Scripture: Lectionary 311, Monday Jan 16, 2012. I Samuel 15:16-23. Psalm 50:8-9.16-17.21.23. Mark 2:18-23
Fasting is rarely mentioned in the New Testament. For us Catholics it comes to mean something special to be added to prayer and self-giving in both financial ways or by paying attention to those in need and doing something about it. We learn that John the Baptist’s disciples fast and so do the more dedicated Pharisees during the time of Jesus. The disciples of Jesus are not fasting because he, the bridegroom is among them (perhaps, a messianic symbol). How can this be that his disciples then do not fast? Again it is that they are enjoying Jesus like a bride takes pleasure and love in her beloved groom. We know that the Pharisees did fast on specific days and that for us Wednesdays and Fridays are the days set aside for fasting. Judaism today emphasizes a very strict fast once a year on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur.
Jesus continues his argument on fasting by using two practical examples. It would be silly to put new cloth to repair an old cloak; it is foolish to put new wine into old wineskins—tearing and splitting would happen if we do. This is practical wisdom coming from the lips of Jesus and it makes sense. Jesus will be with his disciples for a short time—only one year is the way the Synoptic Gospels present his active ministry; John extends it to a possible three years. Why then should they fast when they are in the presence of Wisdom personified in the person of Jesus? Moreover, he tells them they will mourn and fast when the bridegroom is taken away. This is clearly a reference to Jesus’ suffering and death then they will fast. Fri. will hold a special place in the liturgical life during the season of Lent; on that day we will mourn and fast because of Jesus death on the Cross.
Jesus is present among them and us and the kingdom is here within their time and our time therefore we ordinarily do not make ourselves fast except when we want to strengthen our prayer or commemorate the sufferings of Jesus. The way to the kingdom of God is not opened to man made rules about fasting. God’s and Jesus’ rules are not to be confined to our own ways of looking at fasting which is not in itself a bad thing! There are enough sacrifices that are put upon the Christian way of living that we do not need to keep adding others—otherwise like the wineskins we are liable to break or weaken what strength we have to bring about the presence of Jesus to others.
Daniel J.Harrington has this succinct interpretation: “The real focus of the passage as it now stands is not so much religious practice as Jesus the Messianic bridegroom; his public ministry is a special time in which the old forms to which religious practice were not appropriate.” (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p.602). We may also learn from the Gospel of Matthew that “The assumption of the debate is that Jesus’ disciples did not fast during his public ministry, though Matthew 6:16-18 assumes that they did.” Amen.