Friday 7 May 2010

Disappointed with Jesus (Matthew 9:14-17)

Then John's disciples came and asked him, "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"

Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.
Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved."

Matthew 9:14-17

Jesus encounters disappointment and disapproval. At first glance, this should not be surprising. Earlier in the chapter, the scribes accuse him of blaspheming (verse 3) and the Pharisees have only just criticised Jesus for hanging out with the wrong crowd (verse 11). Jesus isn't popular among the religious.

But look again at verse 14. This bunch ought to surprise us. They are the followers of John the Baptist. Their negative comments are surprising for at least two reasons. First, they seem to have aligned themselves with the Pharisees. If you remember, back in chapter 3, their leader John didn't have very complimentary things to say about them. "You brood of vipers!" he called the Pharisees, warning them of the fiery judgement of God. Secondly, they accuse Jesus of failing to fast. To be sure, they do dare not bring the accusation against Jesus directly. Rather, they say, "why don't your disciples fast?"

The ESV has a footnote which adds the word, "often" - "Why do we are the Pharisees fast often but your disciples do not... ?" Meaning: they are enquiring after visible signs of piety; obvious evidence of religious observance. After all, speaking publicly in his Sermon on the Mount, didn't Jesus assume that his followers would fast? "When you fast," Jesus says. But Jesus goes on to add these words of instruction, "do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting... put oil on your head and wash your face so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting."

So Jesus had a ready comeback at his disposal. He could have turned the table on his critics. Jesus could have accused them of betraying their leader by signing up to the wrong team. He could have reminded them of the statements he did make about fasting in such a way only God could see knowing only God could reward. But he doesn't say any of this. I want you to notice how Jesus, in his reply, displays a remarkable sense of empathy, understanding and wisdom in dealing with John's disciples.

1. Religion in a poor source of comfort

Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast."

These words would have struck a chord in the hearts of his hearers. You see, they were a movement without its master. Their leader, John, is in prison. In fact, news of his incarceration was what triggered the start of Jesus' ministry. "... Jesus heard that John had been put in prison" (4:12) "... From that time on Jesus began to preach" (4:17).

Jesus picks up on their sadness and loss by linking fasting to mourning. Their fasting has less to do with religious piety and more to do with personal grief. Their bridegroom, their master, their leader has been "taken" from them. In this sense, Jesus understands their loss.

Yet it is in the midst of this painful reality that Jesus appeals to their past experience of joy. "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn?" "How is it possible?" The simple answer is: they can't! There is no reason to! Instead, there is every reason to rejoice! The picture of the bridegroom at a wedding evokes the sense of expectation, excitement, celebration and fulfilment.

We should not miss the mild hint of rebuke in Jesus' answer. The disciples of John want to impose a religious regulation on Jesus' followers. And these words tell us that this is completely inappropriate. It is inappropriate not because it is not of value - Jesus says God does reward his children who fast for him and his approval alone. But here, fasting is inappropriate ("How can they fast"/"How are they able to fast"?) because Jesus is with them. Jesus is the bridegroom.

This isn't something new Jesus has just made up. It is an illustration John the Baptist himself used when referring to Jesus. "The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less." (John 3:29-30)

Furthermore we need to remember the setting of this debate. Verse 15 begins with the word "Then". Meaning: this takes place just after, or even during, the events of verses 9 to 14, when Jesus is eating with sinners. They are at a party! With food and drink and laughter and conversation. They are with Jesus, the one who calls and eats with sinners.

Essentially, these disciples of John are saying, "How can you be rejoicing at a time like this? With these people?" Their grief has led to mourning, and they have chosen to express this mourning by fasting. But their tone reveals how religion has become a poor source of comfort. It has instead led them to bitterness and judgementalism.

2. Jesus is our true source of joy and assurance

We can almost understand why John's disciples are now buddying up with the Pharisees. As much as John tried to denounce their hypocrisy, they still shared the same religious heritage and practices. The temple, the law, the covenants, their national history, the patriarchs - there is so much to build upon, so much in common. It was familiar.

And in times of confusion, in times of stress and depression, we look to the familiar for comfort and direction. It was why they turned to religion, it is maybe why they were now turning to Jesus. He was a regular Jewish guy - everyone knew where he was from. He preached from the scriptures - people called him Rabbi. He talked about God's kingdom - Didn't everyone want God's kingdom to be established?

Yet, Jesus will have none of that. He didn't come to add to the Law - as the Pharisees did with their rules and regulations - he came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets (5:17). He didn't simply announce God's kingdom as a future hope, it spoke of it as present reality. The Kingdom is near because God's promised King is here.

We need to see how Jesus is talking about something radically different from religion. If you look at what he says next, getting Jesus and religion mixed up can lead to destructive consequences!

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.
Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.
No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved."

What do the new patch and the new wine symbolise?

  • Perhaps Jesus is referring to himself. He cannot be contained by old traditions and religious rules. Instead he needs to be understood on his own terms, not to be confused with freedom fighters, learned rabbis or miracle workers. Jesus will redefine expectations of the Messiah as a humble servant, not a proud sovereign; establishing a kingdom not through conquest but by his death on the cross.

  • Or maybe Jesus is contrasting the new community verses the old structures of religion. The church is not to be confined by liturgy and cultic practices surrounding the temple and its sacrifices, instead Jesus builds his kingdom through redeemed sinners.

  • Still others see glimpses of a new covenant, a new promise Jesus institutes over the Old Testament laws; Instead of our outward attempts at covering our sin through sacrifices and earning God's favour through good works and moral living, it is God who inwardly regenerates believers with new hearts enabling them to turn towards him in repentance, and respond with love and obedience.

All three are possible, and I do see how elements of Jesus' identity, community and mission are evident in the imagery of the new cloth and new wine. But we also shouldn't stray too far from the issue Jesus began raising with John's disciples, which I think, Jesus is still addressing with these closing words to them. He is still talking about their grief and their disappointment. He is still dealing with their joyless faith, their religiously-motivated prejudice, and their self-confident presumptions.

Jesus is saying that they are being torn apart. That's the common theme in these words. The garment is torn, but is at risk of being ripped apart. Pour new wine into old wineskins and it gets ruined - literally, destroyed. That is what is happening to John's disciples and the Pharisees. They cannot contain Jesus with religion and it is causing their insides to explode.

Here is a sober warning for those who preach Christ solely as a model for morality and example of religious piety - you will utterly destroy your hearers. They simply won't be able to take it. Not because they will encounter a God who is too holy for their standards, but because they will meet a Jesus who is too gracious, too loving and too joyful for their comfort.

Only new wineskins, Jesus says, can contain the new wine. Both are preserved. It is important to understand what Jesus means by both - he isn't talking about the old and the new wineskins. Rather Jesus is referring to the new wine as well as the new wineskins. Only those who keep Jesus as their centre, those who see Jesus as their treasure and joy, are kept together with him and kept together in him.

Both are preserved.

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