gospel according to mark

The question of fasting

2:18 The disciples of John and those of the Pharisees were fasting. They came and said to Jesus, “Why do those who follow John or the Pharisees keep fasts but your disciples do nothing of the kind?”

2:19-20 Jesus told them, “Can you expect wedding-guest to fast in the bridegroom’s presence? Fasting is out of the question as long as they have the bridegroom with them. But the day will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them – that will be the time for them to fast.

2:21-22 “Nobody,” he continued, “sews a patch of unshrunken cloth on to an old coat. If he does, the new patch tears away from the old and the hole is worse than ever. And nobody puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine bursts the skins, the wine is spilt and the skins are ruined. No, new wine must go into new wineskins.”


13 responses

  1. This teaching is the reason why I, personally, am not comfortable with Quaker writer Richard Foster’s endorsement of such practices as fasting in his book A Celebration of Discipline. The bridegroom is among us here and now, in the person of the Holy Spirit!

  2. I think Foster’s agenda is finding a median and synthetic position between what he sees as the desparate Christian fragments.

  3. Yes, the bridegroom is indeed here among us. Or so you say. Or so I once realized but cannot currently testify to authentically because I’ve become busy with the mundane and the voice is a distant echo instead of a clarion call? If one finds oneself in such a situation — which is where I am 99% of the time, it seems — a fast is one good way to clear the senses so you can come to them (though not my preferred way). That, I think, is the value of all so-called disciplines: to help us keep paying attention, to clear the distraction. But as Alan Watts used to say, once you’ve gotten the message, hang up the phone! I think Jesus is saying, don’t fast — or meditate — for the sake of fasting or meditating. Once you’re back in communion, continuing such practices becomes a kind of spiritual materialism.

  4. Um. This reference to “so-called disciplines” moves me to try to clarify terminology.The root idea of the word “discipline” (Latin disciplina) is that it is the name for the training, or set of practices, that the teacher imposes on the student (the discipulus).By that standard, the practices actually given us by Christ — e.g., be reconciled to your brother, resist not evil, judge not, swear not at all — taken together, constitute an authentic discipline, the discipline of the teacher known as Jesus Christ, with a clear and discernably unifying internal logic.Later add-on practices, such as water baptism, Lenten fasts, hair shirts, etc., may be parts of the discipline of one’s church, or of one’s religious order, or may be part of a discipline one feels is imposed on one by the Holy Spirit. It is open to debate, though, whether they properly qualify as parts of the discipline of Christ.The discipline of Christ as described in the Gospels does not seem to me to have the aim of “helping us keep paying attention”; rather, it seems to be a simple description of how the sinless person naturally relates to God, to other human beings, and to the Creation.In other words, Christ’s discipline seems to me to be, not a curative, but a description of health.Do you see these things differently?

  5. I fasted one day once. Mostly as an experiemnt and a way to explore what Richard Foster was bearing witness to in his writings. It was an Ash Wednesday. I also worked towards it. For 20 days prior I read a different passage from scripture on fasting. For 10 days prior I fasted from caffeine.During that day — and to an extent in the preparatory period leading to it — I prayed more and in some ways felt closer to God in Christ. No major life changing revelations. I went back to the caffeine. I have not felt led to return to the experiment or to try it more deadly earnest (i.e., not a san experiment but as a spiritual discipline).One of the passgaes I read during that fast was Isaiah — the one Fox used as his basis for eschewing fasting.I would point out that Jesus advocated fasting as a preparation for exorcism and he fasted in the wilderness immediately following his baptism. Fasting would appear in that sense to be a weapon in the warchest for spiritual combat.

  6. Support for the idea that “Jesus advocated fasting as a preparation for exorcism” seems rather weak. Matthew 17:21 does not exist in the best manuscripts, and scholars seem to think it was a late addition to the text. “And fasting” (kai nêsteia) is not present in all mss. of Mark 9:29, either.C. S. Mann, writing in the Anchor Mark, asserts that “the confused state of manuscript readings at this point is evidence of the somewhat patchwork character of this pericope.” In other words, this appears to be a story cobbled together out of fragments from two or more separate sources, and the bit about fasting quite possibly comes from some later and less reliable hand than Mark’s own.As for Christ’s fasting in the wilderness, I much appreciate your pointing it out! — but the fact that he did it doesn’t automatically make it a part of the discipline he imposed on his disciples, any more than his changing water into wine at a wedding makes that part of the discipline he imposed.

  7. One. I did not mean to imply that fasting is imposed upon his disciples. But I do think it ingenuous to suggest it isn’t a part of the warchest.I’m not wedded to the historical critical obsesion with identifying the earliest traditions. That fasting is mentioned at all — even under ambiguous circumstances indicates that fasting was practiced by at least some early Christians who deemed the practice significant.There is a difference between fasting and miraculous transmutation of elements (apart from the miraculous part). When Jesus fasted he was engaged in an established religious practice of his day. It is this exemplar.We have eary Christian texts claiming Christians all fasted twice a week. I have absolutely no interest in implementing such a practice. I see no point in doing so. But I’m not willing to justify my non-compliance with arguments saying that these documents got it wrong or are corrupt. Although they may very well be.

  8. Hi, David.You are mistaking the point I was making. There’s probably nothing to be gained by pursuing the conversation further, though.

  9. I’ve been thinking on Marshall’s statement that I mistook him. Its easy to do on the internet as topic evolve and our conversational edge detectors are not as well honed online as in face-2-face communication.Going back through comments, I see two models of spiritual practice (or discipline) evident. a fast is one good way to clear the senses says Paul. This marks the modern (and also I think medieval) notion of spiritual practice — designed to create in us a particular psychological state. The end result of this is, its spiritual if it feels spiritual (not taht I attribute this to paul — but it is a common fruit of this approach).Meanwhile Marshall’s notion of spiritual discipline — based on the examples he gives, are of public acts designed (at least in part) to clarify the boundary lines between the religious community and “the world”. Discipline, then, in the sense of a Quaker book of discipline, not in the sense Richard Foster uses in his Celebration of Discipline.The conversation then shifts. I witness to my own attempt at experiments with fasting and indicate what I think is a biblical warrant for the practice — not as a “discipline” in either sense used here but as something sued in “spiritual combat” — preparation for prayer and/or exorcism. In response (and here’s where internet stuff gets complicated) either to my posting or to matters earlier in the thread, Marshall raises text critical issues with the biblical pessages. I in turn point out that the very fact there are text critical issues indicates fasting was an important practice in the early church.This fact that people who are in more or less substantive agreement can speak at cross purposes to one another without the natural correctives of face-2-face communication is one of the factors in at least some of our dissatisfaction with blogging as an engine for creating community.We (I) become enamoured with the net and end up wanting something more.

  10. Hi, David!It looks like you want to keep the discussion going –?You write, “I see two models of spiritual practice (or discipline) evident.”But discipline and practice are not synonyms, as this statement suggests.Practice can be anything one does repeatedly. It is, for example, my practice to drive to Quaker meeting, because it’s too far for me to walk.But discipline is what the master imposes on the student, regardless of whether it conforms to the student’s own ideas and preferences. For example: Diogenes the Cynic, a partial precursor of Christ in ancient Greece, imposing his discipline as a master on the children his owner had given him to rear, “taught them to wait upon themselves, and to be content with plain fare and water to drink. He used to make them crop their hair close and to wear it unadorned, and to go lightly clad, barefoot, silent, and not looking about them in the streets.” (Diogenes Laertius VI.31)By such discipline the master re-forms the student, hopefully making a new and better person of him.The difference between Paul and myself is not that I deny the “spiritual” power of discipline. It’s that I point to the fact that a discipline is specifically something that comes from a master to a disciple.What we do to ourselves, when we master ourselves, is self-discipline. (Paul’s sort of fasting, “to clear the senses”, is self-discipline.) What is done to us in boot camp in the military, when our superior officers master us, is military discipline. What Christ tells us we must practice, as he masters us, is Christian discipline. The way my daughter’s violin teacher makes her hold the bow, as he masters her, is a discipline, too. These are all four legitimate types of discipline, but they are not to be confused with one another.And in particular, if we decide to fast in order to get back in touch with a Spirit that we’re feeling out-of-touch with, that is self-discipline; but since it was neither given us by the Spirit (we’re out of touch with the Spirit) nor by the biblical Christ (who never commanded fasting of his disciples) we have no right to assert that it is Christian discipline.So that is the point I was offering, rephrased to address your opening statement in your latest comment here.On your other point, I do not deny that fasting, like water baptism, was an important practice in the early Church. I just deny that fasting, and water baptism too, were part of Christ’s discipline. They were add-ons, collective self-disciplines rather than Christ-disciplines. One may legitimately describe them as christian, but I decline to call them Christian.

  11. Thank you for that clarification. A clarification of my own. I’m using “practice” in the manner taught me in sociology class, which is more than simply a regular activity. It is a socially valued regular activity — such gift giving at Christmas or praying in a prescribed manner — as in the terms “practicing law or medicine”. But this is a technical use and I should be mindful of this.I did not mean to imply in my earlier comment that the sense of “discipline” in which you are using it is less spiritual that the sense in which paul uses it and you lable “self-discipline”. I see it as spiritual but with different emphasis than paul’s. For good or ill — what paul describes is closer to what our mainstream culture understands by spiritual — and while I don’t want to speak for him — I think he may find the label of his practices as “self-discipline” as reductionist.The distinction I see is that your sense of spiritual discipline creates community and his engineers psychological states. And teh two ideally ought to complement and mutually support one another.Your reference to boot camp is apropos. The techniques of the USMC and the Cistercian monks are quite similar: shaved heads, change of uniform, isolation, intensive indoctrination.

  12. Hi, again, David!I appreciate your efforts to clarify the matter.One point where I think we disagree: you write, “The distinction I see is that your sense of spiritual discipline creates community and his engineers psychological states. And the two ideally ought to complement and mutually support one another.”My own feeling is more along the lines of Christ’s, “Man cannot serve two masters.” If we discipline ourselves, we tie our lifeline to ourselves; if we let Christ discipline us, we tie our lifeline to Christ. If our lifeline is tied to Christ, he can tow us to salvation. But if it is only tied to ourselves, we are really no better off than we were before.This makes the image of fasting, as if in mourning, while the Bridegroom is already among us, all the more apropos as a symbol of what we lose by disciplining ourselves and losing sight of the Bridegroom.

  13. I’m in this peculia space regarding fasting in particular.I mentioned earlier this “experiment”. I want to say that this experiemnt began with a sense that I was to do this. I that sense, my fast was discipline in your sense –I believed Christ was taking me there.When I spoke with Christians about this they seemed a tad confused. the church culture sees fasting as a way of intensifying prayer for a particular request — an attitude which I read as a kind of bribing of God. To the extent it was about a particular prayer request it was a desire to intensify my spirituality. I have asked in prayer whether I’m called to do this again and I get no response. I take it if I’m to do this again I’ll know when that time is. In the meanwhile I’m also quite aware that I could have been mistaken in regards to my original leading.

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