Levi the tax collector hosted a big meal in honor of Yeshua and His disciples, but “John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting” that day (Mark 2:18). As the meal progressed, the disciples of John the Immerser posed a question. “The disciples of John came to Him, asking, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?’” (Matthew 9:14). Luke’s version adds that the disciples of John “fast and offer prayers,” as did the disciples of the Pharisees, but Yeshua’s disciples went on eating and drinking.
They were not asking about public fast days such as the Day of Atonement or the Ninth of Av. They asked about a particular fast undertaken only by the disciples of the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Immerser. This may have been a general practice of regular fasting. John the Immerser was known for his asceticism, and some Pharisees apparently fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays (Luke 18:12), but those were voluntary and personal disciplines. The sages often declared public fasts to respond to a tragedy, military threat, adverse political decree, prolonged drought, or natural disaster. The violent days of the first century gave occasion for many such fasts. The specific mention of John’s disciples implies that they may have been fasting for John’s release from prison.
Yeshua explained why His disciples did not participate in the fast. He compared Himself to a bridegroom and His disciples to “the sons of the bridal canopy,” a purely Semitic expression for the wedding attendants or members of the bridegroom’s party:
While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. (Mark 2:19-20)
John the Immerser referred to himself as the “friend of the bridegroom” and applied the title “bridegroom” to Yeshua (John 3:29-30). The Master employed John’s own metaphors as He explained why He and His disciples were not fasting.
In Judaism, weddings and mourning stand in antithesis to one another. Weddings require rejoicing. In Jewish law, a wedding procession takes precedence over a funeral procession. Jewish law suspends mourning rites for the sake of weddings and forbids weddings during times of national mourning.
It was appropriate for John’s disciples to fast and pray for their master because he was, to them, as the bridegroom, and they were as his wedding guests. Yeshua’s disciples, however, still had their master present with them. It would have been inappropriate for them to fast. Instead, they rejoiced as if at a wedding banquet because the bridegroom was still with them. In the future, however, a time would come when their Master, like John the Immerser, would be taken away from them. Then it would be appropriate for them to fast: "A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance" (Ecclesiastes 3:4).