People have trouble accepting those who are different. When someone marches to the beat of a different drum, we are forced to ask questions about them and ourselves. Jesus' outreach to sinners was a different way of doing things, and so was his approach to traditional customs of piety.
Finally the Pharisees get up the nerve to ask why Jesus' disciples do things differently. Of course, they are really asking about Jesus. He is their major concern. When it comes to ascetic practices like fasting, Jesus is not like the Pharisees, or even like his forerunner John the Baptist. So Jesus' meal with sinners is not the only thing that bothers the leadership. He hangs out with outsiders and he does not follow the usual practices of piety. Why is that?
Specifically, they ask him about fasting and prayer. The ancient practice of fasting had a rich heritage in Judaism. It was a highly regarded act of worship. The Day of Atonement was celebrated with a fast (Lev 16:29, 31). A four-day fast commemorated the fall of Jerusalem (Zech 7:3, 5; 8:19). Fasts could be acts of penitence (1 Kings 21:27; Joel 1:14; Is 58:1-9) or could be associated with mourning (Esther 4:3). Pharisees fasted twice a week, on Monday and Thursday (8:12; Didache 8:1; Behm 1967a:924-35). Fasts are serious expressions of worship.
Jesus' reply not only explains why his community does not engage in such practice but makes an additional point about what his presence represents. Jesus' simple answer is that now is the time not for fasting but for celebration. He compares himself to a bridegroom at the time of his wedding. His presence marks the beginning of a new era. You do not fast at a wedding! The marital imagery pictures God's relationship to his people in the Old Testament and in later Judaism (Is 54:5-6; 62:4-5; Jer 2:2; Ezek 16; Hos 2:14-23; 4 Ezra 2:15-41). But nowhere in Judaism do we have the image of the Messiah as bridegroom. The New Testament uses this imagery often (Mt 22:2, 25:1; Lk 12:35-36; Eph 5:22-33; Rev 19:7; 21:2). Jesus is saying that the present is a special time to celebrate the arrival of a new point in God's plan. Later, when the bridegroom is removed (4 Ezra 10:1-4), there will be time to fast. This reference to removal is Jesus' first hint that rejection will come. Then there will be need for reflection and fasting. People will long for the ultimate redemption that the bridegroom's initial arrival promised (Rom 8:17-30; 1 Cor 15:20-28; Rev). Jesus does not regulate or legislate fasting. He says simply that it will become appropriate again.
But Jesus does not stop there. He drives home the point that his presence represents something new in God's plan, calling for a new way of ordering the spiritual life. Luke 5:36-39 gives three pictures, what Luke calls a parable (parabole), to make the point.
Jesus is like a new piece of cloth. No seamstress worth her salt would take a new piece of cloth and patch it onto an old garment. Such a match produces two problems. The new cloth will tear the old, and the pieces of material will not match. There is irony here: the patch that is supposed to fix the garment would end up ruining both. This new era Jesus brings simply cannot be wed to the old practices. It is new and requires new ways.
The second picture involves wine and wineskins. In the first century, wineskins would have been made of goatskin or sheepskin taken from the neck area of the animal (Gen 21:14-15; 19; Ps 119:83). Again, the result of putting new wine into old skins would be disaster, a tragic waste of wine. The new wine would ferment and cause the old wineskins to burst—the new wine would then be lost and the wineskin rendered useless.
There can be no syncretism between what Jesus brings and the old tradition of Judaism. If it were tried, both would be destroyed. Jesus brings a new era and a fresh approach to God that cannot be mixed with the old traditions. In many ways the book of Acts is the historical outworking of this point. The gospel is a new way, so the practices of Judaism cannot contain it. This is why Luke will later call Jesus a prophet like Moses (Lk 9:35; Acts 3:12-26; see Deut 18:15). Jesus, like Moses, is the leader-prophet of a freshly formed community of God, revealing the new ways the new movement requires.
So new wine must be poured into new wineskins. Jesus' presence requires a new way, new forms and a new spirit. Even when fasting continues after the bridegroom is gone, it will be different. It will always be done in hope of his return.
Next Jesus faces the possibility of rejection. His third picture involves someone satisfied with the old wine: "No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, `The old is better.' " This is probably a warning and an explanation. Jesus knows that some, especially among the Pharisees, will not come to him, because they are satisfied with the wine they have. Nothing will change their mind. Rejection by some is inevitable. Jesus' presence means a choice between him and the old style of Judaism. With Jesus' presence things are different. To mark the difference, Jesus does not fast. New times require fresh ways.
Jesus does not specify here exactly what makes his way new. The association with practices of eating and fasting suggests that piety motivated by law and tradition may well be in view. The new dynamic Jesus brings will rely on the Spirit of God (Acts 10:34-43; 15:1-21). Things done merely for the sake of tradition will not be persuasive anymore. Jesus' new way brings freshness and a dynamic, responsive quality to our walk with God.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.