In the text today, the disciples of John and of the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples are not fasting. On the face of it, the question seems rather simple. John’s and the Pharisees’ disciples were fasting – presumably because John and the Pharisees instructed them to do so – but Jesus’ disciples weren’t. So they come to ask a question – what’s up Jesus? Why aren’t your disciples fasting? Why aren’t you teaching them to do so?

The problem that this simple reading confronts is twofold. First, Jesus himself fasted. During his time in the wilderness we are explicitly told that he fasted and we also presume, as a good Jew, that he fasted yearly on the Day of Atonement (cf. Lev 16). The second problem this simple reading faces is that Jesus did teach his disciples to fast. In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, he instructs the disciples to be unlike the hypocrites when they fast and, instead, to anoint themselves with oil so that they fast to God and not to men. In addition, later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus heals a boy with a mute spirit whom his disciples were unable to heal. When they inquire, “Why couldn’t we heal him?” Jesus responds, “This kind only comes out with prayer and fasting.” This leads us to conclude that not only was Jesus himself fasting (since he did cast out the demon) but that he expected his disciples to fast likewise. We must conclude, then, that the question that Jesus is being asked is not about fasting in general.

If it’s not a question about fasting in general, what is it? We’ll find that the question being posed to Jesus is about a specific series of fasts that were being held in Israel at the time. That this is the type of fasting being considered is evident from Jesus’ response. But in order to understand Jesus’ response, we need to consider the historical background that sets the stage for the question of the disciples of John and the Pharisees. Why was Israel fasting at this time in history? And why weren’t the disciples of Jesus joining in?