Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 06/27/1994
Luke 5:33 And they said to him "The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers; the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same; but yours eat and drink." 34 And Jesus said to them, "You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? 35 But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them; then they will fast in those days." 36 And he was also telling them a parable: "No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. Otherwise, he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine in old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one, after drinking old wine, wishes for new; for he says, 'The old is good enough.'"
In our last couple of looks at Luke's Gospel, we saw that the religious leaders of Jesus' day did not approve of his claim to be able to forgive sins. Neither did they approve of his associates, for he ate with tax collectors and sinners. Today we discover that they did not approve of his style of piety either. It seems that he and his disciples did not fast enough to suit them. To understand what they disapproved of--and what God approves--we need to examine carefully:
To understand what fasting meant to the Pharisees, we need to understand their place in the development of the Jewish religion. Originally in the Old Testament, fasting was only required on the Day of Atonement. It was included in the "humbling" and "afflicting" of oneself that is mentioned in Lev.16:29. Though it was required only on that one day, it could be undertaken voluntarily as an expression of mourning (2 Sam. 1:12) or of repentance (1 Kings 21:27). This continued until the time of the Babylonian Captivity.
During the Babylonian Captivity is when the seeds of what would become Pharisaism were planted. During this period, of course, there was no Temple, and hence no sacrifices. Because of its already established associations as an expression of repentance, fasting gradually became accepted as a substitute for the no longer available blood sacrifices as something that could remove sin and gain God's favor. Like repentance, it came to be falsely understood as an act meritorious in itself. By the First Century, the Pharisees, as a sign of their righteousness, were fasting regularly twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, and doing it very ostentatiously (see Mat. 6:16-18). The spin they put on this practice was that anyone who did not do this obviously did not love God or care about true religion. Where there is no fasting, they assumed, there must be no devotion.
In terms of our immediate scene here in Luke 5, it is apparent that John's disciples had continued the Pharisaic practice, though doubtless he had taught them not to view fasting as meritorious. We can hope that for them it was what it had originally been intended to be, part of being "poor in spirit." Nevertheless, their custom allowed Jesus' opponents to portray them unfairly as being on their side. I have a sneaking suspicion that Levi had the audacity to throw his notorious reception for Jesus and the other tax collectors and sinners on a Monday or a Thursday. If Jesus and his disciples were thus partying with sinners while every one else with a reputation for piety was fasting, it would certainly explain why the question comes up right after the one we looked at last week about Jesus eating with sinners. Oh, my! The scandal! The scandal! On the count of three, let us all ceremonially (and sanctimoniously) rend our garments! (Some Pharisees actually wore a pre-torn place in their robes loosely stitched together so they could perform that ritual easily whenever the occasion presented itself).
What Jesus' opponents were really saying then in their question was, "How can you people possibly claim to be good Jews, devoted to the Law, and serious about righteousness?" The meaning of their complaint was, "You are not religious!" For them, the Law and the Traditions they had placed as a hedge around the Law were indistinguishable. Therefore this was the first appearance of a common theme in their attacks which would continue into the period of the early church: "You are really undermining Moses, you are against the Law!" (Compare Acts 6:11, 21:21).
Jesus had a broad and well-rounded response to this attack, which had three elements. One was to insist on the distinction between the Law of God and the Traditions of men (Mat. 15:1-9). A second was to distinguish between destroying the Law and fulfilling it (Mat. 5:17). The third element, the one which is developed here, is to argue that the change in God's economy that comes with the arrival of the Messiah (the "bridegroom" in Jesus' analogy here), the change that comes with the transition from Promise to Fulfillment, brings with it and demands a change in the outward forms of religious expression. The old wineskins won't hold this new wine, the new cloth won't fit in the old garment, and it's no time to be fasting when the Bridegroom is here. And that leads us to the next point:
Jesus' reply had a point. The Old Testament and the Jewish piety that developed from it had a purpose: to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Now that he is here, all of that is passing away. The feast has begun! Verse 35 is often misunderstood as mandating fasting for Christians today. It merely predicts that until the Marriage Supper--between the Cross (the "taking away") and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb--Christians are going to have occasions for fasting that parallel the original Old Testament spirit of fasting for sorrow or repentance. But still they live in anticipation of the Feast, for the Bridegroom is present in their lives through his personal agent and representative, the Holy Spirit. For us today, then, fasting is a good spiritual discipline if practiced in the right spirit, because we do not yet see the Bridegroom face to face at the altar; but it is not something commanded or required. We must not miss the fact that the burden of this whole passage is that the central emotion of Christian experience is Joy. In the long run, the Feast is a more accurate expression of our faith than the Fast, though there is a time and place for fasting while we wait for the Bridegroom. When we do fast, we should wash our faces and anoint our heads and be so cheerful that no one notices. We must not forget that, while our Lord was (falsely) accused of being a glutton and a drunk, no one ever thought to accuse him of being too ascetic. So the outward forms of religion that we adopt should be ones in which Joy is the dominant note, as if we worshipped one who came to give life and give it more abundantly, whose Apostle Paul commanded us to rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice, whose beloved Disciple John wanted our Joy to be made full. We are sinners who have been forgiven, orphans who have been adopted, lost men and women who have been given meaning, purpose, and identity. Rejoice! Celebrate! Find a Pharisee to scandalize! That is to be a true disciple of Jesus.
The change in God's economy that comes with the arrival of the Messiah, the change that comes with the transition from Promise to Fulfillment, brings with it and demands a change in the outward forms of religious expression. The old wineskins won't hold this new wine, the new cloth won't fit in the old garment. Why not? Because the radical nature of Christian Joy will burst those old wineskins right down the middle. The radical nature of Christian Joy cannot be tacked on to business as usual like a new patch on old cloth. It must itself become the cloth out of which our lives are made. It must become the center of life, and other things have to be fit in to it.
What are these new wineskins? They are not spelled out in this passage. And the New Testament in general does not spell them out in terms of a new set of "pious" religious practices but in terms of qualities of life. Think of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace. When we meet for public worship, of course there will be Word and Sacrament, Prayer and Exhortation and the singing of hymns. In the end, it all needs to reflect and communicate the joy of the Lord. When we have our private devotions there will of course be Bible study and prayer. We will wrestle with our problems and grieve for the hurting (including ourselves) and let the Lord deal with everything that is going on in our lives. But because the Lord is near when we do these things, the joy of the Lord should never be far from the surface in all of it. We live in anticipation of the biggest Party ever thrown. Let the celebration begin!
We will not stop the celebration as long as we have the Bridegroom. And, having died for sin once, he dies no more. He will never be taken from us again. And he is coming! He is coming to be with us, not mediately through the Holy Spirit, but directly, immediately. We shall see him face to face! Then we will have the main course. But the feast of which that main course is a part has already begun. Already we are nibbling on the appetizers; already the guests have begun to gather as the Gospel draws them to Christ. That is what worship is. And so our worship today is a part of that grand celebration. Let us proceed in that spirit as we share the appetizer known as "The Lord's Supper" together.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 11/7/2004 2:13 PM