This verse is one that has intrigued me for over a decade. I still don’t get quite get it. I think it’s apparent that Jesus is saying that change happens and that we need to continue to evolve as a community of people in context with what is happening in the world around us, and that often means saying goodbye to customs, traditions, and rituals that we love but which may have outlived their usefulness. I also think Jesus is getting at something that is easy for us to miss and if we do, can be detrimental to our effectiveness in opening up the love and grace of Christ to new people: That is that many of our customs are not an end, but means to an end. This passage comes in the context of a question to Jesus about why his disciples don’t fast. And he essentially says, “because right now is not a time for fasting” (my paraphrase).
There is merit to digging into all that he meant by this in terms of the “bridegroom metaphor” that follows, but I think there is a more generalized point to which we constantly need to be paying close attention. By confessing that “no, my disciples don’t fast” Jesus is saying that fasting, while good and right, is not essential. Fasting was merely a means of connecting to the Spirit of God, but the people had gotten so used to doing it that they started to believe that it was essential- that it was a command of God- that one was not a good Jew if they didn’t fast. I think part of what Jesus is saying here is that we need to hold all of our customs loosely. They are merely means to an end, not an end themselves. They are vehicles by which we connect to God. Everything we do in worship, in our devotional lives, and in our small group communities are means to a greater end, and any of them are subject to one day outliving their usefulness. Because God is always up to new things, and sometimes those new things require a whole different vehicle.
So when Jesus says, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (Mark 2:19), he is saying, among other things, “fasting is not essential at all times and in all places.” As our culture shifts and changes at a rate like the world has never seen before, we as followers of Christ must hold the rituals and customs we love loosely while paying close attention to what God is doing, how God is moving, and how God is connecting with people. What are we doing to step in the flow of God’s activity in the world today? After all, the heavens have “torn open”. So too then do the wine skins that hold our tradition.
I believe God is doing something new with the Christendom today. I believe God has new wine, and we know it will burst our wineskins, so we’re holding back. It’s scary to let go. It’s scary to enter into uncharted waters. But I believe that’s what the Christian Church must do. Those new waters can be scary, but I believe that when we step into them, and courageously pick up our feet and let the current of God’s work carry us away, we will find that though they may be scary, and though we have to let go of much of what we’ve loved, those waters are good and right, and in them is liberation and salvation.