When I was younger, the analogy Jesus uses about wine and wineskins was lost on me. This ‘loss in translation’ could have been because I was not at the age where I could drink and had no concept of the intoxicating effects of wine. Or perhaps because I grew up Baptist and any drinking of alcohol was viewed with suspicion. I had an idea of what was meant by feasting with the bridegroom and understood the concept of un-shrunk fabric, but what was this concept about new and old wineskins?
In Jesus day, wine didn’t come in bottles with a cork, but were stored in skins. When the wine was first poured into the skins it was still fermenting therefore the skins would need to be new and pliable so that the gasses produced in the fermentation process could expand the skins without breaking them. As time went on, the skins would age and become stiff and less pliable. They could still be used, but better that older wine or other liquids be stored in them or else they would burst under the pressure of fermentation and both wine and skin would be lost.
Earlier in Matthew’s gospel we read that John the Baptist appears in the wilderness preachingrepentance in the anticipation of the arrival of the long hoped for Messiah. When Jesus is baptized, we see a shift in focus from John and his teaching to Jesus. It is in this shift that we find the disciples of John asking questions of Jesus. Unlike the Temple leaders who would question Jesus in a tone of contempt, John’s disciples were genuinely interested in the unorthodox approach Jesus was taking. Jesus’ teachings were refreshing, exciting, interesting and were renewing people’s relationship and understanding of God. Jesus’ good news is that this God whom he called Abba, or ‘Papa,’ is the God of creation, constantly renewing and expanding our old and finite ways of thinking in order to make room for his love for us and all people, a love that is fresh and intoxicating. In order to contain this new wine, we have to be like new wineskins, which have the ability to expand and broaden.
Perhaps we can look to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as an example of this willingness to grow. When Mary is told by the angel Gabriel that she has been favored to be the God-bearer she immediately is ‘troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.” But Mary knew her scripture and was in touch with the countless ways in which God had been working in the world, especially in the most unlikely ways. It was her courage to say yes and to be like a new wineskin that would make it possible for all of us to drink this new wine of God in the person of Jesus; a wine that continues to ferment, strengthen, and refresh all who partake.
If we are to be like Mary, the bearer of God to the world, we too need to be like new wineskins, ever willing to expand and broaden, accepting a new understanding of what God is doing in our lives and as a result in the world. Initially this could be uncomfortable and we may experience growing pains, but to be stiff and unbending like an old wineskin is risk breaking and wasting this love of Jesus which God wishes to lavish on us all.
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