MATTHEW 9:14-17; MARK 2:18-22; LUKE 5:33-39
14. Then come to him the disciples of John, saying, For what reason do we and the Pharisees fast often, while thy disciples do not fast? 15. And Jesus said to them, Can the children of the bridegroom1 mourn, so long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast. 16. And no man putteth a piece of fresh cloth on an old garment: for that which fills up takes from the garment, and the rent is made worse. 17. Nor do they put new wine into old bottles; otherwise the bottles burst, and the wine is spilt, and the bottles are lost: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are at the same time preserved.
18. And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees were in the habit of fasting; and they come and say to him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, and thy disciples do not fast? 19. And Jesus saith to them, Can the children of the nuptial bed2 fast, while the bridegroom is with them? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20. But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast in those days. 21. And no person seweth a piece of fresh cloth on an old garment: otherwise the new addition taketh from the old, and the rent is made worse. 22. And no person putteth new wine into old bottles; otherwise the new wine bursts the bottles, and the wine is spilt, and the bottles are lost: but new wine must be put into new bottles.
33. And they said to him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and in the same manner the disciples of the Pharisees, while thine eat and drink? 34. To whom he saith, Can you make the children of the marriage bed to fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35. But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them: then shall they fast in those days. 36. And he spoke a parable to them: No person putteth a piece of a new garment on an old garment; otherwise what is new is torn, and what is added of the new agreeth not with the old. 37. And no person putteth new wine into old bottles: otherwise the new wine will burst the bottles, and will be spilt, and the bottles will be lost. 38. But new wine must be put into new bottles, and both are preserved. 39. And no person who has drunk old wine immediately desires the new: for he saith, The old is better.
Matthew 9:14. Then come to him the disciples of John. Luke represents the Pharisees as speaking: Mark appears to connect both. And, indeed, there is no room to doubt that the Pharisees maliciously endeavored, by this stratagem, to draw the disciples of John to their party, and to produce a quarrel between them and the disciples of Christ. A resemblance in prayers and fastings was a plausible pretext for associating at this time: while the different manner in which Christ acted was an occasion of enmity and dislike to men whose temper was unamiable, and who were excessively devoted to themselves.
This example reminds us, that prudence and caution are necessary to prevent wicked and cunning men from sowing divisions among us on any slight grounds. Satan has a wonderful dexterity, no doubt, in laying those snares; and it is an easy matter to distress us about a trifle.3 But we ought especially to beware lest the unity of faith be destroyed, or the bond of charity broken, on account of outward ceremonies. Almost all labor under the disease of attaching undue importance to the ceremonies and elements of the world, as Paul calls them, (Galatians 4:3; Colossians 2:8;) and accordingly they do not hesitate, for the most part, to prefer the merest rudiments to the highest perfection. This is followed by another evil arising out of fastidiousness and pride, when every man would willingly compel the whole world to copy his example. If any thing pleases us, we forthwith desire to make it a law, that others may live according to our pleasure.
When we read that the disciples of John were caught by these snares of Satan, let us first learn not to place holiness in outward and indifferent matters, and at the same time to restrain ourselves by moderation and equity, that we may not desire to restrict others to what we approve, but may allow every one to retain his freedom. As to fasting and prayers, it ought to be understood, that John gave his disciples a particular training, and that for this purpose they had stated days for fastings, a settled form, and fixed hours of prayer. Now, I reckon those prayers among outward observances. For, though calling on God holds the first rank in spiritual worship, yet that method of doing it was adapted to the unskilfulness of men, and is justly reckoned among ceremonies and indifferent matters, the observance of which ought not to be too strictly enjoined. Of the reason why John's discipline was more severe than that of Christ we have already spoken, and a more convenient opportunity for treating of it will again occur.
15. Can the children of the bridegroom mourn? Christ apologizes for his disciples on the score of the season, alleging that God was still pleased to indulge them in joyous feelings, as if they were present at a marriage: for he compares himself to the bridegroom, who enlivens his friends by his presence. Chrysostom thinks that this comparison was taken from the testimony of John the Baptist, He that hath the bride is the bridegroom, (John 3:29.) I have no objection to that view, though I do not think that it rests on solid grounds. Let us be satisfied with Christ's declaration, that he spares his disciples, and treats them with gentleness, so long as he is with them. That none may envy them advantages which are of short duration, he gives warning that they will very soon be treated with greater harshness and severity.
The apology rests on this consideration, that fasting and prayers are adapted to sorrow and adversity: extraordinary prayers I mean, such as are here mentioned. Christ certainly intended to accustom them, by degrees, to greater patience, and not to lay on them a heavy burden, till they gained more strength. Hence we ought to learn a twofold instruction. When the Lord sometimes endures the weakness of our brethren, and acts towards them with gentleness, while he treats us with greater severity, we have no right to murmur. Again, when we sometimes obtain relief from sorrow and from vexations, let us beware of giving ourselves up to enjoyments; but let us, on the contrary, remember that the nuptials will not always last. The children of the bridegroom, or of the nuptial bed, is a Hebrew phrase, which denotes the guests at a marriage.4
16. And no man putteth a piece of fresh cloth. He supports the preceding statement by two comparisons, one of which is taken from garments, and the other from vessels of wine. Those who think that he compares worn-out garments and decayed bottles to the Pharisees, and new wine and fresh cloth to the doctrine of the gospel, have no probability on their side. The comparison is beautifully adapted to the matter in hand, if we explain it as referring to the weak and tender disciples of Christ, and to a discipline more strict than they were able to bear. Nor is it of any consequence that the idea of being old does not agree with scholars who were only commencing: for, when Christ compares his disciples to old bottles and torn garments, he does not mean that they were wasted by long use, but that they were weak and wanted strength. The amount of the statement is, that all must not be compelled indiscriminately to live in the same manner, for there is a diversity of natural character, and all things are not suitable to all; and particularly, we ought to spare the weak, that they may not be broken by violence, or crushed by the weight of the burden. Our Lord speaks according to the custom of the country, when he uses the word bottles instead of tuns or casks.5
Luke 5:39. And no person who has drunk old wine. This statement is given by Luke alone, and is undoubtedly connected with the preceding discourse. Though commentators have tortured it in a variety of ways, I take it simply as a warning to the Pharisees not to attach undue importance to a received custom. For how comes it that wine, the taste of which remains unaltered, is not equally agreeable to every palate, but because custom and habit form the taste? Hence it follows, that Christ's manner of acting towards his disciples is not less worthy of approbation, because it has less show and splendor: as old wine, though it does not foam with the sharpness of new wine, is not less agreeable on that account, or less fitted for the nourishment of the body.