Mark 2:18-28 (AD 28)
“although regular weekly fasting was not part of the law of Moses, by the first century such fasting had become an important part of the practice of Judaism…To the orthodox Jew this one minor point of fasting raised the whole question of the attitude of Jesus to the whole ceremonial law.” (‘Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Mark’)
Jesus demolished their argument by pointing out that as fasting was more of a response to, for example, threat, tragedy, grief or sorrow for sin. It would therefore have been almost strange for the disciples to be doing it while Jesus was with them.
Jesus then pointed out that they were trying to fit old customs into a new situation and all you achieve by that is breaking the customs. The analogy of wineskins referred to the fact that those leather items, when new, expanded as the wine fermented. But if you put not-yet-fermented wine into old (and therefore fully stretched) wineskins, the wineskins would burst.
Notice that John the Baptist, that radical preacher who publicly eviscerated the religious leadership, was a very traditional Jewish guy, keeping the old customs. (In Matthew’s account, John’s disciples were some of those asking the question to Jesus about fasting.) This helps us to see that Jesus wasn’t being rebellious or wilfully ignoring harmless or even useful tradition – he was introducing the fulfilment of the law and the end of old covenant ritual. And many people didn’t like it.
Later, Paul the apostle would push back at traditions when they were oppressive or anti-God, but otherwise accommodated them. In the case of fasting we don’t see Jesus proactively preaching against it – merely that he didn’t practice it with his disciples because it wasn’t necessary. (This doesn’t negate the value of fasting and Paul pretty much assumes that we do it, but it does mean you shouldn’t be legalistic about it as the Pharisees were, telling people when or how much they should be doing it.)
Then the Pharisees accused Jesus of gross misconduct for disobeying one of the rules they made up, but which they came to regard as being essential to what it meant to be a good Jew. Picking grain – in their rulebook – was ‘work’.
Although the Pharisees were not merely mistaken but God-hatingly rebellious, their rebellion LOOKED, to a lot of people (and certainly themselves), like an intense devotion to God. So it also looked to Saul of Tarsus, so it looked to Martin Luther 1500 years later, and so it may look to even a small part of our brains when we try to persuade ourselves – or God – that by ticking certain boxes of behaviour (‘do this’, ‘don’t do that’), that maybe God will be satisfied.
It’s a reminder not to do anything by instinct but with prayer and asking God for wisdom. We don’t decide – for example – what’s OK to do on Sundays by how much we want to do something, or how convenient it feels. We as Christians make decisions based on the answer to the question, ‘How can I glorify God with this decision?’. And part of that should be to think and pray about whether the fourth of the Ten Commandments is the only one that is completely redundant, or simply one that is nuanced in its application just as in many ways the first and the fifth are also nuanced.
This path of wisdom, which is not always an easy black-and-white, is an essential if tiring part of the Christian life. We want ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in our guidance, but God doesn’t always give us that. Instead, he invites us to do what we think will most show our love for Him. And as we walk that path of making decisions on the basis of how we can please him, our joy in him will inevitably grow.