Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The New Patch, The New Wineskins, and the Old and New Wine

Chapter 4

Luke 5:36 (Matthew 9:16; Mark 2:21); Luke 5:37-39 (Matthew 9:17; Mark 2:22)

The immediate occasion for these parables is the question by "they", probably the "The Pharisees and their scribes" of Luke 5:30. They had asked, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? Our disciples like those of John the Baptist, frequently fast and pray. Your disciples eat and drink." They had observed that the behavior and conduct of Jesus was different, and that was true not only with respect to the specific issue of frequent fasting and prayer.

What Jesus taught and the way he lived was markedly different from what people had come to expect. He didn't teach like the rabbis who expounded on what other earlier rabbis had said. He didn't use sophistry to find ways to fulfill the legal requirements of the law in the light of new life situations. He didn't seek legal means to get around the letter of the law, like constructing oaths in such a way that the maker was not obliged to fulfill them. He was not strict about the oral and legal regulations about the Sabbath. He disregarded purification requirements with regard to food, association with sinners, and contact with lepers and other unclean persons. He treated women and children and the oppressed and outcasts of society with respect and dignity.

The Parable of the New Patch

Jesus answered the questions and comments of the Pharisees with three parables. The first concerned putting a new patch on an old garment. He pointed out that one does not patch an old garment with new, unshrunken cloth. If this were done, the new unshrunken cloth would shrink when it was washed and make the rent worse. In telling this parable Jesus was referring specifically to the matter of fasting, the specific topic of the comment. In other words, even one part of his new teaching patched into the old would cause problems. What was needed was a change in the entire system.

The Parable of the New Wineskins

In the second parable Jesus reasoned that a wholesale change was necessary. He illustrated this with the parable of the new wineskins. The people he was addressing were familiar with the necessity of using new wineskins for new wine. As new wine fermented, it expanded and needed to be placed in new wineskins that were flexible enough to expand with the fermentation. Old, inflexible wineskins would burst if new wine fermented in them. He argued that his teachings were like new wine that needed new forms of expression.

The Parable of the Old and New Wine

The third parable illustrates the difficulty of those used to the taste of old wine. "And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, 'The old is good'". (Luke 5:39) What Jesus is dealing with here is the eternal problem of transition and change. As human beings, we experience different kinds of change. There is minor change, an adjustment, the band-aid variety of change, where a patch is sufficient. There is change that is sure but gradual, where the old progressively accommodates the new. Then there is sweeping change, the kind of change Jesus speaks of here: the need to develop a taste for new wine in new wineskins. The message is different, as are its forms of expression. This kind of radical change is revolutionary, like the Protestant Reformation.

Minor changes are needed after a radical change has taken place. After Jesus' ascension, the disciples needed to appoint a replacement for Judas and special people were appointed to take care of Christian widows. Gradual change begins to take place after minor adjustments have taken place after a revolutionary change. New situations have to be accommodated. This kind of change continues until another radical change takes place.

We live in a time of gradual change. It is a crucial period because it is necessary to adapt the eternal gospel to new situations and new times. In any institution or organization there are conservatives and liberals. Liberals want to accommodate to new situations, sometimes devaluing the lessons of the past. Conservatives, remembering past mistakes, aren't so eager to make necessary changes. The church needs both. Conservatives keep the church from accommodating to novelty rather than things of substance. Liberals keep the church from petrifying and becoming irrelevant.

Buttrick describes the virtues and vices of conservatism and liberalism aptly.

A conservatism which, for the sake of the future, safeguards the treasure of the past wins its crown. A conservatism which denies the future, counting its little systems as full and final truth, has blood upon its hands--the skyline of the ages is black with the cruel crosses it has raised! 1

If the new has no root in the old, it withers. If the old grows no new leaves, it dies. 2

Standpattism and garish novelty in religion are equally blasphemous. Standpattism helps to nail Jesus to His Cross; and novelty, with that stark beam before its eyes, discards it as a morbid and meaningless symbol. The reactionary and the radical must always share the guilt of revolution. 3

The third type of change takes place when a system has not only become old, but is ossified, hardened, stiff, rigid, and inflexible. Band-aid changes are not adequate and gradual changes are either glacial or impossible.

This is the kind of change Jesus was speaking about. The change needed in Judaism was a radical one. Because the Pharisaic spirit was the dominant, and it had stifled further spiritual development and quenched new revivals. No patchwork or gradual changes would suffice. To say this is not to say that Jesus advocated a complete break with Israel's past. He continued to teach in the traditional way, but he advocated revolutionary change.

Instead of emphasizing the importance of good deeds, Jesus emphasized the thought process. It was not enough to say, "I do not kill", and "I have not committed adultery". Hatred and lust were also sin. Jesus was concerned about motivation. It was not enough to give alms, to fast, or to pray. These things must be done without thought of reward. Jesus emphasized integrity, so that oath taking was irrelevant and unnecessary. Jesus preached forgiveness, so there should be no thoughts of retaliation. Jesus proclaimed that all men and women were brothers and sisters, so his followers should turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Jesus declared enemies should be loved, so thoughts of revenge must be put away. After all, the Heavenly Father cared for the just and unjust equally.

Jesus was unconcerned about ritual purification because these rituals promoted a religious caste system. Jesus taught that love fulfilled the purpose and function of the law. Keeping the law was the obsession of the Pharisees. Jesus declared that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath. The Pharisees reasoned that healing the sick was work, and work on the Sabbath was offensive to God. Jesus reasoned that the God of the Sabbath rejoiced when one of his suffering children was healed, irrespective of the day.

It is important that the church does not become so ossified and inflexible that it cannot proclaim the eternal gospel in new times and new situations. It must not continue answering questions that no one is asking. It must not become a museum of ancient artifacts. If gradual changes are not made in light of the changing times and circumstances, the church will become fossilized and irrelevant. The only change possible at that juncture will be the kind of radical change that split the church during the Reformation. For the church, Jesus' statement becomes a relevant warning. "No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins". (Luke 5:37-38)

1. George A. Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1928), p. 11.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., p.12.

No comments: