Jesus is using rich metaphors, but very mixed metaphors when talking about the value of what is old and what is new in life.
Jesus speaks of life being like new wine, needing to be saved in new wineskin. Jesus came to do a new thing, to make all things new, to give us a new heart, and a new hope. Jesus speaks continually about what is new: “You have heard it said… but I say.” And what he says is so new it’s called “news,” good news! The life transformation he promises us is so startlingly new, it’s so radical, so fresh, it’s like… being born again.[i] It’s spanking new. You wake up. It’s your new birthday. Every day. Fresh as the dawn.
But Jesus switches metaphors, saying that we need both the new and the old. Old cloth needs to be patched when it is worn out or frayed. Jesus presumes we don’t simply toss out what is old. We keep it, and mend it, and continue to use it. Jesus is speaking symbolically about claiming our past, being on good speaking terms with our own past, with our heritage, our formation, our tradition.
“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (v.14)
Fasting was a commonly accepted spiritual practice among the Jews and had been for centuries. It was recognized as an effective way to express sorrow for sin and a means, hopefully, to avoid God’s judgment. John the Baptist and his followers and the Pharisees regularly practiced it, not only for their own sakes, but vicariously for the nation.
Jesus stands in contrast to them. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking,” the Gospel writer tells us (Mt 11:19). Jesus and his disciples do not fast – which naturally raises the curiosity and suspicion of those who do. Jesus’ nonparticipation in this particular spiritual practice points to its theological weakness. Fasting, as it is often understood and practiced, emphasizes not what God is doing, but what humans must do in order to humor God into behaving favorably. Jesus claims this is unnecessary because God is present and active now; the Good News of God’s reign is here! “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (v.15a) The “bridegroom” is Jesus himself: through his ministry of healing and reconciliation, as well as through his association with outcasts and sinners, Jesus is proclaiming the arrival of God’s rule. God is not distant and threatening, but present and active, here and now, bringing forth new life! And that is cause for celebration!
As a high school actor I was initiated into the fundamentals of method acting. Later in life, that experience was put to the test when I myself began teaching high school and was unexpectedly asked to direct student theater. The method actor asks the classic question, “What’s my motivation?” The director of method acting takes pains to encourage exercises in emotional intelligence, body-mind awareness, improvisation and character exploration. Only later, once the actors are finding their voices, tapping their emotional core, working as an ensemble, and embracing the full expressive range of their bodies does the director get down to work on stagecraft: who will move where and when, how lighting and costuming and props will augment and frame the actors, communicate themes, and offer a creative vision. Without that preparatory inner work, a high school play can be a cruel form of torture for an audience. A young, inexperienced or insensitive actor will seek to convey mature adult emotions by aiming to use his voice and body to manufacture a dramatic or impactful impression upon his audience. The effort almost always falls flat because the actor hasn’t done the work of engaging that emotion — or its nearest analogue — in his own life, letting the words and actions flow from that hidden spring. On the other hand, the most gratifying and miraculous moments in a high school play are those in which we glimpse a young actor’s unselfconscious humanity: the embodied expression of her personhood taking shape behind and beneath the memorized lines and tentative gestures. Here and there, true feeling flashes forth and art takes flesh before our eyes. She has become the character because she is becoming herself. This is the fruit of the actor’s inner work.
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?
The disciples of John came to [Jesus], saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”15And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests 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. 16No 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. 17Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” Matthew 9:14-17