Fasting (Mark 2:18-20)

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Gospel of Mark Title

Jesus and the Mob Boss

We’re going to talk about Mark 2:18-22, but let me set the context first.

Jesus is sitting at the table of Levi, also called Matthew, who has just left his Tax Collectors booth and has followed Jesus. They went to his home where Jesus sat down to eat with Levi and his friends. Somewhere around there were also a group called the Pharissees who had a serious problem with what Jesus was doing.

The Pharisees were a group of religious people who were always on Jesus’ case. They worked closely with the Scribes who were the lawyers and law-teachers of the day. They were the rule-keepers of Mosaic Laws and traditions, were the most educated, most pious, most respected, and were considered to be the elite of Jewish religious society.

They didn’t like tax collectors because in that time, the people who collected taxes were Jewish nationalists who were allied with the Roman government for their own profit and were backed up by Roman soldiers to squeeze people for more money which they took their commissions. Most people didn’t like Tax Collectors and to become one meant expulsion from your synagogue. They were considered to be thieves and traitors, so they hung out with other people who were just as hated and rejected by society.

Last Supper – Jesus is my Homeboy – David LaChapelle

This would have been one awkward party for Jesus to be in the middle of. To get a picture of the kind of party this was, picture Jesus sitting in the private section of a smoky night-club owned by a notorious mob boss. He’s surrounded by thieves, murders, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes. Some of the group goes out to the terrace to get some fresh air. Jesus and the crew lean up against the railing, are talking about various subjects and having a great time when down below walk a group of Pharisees and their disciples. They look up and see the famous Rabbi Jesus, the great teacher and miracle worker, the man of God, talking with some of the most notorious law breakers in the nation.

Last week we heard them ask the question, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (v 16), this week they ask another question. Let’s read it together:

“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’”

Jesus, You’re Doing it Wrong

Ever have a conversation in your head with someone? I can imagine the kind of conversation that was going on in the heads of these Pharisees. They were too cowardly to do this, but let me guess at what was going on in their heads at this moment:

“Jesus, what are you doing? Everything you do is so different, so strange, so wrong… so not like us. It’s like you don’t even know how to be a good person! You don’t associate with the right people. You’re a popular rabbi, and a powerful teacher, a worker of miracles, and yet you go right from that to partying with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and hot-headed fisherman. There you are, eating and drinking with the rejects of society and looking very comfortable there! Don’t you know what that does to a person’s reputation? I can’t remember the last time you hung out with the good people of the city… the religious people, the teachers, the rich folks… if you wanted to, you could be the best of them. And yet, you associate with such… such… dirty people. Just the other day I saw you touch a leper!

And then, just when we think we have you figured out, you turn around and spend the day eating at a Pharisees house with rich people and the Scribes, discussing religion and theology. So now even some of the rejects reject you!

You’re always doing things that make people upset. You could wait until Sunday or Monday to do your healings, and yet you seem to do most of them on the Sabbath… almost to spite the religious people! You’re not sensitive enough to how people feel, Jesus. You shouldn’t do things that upset people because then they won’t like you and you might lose friends, or even make enemies. You just don’t do ministry right!

And you don’t pray like you’re supposed to. You should do what we do. We have lots of memorized prayers that we do at the same time every day. The best of us stand on street corners and show everyone how great we are at praying! Don’t you know the best pray-ers actually make sure that they are in a public place when it comes time to pray? That way everyone can see them… they set a good example for others, Jesus! We’re not even sure that you do pray because you tend to run off to private places and then talk to God as though He’s someone you actually know personally. What brashness! What insolence! Who do you think you are? You should stick to the trusted, old ways and stop being so radical.

You clearly have supernatural power, but you don’t act very religious. And when you do finally do something religious, you don’t even do that right! Don’t you know that there are rules to how we do these things?

Perhaps you need a little education, Jesus, on how things are supposed to go: The scriptures only have one day that they command us to fast on. God told us in Leviticus (which is a book I know you know because you teach out of it all the time) to “afflict ourselves” on the Day of Atonement (Lev 19:29). We go without food, spend time in prayer, repent and humble ourselves before God. You have to realize, Jesus, that fasting is all about living out and understanding the disaster our lives are in. Look around Jesus! We need to mourn and wail and repent. It can’t get much worse.

Now, let me tell you something: Even though we only have to do it once a year, the really good people, the ones who really love God, the ones who are the best at this religion, fast twice a week! Every Monday and Thursday, like clockwork, all you have to do is look around and you can see all the religious, virtuous and moral people fasting. We know how devout and sanctimonious they are because many of them go right into the marketplace on the shopping days when people get their groceries, put ashes on their faces, wear itchy sackcloth and moan so loudly that it’s hard to have a conversation with the merchants. It’s those are people that are close to God, Jesus.

But do you know what? Now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you fast! And you call yourself a Rabbi! Look around you. It’s Thursday! And where are you? Having a banquet laid before you and eating with that tax collector Matthew! What is wrong with you? You need to conduct yourself in a better manner. People need to see how good you are or they won’t know how close to God you are! Good people set a good example, Jesus… you don’t set a very good example.

And do you know what? Even the disciples of John the Baptist, who never agree with us Pharisees about anything agree on this one! So you are clearly wrong, wrong, wrong! They prepare themselves for the arrival of the Messiah by repenting in sadness twice a week. We are in a mess, Jesus, and until God sends the Messiah, we are never getting gout of this one. You need to spend time preparing yourself for him. What if he comes? He’ll be looking for the most holy, most righteous, most religious people, right? That’s us – not you. I’ve got to ask you again Jesus, what are you doing?”

Why Jesus’ Disciples Didn’t Fast

Read from verse 19:

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.  The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.’”

It seems that every time Jesus did anything it challenged the way people thought about life, relationships, God, religion and everything else. This especially bugged the most religious people – like the Pharisees – because they thought they had it all figured out. The Pharisees thought life was all about looking religious so others would see, doing religious things to make God impressed with them, and living by the rules to show their devotion to God (which, when you think about, sounds like the advice a lot of people give to kids when they are growing up – “Say your prayers, read your Bible, be a good boy or girl”), and Jesus challenged them on that!

I’m not sure how many of us would have. That sounds like a recipe for success. Do good, look good, be good. But Jesus said that the motives of their hearts were far more important than their actions. They wanted to show the world how holy they were, Jesus said that even a good thing, if done for the wrong reasons, will be sinful.

That’s why His answer to the question the Pharisees posed is so important. He didn’t give them an answer about behaviour, He gave them an answer about motives.

John the Baptist and his disciples fasted because they were in mourning for the sin of the nation of Israel and in preparing for the Messiah’s coming. The Pharisees fasted because they wanted to show everyone their piety.

Why didn’t the followers of Jesus fast? Because long awaited Messiah was standing right in front of them. It wasn’t fasting time… it was feasting time! They were in the middle of the celebration of the wedding of the Lord and His Church. They didn’t need to fast to be closer to God, or mourn, or seek direction, or for a miracle, or to get spiritual power… Jesus was standing right in front of them!

Yes, one day Jesus would be taken from them. (Here Jesus points directly to His death on the cross.) Yes, there will be a time when His disciples will mourn, feel the touch of disaster, and desire to be closer to God… and that day would be after His crucifixion. They would truly mourn. They would be so hurt and distressed that they couldn’t eat if they wanted to. Their hearts would be broken, their plans shattered, and their hopes dashed… and they would truly fast – and would begin again their times of regular fasting. But this wasn’t that day! Here stood the Son of God, Messiah Jesus, teaching, alive, and working miracles right in front of them!

So there’s what’s going on around the table and the answer Jesus gives. His answer makes it pretty clear that the Pharisees have no idea who Jesus really is and are completely messed up when it comes to their reasons for fasting – and really, any religious thing they are doing. His answer also seems to say that fasting is meant to be something that we do today as well.

Are We Supposed to Fast Today?

So let’s ask that question: Are we supposed to fast today? Let me answer it this way: There is nowhere in scripture that commands Christians to fast. It’s not something that we have to do. Our salvation is contingent on two simple things: repentance and belief. We realize we are sinners, repent from sin (which means instead of loving our sin, we now hate it and don’t want to do it anymore) which leads us to ask forgiveness of God. We can only get that forgiveness through a belief in Jesus Christ as the One who took the punishment for our sins and then proved His power to save by rising from the dead. Anything above and beyond that is a false gospel. We do not need to fast.

However, the Bible does present fasting as something that can be good for our spiritual lives – when done with the right heart. It’s also basically assumed, all throughout the New Testament, that Christians will fast (Acts 13:2, 14:23). So to close, let’s look at how to do it properly.

1. What Is Fasting?

Fasting is voluntarily giving up something you do regularly so you can focus more time, energy and attention on God. Another way to put it is “fasting is feasting on God.” We are not merely denying ourselves something, but making the choice to fill ourselves up with something else. We move from filling our stomachs with food to filling our souls with the presence of God. We move from filling our eyes with entertainment to filling our mind with thoughts of worship and thanksgiving. We move from listening to music to listening to the voice of God. It is not merely an absence of one thing, but the exchange of something for something else that is better.

2. Who Fasts?

Many religions have fasting as part of their religious life. Ba’hai, Buddhists, Hindus, Islam and many others all have times of fasting as a part of their religious activity. This is sometimes why Christians avoid fasting because they think that it’s cultish. Therefore it’s important for Christians to know that we have a great heritage of fasting in the scriptures and the tradition of the church.

Who was the first person in the Bible to fast? Adam. For a period of time he voluntarily gave up eating a certain fruit so that he could be closer to God. It is only when he broke his fast that the relationship was broken.

Here’s a list of people we know fasted regularly: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna the prophetess, Paul, John, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Patrick Morley, Billy Graham, and many others today. Up until recently, fasting has been a big part of the Christian religion. It only really fell out of general favour during the Middle Ages when the church enforced rigid rules and some sub-sects fasted to excessive degrees where they included extreme pain and forms of self punishment. Essentially, they made the action more important than the reason for doing it. People stopped doing it because it lost its meaning.

It is having a little resurgence today among people who are tired of an empty, superfluous, superficial life, and who want to connect with a transcendent God who take them beyond what they see in the media, among their friends, and in their city and family.

3. Why do People Fast?

There are a number of reasons people fast. Here’s a few biblical reasons:

Repentance and Sorrow: In the Old Testament people fasted as a sign of repentance, mourning or humility before God. (Judges 20:26; 1 Kings 21:27; Ezra 8:21; Joel 1:14)  Nehemiah is a great example of this (Neh 4:1). Sometimes you have sinned, and you feel as though you cannot be forgiven. You want to feel the presence of God, and His touch in your life, because you need to know that He still loves you. This can be a time to fast in repentance.

Sometimes your heart is broken for other reasons – the death of a loved one, loss of a job, a son or daughter who has fallen away. This can be a time to fast in sorrow. Think of it as a coming to your Father in Heaven and allowing Him to be the only thing that fills you up.

Seeking Direction or Need: Ezra and Esther are examples of this (Ezra 8:22-23; Esther 4:16). Jesus fasted in the desert so He might focus more on God and be spiritually prepared for His confrontations with Satan. When there is a great need, and you desire either direction or a special intervention of God, sometimes it is proper to fast. This is not because God listens better when we are fasting, but because during a fast we are more concentrated on God. Fasting clears the cobwebs from our life, and gives us the time and focus to tune our minds, hearts and spirits towards God. God honours those who seek Him with all their heart – and one way we focus our hearts is to fast.

As a Regular Act of Worship: Anna the Prophetess and many in the early church are an example of this (Luke 2:36-37; Acts 13:2). Fasting is not just something we do when we are in need, but can be a regular part of our personal worship times. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about some of the ways we worship God. He says in Matthew 6:2, “when you give to the needy…” – giving is a natural part of worship and obedience to God. Next He says, “when you pray…” — prayer is also a regular part of worship and building our relationship with God. Next Jesus says, “when you fast” — fasting too is a natural, regular, important part of worshipping God. They are tied together. Now is it commanded? No. It’s more assumed than commanded.

4. How to Fast

– Check Your Heart: Jesus had a serious problem with people who performed religious activities without focusing their heart on God. Remember his answer to the Pharisees was about motives, not behaviour. So if you’re fasting to show people that you’re spiritual, don’t bother. If you’re trying to manipulate God by saying “I’ll fast and then you have to do something for me.”, don’t bother. If this is a way for you to go on a diet, then don’t bother. Get your heart right.

Remember, Jesus is more interested in your heart being right with Him and others than even with your worship. Matthew 5:23, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

God is more interested in your heart being loving and merciful than seeing you perform any kind of religious ceremony. Hosea 6:6, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

God isn’t impressed by our religious activity if our hearts aren’t right. Micah 6:6-8, “6 With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Don’t Be Legalistic: There are no “rules” to fasting. Some people get hung up on things like “If you drink juice then you’re not really fasting.” That’s not the point, is it? That’s what a Pharisee would say. The important thing is that you are taking time to give something up so that you can develop your relationship with God in a more focused way.

To Tell or Not to Tell: You can either tell someone or not – it’s your choice. Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-17, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. [17] But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, [18] that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

But in Acts 13:2-3 and 14:23 the Apostles and Elders of the church are all fasting together as a group so they can discern God’s will together.

Since you have checked your heart and you’re not doing it to impress God or others, you can keep it secret or tell someone so they can pray for you during that time. You’ll probably be under spiritual attack so you could use the prayer support anyway. You should tell your wife or husband so they don’t cook you dinner, or make plans to go out with you, and then you cause problems because you didn’t tell them you were fasting. Tell the person you meet for breakfast the next morning that you can be there, but you won’t be eating. (You still have to tip the waitress because you took up her table, ok?)

This also means that you shower, shave, clean up, and go about your normal activities without drawing attention to the fact that you are fasting. Keep it between you, God and your prayer partners. As soon as you do start advertising it you will lose the spiritual rewards.

Choose a Time: It’s not done for any particular length of time. You can fast anywhere from a part of a day to 40 days. If you’ve never done a food-fast before, I suggest you start small and work your way up. Try skipping a meal first, and then do 24 hrs from lunch to lunch. Take the time you normally would eat, and doing your best not to affect anyone else, use that time to pray, meditate, listen to Christian music, or read the Bible. Feast on God rather than Food.

What to Fast: Food is a great thing to give up, but it’s not the only thing. What about giving up listening to music or the radio in the car and talk to God instead? That’s a fast too. Give up a TV show, or some other evening activity for a time and spend some special time with God instead.

I made a quick list of things that you can fast: Internet, video games, TV (either one show, a sport you watch or the whole thing), movies, cell phone, desserts, eating out, non-bible reading, alcohol, secular music or radio, any kind of music or radio in the car, a hobby or craft, e-mail, texting, Facebook, twitter, salty foods, make-up, meat, candy, working on Sundays…

I made a quick list of things that you can fast so that you can spend more time focusing on God, repenting, seeking direction and worshipping Him. Each of these can be done for any period of time:

Ipod, Internet, Video games, TV (either one show, sport or the whole thing), cell phone, desserts, eating out, reading that is not the bible, alcohol, music or radio while in the car, movies, a hobby or craft, e-mail, texting, Facebook, twitter, salty foods, make-up, meat, candy…

Let me encourage you to take up the challenge and make fasting a regular part of your worship routine. Do it with the right heart and you will grow closer to God.