Jesus' Parable: Wineskins and Garments
Early in his ministry Jesus tells a parable about new and old garments and new and old wineskins. It is found in all three synoptic gospels (Matt. 9:14-17; Mk. 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39) in the middle of a chain of events that are common to all three gospels. The understanding of this parable is crucial to understanding Jesus' life and message.
They said to him, "John's disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking." Jesus answered, "Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast." He told them this parable: "No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No. new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better'."
The way this passage is usually interpreted, Jesus is presenting his message as new wine, new garments, and saying that it can't combine with the old wine of Judaism. This is the way the vast majority of commentators present this parable. And yet, when we look at the scripture involved, there is very little evidence to aid in the interpretation of this parable. Why do we choose to interpret it this way?
I believe that we interpret the parable this way based on our own culture and viewpoint. We live in a society that values newness. If something is new, it's got to be better. This is also and attractive interpretation because it gives us a sense of uniqueness and superiority. Jesus message, "Christianity", is far superior to the old wine of Judaism, and should have nothing to do with it.
In reality, Jesus culture did not value newness. With its deep religious roots, the role models and formative events were in the past, and celebrations were instituted to remember them.
Jesus never claims that his message is new in any other passage. Some of his listeners questioned whether it was (Mk. 1:27), but Jesus never affirms that. Paul, on the other hand, speaks at length about newness, usually referring to the change in Gentiles who come to God. We usually tend to read our understanding of Paul into Jesus at this point. Jesus himself is unique. But is his message really new?
Sometimes we fail to realize the implications if the majority understanding is correct. If Jesus is contrasting his new message with the old message of Judaism and saying that they can't coexist, he is contradicting his use of the Old Testament to verify his ministry. He is contradicting many of his actions and teachings in which he urges people to follow Torah. And he is contradicting the God whom he claims for his Father, who has generally been understood as having spoken to his people in the past.
If the popular interpretation of this passage is untenable, how then should we understand it? Are there clues in the context or in the passage itself that help us to understand what Jesus meant? I believe that there are.
Jesus' Parable: Wineskins - part 2