“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new patch pulls away from the old cloth, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost as well as the skins. No, new wine is put into fresh wineskins.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever seen somebody be insulted without realizing they were being insulted? Jon Stewart, former host of Comedy Central’s popular series, “The Daily Show,” was well-known for doing this. He would send out “reporters” to do interviews with unsuspecting individuals which were then edited to make them look stupid at best. Well, Jesus wasn’t doing that here, but He was making an observation about some folks that wasn’t exactly complimentary. In doing so, though, He offers us a good reminder to not fall into the same trap they had. Let’s talk about it.
Jesus’ saying about garments and wineskins here has long been a puzzling one at first glance. As I have come back to it this week in Mark’s Gospel, I’ve had to ruminate on it for several days myself, prayerfully reading and rereading the context. Let me share with you some of what I’ve learned. First, some context.
This saying comes in the context of the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of the Pharisees asking Jesus why He doesn’t make His own disciples fast regularly like they have to do. After all, regular fasting was one of the things prescribed for faithful Jews in the Talmud, the set of interpretations of the Law of Moses that had come over the centuries to carry basically the same moral and legal weight as the Law itself.
Jesus responds to their inquiry by talking about grooms and guests. Guests of the groom don’t fast when they have the groom with them. When the groom is present it’s time to feast. Later, when the groom is gone, then it will be time for fasting, Jesus says. From there, He goes right into this bit about garments and wineskins.
If we are going to make sense out of what Jesus says here, we need to take into account something else He said recorded a couple of chapters over from this. In Mark 4 (also Matthew 13) Jesus gives an explanation for why He so often spoke and taught in parables. The reason boils down to the fact that while His message is indeed for everyone, only those who are interested in hearing it are going to benefit from it at all. Parables aren’t necessarily immediately obvious in their meaning. They are made up stories to make a moral point. If you just skim the surface, you’re probably going to miss out on what the actual message is. Jesus’ parables invited those who were interested to listen just a bit more closely. If you took up the invitation, you were going to be able to figure them out and learn the lesson. If not, though, they were just going to be confusing.
In this way, parables acted like a kind of gate. It allowed Him to say what He meant, but in such a way as to keep His critics from fully understanding and using His words against Him. Indeed, in His eventual trial before the high priest, several of His teachings that fit this pattern were twisted and taken out of context in order to accuse Him of saying things He never actually said.
When Jesus responds to the initial question of these other disciples by talking about grooms and guests, He’s speaking in parable. He is the groom. He is the one they’ve been waiting for and fasting to seek. It doesn’t make any sense that His disciples–or anyone else for that matter–fasts while He is right there with them. Why fast to seek Him when He is standing in front of them? While He is with them, they should be celebrating His presence. In making this observation, though, He’s actually claiming something even grander. He’s claiming identity with God Himself. The Jewish disciples were fasting in anticipation of God’s arrival. Well, here He was, standing in front of them.
This, though, raises a rather obvious question: If this was really the case, why wasn’t Jesus a whole lot more obvious about His identity and mission? Why speak in parables at all? Jesus’ saying about the garments and wineskins gives us the answer. Jesus was bringing something new to the world. It was a continuation of what God had always been doing through the Law and the people of Israel, but it was the next step forward in His plans, and a big one at that. Well, human beings haven’t always tolerated change so well. In fact, we tend to not tolerate it very well at all. We fight against it tooth and nail in most cases. Once we are comfortable with a pattern of ideas and behaviors, we’re not all that inclined to leave them behind in favor of anything else.
If Jesus had been entirely open about who He was and what He was bringing to the world, that would not have resulted in a better reception on the part of the Jewish people. It would have more likely resulted in a faster rejection. To drop those new ideas into this old world would have torn it to pieces just like a new scrap of cloth on an old garment or new wine stored in old wineskins will result in more destruction than anything else.
Think about it like this: I’ve got three boys in school. When they are in math class, the youngest is learning how to add two single digit numbers. The oldest is learning about prime factorizations and greatest common factors. If I tried to teach the youngest the same lessons the oldest is learning, not only would they not make sense to him, the overwhelming difficulty would leave him discouraged and refusing to learn anything new at all. A little bit of growing and stretching is fine–the oldest taught his middle brother how to find greatest common factors and he really seems to have understood it–but too much will be overwhelming to the point of destruction.
Instead, Jesus filled the new wineskins of His specifically chosen disciples with the new wine of the kingdom of God. Once they were filled, they could begin to first condition and then fill others. This way, no one became overwhelmed with an overload of new information they weren’t ready to process. Indeed, the one time someone did try to come to Jesus and ask for more than He was ready to receive, the rich young ruler went away disappointed because his old wineskins couldn’t bear the pressure of Jesus’ new wine.
In our own lives, it’s tempting to wish that God would just give us all the answers about life on demand. After all, that’s how we watch TV nowadays. If we want to, we can see the whole series laid out in front of us before we’ve even watched the first episode. Yet in His infinite wisdom, God knows that if He pushes us too far, we’ll just burst from the pressure. Instead, He patiently takes us along on a journey with Him, revealing to us what we need to know when we need to know it. He lets us grow and stretch and explore the moment we are in before moving us on to the next one. In this way, we move at a pace that will be sustainable over the long term.
What this means for you and me is that we’ve got to be patient. God knows what He’s doing. He knows where He’s going. He knows where He’s taking us. He knows how fast we can go. And though He’ll occasionally challenge us to move forward a little faster than we think we’re ready to handle, He knows what our limits are even better than we do. He’s working to bring to perfect completion the good work He began in us in Christ Jesus. Let us trust Him and follow faithfully. He will lead us on a path of life.