14. New and Old

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 14.  New and Old

Mt 9:16,17   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.”

In the previous study, of the two verses before these, we saw Jesus was contrasting the world of the religious with the world of the kingdom of God. Some reading that may feel threatened or defensive because so much of modern church life in the West is NOT like the celebration of new, transformed life that Jesus implied through his analogy of the wedding feast, but the analogy is still there and is now being repeated twice by the next two analogies we now have before us.

In the first one he speaks of a piece of new cloth and an old garment. It is that simple. The point he is making is equally obvious: new material will yet shrink when it is washed while the old remains exactly as it was when it is washed, and so you don’t try patching the new into the old because it will tear the old. Now the problem here is that Jesus is teaching by implication and he does not apply what he is saying to the situation around him, yet it is fairly obvious what he means.

The ‘old garment’ that is unchanging must be Judaism with its powerful leadership in the chief priests and the temple hierarchy, who wanted to maintain the status quo and were thus annoyed at Jesus who they saw as a threat to their established ways, the traditions of the religion. By contrast, the ‘new material’ must be the life of the kingdom that Jesus was bringing. It was full of life, full of action, full of transformation, noisy, vibrant, exuberant and unpredictable. I don’t know if that is how you see Jesus’ ministry but that is how it was. Every time another person was healed there would have been rejoicing and all the words above would apply. The life that Jesus was imparting that brought transformed lives also meant that it wasn’t just a physical change but a whole life outlook change.

Life in the temple carried on day after day with no change. Life with Jesus was one of complete change. If you were one of Jesus’ disciples traveling with him, you never knew what the coming day would bring. For example, one day it meant healing a leper (8:3), then healing a centurion’s servant with a word (8:13), then the healing an old lady (8:15), but then they would leave it all and cross the Sea of Galilee and confront and deliver two demon possessed men (8:32) then, crossing the lake again, healed a paralytic on a stretcher (9:7), then comes feasting at tax-collector Matthew’s house (9:10) – all those things led up to this teaching. Imagine you were one of Jesus’ disciples and let’s assume all these things happened on the same day (maybe they didn’t), when you got up in the morning you wouldn’t have ever guessed all those things could happen. It was a completely unpredictable life as Jesus sought to work with his Father (Jn 5:17,19) expressing the kingdom of God on the earth. No, this was clearly a ‘new piece of material’ and it wouldn’t fit comfortably in with the ‘old garment’ of the life of the establishment. See that last word – ‘establishment’. It means those who are established, those who are set in their ways. If our church services are ‘established’ with the same thing week in, week out, we are more akin to the temple priesthood than to Jesus.

But then he adds a second analogy which makes exactly the same point: new wine and old wineskins. They just don’t go together is what he is saying. New wine is still unstable and changing and even may be effervescent. If you put it into old wineskins which are stiff and rigid and try and contain it, the life of the new wine will just split the skins and pour out. Isn’t that what happens every time a new denomination springs up? The old order gets rigid but as the Holy Spirit keeps working in some, they can no longer tolerate the old and they break out and form some new group. Sadly, and almost inevitably, that new group eventually settle down and becomes rigid and so the conflict continues – and it IS a conflict as the life of God pushes against the rigid boundaries that men so often establish.

Remember the context of all this was John the Baptist’s disciples coming to cross examine Jesus (9:14). Already they had settled in their thinking that John’s severe way was THE right way and so they had trouble with the life and vibrancy of what was happening with Jesus. Later John, in prison, was to send some of his disciples to Jesus to enquire of him, possibly to introduce them to Jesus so they could move on now John’s ministry had ended. When they questioned Jesus about who he was he replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (11:4,5) Look again at that summary of Jesus’ ministry and envisage the joy etc. that accompanied it. This was the new wine and so it was no wonder that it upset the ‘old wineskins’ of orthodox Jewry.

This was Jesus’ way of explaining to John’s disciples on the earlier meeting how incompatible the life he was bringing was with the more orthodox ways (praying and fasting) of the established religion of Judaism. He didn’t actually say it, but the question still hangs in the air – which would you prefer, the day by day, never changing humdrum religion of law and ritual, or the life-transforming ministry of Jesus with its accompanying joy and exuberance, excitement, energy, and liveliness? Will we simply settle for the old, stable and unchallenging and unchanging ways of traditional religion, or will we seek the Lord for an outpouring of his Spirit as he continues to do today what he did then? Be careful how you answer because new wine cannot be controlled and is often unpredictable – but it is life from heaven and it is the expression of the will of God on earth!