Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Mark 2 18-22

and the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast
and they come and say unto him,
"why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast,
but thy disciples fast not?"

and Jesus said unto them,
"can the children of the bride-chamber fast,
while the bridegroom is with them?
as long as they have the bride-groom with them,
they cannot fast.
but the days will come
when the bride-groom shall be taken away from them
and then shall they fast in those days." 

In the early 1970s a certain Rabbi was conducting a Passover ceremony in a certain synagogue in a well-heeled part of Beverley Hills. According to the tradition, the youngest member of the congregation asked "Why is this day different from all others?" Before the Rabbi could give the liturgical response, the unmistakable voice of Julius Marx — Groucho — growled "Because I'm here" from the back of the room.

Religions sometimes involve deliberately having a bad time because you think it is good for you, or because you think it will please God. Protestants give up luxuries in Lent. Muslims fast during Ramadan. Catholics put a small piece of barbed wire in their underpants to remind them of the crucifixion. [Check this - Ed.]

So "Why aren't your disciples fasting?" is a perfectly reasonable question for the religious theoreticians to ask Jesus. The people listening would have probably expected Jesus to give an answer along the lines of "Because it's not Yon Kipur". The disciples of the Pharisees were probably keeping a customary or traditional fast, over and above what was required by the Torah. The disciples of John the Baptist were probably on a strict "insect and honey" diet, because that's how they rolled. So all Jesus needed to say was "My disciples follow God's word; not a lot of secondary traditions and accretions."

But he doesn't. Instead, he turns up the volume by another notch. Last week it was "I will show you who has authority to send sins away..." This week it is "No one fasts during a feast. As long as I am here, everyone is deemed to be at a party." 

—Why aren't your disciples fasting?
—Because I'm here.

It is very tempting to infer a story line in which the question about fasting follows on directly from the question about socializing with sinners. This may be why the Authorized Version places the question in the imperfect tense ("the Pharisees used to fast") where almost every other version goes with the past continuous ("the Pharisees were fasting.") If the Pharisees were fasting, then it makes no sense for them to be at Levi's dinner party. But if Mark is simply reminding us that fasting is something which Pharisees did from time to time then they might perfectly well have raised the subject over dinner.

Of course it is tempting to read the text in that way. "Why are you eating with sinners? And come to that, why are you eating at all?" But I think we stay truer to Mark's style if we think of him saying "One time, the Pharisees challenged Jesus about mixing with sinners. Another time, when there was a fast on, they asked him why his students weren't observing it..."

no man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment
else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old
and the rent is made worse.
and no man putteth new wine into old bottles
else the new wine doth burst the bottles
and the wine is spilled
and the bottles will be marred:
but new wine must be put into new bottles.

If it is a mistake to link all of Mark's little Jesus-stories into a single narrative thread, then it is also a mistake to think of Jesus's reported sayings and parables as forming a logically connected argument. Mark gives us Jesus's proverb about fasting at weddings; and then he gives us Jesus's mini-parable about patching clothes. If we are not careful we will imagine Jesus saying "No-one fasts while the couple are still at the wedding party; and from that it follows that you shouldn't patch an old suit with new material; so in conclusion, you shouldn't put new wine in old bottles." I think we are better off thinking of the different sayings as disconnected aphorisms; like a series of proverbs or I-Ching oracles. Mark is not saying "Let me summarize the main points of the Master's thesis; try and follow." He is saying "The Master said this. Another time, the Master said this. And here is a third thing the Master said. Listen to them carefully."

Sayings like "Only sick people go to the doctor" and "the wedding reception isn't over until the newlyweds leave" seem almost self-evident: more like popular proverbs than the voice of God. But once you start to think about them, they become more elusive. Is Jesus saying "Yes, indeed: tax collectors are sinners and need me to cure them. And yes, indeed the Pharisees truly are righteous and don't need my help." Or is he saying something more like "Well, okay... If you Pharisees are so morally healthy that you don't need  a doctor, I am sure you are right..."

But this third saying is rather baffling. I had to struggle to get my head round the basic imagery.

Wine ferments; as it ferments, it gives off gas. So if you put your wine down in a glass bottle, you seal it with  a cork to allow it to "breathe". A screwtop bottle could explode. If you are using wineskins made of leather, the leather stretches while the wine ferments. But leather can only expand so far. So if you reuse your wine skins—if you put unfermented grape juice in skins that have all ready been stretched—then as the wine gives off gas, the skin can't expand any further and "pop" the skins burst. Wasted wine, ruined wineskins. New wine goes in new bottles. Good. 

Similarly, cloth shrinks. So if you patch a well worn, shrunken coat with some new, unshrunken cloth, the patch gets smaller and the hole gets bigger. Wasted cloth, ruined coat, egg on face. Fine. 

But what follows from this? And does it in any way relate to the question about fraternizing with bad people on the one hand, or fasting on the other? 

A new thing is happening, or about to happen, and this new thing won't fit into the old containers. But what is this new thing? The idea that bad people need to repent? The idea that good and bad people can share a meal together? The idea that irksome religious duties are temporarily on hold? And what is the old container, which is about to get broken. Or torn. The synagogues? The interpretive traditions of the pharisees? Judaism itself? 

The House Church movement used to love this passage. Our new speaking in tongues and faith-healing won't fit into your old prayer book! We can't patch your dreary old organs with out exciting electric guitars! Come down to the mission hall and hear about how our new non-denominational denomination isn't going to have any buildings at all! Our new wine won't fit into your old bottles! We used to sing a worship song (as opposed to a hymn) which went "Come on in and taste the new wine/the wine of the kingdom/the wine of the kingdom of God..."

Is this the kind of thing Jesus is saying? My new faith is fluid and dynamic and your old faith is stretched to bursting point and full of holes?

There is certainly a lot of symbolism around wine in the Jewish faith, and there will be a lot of symbolism around wine in Christianity; but has Jesus actually said that the New Wine represents the Kingdom? And are we sure we know what the Kingdom is? And in any case, isn't old wine better than new wine? Isn't that kind of the point of wine? 

So: that's what I think we should take away from this passage, dramatically and narratively. 

Jesus's teaching was hard. Jesus's teaching was baffling. Sometimes Jesus spoke in proverbs that seem so obvious you feel you must be missing the point. Sometimes Jesus spoke in riddles that left everyone scratching their heads. 

If we go away from this passage thinking "What did he mean? What did he mean?" then we've probably understood it tolerably well.


Harry Payne said...

Thanks. As well as some thoughts to ponder on, I now have that song bouncing around in the back of my head - including remembering that it included the line "He longs that men should stand beneath the fountain of His grace", which is rather non-inclusive for a "New wine, new wineskins" song from the 80s.

Andrew Rilstone said...

If there was one thing the house church movement was not well known for, it was inclusiveness.

(I wonder if they still make women wear, er, hijabs.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think I had forgotten the full horror of it:


Andrew Rilstone said...

A religious song to cleanse your palette...


Aonghus Fallon said...

Whatever his intentions, the metaphor turned out be quite prophetic (!) - that, or his followers acted on his advice.* The bible is divided into the old testament and the new. The new bit is in the new section and the old bit is in the old section, with no attempt to incorporate one into the other. Make of this what you will.

* or (a third possibility) this metaphor was introduced retrospectively to explain why the bible is divided into two sections.

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Jesus teachings won't just form a commentary or appendix to the Jewish Scriptures; they are going to need a whole new volume of their own" is a very possible reading of the passage.

However, the consensus date for Mark (66-70) is way too early for there to be a concept of "Old Testament" and "New Testament" as two sections of the Bible.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Your first interpretation sounds fine to me.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that wine in the Roman world wasn't quite the same as the wine that we know. It wasn't fermented for long, and the alcohol content was lower. They gave watered-down wine to children, so probably it was sweet, and perhaps more like lightly-fermented grape juice. So the authors of the gospels might not have thought of aged wine as being prestigious.