“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. People came and asked Him, “Why do John’s disciples and the Pharisees’ disciples fast, but Your disciples do not fast? ” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the groom is with them, can they? As long as they have the groom with them, they cannot fast. But the time will come when the groom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new patch pulls away from the old cloth, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost as well as the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins. On the Sabbath He was going through the grainfields, and His disciples began to make their way picking some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath? ” He said to them, “Have you never read what David and those who were with him did when he was in need and hungry — how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest and ate the sacred bread — which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests — and also gave some to his companions? ” Then He told them, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:18-28 HCSB)
Why you do things matters. Ok, confession time. I enjoy reading, watching and listening to true crime documentaries and podcasts. I also enjoy reading murder mysteries, primarily by Agatha Christie. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with my interest in and fascination with why men and women do the things they do. One of the things that is essential in any crime investigation is finding the motive for the crime. Understanding why someone did something is not only essential to the investigation, it is also vital during the prosecution process. The investigators are able to investigate better when they know the motive and the prosecutor is more likely to be successful in prosecuting the case when the motive is clearly presented to the jury with the relevant evidence.
Simply put, the reasons we do things matter. They matter to us, they matter to others and they really matter to God. Yes, our reasons for doing things really matter to God. While God is a giver of rules, regulations and laws He cares deeply about us and that involves the motivations for our actions, reactions and interactions with Him and with others. In our focal passage, we come face to face with this issue and how it relates to religious regulations and worship expectations. Let’s take a look…
Fasting is one of those religious regulations that has not translated well from historic Judaism to modern day Christianity. The Old Testament only specifies one required day of fasting, the Day of Atonement (see Lev. 23:26-32). In fact, that day was to be commemorated with a day of complete self-denial (refraining from eating, sexual activity, and personal grooming) and Sabbath observance (refrain from all labor/work). However, the Pharisees had developed additional days of fasting and Sabbath regulations that were considered, by them, to be as binding as the Mosaic laws.
To be honest, I’ve often wondered why these practices didn’t translate well into our modern religious observances but that all seems to come into sharp focus when you consider that fasting was intended to be much more than just refraining from eating for a brief period of time. As mentioned above, the idea of fasting on the Day of Atonement was to be a day of complete self-denial, cessation of labor and Sabbath observance. It was to be a day filled with denying self while seeking fellowship with God. For those of you reading these words, I would encourage you to take a few moments and go read Isaiah 58.
In that passage, God confronts the hypocrisy of Israel as they accuse God of ignoring them in the midst of their fasting. God says, “Tell My people their transgression and the house of Jacob their sins. They seek Me day after day and delight to know My ways, like a nation that does what is right and does not abandon the justice of their God. They ask Me for righteous judgments; they delight in the nearness of God.” Then the people cry out, “We have fasted, but you have not seen? We have denied ourselves, but you haven’t noticed! (Is. 58:1-3) Wait, did you catch that? They do these things (fasting and worship) like a nation that does what is right and does not abandon the justice of their God. God accuses them, “Look, you do as YOU please on the day of your fast, and oppress all your workers.”
So their stated motivation didn’t match their actions. They claimed to desire God’s righteous judgment and to fast as a means of drawing near to God even as they oppressed their workers, fighting with them and striking them with their fists. God responds, “You call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord? Isn’t the fast I choose: to break the chains of wickedness… to set the oppressed free… to share your bread with the hungry… bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked… and not to ignore your own flesh and blood?” (Is. 58:6-7) Let those words settle into your soul and penetrate your heart. Let them echo in your ears and act as motivation for seeking God, desiring His righteous judgment and drawing near to Him.
By now, you may be asking what happened to the focal passage? I thought we were studying in Mark 2? To understand Jesus’ attitude towards fasting and His response to those who questioned Him, we needed to get that background view of fasting. Fasting is not just about refraining from eating, it is an act of worship, drawing near to God that results in obedience. The fasting practiced by John the Baptist and his disciples was focused on repentance and seeking the kingdom of God in men’s lives. The fasting practiced by the Pharisees appears to be similar. If you read the Isaiah 58 passage, you may have noticed the emphasis placed on wearing sackcloth and ashes as the people fasted. This placed emphasis on the act of mourning, mourning over one’s sin and the intent to repent and seek God’s forgiveness and cleansing.
This seems to be the focus of Jesus’ response to those who questioned why His disciples didn’t fast. He says, “the wedding guests cannot fast while the groom is with them, can they?” To fast is to focus on something or someone intensely or in preparation or anticipation of its arrival. So, Jesus uses this marriage analogy (some call it a parable) as a means of explaining the actions of His disciples. The groom is with them so there is no need to mourn or focus, no need to prepare for His arrival or anticipate His coming. No need, because He is in their midst.
Did you get that? The Pharisees and their disciples are fasting and claiming to desire the presence of God in their midst. Now, God has shown up and they are rejecting His authority and refusing to submit to Him. The long awaited Messiah has come and they continue to falsely claim that they desire and seek His arrival. Still not getting it? Watch what Jesus does, next.
Jesus uses two additional analogies to further illustrate and stress His point. At first glance, these analogies are a bit difficult for us to grasp. Perhaps that’s partly due to their colloquial origin and use. Most of us have very little knowledge of patching garments or of storing wine in wineskins. Since they are two ways of saying the same thing, I’ll address them together. The central idea seems to be that something new can have devastating effects on something old. A new patch on an old garment can cause the tear in the old garment to become worse when the new patch shrinks and pulls away and new wine placed in old skins will cause the old, stiff skins to burst as the wine ferments and matures.
Ok, so what’s His point? What does patching a garment and storing new wine have to do with anything? Jesus is saying that the new is not compatible with the old. If you try and mix the two then the old garment will rip apart or the skins will burst wide open. God is doing something new and bold through Jesus and it is at odds with their old ways of understanding God, their view of His law, His redemptive process and His work among men.
Don’t misunderstand me, I believe this was God’s purpose and plan all along but the Jewish religious authorities have satisfied themselves with a substitute. They claimed to be seeking God, to be fasting in an effort to repent and let His power work in them even as they mocked God’s true purpose of “breaking the chains of wickedness, of setting the oppressed free, of sharing bread with the hungry, of clothing the naked and inviting the homeless into their homes. If you try and patch what God is doing through Jesus onto the old ways – the old garment, it will tear it worse than it is now torn. If you try and pour this new wine of God’s redemptive work into old skins, they’ll burst as it begins to mature and develop. Think I’m kidding? Watch what happens next.
Mark tells us that Jesus and His disciples were walking through some grain fields on a Sabbath. As they did, the disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some of the grain. While we aren’t sure why these Pharisees happened to be standing near enough to observe the disciples’ actions, they challenge Jesus on it. Jesus responds by reminding them of the story of David in 1 Samuel 21. David and his “mighty men” are hiding from Saul and are hungry. David goes to the priest, Ahimilech, and requests bread for him and his men. Ahimilech grants the request, with one condition: the men must have been keeping themselves from women and consecrated to God. David assures him that they have kept themselves consecrated to God and the bread is given to satisfy their hunger.
Jesus then makes a statement that must have blown their minds: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Wow! The very Messiah that these “pious” religious leaders claimed to seek has now come and is showing them how their human rules and regulations regarding the Sabbath observance are not honoring God but are ignoring Him and His intentions for the Sabbath worship. God wanted their observance of the Sabbath to draw them close enough to Him so that they could feel His love for them and their fellow man, instead they’d used it to develop rules and regulations that did the exact opposite. Their Sabbath regulations hadn’t drawn them closer to the heart of God but had driven them further away. Their rituals hadn’t resulted in righteousness but had resulted in rituals that despised the mercy of God and ignored the needs of men.
Let me ask you, is your worship drawing you near enough to God to feel His heartbeat, to sense His Spirit, to gasp in awe at His mercy and love for mankind? Or has it blinded you to these things? He told us in Isaiah 58 that our fasting is false if all it does is make us “look” religious while those around us go hungry, shiver in the cold, or wander homeless. I started out suggesting that we don’t really grasp the concept of fasting because we don’t really grasp the concept of self-denial in an effort to find God.
In other words, we are “so full of ourselves” we have no room for God and no desire to truly find Him. We tend to see religious observance as a “means to an end”. We’re not really looking for God, we’re looking for what we can GET out of Him. For some, they get position, prestige and power. For others, they get material blessings and the avoidance of eternal punishment in Hell. There are many and varied reasons to falsely worship, to venerate a day or to create and follow a religious ritual or rule and most of them have little to do with truly finding God and being transformed by His presence.
That’s what Jesus was condemning in this passage and if we’ve done the same thing, then we stand condemned by Him, too. If we’ve elevated some religious rule or ritual above the heartbeat of God – which is His love for mankind – then we need to hear the stinging rebuke of Jesus’ condemnation for these Pharisees: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” God has not called us to gather in worship today just to perform our rituals. No! He has called us to gather in worship so that we can hear His heartbeat, sense His Spirit, know His presence and be transformed by His mercy. His transforming presence would then drive us to turn and feed our hungry brother, clothe the naked child, comfort the grieving widow, and seek justice for our oppressed neighbor.
Is our worship just ritual or is it real?