18Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not? 19Jesus answered ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is still with them? They cannot as long as they have him with them. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.
Milton Keynes 29th January 2024
This story appears in each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 9:14-15; Luke 5:33-35). In each case it follows the stories of the calling of the tax collector, and the subsequent feast at the house of Levi / Matthew. The emphasis on this sequence of events, picked up in each of the Gospels affirms that the context is important. There is the implication that the feast with the tax collectors and friends may have been taking place at a time when others were fasting. After the horror that Jesus is eating with people who are unclean, comes the despair that he is eating whilst those who are seriously religious are fasting.
Every Jew was required to fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:32). Fasting was also associated in Scripture with times of mourning, despair and appeal to God. Over time, the oral traditions of Judaism had added some very strong additional rules about fasting, including commemorative fasts and twice weekly fasting as an act of piety and commitment. The Pharisees followed these rules to the letter and it is likely that this question arises because Christ and his disciples were engaged in feasting when others were fasting during one of the midweek fasts.
‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?
Scripture uses marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between God and his people. In the Hebrew Bible, the worship of other gods is described as spiritual adultery (Jer 3:8 and elsewhere), and Israel described as the bride of God (Jer 31:4 and elsewhere). In the New Testament, the Church is described as the Bride of Christ (eg Rev 19:7, 21:2), presenting the Messiah as the bridegroom.
Most people in the time of Jesus lived relatively frugal lives. Feasting was reserved for the big occasions, and marriage was a big occasion. An occasion not of mourning or despair, but of joy. The marriage feast could last for several days, and there was even a tradition that it was unlawful for those invited to fast during the marriage celebrations.
Jesus answered ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is still with them? They cannot as long as they have him with them.
Once more, Christ is aligning himself with the Jewish understanding of Messiah. Whilst he, the Bridegroom, is with his companions, of course they would not fast. Of course, when the marriage ceremony is complete, the bridegroom is separated from his guests and life returns to normal.
20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.
Yet even now, Christ, the Messiah, knows that his path leads to a time when his companions will fast, not because of the Pharisaic requirement, but because they are mourning. Christ points forwards to a time when he, the bridegroom, will not just leave, he will be taken. Even now, Christ, the Messiah, knows that he is on the path to the cross.