In the musical Fiddler On The Roof, the big-hearted Tevye cherished his Jewish heritage. It brought him a sense of pride and vigor. If only others could embrace his beliefs and ideals the world would be happy and right. Do you remember Tevye singing “Tradition”? I can hear the theatrical and enthusiastic melody as I write. Tevye was attempting to content himself with life and was determined to watch his dreams unfold within the lives of his family. However, he had daughters who would threaten those dreams. One daughter, Chava, wanted to break with the norm by marrying Fyedka, a Christian! Tevye’s world was beginning to unravel. Mark 2:16-22 provides insight into how Jesus and the disciples find themselves in contrast with a lot of Tevyes, and also how Jesus was announcing the coming kingdom of God as a revolutionary movement that would threaten the dreams of many Jews, even the disciples of John the Baptist.
A new world, a new creation, has begun invading the world in Jesus’ ministry and when Jesus and the disciples dismiss a sacred fast, others get the impression that a growing cult is gaining influence. Traditional minded Jews are shocked and incredulous. Jesus’ appears sinister to them. If he were American, Jesus could look like he was dismissive of Memorial Day or 9/11. The question being asked is the equivalent of “Are you a rebel?” Is Jesus a true Israelite or not? He sure isn’t behaving like one, having not put his flag at half-staff. In Mark 2:16-22 the Tevyes of Israel are hurt but Jesus and the disciples are depicted as having a sense of joy and optimism. Why?
In Mark 2:16-22 we learn that is Israel fasting, most likely because of something painful in their national history, perhaps recent enough which would’ve kept a freshly wounded national conscience from healing. Israel didn’t have a lot to celebrate since the days of David and Solomon. Kings were evil and the nation was miserable. Many returned from captivity but the glory of the Temple hadn’t returned as promised by the prophets. The mood was tense and the future was filled with uncertainty. Rome’s presence only reminded everyone of Israel failure. Herod reminded everyone of Israel’s wicked kings. Who was truly Jewish, and what did being loyal to Moses really look like? Observing this fast was evidently an indication to many that someone’s heart was in the right place. Even John the Baptist’s disciples are fasting but for some reason, Jesus and his disciples aren’t. Where exactly does Jesus, who keeps rising in popularity, stand? Is he championing Israelite solidarity or is he just another disillusioned son of Abraham who’s also destined for ruin?
Mark 2:18-22 “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do the disciples of both John and the Pharisees fast but yours don’t?” Jesus said, “Can the wedding guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? Of course not. They will fast when the time comes that the bridegroom will be taken away from them. No one sews a new patch on an old garment. If so, the patch tears away and rips the old garment. The same goes for new wine in old wineskins. The new wine will be ruined, as well as the skins. Fresh wine is for fresh skins.” (paraphrased ESV)
The people are confused. Why would Jesus and his band of followers break with tradition? It makes no sense!
Jesus speaks. The first answer he gives is parabolic and is that of a wedding. Hopefully, none of us have been to a wedding where everyone was in a serious or solemn mood, almost as if they were attending a funeral. Obviously, a wedding is expected to be filled with celebration and joy. Weddings can renew a sense of vitality in those of us who are married. They can solicit hope, especially when two people give themselves to one another, forsaking selfish paths and thus creating a new way of life. Jesus begins with the analogy of groomsmen in anticipation of their good friend’s marriage. What does a marriage have to do with fasting? Nothing. That’s Jesus’ point. Jesus is cryptically telling the people who he is. He’s a groom, but not just any groom. Jesus is the representative of God, and God is the real groom who is anticipating the marriage of Himself with a lovely bride. Theologically speaking, the marriage of heaven and earth, or the union of the kingdom of heaven and humanity, is just around the corner. The Creator will act decisively and uproot the current ruler of the world (Caesar) and take his place in the person of Jesus. However, Jesus will be a different kind of ruler. He will exercise real power, full of justice and charity, which implies genuine service instead of pilfering. A new synthesis will form and that’s why Jesus and his disciples stand out. They strike everyone as gerbils unwilling to run in society’s spinning wheels.
Jesus is trying to communicate that God is looking ahead to a new life with Israel (and by implication, all mankind) and Israel’s sad past will soon be disappearing as if it were a crooked road sign in a rearview mirror. Naturally, those who are clued into this idea of the future should be excited. This fast looks backward to a history fraught with misery, rippled by undulating eras of idolatry and corruption, wickedness and infidelity. The marriage covenant between a husband and wife for the Jews was a metaphor for Israel’s covenant with God. But, Israel has been unfaithful for a long time. Now, they were straying once more and on a violent path with Rome which will only lead to destruction. But from the slums which Israel became mired and even comfortable in, God is taking for Himself a repentant woman to be His bride. Unsophisticated and uneducated she may be, but God will give her a virtuous heart and a spirit of determination. No one should expect this wedding ceremony to be traditional.
Remember the garden with God and Adam and Eve. Creation was the royal marriage of heaven and earth, of God and humanity. God did not create the cosmos and then leave mankind alone to govern the world however he wanted. Adam failed. Israel failed. They failed at fulfilling humanity’s heavenly vocation, to be the reflection of God in the world and to be the image of God with God. Jesus won’t fail. With Jesus, heaven (the sovereignty of God) is ‘marrying’ earth in a new way, and the concept of new creation requires discerning hearts and minds. It’s completely new thinking for those stuck in contemporary traditionalistic mindsets. Jesus came to bring forgiveness of sins, new life, and hope, but people were either bent on revolution or mourning Israel’s past, and they couldn’t imagine an overhaul of creation. A new creation was coming quickly and people weren’t prepared for the buzz surrounding Jesus. In front of them all stood the new Adam but who was able to recognize him?
The second image has to do with the idea of an old garment receiving a new patch. Notice how the old and new theme repeats. The new patch tears the old garment because the old garment isn’t capable of sustaining the new patch. New garments are necessary! Jesus signals to the people that the kingdom of God through Jesus is a new kind of kingdom. No traditional insurrection. No traditional revolution. No Pearl Harbor style attacks are coming to ignite Israel and usher in Israel’s Messiah. If Jesus tries to sew the Messianic mission into the traditional fabric of Judaism the Messianic mission to build new creation would be impossible. Jesus is not implying that his mission or the kingdom of God is minor as some might suspect a patch to signify. He’s illustrating the fact that the nature of his movement and the nature of the current Jewish social order are two very different natures.
The third image has to do with new wine being placed into old wineskins. Wineskins expand with wine that is initially put into them because the wine ferments and stretches them as far as they can go. Winemakers know that too much fermentation has the potential to burst new skins. So, a process that creates gas, was allowed to escape prior to inserting wine into the skins. The wine would ferment a little more but not enough to ruin the skins. Here, Jesus is talking about fresh wine being put into skins that have already been used and aren’t capable of expanding anymore. Imagine putting Mentos in a 2-liter full of Diet Coke. Thanks to YouTube we all know what will happen. The plastic bottle becomes a canon for the volatile combination and everything inside will burst out.
Jesus is saying that his teaching is not going to make sense within Israel’s current thinking in regard to the true Messianic mission. Israel is set in its old ways and cannot handle the new truth of the kingdom message (at least not yet). No one in Israel is expecting the way in which Jesus will inaugurate God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus must be killed and rise from the dead. This will produce that new wine. That teaching was and still is like a bunch of Mentos heading straight into a 2-liter of Diet Coke. It’s explosive. If people have deeply embedded beliefs about Jesus’ mission that are fabricated and counterfactual, then truths about Jesus and his mission could appear ghastly. Humanity’s only response is to become a new creation, a bride, new clothing, new wineskins.
We all know how difficult it can be to introduce new ideas into old or traditional ways of thinking, especially with regard to theology. We live in a world of big-hearted Trevyes. Yet, are there ‘fasts’, or psychologic modes within our culture that rely on faulty old wisdom that fails our societies? We don’t have to whine and throw tantrums to get the necessary attention. Jesus quietly protested the status quo and then offered answers when confronted, even though those answers had to be cryptic in those moments. Why shouldn’t we do the same thing? Jesus knew how explosive his teaching was. Do we?