns of piety or old conceptions of righteousness. The way of Jesus is not the way of John or the Pharisees. The forgiveness of sins and the eating with sinners is bound to create a schism in among the religious community. The word translated tear is the Greek schisma where our English schism comes from. Like a wineskin without the ability to stretch with the release of gas that is a part of the fermentation process or a fabric which shrinks and tears away from the fabric it is sewn onto, sometimes the old is unable to contain the new. Yet, Jesus doesn’t try to force this new wine into the existing wineskins of the disciples of John or the Pharisees. Instead for those who are able to receive this new wine he allows them to receive it rather than attempting to patch up the existing movements that Jesus encounters. Perhaps in God’s economy there is a place where both have value and meaning and both can be preserved. As a person who has seen a church go through a schism in the past, I can only hope that those who viewed the practices and boundaries of the community differently still have a place in the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus will have conflicts with the Pharisees and different practices than John’s disciples, and yet he seems content with welcoming the sinners and tax collectors that have been previously excluded rather than expecting the Pharisees and followers of John the Baptist to join him in the practice of this manner of righteousness.