In Chapter 9 of his Gospel, Matthew gives it shorter ‘airtime’ than other writers, but again, he records it in his own uniquely Spirit led way. The Amplified puts verse 17 like this…
Nor is new wine put into old wineskins [that have lost their elasticity]; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the [fermenting] wine spills and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine is placed into fresh wineskins, so both are preserved.
To the audience this was delivered to (and anyone familiar with wine fermentation process in pre-barrel days) understood this quite well. The standard and correct interpretation of this parable was about the New Order Jesus was ushering in, and that when this Spirit led and filled Way was embraced, it could not be housed in dry, dead, and ritualistic religion – they will just be incompatible and in the end, both will be ruined.
Getting wisdom on this was vital, and Jesus was setting them up to understand this to better accommodate what was coming.
However, I want to focus a little more on the prefacing, and I would argue, segue to this New Order promotion.
This parable opens with a genuine scripture-based question about a God endorsed process of fasting, and specifically about the fact that Jesus disciples did not seem to do it. A reasonable question from a truly Kingdom focused group – John the Baptist disciples.
Jesus, I think (and I am very aware of the care I need to take in positing this as to not try and make the parable say more than it is) again, is using His gracious ‘bridging’ instructions to help those genuine Old Testament followers of God get what’s happening and step forward into it.
For the most part the religious leaders had no desire at all to accommodate, or even acknowledge the new order, and trying to ‘mix’ those two was utterly futile.
However, the ‘patching’ analogy employed in verse 16 is not as proscriptive as the wine skin analogy.
Jesus, again, uses a wedding feast analogy and refers to himself as The Bridegroom. As such, he does not dismiss fasting as a practice – the indication is that when He has left, this discipline will be important – but whilst he is here, we are celebrating the birth of a new order and trying to winnow out the religious chaff of ritual and performance from important principles of relationship and service.
I want to note again that in the following conjecture, I am being careful to tease out a potential genuine point, not read in a particular idea.
Jesus makes a statement that all his listeners would both be familiar with and understand. It is a ‘matter of fact’ statement. Anyone who has a clue does not take nice new fabric to repair an old wearing out garment, it will not only look out of place, but in time it will make the garment worse. But here’s the kicker, He wasn’t decrying the process of patching.
Jesus also understood the majority of people in the culture could not just throw out a tired garment, particularly an outer garment such as a cloak (which most commentators believe the garment referred to was). You would try and patch it to make it last as long as possible only until you could get a new one.
Now to the issue of ‘worn out’ settings and leadership.
When it comes to tired and failing churches, ministries or programs, there are always several options on what is needed. One can ‘reset,’ which is often the new wine skin or the new coat. The old is simply done away with. Of course, anyone reading this with any history in church life knows just how painful for all that process can be – the hurt, the grief, the pride, the anger, and the sense of failure.
I’m reminded here of Isaiahs words about the Messiah, quoted by Matthew a little later in chapter 12 verse 20… “A battered reed He will not break, and a smouldering wick He will not extinguish…” Jesus will always create, prescribe, and implement best Kingdom practice but with grace and mercy.
Anyway, I digress. The thought I wish us to consider here is that if patching is required – leadership, program, or ministry – then great care is needed in how this is done.
- It must be fit for purpose – adequate size and weight for the setting. Remember this is not an erase and start again, it’s a repair in hope of extension and interim sustainability.
- Is it the right ‘fabric’ – by that I mean, the right colour, shape, and texture. If it is new bright coloured fabric it ends up standing out because it is looking new and fresh and consequentially drawing one’s eye to it. But these repairs are not fit for service. Often inexperienced, energetic, and sadly, wanting to make a name for oneself leaders or even ideas are bought in to ‘have their 15 seconds of fame’, but actually make the situation worse.
- This repairing patch must be of similar fabric, but also worn in a bit – if you like, a humble fit for a humble setting. It does not draw attention to itself. It is not the highlight, it is not the focus, it is not the garment, merely a repair; important, but not the goal.
Of course, running out the parable’s intent will still mean that in time, the new garment and new wineskin must be had, but for those, like Johns disciples and those of Apollos who had not yet encountered the fullness of the Spirit, still need a ‘cloak of righteousness’ (if you like) to cover – a patched one is better than none at all.
Again, take care as you read and consider this borrowing of a parable to bring out another potential point of church care and maintenance – it is a personal reflection and not a doctrinal prescription.
Humbly serve where you are, with what you have, but always – always, seek to be renewed and always be prepared to surrender that which is unhelpful to the New Order of Christ’s Kingdom.
Shane Varcoe – Disciplesplanet