We depart from Matthew’s Gospel at this point. There is really nothing I can add now to the previous work I’ve done explaining in my Commentary on Matthew 24-25. You can reread them at your leisure
on the static site in PDF. We jump now to Mark’s Gospel.
The Law of Moses arose during a time of ancient mysticism. It was not “law” in our sense of legislation, but as an expression of the character and will of the feudal Master who offered the covenant of adoption, making this new nation now a part of His extended family household. They did have to spend some time learning this covenant, but it was intended to make them fit to live in His household and not disrupt His long term plans.
Thus, it was designed to acquaint them with who He is and how He designed Creation to work. It was never meant to be legalism that locks everything into some static situation. A great many provisions, the rituals in particular, only worked for that particular setting — that time, that place, and those people. The people were supposed to dig into this covenant until they could see through the particulars to the character of God. This is how covenants were understood to work in the Ancient Near East (ANE). This was the intellectual tradition of the Hebrew people.
That the Jews had long since departed from this was manifestly obvious. Instead of sticking to the heart of the matter and making obvious adjustments to meet the changing situation, the leadership had nailed everything down and made life miserable. Instead of setting the people free to know instinctively how God did things in this world, those leaders had reduced it to mere codes and rules, which they controlled as a means to oppress and enrich themselves at the nation’s expense.
Jesus called His cousin Levi Matthew to join Him as a disciple. Matthew had been working as a tax contractor for the king (not for Rome). No other rabbi would have considered someone like Matthew. Not only were the taxes thoroughly unpopular, but the rabbinical colleges were almost uniform in rejecting Herod as a valid king of Jews, since he was notoriously immoral. Worse, he was a compliant vassal of Rome, so his tax collectors were painted as collaborators with the pagan occupiers, apostates worse than Gentiles.
Matthew acquiesced and decided to celebrate this change of career with his friends and associates. As a social outcast, it was quite natural that his friends would also be tax collectors and other social outcasts who had never rejected the Covenant, but didn’t care for the pompous arrogance of Pharisees. Jesus was the guest of honor at this reception.
Here He was in His rabbinical garb eating and drinking with these “notorious sinners” and the other rabbis wanted to know what He meant by socializing with them. Jesus said, in so many words, that He was a moral physician. Since the Pharisees felt no need for His services, He saw no need to spend time with them. He was going about His craft of healing among those who knew they needed to repent and restore them to the Lord’s favor. The Pharisees had refused to do this, which was supposed to be their mission in the first place.
Mark then recalls a similar moment when the someone questioned Jesus about the common practice of fasting weekly, a rule that actually wasn’t required by Moses. Fasting was expected in broad general terms, and there were a few solemn fast days in the original Mosaic calendar, but the Pharisees were extremist about it. We can be sure John the Baptist had entirely different reasons for his harsh regimen, since he echoed much of Elijah’s austere ministry.
Jesus had already called His cousin John the Baptist the Forerunner, a dedicated servant who must endure great discomfort for a truly critical mission. Jesus was the Messiah for whom John was the herald. And as Messiah, He was coming to claim His chosen bride. But not yet. This was the period of time for the bridegroom to hang out with His buddies in a rather elongated version of a stag party, as it were. This is something wealthy Jewish men were known to do during that time between betrothal and wedding when they were building a home for the newlyweds to occupy. His disciples could fast once He had to leave them to carry on their lives while He was on an extended honeymoon.
Then Jesus offered two parables that slammed the Pharisees for being stuck in the past, as if there would never be a Messiah. Even the best royal heir would honor his father, not by aping him, but moving forward with the same reserve of wisdom for handling new challenges. The character of Jehovah didn’t change, but the discrete provisions of the Covenant would naturally change some to meet new challenges. In the ANE wisdom, it was well established that a new king would change some things that were simply a matter of taste and planning.
New wine goes into new wineskins, and new cloth is not sewed onto old clothing. Jesus would harvest and trample new grapes for a new vintage; He would provide entirely new uniforms for His royal staff.