Question: "What is the meaning of the parables of fasting at the wedding feast, the old cloth, and the wineskins?"

Answer: In Matthew 9, Jesus fields a question from John the Baptist’s disciples: “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (verse 14). In response, Jesus tells three parables: the parable of the bridegroom and his guests, the parable of the old garment, and the parable of the wineskins (verses 15–17). The same conversation is recorded in Mark 2:18–22 and Luke 5:33–39.

The question put forward by the disciples of John the Baptist reveals some puzzlement on their part. If Jesus was truly the Messiah whom John was preparing the way for, then why were Jesus’ teachings so different from John’s on the matter of fasting? John had taught the need for fasting (Luke’s account mentions prayer as well). The Pharisees followed a similar protocol. But Jesus’ disciples observed no such code of conduct. In fact, they were known to “eat with tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11).

At this point, it’s good to review what the Mosaic Law said about fasting. Only one day of fasting was required of the Jews annually, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29, 31). That’s it. All other fasting was voluntary, as far as the law was concerned. So, the fasting spoken of in Matthew 9:14 is not what was prescribed in the law; it was one of the many “traditions of the elders” (Mark 7:3) added to the law.

Note that John’s disciples mention that they fast “often” (Matthew 9:14). The Pharisees at the time had adopted a rule of fasting twice a week, and it seems that John’s disciples had followed suit. The prayers mentioned in Luke 5:33 are those associated with these same ritualistic fasts—that is, public prayers to accompany the public fasts, done as a matter of course in following man-made rules. Jesus spoke against such fasting and prayer in Matthew 6 as part of the Sermon on the Mount.

In His response, Jesus provides three short snapshots of everyday life to illustrate the need for change:

1. The Parable of a Bridegroom with His Guests.
Jesus says, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15). A wedding feast is a time of joy. Fasting, conversely, is a sign of sorrow or distress. Fasting during a wedding feast would make no sense. In this metaphor, Jesus is the Bridegroom, and His disciples are the guests. The disciples don’t mourn while Jesus is present in this world. They rejoice in that their Messiah and Lord has come.

Jesus said His disciples would fast on the day when He was “taken from them” (Mark 2:20). With these words, Jesus was not instituting times of regulated fasting and prayer as an official part of church life; rather, He was alluding to the fact that He would be suddenly taken from His disciples (through arrest and crucifixion), and that would indeed be a day of mourning. At that traumatic time when Jesus’ disciples lost their Lord, they would fast.

Believers under the New Covenant do fast and pray today. But there is no requirement to do so, especially in a ceremonial, ritualistic, or formal way (observing certain days of fasting, reciting certain prayers, etc.). Old religious rituals and traditions are passé under the New Covenant. When you come to Christ in faith, you leave behind the man-made requirements to fast on certain days and pray in certain ways.

2. The Parable of the Old Garment.
Jesus continued: “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse” (Matthew 9:16). Fabric naturally shrinks with washing. Jesus’ hearers knew that putting a new patch of material on an old garment would only exacerbate the problem. When the new patch inevitably shrinks in the wash, it will tear away from the older garment, making the tear even worse than before. In this metaphor, the old garment is the system of rules and traditions of men; the new patch is the way of Christ. Jesus was not concerned with “patching up” the old religious system as practiced by the Pharisees; He was establishing a new covenant, even as He fulfilled the law (see Matthew 5:17).

3. The Parable of the Wineskins.
Finally, Jesus said, “Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17). New wine expands during the fermentation process, pressurizing its container. If fresh wine was poured into a new wineskin, there was no problem—the skin was supple enough to stretch, thus accommodating the expansion of the liquid. But, if new wine was poured into an old wineskin that had lost its elasticity, the wineskin would burst at the seams under the pressure, and all the wine stored in it would be lost. In this parable, Jesus again emphasizes the fact that He is doing something new. The old expectations—such as the expectation that everyone must fast on certain days set by the religious leadership—were inadequate. It was time to adjust expectations. Jesus’ ministry was not going to fit neatly into preconceived ideas and tired rituals. An inflexible adherence to the old ways was going to result in spiritual loss.

Luke’s Gospel provides an additional statement Jesus made concerning this parable: “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better’” (Luke 5:39). This is a commentary on the attitude shown by John’s disciples and the Pharisees. To paraphrase, we could say, “Those (such as the Pharisees) who love their old rituals and personalized traditions will find the new commandments of Christ to be distasteful. It’s natural to cling to the old ways, just as it is natural to prefer aged wine over new wine.”

You just can’t mix old religious rituals with new faith in Jesus. Jesus fulfilled the law; therefore, there is no longer any need to continue in it. There is even less need to continue with old, man-made rituals. Jesus cannot be added to a works-based religion: “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:21, NKJV).