Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Mark 2:18The Bible says that prior to Jesus's public ministry, he spent 40 days in the wilderness and faced temptation from Satan. The first Gospel, Mark, makes no mention of fasting during that period in the wilderness. Furthermore, according to the above passage, during Jesus's ministry, he did not fast; on the contrary, he celebrated the good life in all its glory. And for him that certainly meant enjoying a hearty meal; when he ate, the prostitutes and tax collectors were welcome to eat with him.
In his lifestyle, he thus clearly stood out like a sore thumb to others in his faith. After all, he had come from a community of people--the followers of John the Baptist--who regularly practiced fasting. So did the Pharisees. Fasting was de rigeur for many of his religious contemporaries. If the biblical story of Jesus in the wilderness has a core of truth to it and is not purely mythological (it certainly does have mythological elements, as represented by the 40 days if nothing else), then Jesus had engaged in some form of ascetic contemplation before starting his ministry. But when he came out of that wilderness, after deep contemplation and prayer about the events that were swirling around him, he apparently changed his mind about a lot of things. What led him to develop the ideas he did is an interesting question. Mark suggests that Jesus went immediately to the wilderness after his baptism, but the actual timing of events may have been conflated somewhat or lost in the mists of time. I can't help but wonder if the arrest of John must have shaken him in some important way. He had been John's disciple. John had baptized him (This was an embarrassing point to early Christians, and the Christian gospel writers felt compelled to introduce clarifications of it. Thus Mark has John falling all over himself saying that he wasn't worthy even to tie Jesus's sandal, let alone baptize him.) But with the arrest of John, the old era was definitely over.
Jesus could no longer be the disciple of a religious leader whose eschatological expectations had led to personal arrest, along with the accompanying failure to bring an end to the old social order. John the Baptist, Jesus's mentor, had hoped (as John Dominic Crossan has argued) that divine intervention would bring and end to the existing Imperial paradigm and usher in God's Kingdom to the baptized. Instead, John's head was handed on a platter to local authorities within that very dominant and oppressive Imperial system that John opposed. The opportunity had arisen for Jesus to step up and take charge. He had a calling
Jesus didn't exactly do things the way his mentor did. He came out of the period of reflection determined to pursue a different agenda. The old paradigm could not work. John had been wrong. The Kingdom of God would not be ushered in by Divine fiat as a result of a series of individual baptisms. Jesus, with his unique take on life, his quick wit, his remarkable manner of story telling that questioned prevailing paradigms, was going to take on the domination system of his time in a different way. The Kingdom of God was already here, he now believed. This Kingdom was within him and others, and rather than waiting on God to usher it in, as John had done, they would usher it in themselves by living in a new way. As part of this new way, Jesus didn't concern himself with fasting and baptism. He was going to lead a new life and teach a new message that would usher in the new Domain of God, and fasting was not part of that.
Many of his followers came from John's community, however, and certain practices did not die out, regardless of what Jesus did. One of the practices that didn't die out was baptism, even if Jesus himself did not concern himself much, if at all, with the practice. Neither did the practice of fasting. Thus both baptism and fasting emerged as important practices in the post-Easter community. Robert Funk, in his book Honest to Jesus, discusses this point. He argues that the early Christians, after Jesus's death, retrojected their own practices of fasting back onto Jesus. Thus Jesus, the non-faster, was sandwiched between the fasters who preceded him and fasters who followed him. But why did Jesus not fast? Early Christians, who did fast, needed to explain away how their own practices didn't jibe with those of Jesus. Thus Mark has Jesus justifying his behavior by saying "The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day." These words don't have a ring of authenticity about them. Here, Mark has Jesus talking about himself with a sort of post-Easter self-understanding. It sounds more like a convenient explanation of why later Christians felt the need not to emulate Jesus's own practices, than of something that Jesus himself would have said. After all, Jesus lived his life as if how he lived mattered. He believed that how one lives one's life is what can bring to fruition the in-breaking Kingdom of God, and he lived by example what he taught. And how he lived excluded fasting.
This process of retrojecting fasting onto Jesus can also be seen when you compare Matthew's account of Jesus in the wilderness with Mark. Matthew, which was written later, specifically adds fasting to what Jesus did there. Mark, by contrast, makes no mention of fasting during that time. Matthew, apparently, had an agenda to make the early Christian practice of fasting more consistent with what Jesus did.
I understand and appreciate that many Christians find value in ascetic spiritual practices, such as fasting. As we approach Lent, the ideas of self-sacrifice, penitence, and so forth, play an important role for many people. I do not denigrate these practices. They are valuable for many faithful people--which probably explains their persistence among the followers of Jesus, despite what Jesus himself did. Jesus didn't need to be so ascetic, but others may find value in it. The more important question, I believe, is not what spiritual practices we do or don't do or which practices are "right" and which are "wrong", but how we translate our relationship with God into building the very Kingdom of God that Jesus himself sought. Perhaps it isn't a matter of slavishly imitating Jesus's methods, which were particular to a time and place; but the goal, of creating a just and loving world that manifests God's Domain here on earth--that goal remains as important as ever.