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The Enigma of New Wineskins

For a long time, and in many readings of Luke 5 (or Mark 2 or Matthew 9), I have pondered the meaning of "new wine in old wineskins" (vs. 37-38). Jesus responds to the religious leaders disputing with him about certain practices, "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."

Right away, questions press upon us about what Jesus means. What is the new wine? What is the old? What is the new wine compared to the old? Why does Luke 5 conclude with the observation that people prefer the old wine to the new wine? What does he mean by new wineskins? What is supposed to be our takeaway from this passage? 

Since I am now pastoring a congregation after so many years in higher education, I am thinking again about Jesus' references to wineskins and wine. But it is not only pastors who need to think about what Jesus is saying here, for his words implicate us all. 

Let's zoom out, then, and look at the larger context and see the framework of meaning for Jesus' word about new wine and new wineskins. To get the full detail, we would need to go back into Luke 4, but let's just look at the scenarios in Luke 5 for now. Jesus, using Simon's boat for a teaching seat as he addresses the crowd, then tells Simon and his partners to go into the deep water for a catch of fish. These expert fishermen do so reluctantly, having fished all night and caught nothing. In obedience to Jesus' guidance, they come up with bulging nets of fish. 

Then, Luke tells us the story about Jesus cleansing the leper. (This event also appears in Matthew and Mark). This story always blows me away, because Jesus touches the leper as well as speaks the word of healing over him. So many meanings come out of this story! Jesus has divine power to heal with a word only (which he does regularly in the gospels), so why does he touch this man? Think about that.

Then comes the story about the paralytic on the mat (Mark 2, Matthew 9) whose friends, desperate to get him in front of Jesus, dig through the roof and let him down right in front of Jesus. Jesus not only heals his paralysis, but forgives his sins, thereby alarming the religious leaders who think Jesus just blasphemed. After asking a very basic question about, Jesus says, "But so that you may know that the Son of Many has authority on earth to forgive sins - he said to the one who was paralyzed - "I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home."

And then Jesus calls one from that most despised of employment categories in Israel - the tax collector - Levi, to follow him. Levi gets up from his tax table. Levi "left everything, and followed him" (just like the fishermen). 

Let's pause. We now have fishermen and tax collectors leaving everything to follow Jesus.  What does Luke mean by this phrase, "leaving everything?"

Jesus gets questioned once again by the religious leaders for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He famously replies that those who are well need no physician, but those who are sick. He has come to call, not the righteous, but sinners to repentance. There is much irony in Jesus' response. The sinners know they are sinners. The righteous don't know that they are sinners. They, the religious leaders, stand in the more dangerous condition. 

Finally, we get to the last scene in this collection of vignettes. Once again, the religiously upright question Jesus because his disciples don't keep all the traditional fasts. Jesus answers with a cryptic, "You cannot make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they they will fast."

We thus arrive at the new cloth/old garment and the new wine/old wineskins sayings. Those questions I asked at the beginning of this reflection now come forward. 

All of us have grown up in an environment in which "new" means "better" or "improved." We are tempted to apply Jesus' words mainly to questions that pit traditional ways of thinking and doing  against new ways of thinking and doing and the old ways almost always lose. 

I grew up with the Jesus movement of the sixties and seventies. With the Jesus movement came Jesus music, fresh ways of expressing love for God and neighbor and the changed life that Jesus gives. What got a lot of attention were the forms of worship and the design of places of worship. Much of those efforts were needed, I grant. But now, fifty years on, we should start to notice the irony. The new became the traditional (even though we still call it "contemporary"). With all the attention on the forms of worship and church life, we slipped from the main point.

In each encounter leading up to Jesus' words about new wine and new wineskins, the people who met Jesus entered into an entirely new way of living. "They left everything and followed him."

The scary part? The people who get left behind are the most obviously religiously devout, the most comfortable with the very things that Jesus has come to revive and recreate. People like pastors and long-time congregational leaders often are the ones most opposed to Jesus.

The new wine and the new wineskins don't mean new forms of devotion. They signal new life in Christ, a new way of living. Even these words that I just wrote are familiar to us who have been part of the Christian faith for so long, but let's not miss the point. When we follow Jesus, we must yield to all that he has in mind for his people. Everything about us is on the table for reordering. Every day. All the time. 

And Jesus Christ - crucified, raised, and coming again - is always the Center of that new way of living. If we read all the gospels in this light, we start to see being a Christian really involves. Let's keep reading and reflecting and yielding.


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