Doing the right thing at the right time (Matthew 9:14-17)

The matter that concerned the disciples of John was the issue of fasting. It is important to remember that the only regular fast required by God in Israel was on the Day of Atonement, although it was permissible to engage in voluntary fasting if desired. In the religious customs of the time, many traditional people fasted twice a week and it is probably to that practice that the disciples of John are referring here. 

The only recorded occasion of Jesus engaging in fasting is during the forty days of temptation in the desert after he was baptised. He would have fasted on the Day of Atonement, but it is obvious that he did not follow the methods of fasting on certain days each week. Of course, he may have chosen to fast at different times.

There is something sad about the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees joining together against the disciples of Jesus. By this time, John was in prison and it may have been the case that some of his followers, now that their leader was not there to guide them, had drifted into company with the Pharisees. One thing is obvious and that is that they had not heeded the message of John when he had declared that the Messiah had come. And when people reject the gospel, who knows what company they will end up with?

Earlier, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had instructed his disciples to fast secretly and not to let others know that they were engaged in this spiritual discipline. This may have been why the disciples of John and others assumed that the disciples of Jesus did not fast. In his previous teaching, Jesus had instructed his disciples how to fast; now, in this reply, Jesus informed the disciples of John when they should fast.

His illustration of a bridegroom points out that fasting is very unsuitable on happy occasions, but is very appropriate on sad occasions, such as when a bridegroom dies. Some people say that Jesus here is referring to his death because he uses a violent term to describe the removal of the bridegroom, but I am not convinced that he is because he says that those with the bridegroom will fast when he dies and we are not told that the disciples of Jesus fasted at that time. Indeed, the two downcast disciples from Emmaus invited the risen Jesus in for a meal. Others suggest that he is referring to his departure to heaven, but if that was the case, then the disciples should be fasting regularly over this separation, and there is no hint in the New Testament that they did for that reason.

Instead I would say that Jesus is using an illustration from everyday life and we are meant to take it and think of sad occasions that would require fasting as part of the process of dealing with it. So here are a few examples – when our prayers don’t seem to be heard by God; when the gospel is not being blessed in conversions outside the church; when sins are tolerated in society; when churches are divided; when our commitment levels are low. Regarding them, fasting is a suitable response to engage in along with prayer and confession. 

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