This passage in Matthew presents two powerful metaphors of life in the Kingdom of God putting it into sharp contrast with the devout life, as conventionally understood. The occasion is questioning from the Pharisees, the devout people of the day, who are discomfited by the free life-style of Jesus and his disciples. “A prophet, are you? You’re not pious enough!” is what they say.
The first comparison is between Jesus’s disciples and those of John the Baptist, the popular preacher. Good people are expected to fast often and pray publicly. Why don’t your disciples do so?
In reply Jesus compares himself and his disciples to guests at a wedding banquet. No one fasts at a wedding. Similarly the presence of Jesus is the cause of rejoicing and festivity among his followers. One day, he, the Bridgegroom, will be taken away – a delicate reference to the Passion? – and at that time his followers will be in mourning, but not now, not now.
True religion consists not in external observance but in interior attitude. The presence of the Lord brings peace of heart, compassion, a generous and joyful spirit. This is of greater value than fasting and public prayer.
In so many ways then, this new attitude of the spirit is in conflict with the old rules and regulations. Those comfortable with the old are suspicious of the new, even as for most people old wine is always preferred to a recent fermentation.
And like new wine fermenting in an old wineskin, the new ways of the spirit tear the old religious systems apart. For those who love the new, it’s a heady mixture, potent and energetic. For those accustomed to the old ways, it brings only anger and conflict.