“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
Matthew 9:16-17 (NRSV)
This is actually a continuation of the thought from the previous passage about why Jesus and his disciples do not fast, but I wanted to talk about this piece on its own.
The passage about the wineskins is an interesting one from a biblical studies perspective, because it shows up in all three synoptic gospels, but it says something different in each one. In Mark, Jesus simply says that the wine is lost and the old skins are destroyed (Mark 2:22). In Luke, Jesus says that no one prefers the new wine to the old wine, but that the old wine is good (Luke 5:37-39). Here, Matthew offers that putting the new wine into new wineskins allows both the old and new wine and wineskins to be preserved.
Going back for a moment to the previous bit about fasting, Jesus has said that the mourning and longing state that Israel was in has given way to a new era where the bridegroom is present. The reversal of fortunes is at hand, and now is a time for rejoicing. To continue to mourn would not just be unnecessary, but inappropriate. It would be like someone telling the new CEO, “If only our company had someone qualified to lead us.”
Some have posited that the wineskins and wine represent the old and new covenants, and that may work as a theological explanation of the text, but Jesus seems to have a historical progression in mind. There was a time when Israel was in mourning and certain practices, etc. were appropriate for that time. But now Jesus is here, and trying to keep behaving according to the old patterns is just not something you do. In fact, behaving according to the old patterns will actually result in destruction, like sewing a patch of new fabric onto an old one or pouring new wine into new wineskins. If you don’t actually adjust to the new situation, destruction will surely follow.
This is a large component of Jesus’ message. The kingdom is at hand, but so is the judgement. Now is the time for Israel in all echelons of society and religiosity to turn away from the things that defined her prior to Jesus and embrace repentance, faithfulness, healing, restoration, and salvation through the coming disaster. For tax collectors, that means turning away from cheating their own people. For rich young rulers, it means selling what they have to take care of the poor. For Pharisees, it means turning away from their traditions that have propped up their power and reputation at the expense of eclipsing the love, justice, and mercy God wanted from Israel’s faithful – especially her leaders.
Could this involve leaving behind the old covenant? In some very general sense, perhaps. Mark, for example, points out that Jesus declares all foods clean as part of his opposition to the Pharisees and scribes. Matthew records the encounter, but leaves out that little bit of commentary. Some have said that Matthew’s inclusion of “both are preserved” reflect him wanting to be sympathetic to his predominantly Jewish readers, whereas Mark is pretty quick on the trigger to jettison Jewish practices.
Once again, theologically, there may be something to that. But narratively, we can’t separate this mini-parable from Jesus’ preceding statements that the bridegroom is here, but he will also be taken away. Nor can we separate it from Jesus’ larger message of repentance, blessing, and upcoming crisis that will destroy Jerusalem and need to be saved from it. Nor can we separate it from Israel’s larger story where, in the beginning, God called all of them to be faithful to a way of life that, as far as God was concerned, had at its heart doing justice to all and restoring the weak.
One might recall the parable of the Prodigal Son. The rich man has two sons in the story. One stays true to him the entire time; the other goes on a wild sin binge and returns, repentant. Both are preserved (although one is much crabbier about it than the other).
From the standpoint of Matthew’s account, I think we clearly see, as in the other wineskin accounts in the other gospels, the truth that Jesus has brought a new era of fulfillment to Israel, and you can either rejoice to see this new era and follow Jesus into it, or you can cling to where you were beforehand and end up being destroyed with that world.
But Matthew extends some hope to his Jewish readers, probably struggling with this new state of affairs. Jesus has not come to jettison the Judaism that the Pharisees and disciples of John were trying to follow faithfully, but rather he wants to discard what it had become – a hollow shell of man-made traditions that did not serve the purposes of justice, mercy, and restoration, but instead did the opposite. Those traditions were tools of separation, judgement, ego, and in Jesus’ day, quite literally were often fronts for the Roman Empire, themselves. Although Israel’s story has entered a new chapter, it is also a calling back to what Israel was always meant to be. It is a return to the Torah’s heart instead of the Torah’s letter.
It is by believing Jesus’ warnings, trusting his proclamations about God, himself, and where Israel was at, and following in his footsteps that both the old wine and the new wine would not be destroyed, but preserved.
- What does a life of faithfulness look like, today, especially given that Gentiles who never had the Torah can live it? Where does your definition come from?
- Where in the Torah can we see the “heart” of God who desires mercy and not sacrifice? How might that be valuable for our understanding of God and what it means to obey Him, today?