Matthew 9:14-17 (NIV) Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Jesus regularly failed to meet the expectations of many of the religious people of His day, especially as it regarded external practices that were not part of God’s actual commands. He didn’t practice such things as ceremonial hand washing before meals (cf. Mark 7:1-23), and fasting on certain days of the week (cf. Luke 18:12), because He knew that these were not essential to a real relationship with God, and that they had a horrible tendency to become ends in themselves; little idols that people began to serve, and that ultimately replaced genuine service to God.
Jesus didn’t require these traditional practices of His disciples, either. Even though they weren’t sinful, they didn’t add anything to a person’s relationship with God. So with the dawn of the kingdom, He knew that they would fade away without doing any harm to people’s spiritual health in doing so.
To those who pointed out that these practices had a long and time-honored tradition behind them (most of them originated shortly after the Babylonian captivity), and so needed to be continued, Jesus gave two illustrations, both of which showed the folly of trying to combine old forms of religion with the new realities of the kingdom of God.
The first illustration was sewing a patch of new cloth on an old garment. It might look like a good fit at the beginning, but the picture changes as soon as the garment is washed. The new, unshrunk piece of fabric will shrink, and as it does so, it will tear loose from the old garment, often increasing the size of the original hole in the process. So trying to impose a traditional external religious practice like fasting on a people for whom fasting is not necessary, will ultimately do damage to the old form as well as to the new reality.
The second illustration was pouring new wine into old wineskins. In Jesus’ day, wine was fermented in bags made from animal skins. As the juice fermented, the gases produced swelled the skins. Finally, when the swelling stopped, the wine was properly fermented, and could be poured out of the skins. But old wineskins couldn’t be reused. The process of stretching and the inevitable drying of the leather that occurred over time made them thin and inflexible. If new wine was allowed to ferment in such hard, thin skins, the pressure of the gases would burst the skins, and the fermenting wine would be poured out on the ground; both would be lost. Thus, trying to force the new powerful, energetic reality of the kingdom of God into the rigid forms of traditional religious practices would end up damaging them both.
In making the kingdom real, Jesus was initiating a new spiritual reality, one that could not be contained in the old forms and traditions of post-exilic Judaism. Instead, He invited people to participate in the new and powerful reality of a Spirit-filled, Spirit-led relationship with the one true God – a powerful and effervescent realty that would blow apart any traditional constraints that were put on it
Father, I’m afraid that we are often guilty of the same traditional formalism that the Pharisees and John’s disciples were so fond of. We grow very comfortable with the way that we have always done things, and whenever You want to do something new to reach a new generation of people, our first instinct is to try to force it into the old wineskins of our traditions and practices. And if it won’t fit, we too easily declare that it must not be from You. Lord, open our eyes to the truths of the New Covenant, truths that are too grand and powerful to be forced into our rigid traditions. Help us to live lives in the Spirit that are too effervescent with Your power and presence for us to ever try to pour them into the old wineskins of the way we have always done things. Help us to be new wineskins, flexible and supple, and willing to release our death grip on the old, so that we can be a part of the new things that You are doing right now. Amen.