My Take On Cloth And Wineskins

Have you every been bugged by a portion of Scripture? It just doesn’t seem to fit or make sense in light of what you know or in light of the context.

I’ve struggled in this way with a passage in the book of Matthew. Let me give you the context. Jesus began his public ministry and quickly incurred the ire of the Jewish religious leaders because more than once He healed people on the Sabbath. After calling Matthew to be His disciple, He went home with him for dinner. The Pharisees complained about Him eating and drinking with tax-collectors (corrupt government officials) and sinners (those who didn’t keep the Jewish law). Jesus told them to “go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE’…”

Soon after John’s disciples and those of the Pharisees observed a religious fast. John’s disciples asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast, too.

Now His answer.

And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

I get that. So far so good. But He continued:

16 “But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. 17 Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”


How did we get from eating with sinners and not keeping a fast to cloth and wineskins?

Well, obviously, as with the previous part of His answer about the bridegroom, Jesus is making an analogy, but what equals what?

I’ve heard sermons on this before–the old is the Law, the new, the New Covenant. Set aside for the moment that those to whom Jesus was talking would not have understood that analogy at all. The idea of the New Covenant was still just that–an idea. Most people had no clue why the Messiah had actually come.

But the real problem I have here is that the new on old in Jesus’s analogies destroys the old. Yet Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.

17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Of course, Jesus seems to be advocating new wine into new skins. So with what are these two analogous? The wine is Christ’s blood? The skins are the Church?

Maybe that’s too detailed. After all, parables didn’t have one on one correlations, so maybe analogies didn’t either. Except, isn’t that the point of an analogy?

So here’s my new thought, really spurred by a passage in Mark where Jesus elaborates on the problem He had with the Pharisees.

Take a look:

3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) 5 The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” 6 And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

    ‘This people honors Me with their lips,
    But their heart is far away from Me.
    7 ‘ But in vain do they worship Me,
    Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

8 Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:3-9 – emphasis mine)

So here’s what I’m thinking. What if the old cloth, the old wineskins, stand for God’s true Law? In the verses just prior to these analogies, remember, Jesus told the Pharisees to figure out what Scripture meant when it said God desired compassion rather than sacrifice.

The new patch of cloth, the new wine, then, represent the traditions the Pharisees heaped on top of what God had said. Their add-ons were tearing apart the fabric, bursting the skins, of God’s perfect Law.

So what do you think?

I know this way of looking at these verses flies in the face of the traditional interpretation. Traditional … heh-hem. Maybe that’s not a bad thing because I think it fits the context of the passage and is consistent with what Jesus says about fulfilling God’s law and about the Pharisees’ perversion of it through their tradition.

In the end, I come away more mindful of the need to hold loosely things like worship styles and other extra-Biblical practices. Compassion must not be sacrificed on the altar of tradition.

Published in: on May 30, 2012 at 6:02 pm  Comments (3)  
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  1. Your last statement is golden. Notwithstanding, I think it is interesting that I see this passage the other way around. I do agree with you that the old law/new law analogy is something his immediate listeners would not have caught, but I know that Jesus regularly spoke above people’s heads, in order to raise their consciousness of spiritual principles.

    What I do think is clearly indicated is that Jesus is bringing something so new, that it is dangerous to outdated cloth. Even the “earthen vessels” Peter refers to, may be required, to keep the energizing force of the Spirit of God (pictured by new wine) contained. I think Jesus is talking about the barriers the Jews had, toward receiving the Holy Spirit and allowing Him to lead them–some of them would have split a seam, if He entered!

    The reason, as you suggest, is that tradition had become an idol. At the wedding in Cana, the toastmaster said that the “old (wine) is better.” This may have been a proverb, that Jesus had in mind.


  2. Great post, Becky, and lots of food for thought!

    I think, whatever point Jesus was making, in the context of that culture, his disciples and the Pharisees got it. Idiomatic language is difficult to translate across cultural barriers. Jesus is speaking using the local idiom, but I think that between you and Peggy Wilmeth Carr, it makes more sense to me than it has previously!

    Thanks, ladies! 😉


  3. I don’t think it is necessarily that Jesus is talking about the bringing of something new. And forget buzzwords for a sec: Law and Gospel. We get no points for using proper sermon-language.

    I think it is all of these things, in a sense, or could be, but it is much more basic. Remember, the new disciples are being criticized for NOT performing ritual cleansing. And, here the group is, healing people, and confusing them by teaching and ministering, anyway! How is this possible, they think? What kind of new heathens are they?

    Jesus’ analogies seem to me to be related to his other messages that talk about internal transformation… or do they? Think about it for a minute. Old wine is good wine — the best wine. And the old garment… there is a reason it is being patched. It is a grand old garment that deserves to be patched, because you want to wear it. Otherwise you wouldn’t care if the patch pulls the fabric as it seasons.

    Ritualizing the patch doesn’t make it fit the fabric. Nor does ritualizing the new wine make it quickly season so it “belongs” in the old skins. True transformation takes time.

    I think the old garment and the old wine are first-class. In fact, they are wht we are aspiring to. The difficulty is, we are not there yet. Neither were Jesus’ contemporaries. Jesus was bringing the process of renewal and regeneration to the forefront. Those who were being healed or ministered to were new creatures, indeed, even as those ministering to them were also new creatures.

    Hold on to the old wineskins, preserving them with what you have left of the best wine. And hold onto that magnificent garment for the time when you can apply a properly seasoned patch. You are going to want to bring both of those out when the bridegroom returns.

    (My two cents)


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