Year B: Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Question About Fasting
Mark 2: 18-22
The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast. People came to him and objected, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak. If he does, its fullness pulls away, the new from the old, and the tear gets worse. Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.
- What role does fasting play in your spiritual life?
- Eating and fasting represent physical fullness and emptiness. How do your physical habits connect to your spiritual experiences of being full or empty?
- Fasting from eating is not regular practice for most of us. In what other ways could you fast in order to create emptiness, or a space for God to enter?
- Are there any elements of your faith practice that have become flat because of repetition? How do we revitalize things?
Mark 2: 18-22
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
In last Sunday’s reading Jesus was involved in a controversy with the scribes over his authority to forgive sin. This Sunday we read of Jesus being involved in another controversy over the question of fasting. Between these two controversies, in a passage not included in the Lectionary, Mark tells us about still another controversy: some scribes who were Pharisees criticize Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors (see Mark 2:16-17). Mark is obviously presenting Jesus as a person who challenges the religious presumptions of his contemporaries. Mark describes the situation just this way when he says “The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast. People came to him and objected, ‘Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’
The Jewish law required fasting one day a year, on the Day of Atonement. However, many people fasted as an integral part of their prayer life. A person might fast as a sign of mourning or as part of their preparation to receive a revelation. Mark does not tell us that Jesus fasted during the forty days when he withdrew to prepare for his public ministry, but both Matthew and Luke say that Jesus fasted (see Matt 4:2; Luke 4:2).
In response to the people’s question Jesus says, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.” One can only wonder what the Pharisees understood Jesus to be saying, because Mark does not describe their response. However, the reader of Mark’s Gospel realizes that Mark has once again changed the subject to a discussion of Jesus’ identity. (Remember, Mark did this when he told the story of the healing of the paralytic.) When Jesus says, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” he is comparing his disciples to the wedding guests and himself to the bridegroom. What does Jesus mean by this comparison?
As we will see when we discuss today’s Old Testament reading, it was not at all unusual for the Israelites to picture God as Israel’s husband. A wedding feast was a symbol for the people’s relationship with God. You may be familiar with this image from other New Testament passages, such as the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew (see Matt 22:1-14) and the story of the wedding at Cana in John (John 2:1-12). In addition, as we have already noted, people were accustomed to fast in order to prepare themselves for a response from God to their petitions or a revelation from God concerning what God would have them do. When Jesus refers to himself as the “bridegroom,” he is suggesting that God’s coming is somehow present in him. Now is not the time for fasting, because the bridegroom is with them.
Jesus goes on to say, “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.” The people who are listening to Jesus must have understood that Jesus’ disciples would fast when he was gone because they would be in mourning. For Mark’s reading audience, this passage foreshadows the crucifixion.
Mark pictures Jesus as knowing that the people are not able to understand the full meaning of his words. Jesus realizes that their categories of thought, formed by what they have been accustomed to do, are too restricted to grasp his meaning. Jesus refers to this very fact with the two images that follow: the unshrunken cloth used to patch an old cloak and the new wine poured into old wineskins. In each case, something old (the people’s ways of thinking) is unable to accommodate something new (Jesus’ preaching and his identity). Just as old material will rip if patched with unshrunken cloth (the new cloth will shrink and so rip the old cloth), or old wineskins will rip if filled with new wine (the wine expands as it ferments), so will the people’s categories of thought have to be burst open to be able to hold the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.
Eating with the Bridegroom
Fasting enhances the experience of eating. Philip Zaleski tells about a time he contracted a mysterious illness that made everything he put in his mouth taste like liquid fire. For over three weeks he had barely eaten; and when the mysterious illness suddenly abated, he had eaten nothing for two days. He decided to celebrate his return to eating with a blood orange. “The taste of the blood orange flooded my mouth, and with it came a wave of gratefulness for all that had helped to produce this food and deliver it into my hands. Sun, soil, and rain; planters, harvesters, and retailers; apiculture and horticulture; evolution, whose slow-motion magic wand had trans- formed an inedible Jurassic fruit into the ambrosia of the gods; God, fount of all fruitfulness—I gave thanks to one and all” (P. Zaleski and Paul Kaufman, Gifts of the Spirit: Living the Wisdom of the Great Religious Traditions [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997] 43–44). His fast was not intentional. Nevertheless, as a result of fasting, eating had become a spiritual experience of gratitude. What was it like to eat with Jesus?
Scholars tell us that table fellowship was a hallmark of his ministry. But few venture beyond this bland remark to speculate on what went on inside people as they received cup and bread from his hands, and from the hands of one another. How did the mind process the tastes and the slow move from hunger to satisfaction, from emptiness to fullness? Was it possible that eating with Jesus was an experience that changed the consciousness of those eating? Did people become aware, as Philip Zaleski did, of the interconnectedness of all things and feel unfeigned gratitude fill their entire being with such completeness that the food, no matter what it was and how much there was, was a feast? Did they realize they were all sustained by the same Source and thus brothers and sisters to one another? Did this realization bring into minds their countless violations against one another at the same time as their deeper sense of unity allowed them to forgive these violations from their hearts, freely and gratuitously?
No matter what they ate, was it always one loaf they shared? Was this—or something like this—what it was like to eat with the bridegroom? We eat three times a day. And, as a friend says, “more when we’re lucky.” It can become a mindless act, stoking the furnace. Even worse, stoking the furnace in front of the television. Anything we do often can become repetitious, monotonous, routine. The symbolic potential of eating and drinking lost.
The way to recover this symbolic potential is to fast. Not eating out of habit wakes us up to the change of consciousness eating and drinking can effect in us. As Christians we fast in the memory of feast. The fast jolts us out of mindlessly responding to biological needs and encourages us to trace our hungers and thirsts into love of God and love of neighbor. We are united to God and in communion with one another. When we remember to eat and drink like this, the fasting has found its true meaning. The bridegroom has returned.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.