Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? 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 on that day. ‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’ One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’
People compared Jesus and his disciples to John the Baptist, the Pharisees and their followers, and they noticed big differences. Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast, and they had no qualms about plucking the heads of grain on the Sabbath. When people asked about fasting, Jesus responded with an apocalyptic image that runs throughout scripture – the heavenly wedding banquet that awaits God and God’s people. However the way Jesus told it foreshadowed his death. Jesus also pointed to God doing something new here – that’s what the talk about wineskins was about. Today we might talk about mobile phones and software. Jesus might have said, “You can’t download the new NHS app on a phone that has out of date software. You need a new phone with the latest software, so the new app will download and work.” Basically, Jesus’ operating system was love and grace, and it was incompatible with strict piety of the Pharisees. Throughout Mark’s gospel, we see that Jesus was not afraid to be unashamedly gracious towards the so-called unrighteous. When people asked about Jesus and his followers plucking the heads of grain, Jesus told them a story of David. Not only did David eat the bread for the priests, but so did the men travelling with him. Jesus reminded them that the Sabbath was for our benefit as people. The day of rest was to help us, not harm us. Jesus put faith in context. Traditions and religious practices should make sense in the context that we are in. If they don’t, then we should take it back to scripture and find out why. There is a good chance we humans have missed something. And for Jesus, whatever scripture we read is to be read through the lens of God’s grace and abundant love for both the “righteous” and “unrighteous”.
God, help us to be aware of how we practice our faith. Do we love others? Are we quick to condemn or quick to encourage and inspire? Help us to follow the ways and teachings of Jesus. Amen.
The Rev’d Angela Rigby, Minister at St Johns Hill URC Sevenoaks and Christ Church URC Tonbridge