Do you expect the guests at a wedding party to be sad as long as the bridegroom is with them? Of course not! But the day will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.
[Some followers of John the Baptist ask Jesus why he and his disciples don’t fast.]
Here we learn that Jesus does not, apparently, spend as much time fasting as John the Baptist and his followers. I already discussed Jesus’ teaching on fasting in the Sermon on the Mount on Day 44 when his only directive was to do it discreetly. Here, in response to John the Baptist’s followers, Jesus says that the time is not right for fasting. This much is clear.
What is unclear is everything about this bridegroom metaphor. In today’s reflection I want to reflect on the traditional church’s practice of hyping standardized interpretations of Biblical metaphors.
In the Old Testament scriptures that Jesus studied there were a couple references in the Book of Isaiah to Jerusalem as the bride/wife and God as the bridegroom/husband:
Jerusalem, you have been like a childless woman, but now you can sing and shout for joy. Your Creator will be like a husband to you— the Lord Almighty is his name. The holy God of Israel will save you—he is the ruler of all the world. (Isaiah 54:1,5)
Jerusalem rejoices because of what the Lord has done. She is like a bride dressed for her wedding. God has clothed her with salvation and victory. (Isaiah 61:10)
Jerusalem, the nations will see you victorious!All their kings will see your glory. You will be called by a new name, a name given by the Lord himself. You will be like a beautiful crown for the Lord. No longer will you be called “Forsaken,” or your land be called “The Deserted Wife.” Your new name will be “God Is Pleased with Her.” Your land will be called “Happily Married,” Because the Lord is pleased with you and will be like a husband to your land. Like a young man taking a virgin as his bride, he who formed you will marry you. As a groom is delighted with his bride, so your God will delight in you. (Isaiah 62:1-5)
There was never any confusion about the bridegroom metaphor until Jesus makes this statement in Matthew (which also appears in the Books of Mark and Luke). Because Jesus used the word “bridegroom,” church theologians speculated that Jesus was saying that he was the bridegroom in Isaiah, and therefore calling himself God (even though there’s no real evidence that was his intent). Just because he says something about a bridegroom they say he’s “revealing” that he is actually God. Then these church spin doctors go back and reinterpret the Isaiah scripture to say that the bridegroom refers to Jesus, not God himself (as it is actually written). They substitute Jesus for God.
The situation is further confused by all the Johns. In the Gospel of John – attributed to, but not necessarily written by, either John the Apostle or John the Evangelist (who may or may not be the same person) – there is a scripture where John the Baptist says that Jesus is the bridegroom (see John 3:28-30), an apparent reference back to Isaiah. And then there is the Book of Revelation, which was written by “John.” Some say it was John the Apostle (aka John the Evangelist), while others say it was written by another John – John of Patmos. Anyway, some John (?) who wrote Revelation says quite a few times that Jesus (not God) is the bridegroom and the church (not Jerusalem) is the bride. Not only is there confusion about the bridegroom….now the identity of the bride is also in question!!
Yes it is confusing! With all of this in mind I came up several of my own interpretations of this scripture and how the metaphor relates to the fasting issue. And I consulted with another John (my husband) just to get a more informed opinion. The more “Johns” the merrier, and he did go to Yale Divinity School so it’s good to get his input now and then.
- Revival Theory: This interpretation involves the Isaiah scriptures (cited above) where God is the bridegroom. If this is the interpretation, then Jesus is saying God is present. Fasting is something that is usually done in troubled times when people are seeking more of God, so there would be no need to fast when God is present. The scripture also says that the bridegroom will eventually leave, so then there would be fasting. Throughout the history of institutional religion there seem to be seasons when God’s presence seems is stronger than other times; these are referred to as times of revival. There was the Wesleyan Revival, the Great Awakening, the Cane Ridge Revival, the Reformation, the Azusa Street Revival and many more. Most recently was the Toronto Revival in the 1990s. Of course Jesus ushered in a long period of revival and passion for God. Some say it was the greatest of all revivals. Revivals come and go.
- Prophetic Theory: Jesus is not referring to the Isaiah scripture at all. He is comparing himself to bridegroom who is just beginning his marriage with the earth and still enjoying the party. Jesus knows that he will be taken away (killed prematurely) so he wants everyone to enjoy themselves while they can, knowing that there will be troubled times in the future when they will need to fast to build up their faith.
- Parable Theory: The bridegroom is neither God nor Jesus; he’s just a regular old bridegroom. It is simply not, in Jesus’ perception, the time for fasting. He says you need to discern the times and what is appropriate under the circumstances. It would be dumb for a bridegroom to fast at his own wedding party. If the bridegroom is already sad at the wedding feast it doesn’t bode well for the marriage. Very true. Can’t argue with that.
- Anti-Fasting Theory: Jesus is the bridegroom and he doesn’t want to fast, for whatever reason. Maybe there’s too much work to do and fasting would slow them down. Maybe he feels closer to God when he eats. Perhaps he’s saying that after he’s gone they can fast as much as they want, but there won’t be any fasting while he’s in charge.
- Old Wineskins Theory: Given that the next scripture is about the folly of putting new wine in old wineskins, he may be saying that the practice of fasting is not helpful for the “outcasts” to whom he wants to minister. If, for example, some of these people are poor and don’t have enough to eat then fasting would be really inappropriate. When you’re hungry on a daily basis then fasting loses its meaning. Or, the outcasts are in a season of rejoicing in what Jesus is revealing to them, and fasting is inappropriate in a season of joy.
There is no definitive interpretation of this scripture. It is a metaphor and is inherently open to interpretation. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Don’t get hung up when you read the Bible and you run into something like this that you can’t figure out. Nobody knows for sure what it means. Everyone is just guessing. Let it be a mystery. Let these kinds of scriptures speak to you in their own time and in their own way. Don’t be afraid of them.
So the moral of the story – question everything!!! Don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there is only one valid interpretation for metaphorical scriptures like this that are intentionally and inherently ambiguous. You don’t have to agree with the paradigms of church theologians. Thankfully a new day has dawned. The jig is up. We have brains, we know how to read, we have Bibles, and we are not afraid to use them. Be afraid, ecclesiastical dictators, be very afraid. God is speaking to everyone, even us ordinary folks.
Whatever interpretation you come up with relative to all this bridegroom business, it really doesn’t matter because the real topic here is fasting. Jesus says that it isn’t the time for fasting. It’s not that he wants to eliminate fasting altogether. He says it’s a matter of timing. Personally I think it’s better not to read too much into these things. When you get off topic you enter into dangerous territory. You end up with a lot of confusion and bickering, and you miss the forest for the trees.
This bridegroom thing underscores a serious problem – if you choose to depend on the church to accurately interpret everything Jesus said, you may find that your trust is misplaced. The church may think she’s the bride, but it’s hard to get married if you can’t even figure out who the bridegroom is. This bride has issues. In reality the real bridegroom is probably someone named John. That’s who it turned out to be for me. No confusion here:
What does this scripture say to you?