PRESENT JOY AND FUTURE SORROW
Then the disciples of John came to him. “Why,” they said, “do we and the Pharisees fast frequently, while your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “Surely the bridegroom’s closest friends cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
To the Jew almsgiving, prayer and fasting were the three great works of the religious life. We have already fully described Jewish fasting when we were dealing with Matt. 6:16-18. A. H. McNeile suggests that this incident may have taken place when the autumn rains had not fallen, and a public fast had been ordained.
When Jesus was asked why he and his disciples did not practice fasting, he answered with a vivid picture. The King James Version speaks of the children of the bridechamber, which is a correct literal translation of the Greek. A Jewish wedding was a time of special festivity. The unique feature of it was that the couple who were married did not go away for a honeymoon; they spent their honeymoon at home.
For a week after the wedding open house was kept; the bride and bridegroom were treated as, and even addressed as, king and queen. And during that week their closest friends shared all the joy and all the festivities with them; these closest friends were called the children of the bridechamber. On such an occasion there came into the lives of poor and simple people a joy, a rejoicing, a festivity, a plenty, that might come only once in a lifetime.
So Jesus compares himself to the bridegroom and his disciples to the bridegroom’s closest friends. How could a company like that be sad and grim? This was no time for fasting, but for the rejoicing of a lifetime. There are great things in this passage.
(i) It tells us that to be with Jesus is a thing of joy; it tells us that in the presence of Jesus there is a sheer thrilling effervescence of life; it tells us that a gloom-encompassed Christianity is an impossibility. The man who walks with Christ walks in radiance of joy.
(ii) It also tells us that no joy lasts for ever. For John’s disciples the time of sorrow had come, because John was already in prison. For Jesus disciples that time of sorrow would most certainly come. It is one of the great inevitabilities of life that the dearest joy must come to an end.
Epictetus said grimly: “When you are kissing your child, say to yourself: `One day you must die.'” That is why we must know God and Jesus Christ. Jesus alone is the same yesterday, today and for ever; God alone abides amidst all the chances and the changes of life. The dearest human relationships must some day come to an end; it is only the joy of heaven which lasts for ever, and if we have it in our hearts, nothing can take it away.
(iii) This also is a challenge. It may be that at the moment the disciples did not see it, but Jesus is saying to them: “You have experienced the joy that following me can bring; can you also go through the trouble, the hardship, the suffering of a Christian’s cross?” The Christian way brings its joy; but the Christian way also brings its blood and sweat and tears, which cannot take the joy away, but which, none the less, must be faced. So Jesus says, “Are you ready for both–the Christian joy and the Christian cross?”
(iv) Enshrined in this saying is the courage of Jesus. Jesus was never under any illusions; clearly at the end of the road he saw the Cross awaiting him. Here the curtain is lifted, and there is a glimpse into the mind of Jesus. He knew that for him the way of life was the way of the Cross, and yet he did not swerve one step aside from it. Here is the courage of the man who knows what God’s way costs, and who yet goes on.
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