9 January 2016

Mark 2:18-22 (The question about fasting)

“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?’” (vv. 18-19)

Psalm: Psalm 6:1-9


The version of Mark's Gospel that we have today was put together after Jesus' death by the early Church at a time when questions were live about whether or not the new things that were happening amongst the followers of Jesus could be contained within the Jewish tradition. In verse 22 the concern is for the new and vital experience of the followers of Jesus? - how can that liberating experience be celebrated with integrity if it is forced into the old ways? In verse 21 the concern is more for the Jewish tradition - how can the faith community maintain its integrity unless the new converts conform to the basics of Jewish practice?

The setting of verse 20 seems to be in the period after Jesus' death once the "bridegroom" has been taken away. At such a time of mourning the mood would not be to feast but to fast. However, Mark is really setting up a contrast between those associated with the old traditions (the Pharisees and John the Baptist) and Jesus' disciples. The implication is that to be in Jesus' presence is to be in the time of fulfilment and celebration. In the next passage the point will be made again in relation to the Sabbath - not now a day for abstaining so much as the day of healing and restoration (Mark 2:27).

How the early Christians resolved the questions about whether or not Gentile (non-Jewish) converts to Christianity needed to adopt Jewish practices is detailed in the Acts of the Apostles (eg Acts 15). Still, difficult questions persist about how Christianity should engage the continuing Jewish tradition. Can God really have abandoned his promised loving faithfulness to the people of Israel? Does the Church replace the covenant between God and Israel? Does any view Christians take about these matters justify the kind of treatment Jews have experienced at the hands of Christians down the centuries?

What is clear from this passage is that the earliest Christians were concerned both for the older faith and for the newer one. Equally clear is that any vision of the fulfilment of God's kingdom captured here in the picture of Jesus the Jewish bridegroom with his guests has no place in it for anti-Semitism.

To Ponder

  • Christians have been responsible for serious crimes against Jewish communities down the ages. What might Christians learn from reading this passage in a mixed Jewish and Christian group?
  • Fasting gets a bad press in this passage but like the Pharisees who fasted twice a week, many Christians do fast. What might be the benefits of fasting?
  • The tensions between the integrity of new forms of religious practice and old ones are ever present in the Church. How might this passage inform the way we work with the old and the new?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jane Leach

Jane writes on ministry, pastoral supervision and pilgrimage..