A Question about Fasting – Br. David Vryhof

Matthew 9:14-17

“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (v.14)

Fasting was a commonly accepted spiritual practice among the Jews and had been for centuries.  It was recognized as an effective way to express sorrow for sin and a means, hopefully, to avoid God’s judgment.  John the Baptist and his followers and the Pharisees regularly practiced it, not only for their own sakes, but vicariously for the nation.

Jesus stands in contrast to them.  “The Son of Man came eating and drinking,” the Gospel writer tells us (Mt 11:19). Jesus and his disciples do not fast – which naturally raises the curiosity and suspicion of those who do.  Jesus’ nonparticipation in this particular spiritual practice points to its theological weakness.  Fasting, as it is often understood and practiced, emphasizes not what God is doing, but what humans must do in order to humor God into behaving favorably.  Jesus claims this is unnecessary because God is present and active now; the Good News of God’s reign is here!  “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (v.15a) The “bridegroom” is Jesus himself: through his ministry of healing and reconciliation, as well as through his association with outcasts and sinners, Jesus is proclaiming the arrival of God’s rule. God is not distant and threatening, but present and active, here and now, bringing forth new life!  And that is cause for celebration!

Something new is here.  “In Christ there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (II Cor 5:17)  The images of unshrunk cloth being sewn on a cloak or of new wine being put into old wineskins, underscore the incompatibility of the old and the new.  There will still be times of pain and sadness – Jesus knows his path is leading him towards greater and greater opposition and that it will likely end with his death.  “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from you,” he acknowledges (v.15b).  But that does not prevent Jesus’ followers from celebrating what God is doing among them now.

The contrast puts before us a question: Where have we been directing our attention? Have we been too preoccupied with the evils of the world and with humanity’s failures?  Do we live in a constant state of fear, wringing our hands with worry?  Have we missed seeing the things God is doing now in our lives and in our world?  Rather than bemoaning the tragic consequences of our fallen human state, Jesus invites us to live with joy, constantly alert for signs of God’s grace around and within us.  God is present and at work!  Grace and salvation are here, and are available to us in abundance.  There IS cause for authentic celebration!

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