Right at that moment when we think Jesus may be watering down the essence of being rightly related to God, we realize that he is actually raising the bar quite a bit higher. The question about fasting, offered by the disciples of both John the Baptist and the Pharisees, as recorded in Mark 2:18 and following, provides an excellent opportunity to learn this. But we should delay looking at that passage for just a moment. First, it would be vitally helpful to bathe ourselves in Isaiah 58. Consider elements of that ancient passage. To begin with, Isaiah, on behalf of the Living God, denounces the fasting pursued by the one who thinks he has it all together spiritually; the one concerned only for his own perceived reputation:
Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Clearly, the Living God has no patience for fasting that is all about self-righteousness and pretention. One can rightly expand this sentiment to suggest that God has no tolerance for any kind of spirituality that sees its disciplines as an end in themselves, or that promotes the supposed goodness of the one pursuing the disciplines. Religious games is not appealing whatsoever to the Almighty. He hates such things. Thus, note his preferred way of living, a lifestyle that is other-centered, relationship-oriented, and generous, as recorded in Isaiah 58:6-8:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Note that for the Living God the kinds of “fasting” that he values is that which betters the lives of others. Loosing the bonds of wickedness, undoing the straps of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, and so forth, capture his attention and affection. These words are absolutely vital, for they serve as the backdrop to the unfolding drama of Mark 2, in which we find Jesus eating and drinking with tax collectors and outcasts, and then being questioned about not only his relationship with such people, but also his apparent avoidance of the fasting practices of the spiritual elite. Let us tune into the moment as recorded in Mark 2:18 and following:
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?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
Jesus wants to make it crystal clear to everyone who is paying attention that with his arrival something radical and new has come. No one would think that the groom’s companions at some wedding must look dour and mourn. Indeed, they would celebrate the joy of their friend who is the groom. There should be dancing and laughter and feasting! As long as the groom is around there is mirth. Jesus’ very presence merits such a response. The Groom has come, and such is a cause for celebration!
And this celebration of Jesus’ arrival, and the related impact of his arrival on the lives of people, transcends all the old ways of living. To be associated with Jesus and his way of thinking is to embrace something radical, something that cannot be blended with the patterns of the past. Just like a new patch cannot possibly be sewn onto an old garment, lest it tear, or new wine poured into an old wineskin lest the fermenting burst the skin, so it is that Jesus’ very existence takes us well beyond our old ways of survival. When we are associated with Jesus life is no longer about us, but about him and his joy and his purpose and his mission. No doubt the disciples of both John the Baptist and the Pharisees thought that Jesus was settling for something less by not living as they did. Indeed, however, it was their lives that were reductionistic. They had reduced eternal priorities down to a twice-weekly fasting experience, and frowned upon anyone who did not join them. They were stuck in an old pattern of survival that suffocated the life out of themselves and those around them. Jesus raises the bar. He models to them that true living is not about sticking to some old routine, but about aggressively loving others, meeting them where they are, stepping out and taking risks, that all may see the joy of the Groom and get swept up in his generosity and pleasure.
What about you? Are you too concerned about your reputation as a spiritual sophisticate or are you eager to loose the bonds of the wicked and undo the straps of the yoke that constrains too many people in your life? Have you reduced your existence to mere religious gamesmanship, going through the motions, frowning upon anyone who does not join you? Or . . . has your bar been raised higher, that you might believe that it it not the routine that impresses God and keeps you sane, but demonstrable love toward others?
Wrestle hard with this, my friend.
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“Write This Down” is a summary of select teaching moments offered by Pastor Matthew. The preceding summary is from the message “Reputation Versus Relationship”, the twelfth message from the series entitled “Jesus, God’s Beloved Son,” a study through the Gospel of Mark, presented on the weekend of March 3, 2013, at Bethel Church.