Jesus' Parable: Wineskins and Garments - part 2
This parable of Jesus comes in response to a question by onlookers about why Jesus doesn't fast when the disciples of John and the Pharisees do so often. The implied question beneath the question is, "Are you teaching something new, a new religion?" (Remember, this was very early in his ministry.) This is how the hearers understood it, and Jesus responds, first directly, and then with a parable to illustrate what he means. If the parable is to be correctly understood, it must coordinate with his direct response.
Jesus' response indicates that, no, his message is not new. It is the time element that is different. When the bridegroom is no longer present, his disciples will fast like everyone else. Other than the uniqueness of his person and presence, his message is the same as that of the prophets and the rabbis (cp. Matt. 23:2-3). Then he tells a parable to illustrate the perils of thinking that his message is new.
At this point, you, the reader, probably have a strong emotional reaction against this line of thinking. It is so different from what you have believed that you need stronger evidence. This is understandable. And the strongest evidence is found in Luke 5:39, "And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better'." Here Jesus clearly shows a preference for the old, at least in terms of the wine. The new wine here is not fresh grape juice, cold from the refrigerator. It's wine in the early stages of fermenting, not very good at all. Many cultures have proverbs about wine improving with age.
But wait, you say. Isn't Jesus commenting on people's reluctance to try new things? They prefer the old wine but they are wrong? Unfortunately, the structure of the passage does not allow for this understanding.
There are three parallel phrases in this passage that begin with the words "No one" (oudeis in the Greek). No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one, no one pours new wine into old wineskins, and no one prefers new wine to old. The first two of these illustrate common sense. No one does these things because the results are bad. It would be like forcing a square peg in a round hole to say that the third phrase meant "No one does it, but they should."
When we understand what Jesus is saying, it all makes more sense. Jesus' focus is not on what is done, but on what is not done. If you have an old wineskin, you don't put new wine in it. If you have an old garment, you don't patch it with a piece cut from a new garment. Although it may be tempting to think that Jesus is advocating putting new wine in new wineskins, the parallel example of cutting a piece from a new garment to patch a new garment is ludicrous.
In reality, Jesus was faced with a Judaism that he likened to an old garment that needed patching. The point of his parable is to say that you must not patch it with new cloth, i.e. a new teaching. The inconsistencies would tear it apart. What Jesus does not say but implies, is that an old garment must be patched with similarly aged cloth. His teaching is similarly based on the Torah and the prophets. He intends to correct people's misunderstandings of these scriptures.
Here is an explanatory paraphrase of the passage in Luke 5 that attempts to expand on the words in order to explain the meaning behind them.
Jesus was asked, "Are you teaching something different than Moses taught us? Your disciples don't fast like the disciples of John and the Pharisees." Jesus answered, "My teaching is the same, it is the circumstances that are different. While the bridegroom is present, it's not appropriate to fast. We should celebrate. When the bridegroom is gone, my followers will fast, like all the others."
"God's age-old revelation is not compatible with brand-new teachings. I know there are some problems with the way it's being practiced, but they can't be fixed by bringing in totally new concepts. If you have a worn-out coat that needs patching, you don't cut a piece from a new coat to patch it with. You'd be damaging the new coat by cutting it and it wouldn't effectively patch the old coat."
"A new teaching would need its own new structures; you couldn't fit it with a time-tested faith like we have. You don't put partially fermented wine in an old wineskin, or it would tear as the wine fermented. No, you would need to put partially fermented wine in a new wineskin that was flexible so that they could expand together."
"But don't make the mistake of thinking that I am endorsing new wine or the new teachings it symbolizes. No one who has savored the taste of aged wine is going to look for partially fermented wine, because everyone knows that old wine is better. In the same way, those who have been faithful to God's teaching through Moses and the prophets are not going to be hunting for some new teaching to replace it."