In response to a question from the disciples of John the Baptist, Jesus explains why he does not fast by comparing himself to a bridegroom and his ministry to a wedding banquet. Later in this passage he will use the metaphor of patched clothing and new wine in old wineskins. But here I want to focus on the first metaphor, that Jesus is like a bridegroom.
The first analogy for Jesus’s ministry is a wedding celebration. Later in Matthew Jesus will say the Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who makes a wedding banquet for his son, comparing the invitation to come to a wedding celebration to his invitation to the Jews to follow him and celebrate the presence of the Kingdom (Matt 22:1-12). Another parable uses the long delay of the arrival of the bridegroom as a warning to keep alert before the return of Jesus (Matt 25:1-14). Here in Matthew 9, Jesus compares himself to the bridegroom and the people he is currently celebrate with are the guests at a meal which is in some ways like a wedding banquet.
Wedding banquets in the first century were the opposite of a fast. A family might invite the whole village to a festive meal with plenty of food, music, dancing and wine. Like the celebration in the parable of the Prodigal Son, when a father gave a wedding banquet, he would provide food and drink for the community, perhaps even celebrating for seven days. Consider the amount of wine consumed at the wedding at Cana (John 2).
The Old Testament often uses a marriage metaphor to describe God’s relationship with his people. Beginning with Hosea, this marriage ended in separation or divorce because of the infidelity of the wife, Israel. The eschatological age will be a time when the marriage between God and Israel will be renewed. The unfaithful wife will be restored to her former position because her sins have been forgiven and the marriage covenant has been renewed.
The marriage ended in disaster because Israel was an unfaithful spouse. But in the eschatological age, God will restore Israel to her former position and create a new covenant with them. God in fact does a miracle by restoring the faithless bride to her virgin state and re-wedding her in the coming age. It is therefore not implausible that Jesus stands in this prophetic tradition when describes the eschatological age as a wedding celebration and himself as the bridegroom.
The book of Revelation picks up the theme of the eschatological age as a banquet, albeit the “great supper of God” is the slaughter of the nations (19:17-19, cf., Ezek 38-39). Revelation 21:1-4 the New Jerusalem is described as “a beautiful bride fully dressed for her husband.”
If Jesus is the like a bridegroom, then his ministry is like a wedding celebration. If this is the case, then it is inappropriate to fast. Commenting on the Markan parallel, Anderson argues Jesus is merely making a contrast between his disciples (who are feasting) and the disciples of John (who are fasting) (Mark, 107). Cranfield suggests the disciples of John the Baptist are fasting because of the recent death of John. This would explain the contrast between wedding and funeral imagery in the saying without assigning the saying to the later church (Mark, 111).
But as Gundry comments, this trivializes the issue since the main problem is regular fasts, not an occasional fast in at the time of a death (Mark, 135). Far more can be said about the background to the bridegroom metaphor (this was my PhD topic, see the right sidebar for a link to my book on the topic). In Matthew 9,
The people participating in this joyous meal are celebrating the restoration of Israel’s marriage at the end of the Exile (Jesus the Bridegroom,197).