John the Baptist has been in prison since some time after Jesus attended the Passover of 30 C.E. John wanted his disciples to become followers of Jesus, but not all of them have done so in the months following John’s imprisonment.
Now, as the Passover of 31 C.E. approaches, some of John’s disciples come to Jesus and ask: “Why do we and the Pharisees practice fasting but your disciples do not fast?” (Matthew 9:14) The Pharisees practice fasting as a religious ritual. Later, Jesus even uses an illustration in which one Pharisee self-righteously prays: “O God, I thank you that I am not like everyone else . . . I fast twice a week.” (Luke 18:11, 12) John’s disciples may similarly have been fasting as a custom. Or they may have been fasting to mourn John’s imprisonment. Observers also wonder why Jesus’ disciples do not fast, perhaps joining in an expression of grief over what has been done to John.
Jesus answers using an example: “The friends of the bridegroom have no reason to mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, do they? But days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
John himself spoke of Jesus as a bridegroom. (John 3:28, 29) Accordingly, while Jesus is present, Jesus’ disciples do not fast. Later, when Jesus dies, his disciples will mourn and have no desire to eat. What a change, though, when he is resurrected! Then they will have no further cause for mournful fasting.
Next, Jesus gives these two illustrations: “Nobody sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old outer garment, for the new piece pulls away from the garment and the tear becomes worse. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins. If they do, then the wineskins burst and the wine spills out and the wineskins are ruined. But people put new wine into new wineskins.” (Matthew 9:16, 17) What is Jesus’ point?
Jesus is helping the disciples of John the Baptist to appreciate that no one should expect Jesus’ followers to conform to the old practices of Judaism, such as ritual fasting. He did not come to patch up and prolong an old, worn-out way of worship, a whole system of worship that was ready to be discarded. The worship that Jesus is encouraging is not one that conforms to the Judaism of the day with its traditions of men. No, he is not trying to put a new patch on an old garment or new wine into a stiff, old wineskin.