The Bridegroom Is with Them: The Dynamism of Walking with God
Then John’s disciples came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:14–15)
When Matthew first introduced us to the adult Jesus back in chapter 3, he was a largely unknown figure from a nothing town in Galilee. But by this point in Jesus’ story, he has amassed a following, made an impact through his teaching, and performed countless miracles.
The scribes and Pharisees, leading religious figures, clearly take him seriously. They engage him in theological conversations and seek to understand what he’s doing. In a relatively short time, Jesus has become a notable teacher, considered by many to be a prophet and perhaps even the awaited messiah.
But he has also become controversial. We see the threads of controversy all along the way:
- In his unflattering statements about the scribes and Pharisees in the Sermon on the Mount.
- In his declaration that the Roman centurion is a man of greater faith than anyone in Israel — God’s chosen nation.
- In the people of the Gadarenes begging Jesus to leave after he delivers the demoniac.
- In the scribes’ suggestion that Jesus’ claim to forgive sins is blasphemous.
And finally, in the story we’ve been tracing for the last several weeks, in which the Pharisees were affronted by Jesus’ willingness to share a meal with “tax collectors and sinners” — an action they may have seen as tantamount to betraying Israel and profaning the covenant with God.
In response, Jesus has over and over again made the same point: it’s not that the Pharisees, scribes, and villagers are completely wrong in their worldview. It’s that they don’t understand what God is doing, now, in this moment.
Although God himself is unchanging, relationship with him is dynamic. History is a STORY. The Bible is a story, one that unfolds over time and includes shifts in season and circumstance.
Failing to see this — or, like the Pharisees did, getting key parts of the story wrong — sometimes means doing all the wrong things for what seem like the right reasons.
Assumptions and the Season We Are In
Here again, in verses 14–15, Jesus’ actions are a source of controversy. This time it’s the disciples of John the Baptist who approach him in confusion.
These followers of the famous desert ascetic (who also happened to be Jesus’ cousin and the man who announced his messiahship) frequently did what most ardent Jewish believers did in order to approach God:
Fasting is an ancient spiritual practice, and especially appropriate to express repentance, mourning, or desperate need. For the Jews under Rome’s oppression, there couldn’t have been a better way to express the appropriate posture of heart toward God.
But Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast. Neither did he. Rather, they were frequently seen sharing meals with unsavory people, and they enjoyed their food so much and so loudly that Jesus was pegged a “glutton and a drunkard” by some of his contemporaries.
This was confusing for John’s disciples. It made Jesus look unholy, uncommitted, uncaring about the need for repentance. For a man who was performing miracles and teaching in God’s name, that was a problem.
The disciples of John had a basic assumption: fasting is a right way to seek God, and we are in a season of needing to seek him and beseech him to return to us. It was an assumption they shared with the Pharisees.
It was an assumption that had been correct for nearly 500 years.
But Jesus’ answer let them know the assumption was wrong — NOT because fasting was wrong, but because they didn’t understand the season they were in.
Jesus’ shocking and profound answer to John’s disciples was that his disciples didn’t fast because God had already returned to them and was already with them, in the person of Jesus.
For them to continue fasting, repenting, and pleading with God to return would be like shouting “Please come back!” into the face of someone who has already returned and is standing two feet in front of you, looking you right in the eyes.
It wouldn’t have been right for Jesus’ disciples to express mourning the way others did. Their circumstance called for rejoicing. The Bridegroom was with them!
The Bridegroom’s Return
Jesus’ use of “bridegroom” language to describe himself is not an accident. As he so often does, he is hearkening back to the Old Testament. The language links him to the Song of Solomon, which has historically been understood as an allegory of God’s relationship with his people, but also with prophecies in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
Most significantly, the bridegroom language here is directly connected to the story of Hosea, which Jesus referenced just a few verses ago. As we’ve seen, Jesus is the bridegroom of Hosea specifically, a bridegroom who has been wronged and betrayed by his wife but who still loves her and has come to redeem and marry her again out of his unfailing love and grace.
For those who had eyes to see, Jesus’ coming was a time for deep rejoicing indeed. The romance of redemption was underway. Incredible forgiveness, for individuals and the nation, was on offer.
Everything Jesus did in this season — the healings, the miracles, the deliverance from demons, the meals with sinners — was an expression of this forgiveness and the reestablishment of a marriage covenant with God.
Never in human history had anything so profound and beautiful taken place.
But as it turned out, very few people had eyes to see.
The Role of Relationship
Jesus’ actions were confusing for John’s disciples for the same reason they are sometimes confusing for us: we tend to take general principles or what is good for one season and turn them into rigid and inflexible rules.
But walking with God is a dynamic process. Spirituality is dynamic. Prayer is dynamic — it changes things, and then we have to respond to the changes.
In other words, the whole thing is a relationship, and it behaves much like any human relationship, in a dance of action, request, and response.
This is why our spiritual lives can’t be boiled down to rules. It’s why we MUST learn to relate to God, to listen to him, and to gain eyes that see and ears that hear. Otherwise we become people who carry umbrellas when it isn’t raining or wear hats and scarves in 80-degree weather.
Note that I’m not talking about morality. Morality is based in the nature of God, and so it’s unchanging, just as God’s nature is unchanging. But there is a LOT at play in our spiritual lives that isn’t about morality — from the way we choose to pray in a given moment to the practical steps of obedience we take in a situation to the way we interact with other people.
Jesus’ coming changed Israel’s season after 490 years. It called for a different and new response. But not many saw it.
In our own lives, we too need to know the season we’re in. We need to learn to walk, not just stand, by the Spirit of God.
To do that, the starting point for us is to recognize that the Bridegroom has come. Forgiveness is on offer. We can enter into deep and intimate relationship with God — we’re invited into it.
When we believe that, everything can change.
Like what you’re reading? Visit rachelstarrthomson.com to get a free ebook on the Lord’s Prayer and keep up with the rest of the series on the gospel of Matthew.
This is Part 124 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
Photo by Michael Afonso on Unsplash
Originally published at rachelstarrthomson.com on July 4, 2018.