In the last essay we studied Luke 5:17-32, which included accounts of the healing of a paralytic (vv. 17-26) and the call of Levi (vv. 27-32). In this essay, we are going to study 5:33-39. Let me begin by saying a bit about fasting in general. Fasting is primarily the act of willingly abstaining from something for a period of time. Usually one fasts from some or all food, drink, or both, though other things could be involved, such as TV watching, etc. The apostle Paul indicates in 1 Cor. 7:5 that a married couple can choose to abstain from sex for an agreed upon period of time in order to devote themselves to prayer during that time. In any case, a fast may be total or partial. For example, one could abstain from all food and drink for a stated period of time. That would be a total fast. Or one could abstain only from meat, or from all solid foods. That would be a partial fast.
The parallels to Luke 5:33 in Matthew and Mark place John the Baptist’s disciples on the scene participating in the questioning with the Pharisees (Mt. 9:14; Mk. 2:19). John’s disciples and many other Jews followed the Pharisees’ example and fasted twice a week, specifically on Mondays and Thursdays.
Jesus himself fasted during his days of temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4:2), and he assumed that his disciples would fast. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his disciples, quote, “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (Mt. 6:16). Jesus went on to say that if they did that, the approval of those other people would be their only reward. Instead he wanted his disciples to fast in secret so God could reward them (Mt. 6:17-18). Notice that Jesus did not say, “If you fast.” He said, “Whenever you fast.” So he definitely assumed that his disciples would voluntarily fast.
Although Jesus assumed his disciples would fast, there is no evidence in the New Testament that the earliest church fasted on a regular pattern like the twice-weekly fasts of the Pharisees. However that does not prove that they had no such practice. The New Testament authors may not have thought it necessary to comment on it. Later on, the Church definitely established a similar pattern. They practiced the twice weekly fast, but on different days of the week.
We do see the earliest church fasting in the New Testament in conjunction with special times of prayer. For example, the leadership of the church at Antioch, prayed and fasted before sending Paul and Barnabas off on Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13:2-3). And during that journey, when Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the newly established churches, they did so with prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23).
Now then, coming back to Luke 5:33, the Pharisees, having complained about Jesus’ eating with sinners in connection with Levi, now enter a new complaint. They wanted to know why Jesus’ disciples were not fasting like them and John’s disciples. The implication was that Jesus’ disciples ought to be fasting like them. We see Jesus’ response in verses 34-35.
Jesus chose to answer the question by using a wedding analogy. He compares his time of ministry on the earth to a wedding feast. “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?” he asked. The assumed answer is, “No.” It would be a rare personal decision for someone to fast at a wedding. A wedding is a time of celebration and joyous feasting. And in the analogy, Jesus likens himself to a bridegroom. As long as the bridegroom is present at a wedding, the feast is still on; and the guests are expected to keep celebrating. Fasting is not really appropriate.
However, Jesus continued, “The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” It is hard to say how clearly the people listening to Jesus that day understood what he meant by this statement. But those of us in the later Church understand that Jesus was referring to his coming violent death, when the authorities would take his life and thus take him away from his followers. We now understand that Jesus was referring to the period of deep mourning between his death, when he was taken away, and his resurrection, when he became present with them once more. Some in the Church have interpreted the statement as a justification for the continued practice of fasting by the Church, especially during lent. I personally doubt that Jesus had that in mind, but I have no problem with that as a secondary interpretation.
Next Jesus told them two parables. The first is found in verse 36. As you see, Jesus points out the absurdity of cutting a piece of cloth from a new garment to patch an old garment. Cutting the new garment obviously ruins it, and the old isn’t really improved, because the materials do not match.
The parallel passages in Mark and Matthew have a different version of the parable. Matthew 9:16 says, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made.” In this version only the old garment is at issue. And it is further ruined, rather than repaired, because the tear becomes larger. The lesson in the two versions is similar; but as we shall see, the saying preserved by Luke is closer to the next parable in verses 37-39 than the one preserved by Matthew and Mark. So before discussing the meaning, let’s move to the next parable.
In Jesus’ day, water, wine, oil, honey, and milk all were stored in leather bottles. The reason no one would put new or fresh wine, which was still fermenting, into old wineskins is because the fermentation process produced gas, which would stretch the old skins to the bursting point. Then both the wine and the wineskins would be lost. So they always put new wine into new wineskins that would stretch without breaking. Jesus’ point was that new wine and old wineskins were incompatible. If they were combined, both would be destroyed.
Now then, turning to Jesus’ meaning, the first thing we must remember is that the context of the parables is the religious practices of the Pharisees in contrast to those of Jesus’ disciples. The Pharisees fasted, but Jesus’ disciples did not. So the parables relate to that contrast. On the one hand, Jesus was speaking about the “old garment’ or “old wineskin” of Judaism, and on the other hand, the “new garment” or “new wine” of his teachings. Thus Jesus anticipated the incompatibility of Judaism and Christianity, and the eventual split between them, that we see occurring in the Book of Acts.
In verse 39 Jesus commented on those who were content with the old. He seems to have been sympathetic. New wine has a sharp, pungent flavor in comparison with old wine that has been softened and sweetened by time. And that is why the old wine is preferred. The Pharisees preferred their legalistic Judaism. They were comfortable with it, and it “tasted” much better to them than the “new wine” of Jesus’ teachings.
Turning to application, the main point for me is the fact that we must not become too comfortable with our traditions, because God has a marvelous way of doing unusual things. When God moves in power, he usually manifests himself in ways that are outside of our comfort zones. I can think of a couple of examples from our recent history in this country. One example from the sixties and seventies was the charismatic movement, which included in many instances, speaking in tongues. Many people and churches had great difficulty with that, because it was “new wine” to them. A more recent example was the contemporary worship movement that swept through the churches in the nineties. Again many resisted hat “new wine,” because the “old wine” was more comfortable.
The history of the Church is replete with examples of God’s moving in power (“new wine”), and resistance by churches that do not want to change. Therefore, we must be open to God’s “new wine” whenever it is poured out, even if it is difficult for us to do.