Friday

03 September 2010

"But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins." (v.38)

Background

This passage takes place at a lavish banquet at the home of Levi, a former tax-collector, whom we also know as Matthew (seeMatthew 9:9). In this story, the presence of a crowd of tax-collectors and other 'sinners' has raised issues with the Jewish religious elite. Jesus' response in verse 32 (that he hasn't come for the righteous, but to call sinners back to God) leads on to further comments about his conduct as a rabbi (a Jewish teacher). Was he leading his disciples astray? By comparing Jesus' disciples to those of John the Baptist, the Jewish leaders are implying that Jesus' followers aren't as pious or prayerful as they might be, and also that there's some disunity between Jesus and John.

Jesus' response takes them all aback. He compares himself to a bridegroom. And while the groom's at the reception, the guests must party! And then, ominously, he alludes to a time to come when the groom will be "taken away" - and this is, of course, taken to be an early reference to his death.

So maybe the religious leaders are thinking too small. Jesus hasn't come merely to introduce new religious practices (like, for example, having a celebration meal instead of prayer and fasting). He is the bridegroom - everything revolves around him - and he's come to do something completely new! Where this new thing, this gospel life, is found there are jubilant parties with unexpected guests. You miss the point of Jesus if you think he's simply about religious practices and patterns, or about making a few adjustments here and there.

Then Jesus gives his listeners some curious parables. What's needed is not to patch things up, but to put on a whole new garment. Or it's like a fantastic new wine. Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham and a New Testament scholar, says this is like trying to use old software on a new computer. But Jesus' words are more powerful. What Jesus is offering is a new wine so full of vigour and life that it would destroy the old wineskins it's put into.

Despite this, Jesus observes, people seem satisfied with the old wine (without even tasting the new) - taste buds get conditioned to what they're used to. 'They don't know what they're missing', Jesus might have added.

To Ponder

At a baptism, a newly baptized person traditionally put on new clothes to symbolise the new gospel life - 'putting on Christ'. Why is a completely new start so much better than simply patching up the old?

The image of the bridegroom is a favourite one for Jesus. Can you think of other parts of the New Testament where this illustration is used? And who, in your opinion, is his bride?

Are there things in our lives and churches that are easier to swallow because they're tried and tested? Has the Church even now grasped the new wine Jesus is offering or do we allow the new gospel life to appear old and tired at times? To what extent could his kingdom be more radical than we've even imagined?

Bible notes author: Revd Andrew Murphy

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