On the Synoptic Nature of “The Question About Fasting”
Exegesis, especially in the traditional sense of examining a sacred text, derives its importance not only from ascertaining the underlying message of a passage, but also in unearthing ideas that can transcend the religious boundaries of a text. This method of studying religious writing, such as the Bible, provides a better understanding of what the authors were attempting to convey to the practitioners of Christianity, as well as their understanding of the many teachings they recorded throughout. In order to demonstrate this point, I will provide an exegesis of similar passages from two synoptic gospels, and then proceed to perceive in what manner the teachings from this text is applicable to the contemporary age, within and without a religious context. Additionally, a familiarity with the texts is necessary in order to fully understand the explanations of this paper. I will therefore provide a brief outline of the passages, as well as a table to compare the actual writings between gospels. Lastly, I will consult the Oxford Bible Commentary for any additional insight into these passages.
Within the beginning of the New Testament, three gospels—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—are considered synoptic, because of the many parallels in both writing and structure. Despite this similarity, there are subtle differences between each that distinguish the gospels from one another. While it might initially seem that these differences may detract from the messages in the Bible, I will compare the passage of “The Question About Fasting” between the gospels of Luke and Mark, in order to demonstrate the power that such synoptic writing can add to the message of Christ in the New Testament.
Outline of Luke’s “The Question About Fasting”
- A crowd of followers approach Jesus to find out why his disciples do not fast. (Lk 5:33)
- Jesus answers with a metaphor concerning a bridegroom and his guests. (Lk 5:34-5)
- Jesus then tells them a parable concerning using a new cloak to mend an old one. (Lk 5:36)
- Jesus then continues with another teaching, this time regarding using old wineskins to hold new wine. (Lk 5:37-8)
- Jesus finishes his teaching by touching on the nature of transitioning from the taste of old wine to new. (Lk 5:39)
In this passage, Jesus addresses the matter of fasting. In these verses, the followers of Jesus are concerned with the fact that Christ’s disciples do not follow the doctrines of fasting and praying often, while the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees do (Lk 5:33). Jesus responds through metaphor, asking them if they would make wedding guests fast while they are with the bridegroom, comparing himself to the bridegroom, and the disciples to the wedding guests (Lk 5:34). He answers that there come a time when the bridegroom will be taken away, and that will be the time for the wedding guests to fast (Lk 5:35). Here it is important to note that Jesus does not say that the bridegroom will leave, but that he will be taken away, alluding to the fact that he will soon be arrested and killed. When this happens, Jesus implies that then will be the proper time to fast, since the joyous presence of Christ will no longer be with them.
Jesus then continues to tell them a parable concerning cloaks and wine (Lk 5:36). He states that no one would tear a piece from a new cloak in order to mend an old one, for the new cloak would be ruined, and the piece would not match the old cloak, anyway (Lk 5:36). In other words, it does not make sense to compare a new practice—Jesus’ removal of the practice of fasting—with old dogmas, or the practice of fasting among the disciples of the Pharisees and John the Baptist. Jesus reiterates this point by saying that no one would put new wine into an old wineskin, because the skin would burst, leaving both the wine and the skin useless (Lk 5:37). Instead, Jesus states, the new wine must be put into the new wineskin (Lk 5:38). Jesus finishes this parable by stating that anyone who has been drinking old wine will not want the new wine, for they are already satisfied with the old (Lk 5:39). Through the second half of this parable, Jesus implies that new teachings and practices are only suited to those who have not yet become comfortable, or set, in their ways. This is proven through the statement that the person drinking the old wine would remark that the old wine is good: satisfied with the taste, or practices, that they have become accustomed to, they will not want for a change, since they have no need for it (5:39).
While this parable may seem somewhat clear through this explanation, the other synoptic gospels complicate the message of this passage. The synoptic gospels, as stated previously, are called such because of the many similarities, or parallels, that exist between the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Again, in order to illustrate this point, I will draw comparisons between this passage of Luke and its synoptic parallel in the gospel of Mark, through both the table below and a typed explanation.
Comparison of Synoptic Gospels
2:18 “The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast. People came to him and objected, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 2:19 Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. 2:20 But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. 2:21 No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak. If he does, its fullness pulls away, the new from the old, and the tear gets worse. 2:22 Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.”
5:33 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and the disciples of the Pharisees do the same; but yours eat and drink.” 5:34 Jesus answered them, “Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 5:35 But the days will come, and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days.” 5:36 And he also told them a parable. “No one tears a piece from a new cloak to patch an old one. Otherwise, he will tear the new and the piece from it will not match the old cloak. 5:37 Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined. 5:38 Rather, new wine must be poured into fresh wineskins. 5:39 [And] no one who has been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’ ”
As seen in the above table, the synoptic gospels of Luke and Mark have some parallels in this passage; it is the differences, however, that make Luke’s passage interesting. For example, the opening of the passage is only slightly different. Rather than asserting that Jesus and his disciples do not follow the fasting practices of the disciples of John and the Pharisees, the people in Mark’s passage pose this observation as a question (Lk 5:33, Mk 2:18). While this is only a subtle change, Luke’s writing presents the people confronting Jesus as being more accusing, rather than questioning. This creates a stronger sense of hostility from the people when compared to Mark’s version of the passage. Additionally, Luke’s passage lacks a verse in Mark’s gospel, which states, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast” (Mk 2:19). This verse implies that it is impossible for the wedding guests, or the disciples of Jesus, to fast during the joyous presence of Jesus. With regard to Luke’s passage, however, this sense of impossibility is absent, leaving only a suggestion that it would be wrong to fast while in the presence of Jesus.
There are also substantial differences between Mark and Luke in the telling of the parable. Regarding the cloth, Mark presents a more violent description of attempting to attach a new, or “unshrunken,” cloth to an old cloak: in Mark’s passage, an emphasis is placed on the fact that the application of the “unshrunken” cloth will make the tear in the old cloth worse, while Luke simply states that the two cloths will not match (Mk 2:21, Lk 5:36). This difference, including Luke’s use of the term “new” instead of “unshrunken,” denote a simple inability to mix old and new practices; Mark’s version implies a sense of conflict, to the detriment of the “old cloak,” or practices. Luke’s version of the parable also contains an additional verse concerning the wine. The passage concludes with the statement that the person used to the old wine will not want the new, while Mark’s passage does not have this line (Lk 5:39). The addition of this line in Luke’s gospel makes the message of the parable more explicit, perhaps Luke’s way of communicating the Word of God more easily to the people.
Barton and Muddiman also provide some insight into this passage, especially in regards to Luke’s closing line. The authors note that this line is “peculiar to [Luke, and] gives his reason for the Jewish failure to respond to Jesus’ new challenge,” which demonstrates Luke’s awareness in the radical nature of Jesus’ teachings in the face of Jewish tradition” (Barton, Muddiman 934). This also implies that Luke, because of this awareness, stressed the importance of transitioning completely into the new teaching of Jesus, rather than attempting to merge the old with the new, or simply remaining rooted in the old. Additionally, the author’s commentary of the synoptic parallel in Mark’s gospel states that the emphasis is placed upon the cross, demonstrated through the verse, “when the bridegroom is taken away,” which in turn stresses the importance of Jesus’ death (Barton, Muddiman 892, Mk 2:20). This difference between Mark’s and Luke’s writing further demonstrates the emphasis that Luke placed on the radical and important nature of Jesus’ teachings, and the need for people to accept them. The writers’ commentary also notes that, because John and the Pharisees were singled out as examples of fasting, “suggests that the fasting in question was taken on freely,” as well as implying that Jesus had close ties to the Pharisees (Barton, Muddiman 892). This lends more import to Luke’s version, which places the observation of Jesus’ lack of fasting as an assertion rather than a question, therefore adding more emphasis to the message of radical difference between Jesus’ new teachings and the old ways of Jewish tradition.
Such a message on the nature of the old and the new is not limited to biblical times, however. In contemporary society, the most obvious correlation can be drawn between this passage and the continued practice of Lent. While Catholics wait for the return of Jesus, the practice of “fasting,” or at least giving up something during Lent, is given greater import. The members of Catholicism can be viewed as the wedding guests in the passage, and have had their bridegroom, Jesus, taken away from them. Thus, the practice of fasting is now more important than ever, while Catholics wait for the joyous return of their savior. This assertion of having an appropriate time and a place for fasting can also be extended to the idea that there is a time and a place for everything: namely, the time for grieving, and for solemnity, should not be in anticipation for the loss of a joyous time, for that would ruin the period of celebration. Further, this idea on the nature of fasting implies that nothing, especially faith, should be eternally consisting of solemnity and suffering.
Additionally, the parable concerning the nature of the old and the new is also applicable to contemporary time. Specifically, this passage implies that tradition may be discarded in the face of changing times. This has already been demonstrated through the Church’s confrontation with the scientific theory of evolution, as well as the discovery that the Earth is billions of years old, rather than two thousand years. The fact that the Church has changed the interpretation of the Bible from literal to metaphorical in these instances could be compared to tearing a “piece from a new cloak to patch an old one” (Lk 5:36). The constant need to align traditional views with new, radically opposing views places stress on the Catholic religion, and the need to abandon some traditional interpretations and practices has become more necessary for the survival of the Catholicism in an increasingly secular society. Again, this section of the passage can also be applied in a secular context: tradition does not harmonize well with change, and in some instances it may be necessary to completely cast off the chains of convention and begin anew, so that something truly fruitful may be achieved.
Thus, although it may seem that differing versions among the synoptic gospels would cause confusion and an obfuscation of the message, it has been demonstrated that the opposite is in fact the case. Additionally, in looking past whether or not Jesus was quoted verbatim, as well as all of the connotations and preconceptions that have influenced my perception of Bible—by focusing simply on the text, as text and nothing more, I have been able to better explicate the nuanced teachings contained therein. A comparison between synoptic parallels has shown to not only strengthen the message of the gospels, but also to help determine its impact in the present day.
Barton, John, and John Muddiman, eds. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.
The New American Bible. Revised Edition. [Totowa, NJ]: World Catholic, 2011.