We should be mindful of what Jesus means about fasting in this Gospel. Jesus is always with us, “I am with you until the consummation of the world.”1 However, that does not mean we should never fast. The time of the bridegroom is the moment leading up to Christ consummating His union with His Bride, the Church. When Christ dies on the Cross, He says, “It is consummated” – it is finished, it is accomplished, it is fulfilled. It is at the moment of Christ’s death on the Cross that his marriage – becoming one flesh with the people He came to save – is consummated. The fruit of that consummated union is the new life of the resurrection – the recreation in grace of those who unite themselves to Him and to His Body the Church by faith.
For those of us who live after the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, we must fast to the extent we can. Fasting is required by Church Law at times, recommended at other times, and left to personal discretion the rest of the time. Fasting is best undertaken as a regular practice – daily or weekly. Fasting is not a form of self imposed torture, it is a discipline that strengthens our resolve in the struggle against sin and temptation. To paraphrase St. Benedict, if you never refuse unnecessary pleasures, you will be unable to turn away from sinful ones. The simple fact of eating (independently of what kind of food we eat) is pleasurable. If we can delay when we eat every day – each according to their state in life, their constitution, and their desire to be united with Christ – we will do what Jesus said we would.
“the disciples of John:”
Matthew omits the Pharisees as questioners (see Mark 2:18) but includes them in the direct question. The fasts in question were most likely private fasts undertaken for devotional purposes (as in Matt 6:16–18). According to Didache 8:1 the “hypocrites” fast on Monday and Thursday. Therefore Christians should fast on Wednesday and Friday.2
The second issue for debate (Matt 9:14–17) concerned private fasts undertaken as acts of piety, not the solemn fast of the Day of Atonement (see Lev 16:31–34) or public fasts proclaimed in times of national emergency. It seems that Jesus did not instruct his disciples to observe a regimen that included religious fasting at specific times. In Matthew’s account the questioners are the followers of the ascetic John the Baptist. Other Jews are known to have fasted regularly on Mondays and Thursdays (see Didache 8:1). Furthermore, it seems that after Jesus’ death early Christians also adopted a similar pattern of fasting. The Christian solution to this tangle was that the public ministry of Jesus constituted a special time—the time of the bridegroom—and that therefore fasting was inappropriate. But after Jesus’ death fasting was again acceptable for Christian Jews.3
The passage also provides an important perspective on how Matthew perceived the Christian movement with respect to Judaism. For him it was the way in which Judaism could be preserved (9:17). Its preservation could happen only if the program of “mercy” was followed and not the program of “(Temple) sacrifices” (9:13)4
9:14–17 The disciples of John the Baptist continue as a group after their master’s imprisonment (4:12). Given John’s commitment to an ascetic way of life (3:4) that included fasting (11:18), they perhaps look with suspicion on Jesus’ disciples for feasting with sinners and tax collectors (9:10), and question whether they are truly committed to pursuing righteousness.
In response, Jesus describes himself as a bridegroom, thus applying to himself an Old Testament image for God in his relationship to Israel (Isa 62:4–5). A wedding feast is a very joyous occasion, and the mournful tone of fasting would not be fitting as long as the bridegroom is with them. In the future Christ’s disciples will fast, when the bridegroom is taken away from them. This is Christ’s first hint of his passion, echoing Isa 53:8.5
Philoxenus of Hierapolis:
In the beginning of our youth, when as yet our foundation is new and we are still strong, and our vigor has not been made old by sin, let us put within ourselves the new wine of the doctrine of Christ. In this way, we may be zealous in our love of Christ’s doctrine, and hold fast to it so that we may ourselves be preserved through it from all evil things.6
- Mt. 28:20
- Harrington, D. J. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. (D. J. Harrington, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 126). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
- Harrington, D. J. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. (D. J. Harrington, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 128). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
- Harrington, D. J. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. (D. J. Harrington, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 129). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
- Mitch, C., & Sri, E. (2010). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 134–135). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
- Williams, D. H., & Wilken, R. L. (Eds.). (2018). Matthew: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators. (D. H. Williams, Trans.) (p. 191). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.