8 October 2013

Matthew 9:14-26

“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.’” (vv. 14-15)


One of the questions at the heart of this section of Matthew's Gospel is, 'What does it mean to be holy?'

For the Pharisees in yesterday's passage, it was incomprehensible that someone who is good and of God should eat with tax collectors. Today it is the disciples of John the Baptist who cannot understand that being good and of God are not the same as keeping the purity laws of the Jewish Scriptures. They are worried that the disciples of Jesus do not fast at the right times (verse 14). But there are more shocking revelations to come: Jesus first allows himself to be touched by a woman who is bleeding (verses 20-22) and then he reaches out to touch a corpse (verse 25). Both of these acts would have made him ritually unclean.

 It is not that Jesus was opposed to fasting or wanted to rubbish the Jewish Law (Matthew 5:18). Jesus was well aware that there are times for fasting as well as celebration and he warned his disciples that when the bridegroom (a reference to himself) is taken from them they will fast and mourn (verse 15). But, just as it is not time yet for the flute players to play the funeral dirge for the little girl (verse 23), so it is not time yet for the disciples of Jesus to mourn. Rather, now is the time to celebrate good news because the kingdom of God is breaking through in their midst.

This good news is enacted here. In the person of Jesus, the loving kindness of God cannot be contained by ideas about holiness that keep women at bay, nor by patterns of religious observance that ignore the need of the moment, nor by physical sickness, nor even by death.

The metaphors of the patch on the old cloak and the new wine put into new wineskins sum it up: the old ways of thinking and behaving cannot contain this outpouring of God's kingdom. Holiness cannot be separate from the wholeness of individuals and communities. Such wholeness is in fact the purpose and fulfilment of the Jewish Law.

To Ponder

  • Where do you see God's kingdom breaking through gender injustice and sickness and death?
  • In your experience, to what extent does the desire to be holy keep Christians away from meeting the most excluded members of society, or propel them towards seeking them out?
  • What do you think is the connection between holiness and wholeness?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jane Leach

Jane writes on ministry, pastoral supervision and pilgrimage..