Some of the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus why they and the Pharisees fast, but not Jesus’ disciples. Jesus responds that his disciples will indeed fast, when the time comes, but he above all indicates a new basis for their fasting, “when the bridegroom is taken away from them” (Mt 9:15). We would do well to reflect at greater length on the new basis that the Lord provides, so that we do not judge merely on the basis of appearances. A personal illustration may help here. I am descended from Buddhists; though viewed from the outside, my own practices as a consecrated Catholic religious may seem very similar to many of the ascetical practices of Buddhist monks, these apparent similarities mask a profoundly different spiritual foundation. The difference between Buddhism and Christianity cannot be bridged by trying to offer a logical explanation for this or that superficial difference in religious practice. When my Buddhist forebears became Christian, what was involved was not a few minor changes in understanding and practice but a profound revolution in their way of thinking, living, and relating to God and to one another, which was transformed in Jesus Christ, in whom they encountered both God and neighbor. It is interesting, however, that many (not all!) of the Pharisees that we encounter in the Gospels are not interested in the radical transformation that Jesus offers. These Pharisees are, instead, convinced that their religious system “works” on the whole, and, if anything, it is only in need of minor adjustments.
When such people encounter Jesus, they may be open to being corrected or convinced on some relatively minor point, but have no interest in abandoning their fundamental orientation towards the world in favor of the new way that Jesus offers. This is why Jesus says that “for those outside, everything is in parables so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn again, and be forgiven” (Mk 4:11-12). It is not that Jesus does not want these people to “turn and be forgiven,” but rather that he does not want them to do so in a superficial way, such that they say, “ah, yes, you are right on that point” to Jesus, and change only that practice or opinion, without fundamentally changing their lives. Origen observes that God does not allow such people to convert too early, lest their conversion be a superficial one and not a true conversion. Referring to the Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, Origen observes, “his heart has to be hardened further, and he has to suffer more, that he may not, because he has been freed of his hardheartedness too quickly, think too lightly of that hardheartedness” (On Prayer 29.16). Likewise, the new wine that Jesus offers is not something that we can add through only minor adjustments to our pre-existing certainties, habits, and opinions. We do not grasp the new wine if all that it means to us is a superficial change in the way that we fast. Rather, this new wine is something that we can bear only if we are willing to change our whole lives so that they exist entirely for this new wine. “People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined” (Mt 9:17).