Dear Sisters and Brothers,
The end of the second chapter of Mark is about the behavior of Jesus and the disciples. Jesus defends the way his disciples are behaving by pointing out there can be reasons to suspend the normal rules of behavior. There is not only the law of God, but the Spirit behind it.
First a few words about fasting.
Fasting was a common spiritual discipline in the ancient world. In the time of Jesus’ ministry in Palestine, fasting was an old tradition in Europe and all parts of Asia. Since eating food is one of the essential parts of life and since hunger can be such an intense urge, fasting was seen as a good practice to develop self-control. Self-control is tied to many virtues (including bravery, patience, and forgiveness). In a world with limited food, fasting could also include the benefit of later eating the food that you had left uneaten before (and having a decent sized meal for a change). To save up enough food for a celebration, it was common for people to go on limited rations for days so as to save up enough food for the party.
Fasting is often part of the religious holidays of different religions. In Christianity, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are often observed with fasting. Jesus has this to say about fasting in Matthew 6:16-18 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
So, we get to today’s text: Mark 2:18-28
Now the disciples of John (the Baptist) and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast. No one sews a patch of un-shrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
Jesus has two related answers. First, how can you expect someone to fast when there is cause for them celebrate right now. He compares his time with the disciples as the guests of a groom at a wedding celebration. So, Jesus still supports fasting, but not while he and the disciples are together in this special time of his earthly ministry. The second explanation is related, both cloth and wineskins change over time. Washed cloth shrinks, so you better mend your clothes with preshrunk cloth. Wine skins were containers for wine made out of sewn together goatskin. New wine is still fermenting and produces carbon dioxide which stretches the wineskins, but old wineskins lose their elasticity and would burst from the pressure of fermenting wine. So, Jesus is saying that the disciples, like guests at a wedding party are too full of joy and life to be contained. The old expression “bursting with joy,” relates to this idea. And nobody wants a torn patch or spilled wine.
So, fasting is fine, but not when it is time to celebrate.
Sabbath laws can be found in the Ten Commandments and elsewhere in divine law. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy!” For the Jewish people (then and now), the Sabbath began at sunset on Friday and continued until Sunset on Saturday. This is done on the seventh day of the week in remembrance of the day of rest that God took after the six days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis.
There are many passages to limit the amount of work you can do on the Sabbath (especially for farmers), but it was expected to be a day of rest and time spent worshiping God. It was to be a day of rest where you should not move about or busy yourself too much; so, no meal preparation, no laundry, etc. It is another form of self-discipline. Christians moved the Sabbath to the first day of the week, Sunday, in honor of Jesus rising from the tomb on Easter Sunday. Many early Christians met in synagogues to celebrate both the seventh day of the week and the first.
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
Jesus answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Again, Jesus supports Sabbath practices, but says that there is ample cause and justification for what they are doing. The reason for their behavior is justified because they are doing good work, traveling to another village to spread the Gospel. In other places, Jesus says that it is right to do good for others any day of the week. The Pharisees and others had apparently added many laws of their own invention about the Sabbath, but Jesus ignores them. He says that the Sabbath was made for the benefit of humanity.
For the first time, Jesus identifies himself with a title. His first claim of authority over others is not that he is the messiah or the incarnation of God, but that he is “the Son of Man.” This is a term mentioned many times in the Old Testament and especially in the book of Ezekiel. It has varied meanings, but most of them are about a judge who will come in end-times to set the world right. “The Son of Man,” is called that because he is fully human while judging against people who behave like animals. In many passages of the Old Testament, other nations are characterized as being like various animals. To be human is to have self-control, compassion maturity, and wisdom. Animals are not evil, but a human being who behaves less than human is thought to be “beastly.”
So, Jesus identifies himself as the judge of humanity, but this is a judge who defends us and is willing to take our sentence upon himself.
A Question to Ponder: In our lifetimes, Sabbath days have become less and less different from other days in the week. What can you do to honor the Sabbath, rest, and dedicate some time for your spiritual health?