Mark 2:18-22 – Old Coats and New Wine
“What should I keep and what should I get rid of?” It’s an age-old question, particularly when you are tidying the house or garage, and have no space to put things! It pinpoints an age-old human problem – our struggle with change.
We face change when working our new gadgets like computers and iPads, but also in practising our faith. Some people use Jesus to try and resist change, to maintain the status quo. Of course, Jesus did not want to rid the world of everything old, or traditional. He understood the value of tradition in telling the story of God’s saving acts, but he also called for change to help us not to end up living in the past. If we do, we end up not seeing or experiencing the saving acts of God in the here and now. So, Jesus had a lot to say positively about the necessary place of change in daily life. And he not only ushered in change, he embodied it so thoroughly that it cost him his life, at the hands of those scandalised by him.
The controversy in our Gospel story today starts with Jesus eating with sinners. They were colleagues and buddies of Levi, that crooked collaborator of occupying conquering Rome. Then their criticism quickly focuses on Jesus and his disciples, criticizing them for not fasting. The Pharisees fasted twice weekly. Even John the Baptist’s disciples did too. Part of the purpose of this practice was to mourn the fact that the salvation of Israel had not yet appeared. Everyone else is following the rules, they muttered, so why don’t Jesus and his disciples?
One answer Jesus’ critics received from him is an illustration about change. He makes a common sense comment that everyone would have agreed with. “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old coat; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made”. This saying seems to suggest that there is a place for the old coat, which implies there are good reasons to hold on to the old, to tradition. But the last thing you want to do is force something brand new, that doesn’t fit, onto the old. That’s not going to do any good, it’s only going to make the situation worse, it’s only going to cause a bigger rip.
Then, right on the heels of that saying, Jesus offers another saying that goes in a different direction. “No one puts new wine in old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but you put new wine into fresh wineskins.” Is Jesus saying here that there is also a time to throw out the old completely? He’s saying there are some circumstances in which the old and new are simply incompatible and the old must give way to the new. The long and the short of it is that our life of faith involves perpetual change. We’re constantly being called to make faithful decisions about what to keep and patch up, and what needs to be discarded and replaced with something new.
New wine and new garments, he says, are for those who have strayed, not for the dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists who haven’t in the eyes of society. Jesus’s message won’t fit those who are confident that they are “in” with God. But it is Good News to those ostracised by society and church-goers. The Good Shepherd has sought and found them when lost, and has brought them back to safety. He welcomes and accepts them back into his fold. That chimes in with Hosea’s message to Israel, which was our first reading. Israel had gone astray from God, and had called their god “Baal”. God will give them a repeat desert experience to bring them back to their right minds, Hosea says, and they will be reconciled to their true God, be welcomed back by him. They will be secure in his love and his constant faithfulness to them.
We need our old coats, but new ones too, and we also need to stock up our new wine. Most of the time old and new are compatible. It’s like singing a familiar old hymn tune to three different sets of new words. There are ways to incorporate faithfully the new with the old. We need both.
Revolutionaries typically embrace the new to the total neglect of the old. Traditionalists embrace the old to the total neglect of the new. What we’re trying to do is live out Jesus’ call to honour old coats while making way for the new wine. We don’t see ourselves as a revolutionary megachurch that’s trying to get as big as possible. Neither do we see ourselves as a museum trying to maintain the past. No, we see ourselves as the Body of Christ, as a family that’s trying to live out its baptismal promises. We see ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ living lives of celebration and invitation to others whom Jesus loves. We focus on worship, fellowship, mission, and acts of love and compassion. — and if that’s our focus, if we’re doing those things, we being more than merely popular and successful, we’re being faithful.
There’s no question: change is an essential part of life. Of course, not all change is good. But thank God faithful change IS a vital part of the human condition. For without it, we’d still be lost in our sins. The very gift of Jesus Christ is the gift of faithful change that has forever altered human history, because it has given us a new identity, a new way of life, and the promise of future change that we call eternal life.
So, compare this with Jesus’ first response to the pious traditionalists, who criticised him. Jesus highlighted another tradition, one that he said was more appropriate under the circumstances, sharing a big spread round Levi’s table with all those Levi had invited. Jesus is the bridegroom at it, and no one fasts when the bridegroom is around. You do the opposite; you celebrate with a feast! The reason Jesus’ disciples aren’t fasting is because Jesus, the bridegroom, is here with him, and that means it’s time to throw a party. Israel’s salvation has appeared! It’s here and now!
It’s an interesting idea for us as well, isn’t it? When Jesus is around it’s time to celebrate! Do you realize that if we were to really take that seriously, it could well change forever the way we “do church”! Just think. Jesus’ presence among us is the only reason we need – to celebrate, to rejoice, to give thanks. Wow! That really could change everything! Because we believe he is here among us together this morning, even in lockdown!
The faithful change we are called to embody now is lived out through lives of service. We’re called to a faithfulness that recognizes the presence of Jesus Christ always among us. We are called to be the bold ones who will introduce new wineskins, for the new wine that celebrates Jesus’ presence among us. Change is not something we need to fear, it’s something we’re called to celebrate in our life together with one another, with our neighbours, and with our God. Now is not the time for fasting. Now is the time for rejoicing. Amen.