Back in high school, I used to work the drive thru at a local Steak n Shake restaurant. True to the name, Steak n Shake has two specialties—steakburgers, which are basically glorified hamburgers, and milkshakes. I definitely developed a taste for Steak n Shake food after working there for a year and a half. I tried out all the shakes and made up my mind which was the best (side-by-side strawberry and orange). To this day, a milkshake just doesn’t seem complete to me unless it’s topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry.
I know not everyone likes those cherries, but I love ’em. They’re just the thing to complete a milkshake or a sundae or just about any dairy dessert. They’re a perfect complement to all those death-inducing sugar-and-fat concoctions. The cherry really doesn’t change the dessert all that much. You simply toss it on top to make it a little bit better than it was before.
The temptation for us is to treat Jesus like that cherry on top. Sometimes, we are willingly deceived into believing that Jesus doesn’t demand all of our lives. We think we can go on living how we’ve always lived, while tacking on Jesus as sort of a bonus that makes us feel all warm and spiritual inside. For example, I may go to church on Sunday and call myself a Christian, but in my heart I may find my identity in my career; I’m willing to sacrifice any relationship in order to advance in my field, my performance review is more important to me than God’s evaluation of me, and my mood depends almost entirely on how my day at work went.
That doesn’t sound very attractive, does it? Let’s take a different approach, then. Perhaps I think that pleasing God is all about doing all the good Christian things that good Christians do. I give exactly 10% of my money to the church, take notes from the sermon, listen to Christian radio, vote Republican, and look down my nose at everyone who doesn’t line up with my self-invented religious ideals.
The really dedicated Jews of Jesus’ day—the Pharisees—would have fit this description pretty well. One of the things a good Pharisee did was fast twice a week. In the Old Testament, the only time fasting was commanded was on the annual Day of Atonement, when the sins of the nation of Israel were atoned for by animal sacrifice. Any other fasting was voluntary. However, there’s a funny thing about voluntary good deeds—they end up being reshaped into moral standards by people who want to look better than others. So naturally, fasting twice a week became the sort of thing that any respectable Jew would do.
Jesus, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in perpetuating a man-made system of righteousness. He had authority over men, so he would not submit himself to their arbitrary rules. His fellow Jews became concerned about this, and they asked him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Like any good rabbi, Jesus responded to their question with a question of his own: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Jesus leaves no doubt that he is the bridegroom in this analogy. Weddings were a big deal in that culture; they were a time of feasting and celebration and joy. No one—not even the most austere rabbi—would ever fast during a wedding feast! So Jesus can answer his own question, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.”
That’s why Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to fast. The practice of fasting is not a custom expressing celebration; it’s a custom expressing need. It communicates a longing for something, whether a longing for forgiveness or divine help or favor with God. Jesus says that those who truly follow him will direct their fasting toward him; they fast because they long for him to be among them and to act on their behalf. And in fact, he says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” For the first time, Jesus predicts that he will be killed, and then his disciples will mourn their loss of him. Once again, they will fast. But for now, he is with them, and there is no need to fast.
Then Jesus introduces an unexpected twist. He compares the Judaism of the Pharisees to an old garment or an old wineskin. When a new patch is sewn on an old garment, it shrinks and tears the garment. When new wine is put in an old, brittle wineskin, the new wine ferments, expands, and bursts the skin. In the same way, Jesus is explaining, “You can’t just add me to your religion. I will burst it apart. You can’t keep fasting unless your fasts are directed toward me as an expression of longing for me to be with you. You have to abandon your old way of trying to please God and start following me instead.”
Jesus will not be the cherry on top of your old way of doing things. If you try to fit him into your good, moral lifestyle, he will burst it apart. He will tear your life to pieces. He doesn’t fit. Jesus insists that you identify yourself with him, that you long for him more than anything or anyone else. If you try to follow his commandments, to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, you will quickly find yourself a broken failure. Turn to him for help, submit to his authority, cry out for the Holy Spirit to empower you, and you will find the joy of being with the Bridegroom.