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Patches, Wineskins, and Welcoming the New
by Meghan Sullivan

Most of us are guilty of holding onto things we do not need. These things could be clothes that we don’t wear anymore, traditions that have outgrown their purpose, or prejudices that we should have overcome long ago. Old perceptions and traditions are especially difficult to give up. We so often want to hold onto the old because we fear what will happen when we let go. Will we be able to adapt to the new? Will we be able to trust the new? People in Jesus’ time were no different than us in this way. They, too, struggled to let go of the old. They, too, struggled to accept and welcome the new.

Jesus often combated this human fear to accept the new. In Luke’s Gospel, he presents two parables about the old and the new. The first parable is about patching garments; the second is about wine fermenting in wineskins. Before examining these parables in greater detail, let’s take a look at the context of the story.

In Luke 5:33, the Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus about fasting observances. From the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, we know that the disciples of John the Baptist were also present. The Pharisees and John’s disciples practiced strict fasting rules in comparison to Jesus’ disciples, who, at this point in the Gospel, are merrily eating and drinking at a banquet thrown by Matthew. The fasting practiced by the Pharisees was not part of the Old Law.1 Rather, the Pharisees’ fasting regulations were “pharisaical inventions which the Jews called a hedge about the law, and by which they sought to complete and maintain the legal system.” 2 Jesus speaks out against this hedge about the law in a parable about patchwork.

“No one tears a piece from a new garment,” Jesus says, “and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old” (Luke 5:36 NRSV). Here, Jesus is referring directly to the Pharisees’ effort to “patch up” the Old Law with a hedge about the law. According to Jesus’ parable, patching the old with the new would fail to preserve the old and would destroy the new. “The new” that Jesus alludes to is the New Law, which consists of Jesus’ teachings about love and forgiveness.3 According to Matthew’s Gospel, the New Law does not destroy the Old Law but, rather, fulfills it. Jesus, then, is the new garment that transforms the old garment.

Jesus adds to his explanation with a second parable about wine fermenting in wineskins. A wineskin was most commonly made from the skin of a goat. “The openings at the feet and the tail were closed, leaving the neck as the mouth.”4 Goatskins were a common sight in Palestine because they preserved not only wine but also water for drinking; they also held oil, honey, and milk.5 Fresh goatskin stretched, but old skin dried out and cracked. If wine were to ferment in an old goatskin, then the pressure from the fermentation would have caused the goatskin to break, and the wine would have been lost. This is precisely what Jesus describes in his second parable: “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).

F. Godet contends that the new wine in this parable represents the New Law, and the new wineskins represent the disciples, who are meant to preserve the New Law.6 The Pharisees, hardened against Jesus’ teachings of the spirit of the law, represent the old wineskins. They cannot properly preserve the New Law. Conversely, Jesus’ disciples are the appropriate wineskins with which to preserve the New Law because they have an open, unbiased perspective of Jesus’ teachings.

Godet’s interpretation of the wine and the wineskins makes sense when we consider the larger context of the parables. At the beginning of chapter five in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus calls his disciples. When the Pharisees and John’s disciples question Jesus, he and his disciples are celebrating Matthew’s call to discipleship. Therefore, it is likely that Jesus, in addition to defending the New Law to the Pharisees, was explaining why he chose fishermen and a tax collector to be his disciples.

The last verse in chapter five was a warning to Jesus’ audience and can serve as a warning to us today. Jesus describes human nature, saying, “And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good’” (Luke 5:39). While it is human nature to continue drinking the old wine with which we are familiar, and while we know that some wines become tastier with age, Jesus’ words can, perhaps, give us the courage to accept and welcome the new.

1. Old Law consists of the legal content found in the first five books of the Old Testament (the Jewish Torah) and is summarized by the Ten Commandments.
2. F. Godet, A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1976), 278.
3. Just as the Old Law is summarized by the Ten Commandments, the New Law is summarized by the Beatitudes and Jesus’ commandment to love God and one another.
4. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1946), 318.
5. Godet, 280.
6. Ibid., 280-281.


 


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