It starts off with “They said to him…” Who’s “they”? Those doggone Pharisees again. Don’t they ever quit? As I said, they’re sort of like the pastors of their day, but these guys are bad eggs. They are so holier-than-thou and rippin’ critical that nothing’s ever worthy of their belief system.
“John and his disciples fast.” Here’s my take on fasting: Fasting doesn’t win you any points with God or get your prayers answered any differently. Fasting is a way for you to set your heart on something and to devote your prayer time to it. Fasting is for you, not for Him.
But fasting had become yet another religious show. When will people ever learn that God isn’t interested in religion or religious expression, but in devotion? People think the former is the latter, and they are sorely mistaken. It’s like your husband putting flowers on the table for you every morning, but never talking to you or giving you the time of day. After a while you would come to resent the flowers as a sham show, which is exactly what God says in Isaiah 1.11-15.
Back to the Pharisees. I think they had honest questions about being religious and showing one’s religious devotion. In a world where closeness to God was proven by one’s actions and works, fasting and praying were significant signs of one’s religiousness. So they were confused by the lack of such deliberate religious activity in Jesus’ camp. In another sense, it was just another occasion to find fault with what Jesus did and taught. He didn’t measure up to their standards of religious observance. We have seen before that they were often just making trouble for Jesus, and this might be no exception.
“Jesus answered, ‘Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?”
Jesus’ answer shows what I was saying before. Fasting isn’t for points with God, and it doesn’t win you any particular favor with him. Fasting is a way for you to set your heart on something, and to devote your prayer time to it. In other words, it’s unnecessary when the object of your devotion is standing in front of you. Fasting doesn’t show your love; it’s just a mechanism to help you focus.
A possible analogy is this: texting is for keeping in touch with someone when you can’t talk to them, but it’s stupid and unnecessary if the person is standing in front of you. Duh. Then there’s no need to text, you can just say what you want to say. “The time will come,” he says, “when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.” Yep.
Then he told them the parable of the wine and wineskins. Here’s the point: At its core, religious observance (the sacrifices, incense, the Sabbath, etc.) are ways to symbolize and represent our love for God. But if God were standing right next to us, it would be stupid to look him in the eye, not say a word, but light some incense and think we’ve shown our love. Why would we settle for ritual when we could engage him with our hearts, words of love, acts of service, and behaviors commensurate with our love for him?
Back to Isa. 1.13: Rituals are meaningless when they miss the meaning behind the ritual—the significance that makes it worth repeating. And if the significance of it was to connect with God, the ritual would be unnecessary if you could connect with God by looking him in the eye, talking to him, and bowing on your face and kissing his feet.
Jesus was saying that since he was standing right there, the rituals could be set aside temporarily, because the relationship is different. It would be foolish to resort to methods (like texting) when you could just say, “My Lord and my God,” and fall on your face (like conversation).
“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins.” When relationship is possible, ritual is just old news. Relationship can hold some elements of ritual, but when you have the real thing right in front of you, ritual is foolish. “And if he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.” Relationship is too strong for ritual. It will blow it out, like floodwaters over an old dam.
“No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.” An honest relationship with God has to be shown with honest relational models of communication, relating, and worship. Reverting to ritual after you’ve had a relationship is nonsense. If a soldier wrote letters from Europe to his fiancé in America during the war, it would be senseless for him to continue writing letters to her after he returned and they were married and living in the same house. No, he has to live out a different relational model. Jesus is setting the stage for eventually presenting that new relational model that is not based in religious observance and ritualistic repetition.
“And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’ ” What soldier, after sharing a bed with the warm body of his loving wife, and enjoying meals together, dates on the town, visiting with friends as a couple, and working together on their home, would say, “I liked it better sitting in a mud puddle in France, writing letters to you and looking at your picture on the wall of my tent”?
It’s a problem in so many churches, not because the model is flawed but because the people fall prey to ritual and rhythm rather than pursuing the relationship. A relationship with God can be so difficult, because he’s just not around to relate to in a normal way. But falling into ritualism is just the lazy man’s cop-out. Instead of doing the hard relational work of finding God, meditating on his person and his word, and making sense out of if all, they devote themselves to ritual and think that (1) that’s good enough, and (2) they’re showing their devotion. It’s nauseating to God (Isa. 1), as it would be to all of us if it took the place of honest love.