Can the Old Contain the New?
Reflecting on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Three Days after Sunday (Year A)
Psalter: Psalm 40:6-17
Old Testament: Isaiah 48:12-21
Gospel: Matthew 9:14-17
Steadfast God, you have enriched and enlightened us by the revelation of your eternal Christ. Comfort us in our mortality and strengthen us to walk the path of your desire, so that by word and deed we may manifest the gracious news of your faithfulness and love. Amen.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are ruined, but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matthew 9:14-17).
Jesus is the guest of honor at a festive meal at Matthew’s home and he shares food with tax collectors and “sinners.” The Pharisees question his choice of table partners (Matt 9:10-11) and John the Baptist’s disciples question him on the practice of fasting (Matt 9:14). In response to the question about fasting, Jesus offers three analogies explaining his practice of sharing food with “sinners.”
The first analogy is that Jesus is like a bridegroom and fasting is inappropriate at a wedding. The second and third analogies, patching cloth, old and new wineskin, have a slightly different nuance. Putting new, still fermenting wine in an old dried out leather wine skin will destroy both the skin and the wine. “The fermenting wine was stored either in earthenware jugs that could hold up to ten gallons or in leather skins” (Donahue, 108; here is a photograph by Ferrill Jenkins of a Bedouin skin for churning). If the new wine is placed an old skin, then the skins would naturally burst.
Likewise, patching an old cloak with a new piece of cloth that has not been preshrunk will likely result in tearing, and perhaps ruining the old cloak. It is inappropriate for a person to patch clothing or store wine in these ways, the result will ruin the clothing, the wine and the wineskin. Likewise, one who mourns at a wedding celebration ruins the celebration.
What is the old and new in these analogies? What is the old thing that has been replaced by a new thing?
The new wineskins saying has often been taken to mean that Christianity is superior to Judaism and will replace it. For example, R. C. Sproul says “The bridegroom in the Old Testament is God and the bride is Israel. But in the New Testament, the bridegroom is the Son of God and the bride is His church” (Mark, 47). This supersessionist reading is not what Jesus is saying.
First, the contrast is not between Jesus and the Pharisees. The disciples of John the Baptist are also questioning Jesus on fasting. The point of the metaphor is not replacement of old things with new, but rather appropriate behavior when the bridegroom is present (Gundry, Mark, 138).
Second, the image of new wine is suggested by the context of a feast at the beginning of a new age. When Hosea describes the restoration of the marriage of Israel, the wife is given vineyards (2:16-17 [ET14-15]) and the Lord will cause the earth to produce grain and תִּירוֹש, “new wine.” New wine is associated with the eschatological age in Joel 2:24 and is the wine served in the messianic banquet in 1QSa [The Dead Sea Scrolls].The noun תִּירוֹש was used in 1QSa because this is the wine set aside for the priests in the first fruits offering (for the details, see Long, Jesus the Bridegroom, 160).
Third, in both metaphors everything is ruined, both the old and the new. It is not the case that new wine is somehow preserved when it bursts the old wineskin. It to spills all over the ground in this ruined! The clothing is ruined when it is inappropriately patched. If this is an allegorical description of the state of the church during Matthew’s day, then it is difficult to see how the new wine of the Christian church has destroyed the old Jewish wineskin yet somehow was preserved.
In summary, in the bridegroom saying in Matthew 9:16-17 Jesus describes his practice of open fellowship as like a wedding banquet and himself the bridegroom. Jesus emphasizes the joy of feasting in contrast to gloom of fasting based the New Covenant (Jer 33:11). The people participating in this joyous meal are celebrating the restoration of Israel’s marriage at the end of the Exile (Jesus the Bridegroom,197).
PRAYER: Perfect Light of revelation, as you shone in the life of Jesus, whose epiphany we celebrate, so shine in us and through us, that we may become beacons of truth and compassion, enlightening all creation with deeds of justice and mercy. Amen.
Check out Philip Long’s blog here.