In these stories, Jesus challenges the religious culture and practices of the Pharisees, not the Old Testament. His understanding is so fundamentally incompatible with the Pharisees that if he tried to reform their their views, he would only destroy them.
In chapters 8-9, Matthew presents a series of miracles which establish the God-given authority of Jesus. Starting in 9:9, Matthew turned to another challenge to the authority of Jesus: his understanding of righteousness.
We saw the first disagreement in the last podcast. Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of the 12 and that sparked a debate with the Pharisees over why Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners. In all three synoptic gospels ( Matthew, Mark & Luke), that story is followed by this story where the disciples of John question the religious behavior of Jesus.
Fasting commanded in the Old Testament
26And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 27“Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the LORD. 28And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. 29For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. 30And whoever does any work on that very day, that person I will destroy from among his people. 31You shall not do any work. It is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. 32It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves. On the ninth day of the month beginning at evening, from evening to evening shall you keep your Sabbath.” – Leviticus 23:26-32
- The Jews were commanded to fast once per year on the Day of Atonement.
- Some argue that “afflict yourselves (Strongs H6031a; Lev 23:27) refers only to inward humility. If they are right, then there are no commanded fasts in the Old Testament.
- However the context suggests this is an outward action (Lev 23:29-30); Isaiah 58:5 uses this phrase fast and this phrase in parallel; and historically, the Jews understood this to mean fasting. Note Luke describes the Day of Atonement as “the Fast” (Acts 27:9).
- On the Day of Atonement, physical hunger was to strengthen the reminder of our need for God’s mercy.
Fasting observed in the Old Testament
While we have only 1 command for a religious fast, there are many stories in the OT that include fasting. In these stories an individual or group decides to fast in response to a specific situation.
In the Old Testament we see fasting as part of:
- individual repentance (2Samuel 12:13-23)
- community repentance (1Samuel 73-6)
- grief and mourning (2Samuel 1:12)
- calling on God for deliverance (Esther 4:3; Esther 4:15-16)
- seeking guidance from God (Nehemiah 1:1-4)
Fasting acquires significance and meaning when practiced by a believing heart in conjunction with humility and repentance before God. Without such a heart the practice is empty (Isaiah 58:1-9).
From the OT then, there was one ritual of fasting commanded on the Day of Atonement. It was meant to create a physical reminder of their humility and dependence on God and need for His mercy.
Fasting was also voluntarily practiced by individuals and the community in associating with repentance, prayer, mourning and seeking God. It was sometimes accompanied by other physical symbols like wearing sackcloth and ashes. It was both a physical expression of humility before God, and a physical reminder of that humility.
But fasting has no power in and of itself. When hard-hearted, unrepentant people fasted before God, God was not obligated to answer them nor was He pleased with their ritual.
14Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15And Jesus said to 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. 16No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” – Matthew 9:14-17
- By New Testament times, both the Pharisees and the disciples of John made fasting a regular religious observance. This kind of fasting is a “tradition of the elders” and Jesus is questioned as to why he ignores it.
- The evidence we have suggests the Pharisees fasted twice per week (Luke 18:12; Didache chapter 8).
- Jesus disapproves of the way the Pharisees fast because: 1) they think God approves of them because they go through the ritual; 2) they use fasting as a litmus test to judge themselves righteous and condemn others; 3) their real motivation is the approval of their peers (Matthew 6:16-18).
- 31 Matthew 6:1-6; 6:16-18 Giving, Praying & Fasting
- The disciples of John approach the disciples of Jesus with the criticism that his disciples do not fast like they do and they want an explanation.
- In these stories, Jesus moves the discussion entirely away from fasting as a ritual or duty and into a discussion of its motivation.
- Story 1: Sometimes joy is a natural response to the situation and sometimes mourning is a natural response. When the groom is present at the feast, it’s a time for joy.
- Story 2: If I put a new and un-shrunk piece of cloth over the hole in an old garment, it will end up making a worse tear. Because when you wash it the first time, the new cloth will shrink and pull the tear apart.
- Story 3: Old wine skins are brittle and can no longer stretch during the fermentation of new wine. They will break.
- The old cloth and old wine skins are not analogous to the Old Testament. (There was no command for weekly fasting.)
- The issue is why doesn’t Jesus just adapt himself to our current religious practices? If they need some reforming, he can tweak them a bit. If Jesus came today, his behavior might be analogous to never taking communion or avoiding Sunday Services.
- Jesus point: My understanding not compatible with the existing religious climate. I can’t live within and reform it. What I am doing is so fundamentally different, that I would end up destroying it anyway. I need to replace it with something new.
Putting this together with Matthew 6, Jesus is making 2 points about religious practices:
- If you’re going to practice some religious rituals, do it out of a heart that is expressing a genuine faith and sincere desire to know and love God.
- Don’t use them as a test to reject your fellow believers and/or impress other people.
Please listen to the podcast for more detail and explanation.
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Podcast season 20, episode 8