“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees[e] were fasting. People came and asked him, “Why do John’s disciples and the Pharisees’ disciples fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
19 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the groom is with them, can they? As long as they have the groom with them, they cannot fast. 20 But the time[f] will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. 21 No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new patch pulls away from the old cloth, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost as well as the skins. No, new wine is put into fresh wineskins.” Mark 2:18-22 (CSB)
Why did Jesus’s disciples not fast while the disciples of John and the Pharisees did fast? The first thing to look at is the requirement for fasting. Fasting in the Old Testament was to be for personal or national appeals to God as well as for authentic repentance. The Pharisees had trivialized fasting by fasting every Monday and Thursday. This removed the sanctity of the practice and replaced it with a hollow rule. Jesus used three distinct metaphors to describe that something new has come to replace the hollow rules. First, Jesus compares Himself to a bridegroom.
“Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding guests cannot fast while the groom is with them, can they? As long as they have the groom with them, they cannot fast. But the time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.'” (vss. 19-20)
Attendants to and guests of the bridegroom (the disciples) would not fast in the bridegroom’s presence since it was a celebration of his presence. Fasting comes when the bridegroom (Jesus) is gone (His death).
Second, Jesus uses the example of unshrunk cloth patching an old garment.
“’ No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new patch pulls away from the old cloth, and a worse tear is made.’” (vs. 21)
This would indicate the insufficiency of the Pharisees’ traditions in comparison to the true meaning of fasting in the Old Testament. These new traditions actually make things worse, not better.
Third, Jesus uses the metaphor of new and old wine skins.
“‘And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost as well as the skins. No, new wine is put into fresh wineskins.’” (vs. 22)
Continuing His theme of Pharisaical insufficiency, Jesus uses the common image of wine and wine skins. Because new wine – essentially grape juice – expands as it ferments, only new wine skins can be used because they would expand with the new wine. Old wine skins, already expanded to their capacity would burst with this fermentation. Thus, the message is that the old wineskin (Pharisaical tradition) cannot hold the new wine (Jesus’s gospel of the Kingdom of God – a new way).
I often wonder about my own religiosity. Like the Pharisees, do I put any religious rules into my life that are just an inadequate cloth patch? Do the rules and religious activities that I hold fast to blur the truth of the Gospel and distort my vision of who Jesus really was and is? The question that the Pharisees posed to Jesus was about the religious practice (discipline) of fasting. However, Jesus, as is His pattern, expanded the question and answered them in a way that challenged their and our religious convictions.
First, the metaphor of the bridegroom challenges us to think about the presence of God in our lives. Fasting was meant to bring the believer closer to God through a holy discipline. This was not to be entered into lightly. However, the Pharisees had made the discipline just another religious activity. When Jesus addresses this, he notes that there is no need to fast when the bridegroom (Jesus) is present. Jesus died the death on the cross, and so fasting would be appropriate then. The disciples would be deprived (an essential element of fasting) of His presence. Fortunately, Jesus rose form the dead and sent His Holy Spirit. We are once again in the presence of God.
Does this mean we are to no longer fast? If that is the case, then why do any of the spiritual disciplines? What Jesus is teaching us in this passage is that His presence is most important, not the action of the discipline itself. If I do any of the spiritual disciplines or any of the sacraments with the idea of fulfilling a religious obligation, then I am not fully participating in the presence of God. The disciplines are meant to be a way to experience God’s presence. They are meant to celebrate the relationship we can have with our Creator.
The second metaphor, one of a new unshrunk cloth used to patch old clothes, shows the inadequacy of wrote religious practice and the damage it can cause. Remembering that the spiritual disciplines and sacraments are meant to bring us closer to relationship, the “shrunken patch” will bring our life together in a meaningful way that grows us spiritually. When we take any old spiritual discipline and haphazardly apply them to our religious life, it can damage our growth and our relationship to God. God is looking for sincerity and the “unshrunk cloth” is anything but a sincere act of relationship.
Lastly, with new wine into an old wineskin, we see that Jesus showed the Pharisees (and us) that His way cannot fit into the old ways of hollow religious activity. Insincere acts of religious discipline are the old wine skins that can no way hold the new wine – the new life – that Jesus offers. We need to take on the new wine skin in order to hold His new wine. What does this mean? I need to shed my old ways of trying to get God to like me and take on His new life. This involves the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, when I am truly seeking a relationship with God, will prepare my life as a new wineskin ready to hold the new life that is from Jesus.
Through sincere spiritual disciplines (prayer, study, fasting, communion, baptism, etc.) I am growing in my relationship to the Creator by being in His presence. I am not taking insincere unshrunk cloth to patch up a relationship. But I am taking the time to develop my relationship to God so that His new wine can fill my new life in Jesus.
 Larry Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Regency Reference Library, ©1985), 265.