Mathew 9:14 “Then John’s disciples came and asked him (Jesus), how is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
This question was posed by John’s disciples. John the Baptist spent his days proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. In John 1: 29 we read “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ This is the one I meant when I said, a man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me. I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Wouldn’t we presuppose that John’s and Jesus’s disciples would be more in agreement. Instead, John’s disciples sound more like the Pharisees here, who in a few verses prior asked Jesus why he sits and has dinner with sinners and tax collectors? (Mathew 9: 11).
Being John’s disciples, following, listening and learning from the one whose life was dedicated to preparing the way for Jesus and proclaiming his coming, would lead us to assume that they would be more rapt with attention when Jesus spoke or did anything.
In the Mosaic law, fasting on the day of atonement was required (Leviticus 16:19:31). After the Babylonian exile, four other yearly fasts were observed by the Jews (Zec 7:5, 8:19). But this practice of fasting twice a week as done by the Pharisees (Luke 18:12) and as we see the disciples of John do, was more so a tradition of seeking God to bring about the complete restoration of his people and his reign. It was not a requisite that was commanded by the law.
Not a necessity according to the law but rather a choice, why then comes the assumption and therefore the question to Jesus’s disciples about not doing the same as them.
This exchange if brought to today would feel similar to a conversation between Christians who hold firm to differing views and practices that they deem synonymous with righteous living, which can unfortunately often be used as standards to judge others.
This practice of fasting turned out to be a source of pride among the Pharisees as we read in Luke 18:12 where the Pharisee boasts of fasting twice a week in his prayer in the temple. Although we do not read of John’s disciples seeming boastful of it, we do get the sense that they regard it as imperative to righteous living.
Jesus himself did fast, in Mathew 4 we read Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. Jesus does not emphasise the need to fast for public display but rather for personal and spiritual benefits.
In Mathew 6:16-18 Jesus says “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is does in secret, will reward you.”
Did the practice of fasting for John’s disciples unknowingly become a parameter for righteous living?
John’s disciples probably became quite accustomed to observing a regular fast and stumbled in their thinking when they had to look beyond giving emphasis to the practice of fasting rather than to the reason they did it.
What qualifies as something that is truly good for us? Is it reading God’s word and putting it into application or is it the practices that help us do that consistently and continuously? Do we tend to blur the line between the two?
Jesus does not teach us to do things because we are expected to, instead it is in response to His love and grace for us, His presence in our lives and our love and obedience for Him.
In response to the question posed by John’s disciples, Jesus points back to His presence with them. “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them.” (Mathew 9:15).
Seeking His presence every day, walking closely with Him, listening and learning from Him and following what the Lord ask of us should always take priority. Having those daily disciplines and practices in our life are good but let not practicing them take precedence over the very reason we do them – seeking God and becoming more Christ like.
We instil disciplines to grow us spiritually, to enable us to walk closer and more in obedience to Jesus. Let not those disciplines become a source of pride like the pharisees did or use it as a measuring stick to deem if someone is living righteously or not. That is purely between each person and God. We are no one to assume if anyone else is right with God or not. God is the one who is privy to our hearts, motives and our desires. Just as only a small section of the iceberg is visible above the water level in comparison to what is beneath the surface, so is what is displayed on the outside in one’s life.
So, may we focus on the main thing, Jesus. Be not quick to assume someone else’s standing in faith but remember to be humble about our own journey and prayerfully be open to listen and learn from those that God puts across our path. And let not those habits that enable us to walk with diligence on our faith journey become more vital than the reason we started them – seeking to grow spiritually and to be a welcoming light for Christ.