“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.'” –Matt. 9:14-15
I nervously shifted on the couch. The drive to the church from the high school hadn’t been long enough and now I sat, hoping my peers would wax eloquent in their response to the question.
“What are you giving up for Lent?”
She asked the same question every year on Ash Wednesday. Why did youth bible study have to be on Wednesday, like it’s some kind of Minor League Sabbath? Still, it’s a simple enough question.
“Sweets,” a friend around the room chimed in. “Me, too” her friend echoed. Approving looks abounded, the ice was broken, no turning back.
My mind raced: What would be appropriately painful (and impressive) while not repeating last year’s fast. There must be some rule: Thou must not repeat thy Lenten fast. I’d given up pop (or soda, if you prefer) before, desserts weren’t my thing anyway, so giving them up was as easy as sleeping in on Saturday.
I half heard the other responses, ticking off the degrees of separation between me and the harrowing question.
“I’m adding on helping mom with the dishes every night.”
“Fried food.” (as if us teenagers could bring in the kingdom of God by watching our waistlines and washing some dishes).
“Pop,” the word shot from my mouth. And just like that it was over. I was committed. As soon as I said it, I knew I had broken the unwritten “Thou shant repeat” rule, but it was the best I could do. Not enough time to prepare, live with the consequence.
That was my ritual most Ash Wednesdays growing up. Looking back, it wasn’t so bad. Dr. Pepper was my drink of choice, so every time I turned it down, I thought about Lent, about fasting.
Pious and non-pious, or The Pharisees and Jesus
I wonder what Jesus would have said, were he in that upper room with us, “I’m not fasting this year.” To which we might reply with the Pharisees, “Then why do we have to fast?
For the Pharisees and John’s disciples, fasting was an
important necessary practice; any pious person would agree. Fasting was a box in their piety checklist, which Jesus didn’t fulfill.
Karl Barth, preached on this passage, “They [Pharisees] were always there [with Jesus], and they were the most difficult hindrance standing in the way of the Savior. So the most difficult hindrance lay not in the malice of worldly persons but in the righteousness of the children of God“.‡
Nobody doubted the righteousness of the Pharisees, or even John’s followers, but those groups doubted Jesus.
But notice Jesus’ response, or lack thereof. He doesn’t make excuses for himself or try to out-Pharisee the Pharisees (“How long have you guys been fasting? I fasted for 40 days and nights!). Jesus simply accepts their accusations.
How could his disciples
mourn fast when they enjoyed the presence of the Son of God? The Pharisees (and John’s disciples, and maybe we) couldn’t accept that bit of good news. So, they gritted their teeth and fasted harder, begrudging Jesus’ lighter yoke all the while.
Here’s Barth’s imagined word from Jesus to the Pharisees:
In the fine points you are very meticulous because you do not yet know the great gift that can now be given human beings. You bring God sacrifice because you have not yet experienced God’s mercy. You prepare the way for the kingdom of God so avidly, with pick and shovel, because it has not yet come to you. Because you have not yet found the God you seek…Our of this great affliction, out of this painful privation, come your fasting and all the other things that are so important to you, and finally your damnation of me. Out of humanity’s great distress, but not about God’s Savior, comes your piety. Oh, you may keep your opinion about your fasting, so go on, keep doing what you are doing as long as you must, but do not forbid others to go a different way because the affliction and distress have been taken from them.‡
Fasting (from food, media, t.v., fermented beverages, caffeine, pop) can be a powerful and transforming exercise. But if you’re like me, you can’t be reminded enough that fasting isn’t earning.
We may be walking through the desert, but the good news of Lent is that “Jesus does what we cannot do. For us.”
Fast as much as you can (even if it is a repeat), but don’t take it too piously. All that fasting is a long preparation for a grand feast, just on the other side of Lent.
‡ The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon, Karl Barth and William H. Willimon, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.