One day some people said to Jesus, “John the Baptist’s disciples fast and pray regularly, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees. Why are your disciples always eating and drinking?” Jesus responded, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
I find that the society I live in expects me to keep my faith quiet. Faith is increasingly regarded as a private thing and people seem to be offended if I practice it or display my beliefs openly. Talking about what I believe, especially as a doctor with patients, is seen as even more inappropriate, unprofessional, even unethical.
Yet Jesus and his disciples were always in the limelight. People saw the way they lived and asked questions. Theirs was a very public faith.
I believe there is nothing wrong with practising a “public Christianity.” We need not be ashamed or afraid, especially in Western society where freedom of religious belief is theoretically seen as a basic human right. There are forces that would silence us, hide us away. The challenge is to resist such forces and live our lives with Jesus openly, so that people can see the difference he makes, so that people ask questions, just as they did of Jesus. Even in our professional capacity as doctors there is no restriction on answering questions when people ask us why we are different.
Relationship before religion
People had a feeling that Jesus was reforming religion. The people around Jesus were religious people, and they put a lot of effort into performing the rites of their religion to the best of their ability. One religious observance that was common in those days was fasting, something that was seen as important by both Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist alike.
People couldn’t help noticing that Jesus never seemed to talk about fasting at all, and he appeared to neither fast himself nor exhort his disciples to do so. People seemed genuinely surprised that Jesus could ignore something so basic, so foundational, to all religion. They asked him why.
Jesus explained that the reason his disciples did not fast was because he was with them. He knew people would understand that there are times when fasting is not appropriate, such as at a wedding. At a wedding the focus is not religion but celebration. But more than that, at a wedding the focus is not religion, but relationships. We go to a wedding to celebrate a couple that we know and love, together with others who know and love them, not to practice religious disciplines.
Jesus was introducing a new kind of religion, a religion founded on the celebration of our relationship with God, a religion that was all about this relationship, and so therefore in some ways not a religion at all, but more like a marriage. Christians are often seen as too serious, and boring. Jesus showed that too serious and boring are not the kind of accusations that people will level at us if we understand the kind of religion he has introduced. People should accuse us rather of being too happy, too light hearted, too ready to celebrate.
And why? Because with Jesus came a new way of God being with us, and that is a reason to celebrate, to laugh and dance and sing.
So where does fasting fit in? Because Jesus did not say that fasting was unnecessary or no longer relevant. He certainly said that there is a time and a place when fasting is not appropriate, but that did not mean that it was never appropriate.
Jesus knows that we are religious beings. I would go so far as to say that God created us that way. Religion is important to people, even secular atheists have their beliefs and their rituals, based more on their needs as spiritual beings than any kind of scientific evidence.
Fasting is a religious activity, a practice that aims to bring us closer to God, to give us a clearer understanding of who he is and what he wants, for us and for the world. There are times, like a wedding, when we seem very close to Jesus, our bridegroom, when very little effort is required for us to see him, to hear him, to experience his presence. Those are times of celebration, just like a wedding.
But the reality is that there are times when the bridegroom seems far away, and we struggle to see his face, hear his voice, feel his presence, even though Jesus has promised to be always with us. Fasting at those times brings us closer to him. Jesus said simply, “someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
Where we find ourselves just now will decide whether we will be celebrating or fasting. Neither is better, but celebrating is certainly easier, and more fun.