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Jesus and the Parable of the Bridegroom (Mark 2:18-22)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus Asked About Fasting

Jesus Asked About Fasting

    18 And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not? 19 And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.
    21 No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse. 22 And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.
    Compare: Matthew 9:14-17; Luke 5:33-39

Does Jesus Fast?

Even as Jesus is portrayed as fulfilling prophecies, he is also portrayed as upsetting religious customs and traditions. This would have been consistent with the Jewish understanding of prophets: people called by God to return Jews to the “true religion” that God wanted of them, a task that included challenging social conventions which had developed over time and separated people from God and proper religiosity.

In this case, neither Jesus nor his disciples fast, which is the abstention from food and/or drink for long periods of time as part of a ritual purification process. This was done by the disciples of not only the Pharisees, but also of John the Baptist — a man whose ministry was closely associated with that of Jesus. It seems natural to ask why Jesus would give up a practice that was not only common among holy men and prophets for millennia, but also was practiced by the person who was supposedly the “messenger” paving the way for Jesus’ arrival.

That’s a good question, and here we are introduced to Jesus’ characteristic style of answering questions with parables. Instead of giving a simple and direct response, Jesus tells parables which attempt to draw parallels between the current situation and some other context in order to illustrate a point metaphorically or allegorically.

Unfortunately, parables are readily misunderstood and misinterpreted — to be quite honest, it isn’t that hard to make some parables mean anything you want them to mean. This has proven to be a boon to preachers and writers throughout history, allowing them to make use of biblical references in a multitude of interesting and imaginative ways. The parables are one of the reasons why the Bible can be classified as great literature. Being great literature is not, however, the same as being great philosophy or theology.

The question about fasting here should be contrasted with the earlier passage where Jesus is portrayed as eating with sinners and tax collectors. Although not actually described as a “feast,” it is nevertheless a stark contrast with the ideal of fasting that seems to be defended here by the Pharisees — and Jesus is portrayed at other times at feasts.

Jesus‘ parable of garments and wine is often perceived as saying that new ideas should be put into new social structures. Jesus eats well, even with sinners, instead of fasting like holy men are expected to because he brings new ideas about God that won’t fit in with old assumptions or structures.

The image of the “bridegroom” is also important because Jesus is often portrayed as coming to humanity as a bridegroom, with the Christian church then portrayed as the bride. Fasting, of course, is inappropriate to weddings because they are supposed to be joyful times when people embark upon important new stages in their lives. Soon, however, Jesus will be taken from them (a reference to his execution) and then they will have to fast.

Jesus’ Conflict with Opponents

This section of Mark is the center of a series of five stories of conflict and controversy that began with the opening of chapter 2. They are arranged topically and in a parallel construction that serves to highlight the importance of the central story, not in any sort of historical order.

A: Healing a paralytic (2:1-12)
B: Controversy over ritual law (2:13-17)
C: Controversy over fasting and the parable of putting new wine in old wineskins (2:18-22)
B': Controversy over sabbath laws (2:23-28)
A': Healing a man’s hand on the sabbath (3:1-6)

This structure crosses over chapter divisions, but neither verses nor chapters existed as such in the ancient texts — they were the creation of later editors trying to impose some structure on the material.

The first and last two passages frame the central story of the series. The controversies over the law serve to explain that Jesus transcends the old laws of the Jews. The stories of Jesus’ healing powers serve to explain Jesus’ powers both over the physical world and our sins. All of this, however, points to the central message of Jesus’ ministry: that he brings a new message from and about God.

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