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Tony's Reflection 36
Back in October 2015, Japanese Buddhist monk Kogen Kamahori was mobbed by 600 ecstatic followers and, at the same time, pilloried and ridiculed on social media.
What had he done to deserve such a mix of adoration and mockery?
He had just emerged from a nine day fast. No food. No drink. No sleep. Not even lying down. All of this for nine long days. What’s more, he had recited 100,000 verses of Buddhist scripture, from memory, during these nine days.
Social media pundits thought it was pointless and unbelievable. Why bother to go through such privation? Surely he must have been stashing chocolate under his long, flowing Buddhist monk robes…
For the faithful, he was a hero. He had shown that you could prevail over natural desires, for the sake of spiritual enlightenment. His concentration and physical and mental self-discipline would surely bring him close to the god he followed.
Back in Jesus’ day, there weren’t such mixed attitudes to fasting. Fasting was for heroes.
If you were serious about God, you fasted. If you wanted to show him how seriously sorry you were for your failings in life, then you fasted. If you wanted to show him how desperate you were for some favour from him, then you fasted. The overwhelming emotion was one of sadness - sadness because you had failed God and sadness because of your unsatisfied longing for him to do something good for you.
Pious Jews fasted twice a week. This mournful seriousness about God was adored and admired. If you were into religion and really cared about God, then you showed it by fasting. That’s the way it was.
Everyone who was anybody religiously speaking would fast. The Pharisees, the religious elite of the day, did it. John the Baptist had his disciples fasting.
Jesus stood out like a sore thumb. Jesus didn’t expect his followers to fast. Jesus clearly respected John the Baptist, so why didn’t he command fasting, like John did?
There was something very peculiar about “Jesus religion”. The way he taught his followers to be serious about God just didn’t fit the mould.
Everyone knew Jesus was different. The mournful sadness, the miserable regret over your failings, the desperate unsatisfied longing for God to bless you - all of these things came as part of the package with fasting. They had no place with Jesus.
There was something different about Jesus and his followers. A carefree joy. A happiness, even. Surely they were missing the plot. After all, if you were serious about religion, you knew you weren’t good enough for God. You knew you were missing out on so much of what he could do for you. Every right minded follower of religion should be saddened by such things… and driven to fast in an effort to show God how much they cared about failing him and lacking his favour.
Jesus and his followers were different. They didn’t take on the normal sadness of fasting. People wanted to know why. And Mark has given us a little story in his biography of Jesus to answer that question. You can find it at Mark 2:18-22.
Jesus was bringing something entirely new and different to the religious scene.
That is the point behind what he says about wineskins and patches of cloth. We don’t use wineskins any more – we put wine in bottles, rather than containers made of animal skin. We don’t often patch our clothes either, we just buy new. Back in Jesus’ day, though, wineskins and clothes patches were common.
“You don’t put new wine into old wineskins. You don’t put a patch of new cloth on old clothes,” says Jesus. The old and the new just don’t mix.
Jesus’ new religion just doesn’t fit with the old ways.
What was so new about Jesus religion? It had no room for the mournful sadness that went with fasting. The misery as you brood over your failings. The regret as you realise what you lack in your life from God.
So much religion, in Jesus’ day and in ours, looks sombre and sad. It feels like attending a funeral.
Jesus’ religion is wedding party rather than funeral.
Jesus says following him is like being at a wedding party. He is the groom and we are the guests. When you are at a wedding reception in full swing, there is no room for the sadness that comes with fasting. You have all the food, drink and good company you could wish for and you are sharing the happiness of the married couple you love.
When you follow Jesus, there is no room for the sadness that comes with fasting. You don’t stay mournful about your failings, you rejoice because they are forgiven and put behind you. You don’t stay miserable because of any good thing you lack from God, you rejoice because of his openhanded generosity towards you.
When Jesus invites you to follow him, he is asking you to a wedding party, not a funeral.
Did you realise following him could be that much fun?