Mark 2:18-22

Jesus continues to clash with the religious elite of his day.   In the last passage the Pharisees display their contempt at what Jesus and his disciples were doing – eating with tax collectors and “sinners.”  In this week’s passage the issue is not what Jesus is doing but what he is not doing.  He responds with 3 parables – the first addresses the surface issue and the last two get at the heart of the issue.  And the heart of the issue is this – if we are to come to Jesus we must do so on his terms not ours.

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?” Mark 2:18

The people come to Jesus with a question.  How is it that the Pharisees and John’s disciples fast but your disciples do not?  While Jesus will later teach that fasting should be done in secret (c.f. Matthew 6:16-18), apparently it is common knowledge that these groups were fasting.   It would seem that the people were struggling to make sense of who Jesus was.  Now, they know Jesus is religious.  And so they do here what so many people naturally do – they compare him to other other religious people they knew.  Notice that they don’t come to him and ask him: “Herod travels quite a bit.  Why don’t you travel?” or “Abner has sold a lot of furniture this year.  Why haven’t you made anything yet?”  It is obvious that the people do not think of Jesus primarily as a politician or a carpenter or a farmer or a solider.   They think of him as a religious person.  And so they want to know – why aren’t you doing the things we’ve seen the other religious people doing?

The “other” religious people are the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees. Both of these groups were well thought of  in their day. We already know that John was well received as people from all over Judea and Jerusalem went out into the wilderness to be baptized by him (c.f. Mark 1:5) . And while it is not a compliment to refer to someone as a Pharisee in our day, this was not always the case.  First-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that they were highly regarded in their own day “on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also (Antiquities of the Jews 18.1.3).”

These two groups were likely fasting for different reasons.  The disciples of John were perhaps fasting in connection with John’s message of repentance.  Some Bible commentators have even suggested they could also have been fasting because John had been arrested.  An understanding of name “Pharisee” provides insight into why they were fasting.  Pharisee means “separated ones.”  They desired to be set apart primarily through their strict adherence not only to the the law of God but to a myriad of man-made laws.  The Old Testament required fasting only one day a year (c.f. Leviticus 16:29) on the Day of Atonement but the Pharisees fasted Mondays and Thursdays (c.f. Luke 18:12).

And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.  Mark 2:19-20

Jesus responds with a parable.  The bridegroom here clearly represents Jesus and the wedding guests are his disciples.  In the Old Testament the bridegroom referred not to the coming Messiah but to God (c.f. Isaiah 5:1; 54:5-6; 62:4-5; Ezekiel 16:6-8; Hosea 2:19-20).  Here is another instance of Jesus connecting himself with divinity.

Instead of going on a honeymoon after their wedding, couples in Jesus’ day had a week-long party.  This was a time of joy and celebration.  It wouldn’t be appropriate for the wedding guests to fast during the wedding party.   Jesus is saying that since he is with his disciples, this is not a time for fasting.  He does not discount the practice of fasting altogether as he says there will be a day coming when they will fast.  Typically it is the wedding guests who leave the bridegroom (at the end of the party) but Jesus says the bridegroom will be taken away and on that day they will fast.

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.    Mark 2:21-22

Jesus continues in his response with two more parables.  The first calls to mind the once familiar practice of patching clothing.  Jesus is the new patch and  he says he cannot be sewn into an old garment.  If you were to try to put a new patch on an old garment, it would not appear to be an issue at first but soon the new patch will shrink which will tear the old garment making it worse than before.

The second parable needs a little more explanation.  Wine, rather than being stored in bottles as it is in our day, was commonly stored in the skin of an animal.  New animal skins were necessary for new wine because as it fermented the wine expanded.   As with patching an old garment, pouring new wine into old wineskins initially does not present a problem.  The issue, of course, comes when the old wineskins can no longer contain the expanding wine and then bursts.

With these two parables Jesus is showing that he needs to be received on his own terms.  The religious practices of the Pharisees and Jesus will not mix.  And if you don’t come to Jesus on his own terms, not only will you not get Jesus (the wine is destroyed) but you will be worse than before (the wineskins are ruined).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the people asked Jesus this question about fasting?
  2. What religious practices like fasting could become a source of self-righteousness for us?
  3. Jesus responds to their question with 3 parables.  Summarize the first parable (v.19-20).  Who does the bridegroom represent?  Who are the wedding guests?  Why is fasting not appropriate while the bridegroom is present?  What do we learn about Jesus’ attitude toward fasting?  What do we learn about Jesus?
  4. Discuss the second parable (v.21).  What is wrong with using new cloth to patch an old garment?  Who or what does the new cloth represent?  What does the old cloth represent?  What point is Jesus making with this parable?
  5. Discuss the third parable (v.22).  What does each item represent in this parable?  What point is Jesus making with this parable?
  6. Why do you think it is difficult to give up our old garments or old wineskins?
  7. Rather than coming to Jesus on his terms, sometimes we come to Jesus on our own terms.  Can you think of some ways people come to Jesus but with old wineskins or with old garments?  Why is it important we receive Jesus on his terms and not ours?


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