The Parables of Jesus:
New Wine, New Bottles
July 23, 2000
Luke 5:29-39 The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
The passage today includes both an encounter between Jesus and some of his critics, and a parable that comes out of that encounter: the parable of new wineskins. There is some important background information you need to know before hearing the story.
First, the Levi at whose house the story takes place may or may not be the same "tax collector" that is called "Matthew" elsewhere. Either he went by both names, or there were two "tax collectors" called by Jesus. At any rate, a "tax collector" in that time and place was not a popular figure among the Jewish people. Levi was himself Jewish, but he was on the payroll of the occupying Roman forces, a representative of the oppressors, and probably a crooked one at that. He made his living in part by extorting money from his countrymen. Levi is a man of the world; clearly a sinner.
The other actors in this scene are called "the Pharisees and their scribes." Pharisees - unlike Levi - were strict adherents to the Jewish law. "Fasting" - abstaining from food the entire day until the evening meal - was for the Pharisees was one of the essential religious duties, needed to show ones devotion to God, to show that you really mean business with God. You are NOT a sinner. They typically fasted twice a week, and on several holy days through the year. The "scribes" are experts in religious law.
There are two other things you need to understand. You need to understand that the prevailing religious system of Jesus' time had at its core the concept of "purity". One needed to be pure, to be clean, to please. There were extensive lists of practices that made a person, or a thing, either "clean" or "unclean", pure or impure. Some of them had to do with physically washing oneself - several times a day - cleanliness wasn't "next to Godliness;" it WAS Godliness. Other practices had to do with keeping away from people who were "unclean" - the poor, especially, or those who didnt pay close attention to the purity laws, those who never showed up a the Temple, or didnt wear the proper clothes, say the right words; sick people like lepers were considered "unclean." And the thing to do if you really wanted to be "religious" was to keep far away from "unclean" people. ESPECIALLY at meal time.
(Because) Meals in ancient Palestine were times where the rules and regulations of society could be clearly acted out and enforced. You couldn't eat just anything, or with just anyone. If you were scrupulously religious you followed all the rules at the table - and you certainly wouldn't expose yourself to impure people - like, for example, tax collectors, and the poor, and women. That would be scandalous. Scholars today point to Jesus' habit of eating with anybody - like the poor, and tax collectors like Levi, women of the street, lepers - as the most offensive way he proclaimed God's love for all people. His opening the table to all was good news to the "unclean," and highly offensive to those who thought themselves to be "pure."
Lastly, to understand the parable you have to understand a bit about wine
making in the first century. For grape juice to turn into wine, of
course, it has to ferment. And fermenting gives off gases. In those
days the juice was put into animal skins - fresh, pliable ones - so that
as the wine fermented and the gases were given off the skins could
expand. If you were to put juice into a brittle, old wineskin that had
lost its elasticity as the gases expanded the skin could not stretch and
would in time break, and the wine be lost. After all that introduction,
let us listen to the Scripture for today.
Last week I was driving on Good Hope Road in Milwaukee, and went by a large, new building - a complex of buildings, really - that looked like it could have been a school, or perhaps a fitness and sports center, brand new. And there emblazoned over the main entrance, in huge, flowing bright blue neon lighting were these words: "Sinners welcome here!" It was, of course, a church, although the same could be said for most schools and certainly most fitness centers! Sinners, I have found, can be found just about everywhere, and a church is as good a place as any.
Well I thought to myself: I wonder what the folks of First Congregational Church, Oshkosh, would think about putting such a neon sign across our Tiffany window overlooking Algoma Boulevard? We wouldnt object to the words, would we? Sinners are here, and we try to make each other welcome, although it is easier to welcome some sinners than others, isnt it. None of us claim perfection, and while we may not use the word "sinner" very much, we know what it means. We know how far short we fall of our ideals, of living out the creeds we profess, the values we hold most dearly. We know what it means to hurt and disappoint those we love deeply, as the common confession says, "to have done those things we ought not to have done, and to not have done the things we ought to have." No, I don't think we'd object to a "sinners welcome" sign because we dont believe it, but rather its just not our style; it doesn't fit our taste, whatever that means. It surely wouldnt fit the architecture, nor our way of saying and doing things. So fear not, I'm not going to propose putting up the sign "Sinners welcome here!" But I hope that sinners do in fact remain welcome.
As I mentioned in the introduction, "sinners" in Jesus' time were easily identified by traditional religion of the day. They were the ones who didn't keep up with prevailing notions of "purity." They were the outcasts of respectable religion, those who for whatever reasons didn't measure up to those who knew all the rules and kept them diligently. Neither did Jesus measure up. And here he was, going about teaching and even healing, taking the role of a prophet, and drawing vast crowds of people who loved to hear him - except the religious people. Jesus didn't fulfill their expectations. He didn't act in their prescribed way, the way it had always been done. He didn't even have his followers doing the most obvious religious things, like fasting. Instead, he and his disciples went around eating and drinking with the likes of Levi, that despised tax- collector, that sinner. And so the conflict: the conflict between old and new, past and present, tradition and innovation, conventional faith and growing faith, genuine interior faith and mere exterior ritual. The conflict that is as old as our text, and as present as today.
And so we have the parable of new wine in old wineskins. And on one level there is really nothing terribly profound about it. Jesus may have been simply picking up a proverb of the day to say what every generation has said to the generation just ahead of it: you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Things change, people change, circumstances change. You've got to move with the times, something that is easy to say when you're 15 and 25 and 35, and much harder when you're 45 and 55 and beyond. It was true in Jesus' day, and it is true today.
But Jesus is saying more than that. Jesus is saying that his message - his new wine - is a radical departure not from Judaism but from the way he saw Judaism being practiced. His message of the Kingdom of God - here and now - could not fit into the prevailing structures and norms of the tradtionalists. The "new wine" of his message demanded new wineskins, new expressions. And what was that new wine? It was a message of joy and celebration, an announcement that God's love extended to all people even the outcast, the poor, the sick, as well as the rich and the religious. And it was more than that. It was a message that God calls us to a much deeper righteousness - deeper than mere keeping of religious laws, like fasting and the 600+ other rules that Pharisees kept and insisted that others keep too. Jesus could be called on the one hand very liberal in how he flaunted laws of Sabbath, for example. But on the other hand his message was a conservative one, for this same Jesus tightens up the law when he insists that hatred in your heart is as bad as murder; that lust inside is as bad as adultery. This new wine Jesus brings is a strong wine demanding integrity and faith inside AND out.
But note too one other aspect of the parable. These "new wineskins" for which the parable calls - while elastic and pliable, able to change and grow as the wine ferments - these new containers are yet "containers." There are limits, boundaries even with the new wine; "right and wrong" in the way of Christ. The law of Christ that we love our neighbor as ourself and our God with all our heart and mind and soul is yet a law, and sets limits, yes, and makes much higher demands on its followers than does a religion of mere external demands.
So we have yet another paradox of faith in our parable for today. Yes, Christ's proclamation is one of joy and celebration. He calls us away from a religion of mere do's and dont's. Our faith must always be one of freedom to be what God calls us to be. But the call of Christ is no less real and demanding. He calls us to be truly righteous, to have interior integrity that is lived out in justice and faithfulness, honesty and courage, gentleness that can speak the truth powerfully and in love, and "purity" in the best sense of that word, one that reflects the purity of God.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of personal faith and of the faith for us as a church, as an institution, is the challenge of not mistaking the wineskin for the wine. The mistake of thinking the particular way we live the faith, the way we worship, the way we are organized at this time in the life of this church is in fact the faith itself, the way of Christ. It is not easy to tell the difference between the substance of faith and the structures we use to live out that faith. We do what we do here as a church because that's what we think God wants us to do, and it's the way that is meaningful for us. It is comfortable for us. In the words of the parable today, "Ah, the old is good!" But the faith - the living Christ in our midst - must be yet alive, and the wineskins must always be new to meet the needs of a changing world. How do we discern that? How do we know when that wine fermenting and bubbling within needs more space, when the structure will burst if we dont make a little room for the Spirit? Its hard to know. We wrestle with new ways of worship, in music and in ritual. We struggle over new ways to organize for ministry. We look for new programs of fellowship and outreach. We seek ways to make all people welcome: women and men, young and old, conservatives and liberals, people of all races, gay and straight. The balance between old and new, tradition and innovation is a difficult one to strike, and surely we make mistakes trying to find that balance. But the point is to keep trying, and to never think that the task is done, that the wine has matured fully and now can be safely bottled and stored, and brought out for special occasions. For as soon as we do, we will find that the wine has gone bad, the Christ has escaped yet again, off to some place where sinners are welcome - maybe even to some place that proclaims that welcome in blue neon. For he will be wherever sinners sit down at his Table, accepted and whole, made new by faith.
May our church always be one of those places. Amen.