The Question about Fasting
18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ 19Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
21 ‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’
Pronouncement about the Sabbath
23 One Sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ 25And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’
Mark here tells two different but related stories about Jesus’ ministry.
In the first, we learn that John the Baptist’s disciples fasted, as did the Pharisees, but that Jesus’ disciples did not. At that time, it was customary for Jews to fast for two days each week.
Unusually in Mark, the question to Jesus does not come from the Pharisees or scribes, but from ‘some people’. Jesus’ answer is startling – in the Old Testament, the God of Israel likens himself to a bridegroom and Israel to the bride (see, for example, Isaiah 62.5). Jesus is therefore claiming that fasting is unnecessary because he is the bridegroom who is ushering in the Messianic age, drawing a direct analogy between himself and God.
Jesus follows his answer to the people with two parables. Both of these are related to the presence of the Messiah amongst his people. Like the bridegroom saying, both answers are in the form of questions – this is the typical way Rabbis interact with their students. In these parables, the “new” age of the Messianic kingdom is contrasted with the “old” age of Judaism. The new kingdom is too large to be absorbed into the old, instead Jesus is bringing something completely new.
Jesus returns to the theme of new and old in the upper room at the Last Supper (Mark 14.23-25), when he talks about the new covenant his death will establish. In v.20 of this chapter, he hints mysteriously at his death by saying the bridegroom will soon be taken away.
The second account is also one of Jesus’ provocative actions. In the last study, we saw how Jesus cleansed a leper, healed a paralytic and called Levi – a tax-collector – to be one of his disciples. Here, his disciples begin to pluck and eat grain on the Sabbath, a violation of the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law.
Jesus points out that the Pharisees are being stricter than David, the most famous of Israel’s kings. He concludes by saying that the Sabbath was made for mankind, not mankind for the Sabbath. This echoes the teaching of Deuteronomy 5.12-15, where it explains that the Sabbath was instituted as a day of rest for the people of Israel.
1. From what we’ve read of Mark so far, what do you think would be some of the features of the new messianic age?
2. Do you think the disciples understood Jesus’ analogy of the bridegroom?
3. What do you think is at the root of the Pharisees attacks on Jesus?
4. Who does Jesus mean when he refers to the ‘Son of Man’.
5. What does it mean that he’s ‘Lord of the Sabbath’?
6. How would you react to Jesus’ teaching about wine and wineskins if you had been a Jew in his time?
7. How do you react now?
8. Is Jesus saying you don’t need to keep the Jewish law anymore? What do you do on the ‘Sabbath’. Perhaps ask God whether you should set aside a ‘day of rest’. What would you do on it?