Matthew 9:14–17 (ESV): A Question About Fasting
In the last passage, Jesus called Matthew to be a disciple, and then had a meal with some “tax collectors and sinners,” causing the Pharisees to question his actions. In this passage—which is, I believe, a continuation of the previous passage—some of John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus, asking about fasting. And their question is very simple: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (verse 14 (ESV)).
Jesus tells them that the wedding guests don’t mourn when the bridegroom is still with them—they mourn when the bridegroom is taken away. So, when the disciples’ bridegroom (Christ) is taken away, then they will fast.
And then Jesus says this:
“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (verses 16–17 (ESV))
A pastor at my church recently preached on this passage, and he theorized that it might very well have been the Pharisees who had sent John’s disciples to Jesus in this story; Jesus had kind of shut them down in the previous story, so they figured they’d send someone else to try and trip him up in a different way. The passage doesn’t say this, but it does make sense, and it does seem odd that John’s disciples would be uniting themselves with the Pharisees in this way.
One of the problems that John’s disciples (and the Pharisees) have is that they feel that they’re being pretty holy, by fasting like they do. “Look at us,” they seem to be saying to Jesus, “we’re holier than your disciples!” But they’ve missed the point: Fasting is related to mourning, and Jesus’ disciples have nothing to mourn about—he’s right there with them! When he’s gone they will mourn, but for the moment, they’ve got him right there with them—why would they mourn? (Incidentally, the metaphor of the bridegroom is more than just a metaphor, since the Church is the bride of Christ—he really is the bridegroom.)
The quoted part about putting a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, or putting new wine in old wineskins, might be confusing—especially for modern-day people who don’t use wineskins anymore. But here Jesus is talking about religion; in retrospect, we can look at the “old garment” or the “old wineskin” as Judaism, and the “new wineskin” as Christianity. (The metaphor didn’t extend to sewing unshrunk cloth onto a new garment.) The “unshrunk cloth” and the “new wine” would be new practices or teachings that Jesus is introducing. In essence, Jesus is saying you can’t be right with God by simply slapping a couple of new practices onto your old religion; take some aspects of Jesus’ teaching, add them to good ol’ Judaism, and you’re good! All patched up, and ready to meet God. It doesn’t work that way; Jesus is superseding the old religious practices with a new religion altogether. It’s all or nothing with Jesus: You’re a disciple of his, with all that that entails, or you’re not, and you’re in danger of hell.
This is tricky, because back in 5:17–20 Jesus had said that he didn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to “fulfill” them. Which is it? If Judaism is no longer applicable, then why isn’t Jesus abolishing it? You can see that previous post, for some thoughts on that, but the point here is this: The way you get into a right relationship with God is through His Son, Jesus Christ. That’s it. You can’t do it by following the law; the Pharisees of the Old Testament couldn’t do it through Judaism—not even if they added some of Jesus’ teachings to what they already believed—and you can’t do it today by going to church, or being baptized, or fasting, or anything else. You can only do it by getting right with Christ. He didn’t abolish the law, He fulfilled it—and only that righteousness, that you’re not able to accomplish, can save you.
The Pharisees would never have given up their religion, and their false righteousness. Even John the Baptist’s disciples didn’t want to give up their religion. But in order to be saved, they would have had to; they had to embrace Christ instead.