The Word Among Us

July/August 2024 Issue

Receive the New Wine!

Accepting the Challenge of Jesus’ Teachings

Receive the New Wine!: Accepting the Challenge of Jesus’ Teachings

Imagine the early days of Jesus’ public ministry. He was so popular! People from all over Galilee and Judea thronged to open fields to hear him preach. They crowded around his front door seeking to be cured. Gentile and Jew, rich and poor, sinner and saint—everyone was in awe of this miracle worker from Galilee. And whenever they spoke about Jesus, it was always in positive tones: “The crowds were astonished at his teaching” (Matthew 7:28). “He . . . was praised by all” (Luke 4:15). “His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region” (Mark 1:28).

But it wasn’t long before people’s opinions began to shift. Some disciples distanced themselves from him (Matthew 8:18-22). Prominent religious figures began to question his commitment to Judaism (9:1-13). John the Baptist’s disciples began to wonder about him (9:14; 11:2-3). Even his closest disciples doubted that he could save them from a storm at sea (Mark 4:37-38).

Why would people walk away from someone as charismatic and powerful and loving as Jesus? And more to the point, how can we avoid distancing ourselves from Jesus, even in subtle ways, because we struggle with understanding him or his teachings? How can we let go of our old ways of thinking and acting to embrace the new life that he offers us? Those are the questions we’re going to explore in this issue. Let’s begin by looking at the people of Jesus’ day.

Jesus’ New Teaching. In some ways, Jesus wasn’t surprised by the people’s reactions to him. It’s possible he even expected some of them to wonder about him. For instance, when some of John the Baptist’s disciples realized that Jesus and his followers weren’t fasting as rigorously as they did, they asked him about it. And he answered with three parables:

Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth, for its fullness pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse.
People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved. (Matthew 9:15-17)

The Challenge of the New. Jesus knew that his miracles and his teachings brought an excitement comparable to the excitement a wedding feast brings to a small village. Everyone naturally wanted to celebrate the new life he represented! But he also warned that a wedding feast isn’t the normal state of affairs. Eventually, the feast would end. The couple would move into their own home, and their friends would have to begin relating to them as husband and wife. The village would have to expand as well to make room for this new family. And as it expanded, the village would have to change.

Jesus also said that his presence among them was like a new piece of cloth. You don’t take something like that and sew it onto a worn-out, nearly threadbare coat. Not only would it be a waste of good fabric, but it would only cause more harm than good. Wash the coat, and the new patch will shrink, causing the coat to rip. Similarly, his teachings and his miracles weren’t meant as a patch to be applied hastily to life as they knew it. Jesus’ way of life was too different—too new, too pure—to fit with their old ways of living.

Finally, Jesus said that his life was like new wine. It was just as active and vibrant and full of life as wine that was still fermenting. And wine like that should never be poured into an old, brittle wineskin. It needed a new, supple, flexible skin that could adapt to its changing complexities as it continued to expand. Similarly, the life that Jesus holds out for us is always new and vibrant. It’s always expansive, pushing the boundaries of what we might expect. And that means that we need to be like that new wineskin: flexible, willing to change, not bound by our old lives or our old expectations.

The Scandal of the New. So what was it about the new life Jesus offered that caused so many people to pull away from him? Or to put it another way, what was it about their lives that made them respond like a worn-out cloak or a brittle wineskin? Some of the stories that come just before Jesus spoke these parables can help us.

First, there’s the story of the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof so that Jesus could heal him. Jesus told him, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). This shocked some of the scribes who were there. They accused him of “blaspheming” because only God could forgive sins. So Jesus asked them, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” Then he healed the man right before their eyes, and everyone was “struck with awe”—even the scribes (9:3, 5, 8).

Did you notice that the scribes didn’t have a problem with Jesus’ power to heal? They were offended only by his claim that the man’s sins had been forgiven. The “old wineskins” of their lives were flexible enough to accept that Jesus was a wonder-worker like Elijah and Moses. But forgiving someone’s sins? That was going too far. They could not accept that Jesus, who seemed like any other man, would even dare to make such a declaration. The man hadn’t even repented or performed any atoning sacrifices. He hadn’t even been to the Temple or been seen by a priest. That’s how God forgave people—not through a rabbi from Nazareth!

Mercy, Not Sacrifice. We see something similar when Jesus shared a meal with the tax collector Matthew and some of Matthew’s friends (Matthew 9:9-13). As an employee of the Romans, Matthew was a collaborator with Rome, and many would have considered him a traitor to Israel. And his friends consisted of even more “tax collectors and sinners” who would be considered unfit company for any observant Jew (9:10).

So by accepting Matthew’s invitation, Jesus scandalized some of the Pharisees in town. To their minds, he should have known better than to eat with such sinful people. Didn’t he realize that he was making himself ritually impure, unworthy to lead prayers in the synagogue or to pray in the Temple?

In response to their question, Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; see Hosea 6:6). Of course, these Pharisees, who loved the word of God, would have known this passage. They likely quoted it themselves when they faced situations that called for them to show mercy to someone who had offended them. Their “wineskins” could handle God’s command to “cherish no grudge against your own people” (Leviticus 19:18). But their wineskins had limits. Some people were too sinful to sit with at table. They had to repent and perform atoning sacrifices before anyone should risk defilement by eating with them.

These scribes and Pharisees were not bad people. They weren’t hopelessly legalistic or arrogant or faithless. But the “new wine” of Jesus’ teaching and his way of living was just too challenging for them. And rather than try to become more flexible and openhearted toward him and the people he was ministering to, they retreated into the safety and familiarity of their old wineskins.

Lord, Give Me Your New Wine! But old wineskins can’t handle new wine—and Jesus’ new wine was everywhere! He never stopped inviting people to soften their hearts—not even those who seemed the most opposed to him. He never stopped inviting them to believe that God’s mercy was for everyone and that his love was unconditional. But the more they rejected his invitation, the more brittle they became. And so, what measure of new wine they had accepted began to trickle out, and they were left with nothing but inflexible, hardened hearts.

We can all relate to the difficulties that these scribes and Pharisees faced. We all have times when we are called upon to stretch our “old wineskins” to make room for the radical and challenging teachings of Jesus. Maybe it’s a friend we can’t forgive. Maybe it’s a family member who is living in a way contrary to the gospel. Maybe there’s a past sin in our own lives that we have confessed, but the memory of what we did still convinces us that we’re not worthy of Jesus’ love.

Whatever the situation, Jesus is asking us to respond in the same way he asked his listeners to respond so long ago: fix your eyes on the Bridegroom! Focus on his new wine instead of the old, stale wine you’re accustomed to! That’s exactly what we want to do in our next article. If we see how attractive and exciting a life submitted to him can be, we’ll all cry out in prayer, “Lord, help me soften my old wineskins so that I can receive more and more of your new wine!”