Matthew 9:14-15 (NRSVCE)
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
There are two major things happening in today’s reading. Firstly, there’s the disciples of John trying to trip Jesus up. They ask him why his disciples do not fast, with the implication being that fasting is good and therefore Jesus’ disciples must not be as holy as the Pharisees or the disciples of John, who fast often. They are putting Jesus in a position where he either has to reject fasting, which he cannot do because he himself fasted in the desert, or he has to undo the fasting of the Pharisees and the disciples of John, in which case they get to chastise him for being less holy than they are.
But Jesus doesn’t do either of those things. Instead, he says simply that this is not the time for fasting. The Pharisees and disciples of John fasted twice per week normally, but also even more periods of fasting were added for other things such as for good weather, or to stave off disease, famine, or war, etc. Jesus pins this all down to one thing: mourning. They fast because they mourn. They mourn the lack of rain, or the lack of food. They mourn for the days when Israel was not occupied, for when Israel was still in God’s favor. Jesus does not say they are wrong to mourn these things, which is certainly what they expected. Rather this is not the time for mourning. This is a time for celebration. It is akin to a wedding. After the celebration, after the bridegroom has left, the fasting can resume. But it’s not a fasting like what the disciples of John know.
What comes in the following verses (vv. 16-17), just beyond today’s reading, are a few images Jesus gives to illustrate why his disciples don’t fast like the disciples of John. The fasting they know is of the Old Covenant. It is like an old cloak. It served its purpose well, but you don’t attach a new piece of cloth to an old cloak. You make a new cloak. Similarly, you don’t pour fresh wine into an old wineskin. The wineskin will simply burst. Instead, you pour that wine into a new wineskin. This is the point Jesus makes of fasting. Even though his disciples will fast, when he is gone, it will not be the same as before he arrived. The purpose of fasting in the New Covenant is not the same. That’s not to say that fasting under the Old Covenant was bad (which, again, is what they expect Jesus to say), but rather that the fact Jesus has come fundamentally changes everything. He hammers the importance of that point home by calling himself the bridegroom.
The Pharisees and the disciples of John will recognize that image right away. It is straight out of Hosea 2. “And I will take you for my wife forever . . . and I will say to Lo-ammi, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’” This Jesus proclaiming his divinity. God has promised that one day the people will be taken up as the Bride. Jesus reveals here that now is the wedding. Now is the time in which the Church becomes wedded to her bridegroom. Now is the time for celebration.