Why do your disciples not fast?

Anthony Zimmerman
For Catholicmind
August 30, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast (Matt 9:14-15).

Although Jesus had fasted forty days and nights at the beginning of His public mission, there is no record in the Gospels that He prescribed a rule about fasting to His disciples. For one thing, He did not want His disciples to measure their holiness by showing off their ascetical life, as the Pharisees did, boasting: "I fast twice a week." Salvation must come first and foremost from faith in Jesus, not in exercises apart from Him. John's disciples had a motive for fasting other than that of the Pharisees, namely to cast off their sinful habits and adopt a reasonable way of life in preparation for the advent of Jesus.

But the disciples of Jesus were already in His company, and were learning from Him the ways of the kingdom. Jesus was not a killjoy who did not appreciate a good meal and a cup of wine. He wanted that His short life of three years with the disciples be of good cheer. They must celebrate the marriage feast of Christ with His Church so long as Christ was with them. Besides this, the life of the apostles had its own hardships, since they lacked a home and permanent residence and had to fend for their own meals. "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head" (Matt 8:20). Jesus did not want to overload them with things beyond their strength. Christianity is not primarily a religion of fasting and ascetical practices. We are brothers and sisters of Christ who spent most of His days on earth in giving thanks to the Father for the good things of earth.

Disciples of John

Who were these disciples of John who boasted about fasting? Apparently there was some jealousy, not between Jesus and John, but between their respective disciples. John apparently had an inner circle of followers whom he taught to pray and to fast. Among them was Andrew who, with another disciple, switched over to Jesus (John 1:35). A rift between disciples of John and of Jesus concerning baptism and other practices lasted even into times after the Resurrection and Ascension. The Johannine sect spread even as far as Alexandria in Egypt, as we learn from this passage in the Acts:

Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately (Acts 18:24-26).

This Apollos became a trusted helper of Paul, and it may have been he who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. The disciples of John held Jesus in admiration, but nevertheless held loyally to their own way of a stricter life, and had their own way of baptism.

The Pharisees

And who were the Pharisees, who consistently attempted to put a wedge between Jesus and His disciples? The name means those who separated themselves from unbelievers and from pagan influences.

During these persecutions of Antiochus the Pharisees became the most rigid defenders of the Jewish religion and traditions.... Owing to their heroic devotedness their influence over the people became great and far-reaching, and in the course of time they, instead of the priests, became the sources of authority. In the time of Our Lord such was their power and prestige that they sat and taught in "the chair of Moses". This prestige naturally engendered arrogance and conceit, and led to a perversion in many respects of the conservative ideals of which they had been such staunch supporters. In many passages of the Gospels, Christ is quoted as warning the multitude against them in scathing terms (Catholic Encyclopedia CD).

Other opponents of Jesus were the Zealots, who were eager to bring about the Messianic Kingdom with the sword. Still another group was the Sadducees, secularists, materialists and liberals who scoffed at the idea of a resurrection and eternal life. They became the dominant priestly party during the Greek and Roman period of Jewish history, Among them were Annas and Caiphas who condemned Jesus to death. It is remarkable that all these groups - John's disciples, the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Sadducees (same as Herodians) - had no love for each other, but they frequently teamed up to oppose Jesus, finding comfort in numbers rather than in shared ideas.

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved (Matt 9:16-17).

The words of home-spun wisdom indicate that the new religion being promulgated by Christ could not be patched on to the inflexible traditions that the Pharisees had added to the Law of Moses. Pharisees will be Pharisees, and as such are not compatible with the disciples of the kingdom. The High Priestly class was utterly corrupt and by knee-jerk reaction opposed Jesus who threatened their position of power. Wisely, Jesus chose Peter and his like, who had no axes to grind, no positions to defend, who were like new clothes and new wine skins. Old wineskins might be used to store wine already seasoned, but they would only burst if filled with fermenting new wine. Goat skins were sewn shut to contain fresh wine. Jesus was inviting the listeners to conversion to a new kind of life, different from the worn out ritualism of the Pharisees, with real faith in which the stale secularism of the Sadducees had no part, and with a brighter outlook on life than was religiously adhered to by the disciples of John.

The practice of fasting was taken up by the Church after Christ's Ascension in various degrees. More recently even the Lenten Fast has been mercifully abrogated except for a few days. I remember how my stomach used to growl during Lent while in the seminary, during the last class before meals, not a happy memory.

But voluntary fasts are today, as ever, efficacious means of doing penance for our sins and for gaining favors from the Lord. Thanks to the monks and religious who practice great asceticism, the river of blessings from heaven flowing down upon the Church keeps the Church alive and fresh, enriching us all.

May I observe that the law of Friday abstinence from eating meat was often troublesome and required attention by the cooks, but I think that we lost much of our sense of Catholic identity when the Church made it optional. The Friday abstinence, like the ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday, set us apart as Catholics. It was our label, a public declaration of our faith. We identified ourselves each week as a special people with that practice, and set ourselves off from Protestants and other religious adherents. It was a priceless public label. I wish that it be made obligatory again.

Healing of the woman with an issue of blood.

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, "My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live." And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples (Matt 9:18-19).

We get the impression that the ruler of the synagogue swallowed his pride and broke into the room where Jesus was still reclining at table with publicans and sinners. What he asked of Jesus was no small favor: he asked Jesus not to heal at a distance as had the centurion, but to leave the banquet hall and come at once to lay His hand on his daughter who had just died. We give him credit for his faith, but he was boorish enough to ask Jesus to touch a dead person. As the ruler of a synagogue he surely was acquainted with the law that by touching a dead person Jesus would become "unclean" for seven full days, after which He would require a ritual purification (Numbers 19:11-13; see International Bible Commentary 1286). But Jesus rose from the banquet without hesitation, leaving the feast behind, and started on the way with His disciples following.

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well." Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." And instantly the woman was made well (Matt 9:20-21).

There was a reason for the woman to do this secretly, to come from behind, touch His garment, then fade back into the crowd. Somewhat like lepers, women with a flow of blood were taboo in public society. She was unclean, must remain separate from the community. For twelve years she had suffered this discrimination. Evidently she had heard about Jesus, about the cures He made, and had received from God the gift of faith in Jesus. So she stealthily slipped through the crowd and touched the tassel of His garment. By doing so she exhibited faith in Him, hoping to be healed even without Jesus knowing it. The tassels on the corner were a symbol of the covenant between God and Israel, another sign of her faith. In this manner she was trying to "steal" a healing, perhaps fearful of blame for not observing the rules of a person who is unclean, perhaps bashful among all the men and the synagogue ruler and the high Personage of Jesus.

So the first words of Jesus to her were kind words: "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." She felt the healing immediately in her body, and rose to her feet with joy in her heart. No one now could even blame her for having broken the rules, because now she was no longer unclean. Share her joy. What a relief she must have felt after twelve years during which she had been a taboo, unable to live a normal life with the community.

We see Jesus the Physician at work: As God He knew the cause of her illness better than any gynecologist could know; and as God He simply made everything right in her body. As Man, He rejoiced in His power of healing, and in doing this good deed to a deserving woman.

When Jesus came to the leader's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, "Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district (Matt 9:22-26).

Jesus thus dallied along the way observes Chrysostom (Sermon 30), perhaps to make it evident to all that the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue was really dead. For in the meantime the flute players and mourners were already in the room carrying out their profession. It was the fashion that "even the poorest of the poor should hire at least two flutists and one wailing woman" (IBC 1286). And this ruler of the synagogue was not poor, so the sounds of mourning may have risen to high decibels.

Why did the professionals laugh when Jesus unexpectedly declared that the girl was not dead? They were the professionals, and should know their business. They had made sure that she was really dead. Besides, it would be for them a loss of face, perhaps even give rise to a suspicion of a fraud, if the girl was not really dead. As in the case of Lazarus, Jesus had allowed enough time to elapse to enable people to ascertain that there was no question about the death. His power to raise dead people to life should be an overwhelmingly powerful witness to all about His divine powers, and so enable them to believe that He is indeed "the resurrection and the life."

The work He was about to do deserved an atmosphere of reverence and quiet. So Jesus turned to the noise-makers saying: "Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping." They must have looked at the synagogue ruler, who nodded for them to get out. Then He stepped into the room where the girl lay, took her by the hand, and the power of life came back to her. She got up, off the bier. Did she remember the world of the dead? Perhaps not. Who was this who held her hand? She was touching Infinity. The Maker of the cosmos held her hand. Healed, she looked in puzzlement at her father. With her, we turn with gratitude to Jesus. Word of the miracle spread quickly. No need for Jesus to be unclean for seven days, because the person whom He had touched was living, not dead. With the people of the area, we look to Christ and give Him our trust and our faith.