Jesus’ ministry is well underway in the Gospel of Mark by the time we encounter the fasting Pharisees in 2:18. Thus far, his ministry had been marked by miraculous healing and authoritative teaching — including the exorcism of demons. Unsurprisingly, word of Jesus had spread far and wide. More surprisingly, Jesus was not encouraging this spread. Whether to the demons he purged or the people he healed, Jesus uniformly told all to keep silent about what he was doing. Still, nothing could stop the growing echo: “Who is this Jesus?”
Beginning in the second chapter, Mark presents a series of five confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day.1 Though Mark introduces Jesus’ ministry as characterized by immense popular support and success, the pushback from Pharisees and scribes adds tension to the narrative — a tension that will grow until its climax on the cross. (You’ll observe that this progression notably escalates over the course of these five encounters.) The opening and closing conflicts show miraculous healings; the second and fourth stories focus on “sinners” who pay no heed to Pharisaic interpretation of the Law.
Jesus’ encounter with fasting religious leaders comes at the middle of these encounters. This story serves as the hinge in Mark’s grouping, centering the whole series of conflict around the discussion of wineskins and cloth. The author presents the disciples of both John the Baptist and the Pharisees fasting, though it does not specify the reason for their fasting. According to Old Testament Law, fasting was required on only one day of the year, the Day of Atonement, but fasting was suitable for other times of mourning or repentance. John’s disciples would have been justified in mourning for their imprisoned teacher, but why would the Pharisees fast? Commentators suggest that by fasting, the religious adherents were hoping to “hasten the coming of the time of redemption,” similar to Daniel fasting on behalf of Israel in exile in Daniel 9:1–2.2 In short, John’s disciples mourned because their leader was gone and the Pharisees’ disciples fasted to hail the Messiah.
Jesus’ response would have been confusing to his original audience, but it is clear to us: fasting looks ahead to salvation. In Christ, salvation has come. He was the one to whom John the Baptist had pointed. He was the Messiah who came to redeem Israel. At this time, there was no association with the Messiah as a proverbial bridegroom, but other New Testament works draw the same connection. As John the Baptist is quoted in John 3:29, “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.”
So long as Jesus remains with his disciples, they have ample reason to celebrate. Fasting is not appropriate for them — at least, not yet. Even this early into Jesus’ ministry, he knows that the path he walks leads to the cross. For those few dark days and nights, the few disciples who remained committed to their teacher sat in quiet fear and mourning as the bridegroom lay in the tomb. Praise be to God, those three days gave way to the risen Lord who declared, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20)!
Mark then presents Jesus’ brief but pivotal discourse on old and new wineskins and cloth. Jesus is signifying the end of the old and the beginning of the new. The old ways of the Pharisees’ litigious religion are no longer sustainable; like old wineskins and worn out clothes, they are falling apart. The advent of Christ does not merely refurbish the old ways, it calls for a complete succession and thus a fulfillment. Thus the new wine and cloth of Christ find their own appropriate vessels in the new wineskins and garments of Christian living.
Mark illustrates this revolutionary shift through the final two stories in the groupings of confrontations. Both revolve around the Sabbath. First, Jesus addresses the legitimacy of his disciples eating grain on the Sabbath. According to Old Testament Law, they were fully in their right to pluck and eat grain from fields (Deuteronomy 23:25) but reaping on the Sabbath was prohibited (Exodus 34:21). Though Jesus could have simply chided them for being overly stringent in enforcing Sabbath law — plucking and eating is obviously not the same thing as reaping — he instead appeals to an account from 1 Samuel 21. In that passage, David had just fled the palace of Saul, narrowly escaping the king’s plot to kill him. He arrives in the city of Nob where the priests of the Lord reside and comes to the high priest in desperate need. Putting himself in danger of Saul’s murderous jealousy, the high priest was willing to give David the sanctified bread.
How does this story correct the Pharisees? Even deeper than their legalism is a lack of mercy. The story illustrates the truth which Micah 6:8 states outright “[The Lord] has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Jesus calls out their stringent rule making for what it is: a distortion of the law to inflate their own self-righteousness. Finally, Jesus offers a corrective teaching and a commanding declaration. The Sabbath is not meant to be a burden, it is a blessing — it is God’s gift of rest to a people who were formerly slaves in Egypt. Jesus does not merely debate the role of the Sabbath with the Pharisees as if they were equals. Rather, he declares it to be what it is, and in doing so, asserts himself as the Authority who instituted it.
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These two stories progress Mark’s Gospel by highlighting the growing wedge between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. At the heart of the pharisees’ error is their understanding of religion. Whether in fasting or observing the Sabbath, the underlying assumption of pharisaical religion is that God’s acceptance comes to those who perform the proper religious duties — in short, if you obey God, then God will approve of you. The gospel of Jesus flips Pharisaic religion on its head.
The problem is not that the Pharisees desire to be righteous, it is that they assume their righteousness can come from themselves. Others, like Matthew and the “sinners” with whom Jesus keeps company, fall on the opposite extreme. They have no interest in righteousness at all. Jesus meets both these groups in their sinful need with his own righteousness. As the voice from heaven declared, Jesus is the beloved Son with whom God is well pleased. Christ is the perfect marriage of love and obedience, and through his death and resurrection, he extends his perfect relationship with the Father to us. Rather than seeking approval through obedience, Christians obey out of the love and approval God has for them in Christ. It is in union with Christ that we can find true rest from the toil of pharisaical religion, and true joy in our Bridegroom.
1 Mark 2:1–12, 13–17, 18–22, 23–28, 3:1–6
2 Lane, The Gospel of Mark, NICNT. 109