John’s disciples, and the Pharisees’ disciples, were fasting. People came and said to Jesus, ‘Look here: John’s disciples are fasting, and so are the Pharisees’ disciples; why aren’t yours?’ ‘How can the wedding guests fast’, Jesus replied, ‘if the bride groom is there with them? As long as they’ve got the bridegroom with them, they can’t fast. ‘Mind you, the time is coming when the bridegroom will be taken away from them. They’ll fast then all right. ‘No one sews unshrunk cloth onto an old cloak. If they do, the new patch will tear the old cloth, and they’ll end up with a worse hole. Nor does anyone put new wine into old wine-skins. If they do, the wine will burst the skins, and they’ll lose the wine and the skins together. New wine needs new skins.’
I am writing this not long after the worldwide commemorations that took place on the tenth anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. In many countries around the globe, people stopped what they were doing and paused to remember, and shudder. Many wept. There were church services, solemn music, the reading out of names.
Some great and terrible events are felt to be so important that only a pause, only a solemn commemoration, will do. It seems to be quite wrong that you should have a party or a dance, or indeed a wedding, at such a time. Can you imagine the effect if, as the commemorations in New York were at their height, a clown and a juggler had burst out of the crowd and started to perform funny, silly antics to make the crowds laugh? People would have been shocked. The police would probably have come and hustled the troublemakers away.
Nobody knows how long America will go on commemorating that horrible day. But the Jewish people of Jesus’ day had been commemorating other disasters, as great as those of September 11 and much greater, for centuries. They looked back to the terrible events when Babylon had come and destroyed Jerusalem, burnt the Temple to the ground, and taken the people into captivity in a land far away. Only the most solemn commemoration would do if the people were to recall, with due solemnity, events that traumatic. So, like New Yorkers on September 11, the Jewish people kept special days when they fasted and prayed and remembered. That was part of their national identity. It was part of what made them who they were. Everyone who wanted to take the great national story seriously would join in.
But Jesus’ disciples were not joining in. They were not fasting when all the others were. And so, like people laughing and playing at a 9/11 commemoration, they scandalized those who saw them. ‘Why aren’t your disciples fasting?’
Jesus’ reply explains, in a vivid and explosive little image, what is going on. This has nothing to do (as people sometimes imagine) with Judaism being ‘legalistic’ and Jesus being eager to abolish ‘rules’. It has nothing to do with Jews trying to impress God with their moral effort and Jesus telling them that you don’t have to do that after all. It has everything to do with what Jesus has already been saying: the time is fulfilled, and God’s kingdom is arriving! Jesus wasn’t teaching a new kind of ‘religion’, or a different ‘moral code’. He was launching the project that was designed to fulfil all Israel’s dreams, to undo the long years of shame and sorrow and replace them with a great celebration, a sort of wedding party.
Jesus, in other words, is explaining his disciples’ failure to fast on the appropriate days by claiming that this moment, the time of his public career, is the long-awaited special time, the time when God and Israel are getting it together again at last. The picture of the wedding party looks back to various biblical passages, and highlights the extraordinary claim that Jesus himself is the ‘bridegroom’, who has come to celebrate his wedding. There is no way the wedding guests can fast while that’s going on – though (in a typical dark aside, because God’s kingdom will only come through his suffering and death) there will come a moment of fasting, of utter desolation, when ‘the bridegroom is taken away’.
Jesus then broadens out the picture. You don’t stick a new patch on an old coat, or put new wine into old wineskins. You can’t, in other words, patch up the old life of Judaism with a little bit of kingdom-teaching. You can’t expect to squash the new life of the kingdom into the old bottles of Judaism. This is not, to repeat, because there was anything wrong with Judaism. The Jews were God’s people, struggling to be faithful to God’s covenant. No: the covenant itself was looking forward to the time when God would do the new thing he’d always promised. Now he was fulfilling that promise, even though it didn’t look like what most people had expected. And when that moment arrives, you can’t hold on to the old ways. Candles are great when it’s dark, but when the sun rises you need to blow them out.
People have often quoted this passage about ‘new wineskins’ to justify innovations in the church. Fair enough, up to a point. God is still the God of surprises and new ideas. But the main point, far deeper than all our small rearrangements of the furniture, is that, with the coming of Jesus, Israel and the world were given not a new set of rules, not a new type of ‘religion’, but new creation itself.
So isn’t it a bit odd, as we get into the stride of our Lenten disciplines, to talk about Jesus and his disciples refusing to fast? Not a bit of it. It’s because of that new creation, launched once and for all with Jesus himself, that we need to take time and make the effort to bring our lives into line with the new reality. We do not fast because we commemorate some great national disaster. We fast because, as those already caught up in Jesus’ kingdom-project, in God’s new world, we need to be sure that we are saying a firm goodbye to everything in us that still clings to the old.
Help us, gracious Lord, to be wise in our disciplines, to celebrate your new life and to put to death all that detracts from it.