Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the Bridegroom is with them? (Matt 9:15) | Can the wedding guests fast while the Bridegroom is with them? (Mark 2.19) | Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? (Luke 5:34)
Jesus has been inviting people to follow him. His most recent disciple was someone who would have been far from universally accepted among “good religious folk” – he plied a trade that was widely known to be marked by endemic corruption and a tool for the political and economic abuse of the local people by a distant elite and their cronies. The inclusion of this Matthew fellow was already a bit off… and now Jesus is attending what seems to be a party… at this notorious person’s house, with a bunch of sketchy people (Mat 9:10-11), and on a day when all the “righteous” folk were observing a fast.
Needless to say, Jesus hears about this – from multiple fronts: both the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist (who apparently have picked up many of his ascetic ways) clearly think that Jesus should be paying more attention to “following the rules” – of course, following the rules that THEY were following. Jesus challenges them right back by posing a question that as embedded within it a story: of a wedding and the party(!) surrounding it. What?
Stop for a minute to consider why both these groups (it’s rather surprising, given their respective histories) to have them lumped together in opposition to Jesus) were so interested in what sounds to us like emphasizing ritual and ceremony. Why was this so important to them?
Well, such “observances” were what marked the faithful Jew from those outside the covenant. Strict adherence to Torah (and the layers of regulations that showed people how Torah was to be applied in everyday life) was an unmistakable sign that you were “in.”
The question Jesus asks turns that whole picture on its head… Casting himself in the role of the Bridegroom (i.e., the host of the biggest festivities in town), he invites his challengers to see themselves in the roles of the honored guests and partygoers… or else as those on the outside, looking in on the event. “You guys are so keyed up on being “in” that you are going to miss OUT on the party!”
The question itself assumes an implied parable. How is it that Jesus like a bridegroom? What images would Jesus’ applying that picture to himself presented to his interlocutors? Was he thinking of something from Scripture? (We might find ourselves thinking about the imagery of the Church being the “bride”… but those texts hadn’t been written or inspired yet.)
Was Jesus thinking of a line from Isaiah in which God describes the once-rejected Israel, with this image: “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” (Isa. 62:5) Or perhaps the culmination of the story of the prophet Hosea, whose wooing back of his unfaithful wife was emblematic of the relationship between God and his covenant people? Or was he merely thinking about the big party at the wedding in Cana, where he kept the wine flowing (and posed the question about keeping a “line of sight” to his deeper purposes), and seeing that people needed more of that?
You wouldn’t tell jokes at a funeral, would you? You wouldn’t go as an honored guest to a banquet and then turn up your nose at the food and refuse to share in the festivities, would you? You would just bum everybody out… it’s not like people, particularly the wedding couple, would RESPECT you for it. How silly! How can you think of “ritual self denial” when the guest of honor is raising his glass to toast a feast?
I know you’re thinking that you are going to get to (or be seen as closer to) the Eternal by keeping these fast days, right? But look what’s actually happening… the “party” has started: the kingdom is breaking in – the broken are being made whole, the nations are coming in. Do you want to miss out on this?
There are no shortage of things that we pursue in an attempt to visibly “set ourselves apart from the world.” (Now, don’t get me wrong… I know that, as Jesus followers, our relationship to this world and its system HAS decisively changed…) I’m speaking of things we do (or don’t do) that we figure will “mark us off” as being God-followers. “Don’t drink, smoke or chew or run with girls who do,” “Dress up and go to church on Sunday,” or “Don’t go to movies” were big in my youth. A more contemporary “boundary marker” of being a “proper godly person” might be to make a big deal (speaking much and loudly) about certain social issues: you can bad-mouth marriage equality if you’re big on a god of holiness / or if your god is justice, you can savage the evil of those who profit from and generate the evils of income inequality.
The funny thing is – such markers would be perceived identically by those in the world whether we were truly people of living faith or whether we were just phonies and reprobates.
Could it be that Jesus is asking me to step outside of my own perception of what I need to be doing to “take a stand for God” and, instead, be listening for him to point out the way the Kingdom is actually breaking in right around me?
Following Jesus’ lead in engaging others – particularly those with whom you are not united – try painting a word picture of what they might consider and ask them what they think of it. Instead of just telling them they’re wasting their time – that they should be seeing things your way – maybe you can help them to reframe their concerns with a question that invites them to unpack a story or a well-chosen metaphor. That just might open a productive path for further engagement.