Then the disciples of John approached him and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast [much], but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them
“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
As I said, I’ve always had difficulty understanding this particular passage. I’ve heard various explanations, but none of them seemed to add-up. Most interpretations take the first parable (the bridegroom) at face-value while they interpret the second two to mean that the Old Covenant should not be mixed with the New Covenant, and should be thrown out.
There are a few reasons I can’t fully buy in to this popular theory:
1. The popular interpretation of the second two parables doesn’t seem to reiterate or build off the first, nor does it directly answer the question posed.
2. Jesus was speaking to the disciples of John (or in Mark & Luke’s versions, generic “people”), not the Pharisees. Their main concern was not strict fidelity to the Law, but rather they were eager for the coming Messianic age. The disciples of John, in particular, would have been earnestly interested in learning Jesus’s teaching (and perhaps a little bit slighted that he didn’t choose any of them as disciples?)
3. I don’t think the natural, surface-level response to not having a proper patch for an old garment would have been to throw it away.
4. In Luke’s version of the parable, he adds, “And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (Luke 5:39). This doesn’t seem to jive with the out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new idea.
5. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)
On reflection, I believe Jesus’s overall message to the disciples of John in this passage was to give them some space to train His apostles so the New Covenant could unfold in God’s time, and that it would be worth it in the end.
- “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast."
Concerning the first parable about the bridegroom, I agree with the typical interpretation. Jesus represents the “bridegroom” while his disciples are the “wedding guests.” Jesus was simply saying: Now is not the time for mourning; it is a special time to be with my disciples. This is a temporary step.
- ”No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth, for its fullness pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse.”
I have to believe that the disciples of John were also prudent people, having followed the camel-hair-clothed wanderer through the desert. After looking up Greek root word for “unshrunk”, I am even more convinced that their natural response would not have been to throw away the old garment.
ρακος αγναφον: that cloth which has not been scoured, or which has not passed under the hand of the fuller
So the more than just being “unshrunk,” the fabric simply wasn’t finished. This was my ah-ha moment in understanding the cast of characters for this particular parable.
- “People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Luke’s version adds: “And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (Luke 5:39)
An initial reading of the verse leads the reader to believe that a new animal hide was created for each new batch of wine, but this wasn’t the case. While the Greek word for “new,” neos, is used for the wine itself, an alternative is used for the wineskins: kainos, which is more directly translated to “fresh” and likely refers to old wineskins which were reconditioned (made fresh) by being cleaned and soaked in oil. Similarly, Jesus was conditioning his disciples to be apostles, vessels to distribute the New Covenant. Again, He was saying: Conditioning is necessary.
By virtue of my husband’s profession, it also seems pretty clear to me that new wine is inferior to old wine. Similar to new beer, the fermenting process makes the wine bubble and expand, which would make old, brittle wineskins burst. It would also make a drinker sick. Again, Jesus was making the point that the New Covenant was not yet established. Rather, it was in the development phase and couldn’t be bounded by disciplines such as fasting. Like yeasty wine, most people couldn’t stomach His words at this point. Once this fermentation phase is over, the wine would be palatable; once the New Covenant was fulfilled, Jesus would be accessible. Following their conditioning, there will be fulfillment.