The story featuring the question to Jesus about fasting is the third in a series of five stories of conflict (Mark 2:1-3:6). The first two stories (the healing of the paralyzed man, Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners) celebrate the power and scope of forgiveness in the kingdom (2:1-17), while the last two (the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath) have to do with the prominence of mercy over sacrifice (2:23-3:6; Matthew 12:7/Hosea 6:6).
Because these four stories all challenged the status quo, the story about fasting comes in the middle because with its new patches and new wineskins it sets out the incompatibility of the kingdom with the ritualistic religion that Judaism had deteriorated into. The kingdom brought the joy of a wedding (2:19), while self-righteous approach of the Pharisees was more like a funeral (Higgins).
With that in mind, the story featuring new patches and new wineskins is the pinnacle story of the section and that probably explains why it is the center story. It is a mountain top that rises above the other stories to remind us of the mercy, forgiveness, and joy that characterize the kingdom of God (Romans 14:17).
Disciples today need to take this to heart. Whenever our faith becomes more about what we’re doing than what God is doing, our joy will shrivel up and die. Take fasting for example. It would be wrong to conclude from this that disciples shouldn’t fast. Not only does this contradict the story (2:20), but it’s also at odds with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:16-18.
Fasting is a healthy practice then, but only when it is done in the right way (Jesus’ point in Matthew 6:16-18). And much like the Sabbath, we shouldn’t view it as a burden, but as a blessing—something that can actually bring liberation to our lives in the same way the Sabbath was meant to.
All of this is instructive because it underscores the principle that while life in the kingdom is certainly about what we do, it is also very much about how we do what we do. We can choose to do what we do with joy and grace because God’s reign of forgiveness and mercy has been ushered in through Jesus, or we can live like none of that has happened.
As I write this, it has been raining fish in Texas. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s hard to believe but it’s true, small fish were apparently sucked into a waterspout and returned to earth later via rainstorms. Can you imagine the turning on the news and the weather person says, “There’s fish in the forecast for tomorrow. Looks like you’ll be needing your umbrella and your fish net.” But of course, that’s not going to happen because it was an outlier, an oddity.
The even greater oddity is how some people will gladly accept fish falling from the sky but they will never choose to believe in the glories of God’s kingdom.
Don’t be that person.