Food For Thought – Cloth And Wineskins

Have you every been bugged by a portion of Scripture that’s hard to understand? 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.

Context, of course, is a key to Biblical interpretation. Someone studying the Bible today ought not make up something from his own mind or experience. Rather, it’s critical to look at an entire passage, an entire book, to find out what the circumstances were and what the audience likely understood.

Having said that, let me give you the context of the passage that’s given me difficulty over the years: After Jesus began his public ministry, He quickly incurred the ire of the Jewish religious leaders because more than once He healed people on the Sabbath—something these Pharisees viewed as breaking the law.

In the face of their displeasure, Jesus proceeded to call Matthew, a prominent tax-collector, to be His disciple, then went to the man’s home for dinner with a group of his friends—a group made up of other tax-collectors and people who didn’t keep the Jewish law. The Pharisees complained about Jesus eating and drinking with these corrupt government officials and sinners.

Jesus responded to His critics by saying, “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. He answered with an analogy.

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—Jesus is the bridegroom and His followers are the attendants. So far so good. But He continued, and here is the troublesome passage:

“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. 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.”

Huh?

How did we get from eating with sinners and not keeping a fast to garments 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 passage 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 with that interpretation 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.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 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.

WineskinsIs Jesus advocating for new wine to be put into new skins? I mean, isn’t it understood that old wine is better? Approaching the verse with the idea that Jesus is saying, new is better, doesn’t really fit the physical realities of the objects He was using to illustrate His point.

And what about the patch and the old garment? Clearly a new patch is incomplete, so it’s pretty hard to conclude that this analogy is saying new is better.

Interestingly Mark in his gospel elaborates on the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. Take a look:

(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 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.) 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?” 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.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

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 and 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.

I know this way of looking at these verses flies in the face of the traditional interpretation. Traditional … heh-hem. Maybe departing from tradition is not a bad thing if it fits the context of the passage. This way of looking at the passage is also 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—the traditions of our day which we might be heaping on top of Scripture, particularly on top of what the Bible lays out as the nuts and bolts of what it means to be a Christian—loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Compassion must not be sacrificed on the altar of tradition.

This article is a revised version of a post first published here in May 2012.

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Published in: on May 15, 2015 at 7:14 pm  Comments (10)  
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10 Comments

  1. Wow..that’s a lot of stuff to think about. I am not even close to able to actually comment on this LOL. But you have given me something interesting to study and meditate over, and I thank you for that Becky.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wally, I can’t tell you how many years I have wrestled with this passage. As I mentioned, I’ve heard sermons over it, too, and nothing has seemed to fit until I saw the passage in the context. Of course I still could be wrong, but I know this interpretation is Biblical, so even if Jesus meant something else, this emphasis on compassion is still there in Scripture. So I don’t feel like this view is on shaky ground—as it would be if I came up with something that wandered away from clear Biblical principles.

      Yes, Scripture gives us lots to think about! 😉

      Becky

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nope you never can reach the end can you. That is one of the things I have come to value about blogging is the constant stimulation of my mind.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Same with the Bible, Wally. The more I study, the more I realize there is to learn. 🙂

          Becky

          Liked by 1 person

    • You pore over the scriptures because you think that by them you gave eternal life. Yet they testify about Me John 5:39. I’ve developed a discipline over the years to allow scripture to scrub scripture. In my studies, in order for me to get in the neighborhood of God’s word, I will read the entire passage. When the message is being revealed, I will then lay them out and re-read them in other translations. As I do this with the eyes of my heart wide open, I will have mined God’s word for me. The words are not ours, steward them well. Aloha

      Liked by 2 people

      • I pray and hope every day that I will be a good steward of God’s Word

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Jesus Christ …God…is saying that his blood is going to make dead things live and dead things dead…without God, that is.

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    • Interesting take, Felicia. I can see how that makes sense to a degree, and is certainly true. But Jesus’s audience didn’t know anything about His blood that would be shed for the forgiveness of sins. So what did they think He meant? I think that’s probably what He actually meant. And there’s still the fact that new wine isn’t as good as old wine. So by that interpretation the life that God through Christ gives would be second rate. See why I’ve struggled with this passage? All these interpretations seem to have something that doesn’t quite work or doesn’t fit the context.

      Becky

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  3. I am just thinking out loud and not claiming this is the correct understanding to these verses. I agree wine is better with age. I ,however, just thought of something in the water that Jesus turned into wine. We know it was His first sign and miracle. It instantly tasted as the best wine without aging because He changed it – not man’s methods. A commentary I read stated (Mt9:16-17) Christ’s righteousness is the only justifying righteousness; it is whole & perfect, & needs nothing to be added to it. We also read (Rom 8:4) the righteousness requirements of the law are fulfilled in us by His Spirit. This showed me all of these acts are completely dependendent upon Him. We know He is the new. Thank you for getting us to dig into His Word this morning.

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  4. Ok. I see your argument a little more tangibly now, regarding J.C. as our Savior, and how that was not apparent at that point; therefore, I believe Jesus Christ is saying that faith in God’s love saves your soul/or real wine from becoming spoiled/unsanitary, rotten and/or dying….unrighteousness leading to death….like when you ate pork with disease in it…. and that if you are “old”, you need “old” wine, if you are “young”, you need “new”/young wine….and that either way…..God was available for everyone, who was chosen….Jew or Gentile…as long as you did not trick or deceive others about the age of your wine and cause them death…because you knew better. You should not lie about making wine when you are going to take religious people to concentration camps, for example. Which the Nazi’s did in WW2. Jesus is saying that He was a leader of God’s spiritual forces that would be unleashed on earth and man like never before to undoe all the curses from evil spirits/people who were unrighteous and allowed/caused directly those who died in the concentration camps or in wars or in other evil fights for lies that were not true…..God’s chosen people are the wine…and the skins are evil….wine without a fair chance in life would be resurrected at the rapture with Him..

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