Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 13. A Time for Celebration ?
Mt 8:14,15 Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
Later on in Matthew, Jesus uses a full-blown parable about a wedding and the bridegroom, but here we have but a cursory reference to a bridegroom and are left to draw our own conclusions. This isn’t so much about the bridegroom as the circumstances surrounding him. This particular reference is immediately followed by two other analogies that all have the same thought behind them: there are times and seasons for doing certain things and we need to understand them.
This first one is provoked by John the Baptist’s disciples coming to see Jesus and they cross examine him on the apparent absence of spirituality of his followers. John, obviously, demanded a somewhat ascetic and austere lifestyle which included much prayer and fasting. If Jesus is the expected Messiah, as John had suggested, wouldn’t he demand at least as much from his followers?
Now I believe this verse 14 is as dynamic and explosive today as it was then. It challenges the true reality of spirituality: will you have a God-focused spirituality or a godless spirituality? You see, that latter one was very common then and is very common now. People shy away from the word ‘godless’ because it is normally used in quite a harsh way, but it simply means the absence of God in someone or something. As bizarre as it may sound, you can fast and be godless! How many people who fast, enquire of the Lord first to see if He wants them to fast? Fasting is one of those things (which is right when God says to do it) that so often can be almost a superstitious means of bending God’s arm to get Him to do what you think ought to be done. It can be a very ‘religious’ activity that is man-centred. Before we apply this more widely today, let’s see Jesus’ teaching.
He implies, and you have to be a bit slow not to see it, that he is the bridegroom and his followers are the guests at the wedding. Note in this analogy, believers are not the bride, although that is the wider teaching of the New Testament (e.g. Rev 19:7,8). Now nothing about Jesus’ ‘wedding’ is spelled out here, his listeners are just left wondering, but in general a wedding (even more so in those days where the celebrations might last for days) is a happy time, a time of great celebration, a time of much laughter and gaiety. Now none of those descriptions fit what we normally think about when we consider a time of fasting.
It’s almost as if Jesus might have said, “Guys, be serious. Think about this. What are your times of fasting like? Go on, be honest. They are serious times of abstinence and quite often that is a real discipline and a time of real natural weakness. Look around you and see what is going on here. The sick are being healed by their hundreds. Deaf people hear, dumb people speak, lame people walk, demoniacs are delivered and even sometimes the dead are raised. This is the kingdom of God in action and I tell you, none of these people standing around getting healed are going to stand there mournful and go away and have a time of fasting. They are into serious rejoicing!!!!”
So what sort of church do you and I belong to? What sort of Christian experience do we have? Where people are being regularly saved and their lives being transformed, where the sick are being prayed for and are healed, where God’s wisdom is being used to bring transformation to difficult and trying circumstances, where revelation comes to reveal the wonder of the kingdom of God, these will be places of constant rejoicing. Yes, there are appropriate times to seek the Lord and maybe even fast (and yes, I have done my share in the past), but actually WHEN Jesus is truly Lord and is expressing the kingdom of God through his ‘body’ today, then joy is the most common currency in the life of God’s people. If you are part of a body (the church) where there is little spontaneous rejoicing, it is probably because we are not letting Jesus be Lord and we are stifling his Holy Spirit and so are seeing little fruit of transformation.
Twice the apostle Paul spoke of God’s kingdom in these terms. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17) and “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Cor 4:20) When the power of God is expressed through Jesus’ present-day body, joy always follows. The opposite is also true: when joy is absent it is so often because of the absence of God’s power, the absence of Jesus moving in the midst.
This particular analogy is not about the relationship of the bride to the bridegroom, but it is about the nature of life with Jesus. It is life transformational and if it is not, we have lost something and there is indeed cause to grieve and to fast. When we start believing the New Testament and opening ourselves to be available to the Lord to move through, then transformation will come and it will bring with it rejoicing and celebrations, like those seen in a Jewish wedding feast. May it be so!