“He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
This is a difficult parable to understand. It comes just after Jesus has called his first disciples and is eating dinner with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees are bitter about the company Jesus has chosen to keep, and wonder to themselves why he would associate with them. Jesus tells them that he didn’t come for the righteous, but for the sinners. The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick. Then he tells them this parable.
How does it fit in here? What does it mean?
Well, first let’s understand each metaphor. The first, the metaphor of the patch on an old garment, refers to the fact that fabric shrinks. We have all had a cotton or wool garment that shrunk with improper washing. That’s what he’s talking about. If you have an old garment that has already shrunk, and put a new patch on it that hasn’t been shrunk yet, it’ll tear away. It’s incompatible.
The same goes for the wineskin metaphor. A wineskin was more or less a bag made of animal skin that was used as a container for wine. An old one would no longer be suitable for use, probably dried out and not very sturdy. It would break open and spill if you tried to use it.
So what do these mean? Clearly Jesus is making some kind of point about something new not fitting in with something old. But what does it have to do with anything? The key comes in his very last words of this story: “No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say. ‘The old is better.’” This is actually the line that confused me most at first. It seems like Jesus is saying that the Pharisees and their legalistic Judaism were the “old garment” and the “old wineskin,” and Jesus’ teachings were the new patch and the new wine. But then he said that the old wine was better! It didn’t make sense until I put it into the context of the rest of the story.
The Pharisees were upset by who Jesus was spending time with – sinners. Jesus is telling the Pharisees that his teaching isn’t compatible with them because they are like the old garment or the old wineskin. The last part about old wine was just another metaphor. Everyone knows that aged wine is better than new wine, the older it is the better it is. But Jesus isn’t saying that the Pharisees’ “old way” of doing things was better. He was saying that to them, their old ways, like old wine, will taste better to them than the “new wine” which is Jesus. It’s not a commentary on which is better, Jesus or Judaism. It’s a commentary on the self-righteous religion of the Pharisees. He says it’s better to eat with the sinner and teach to them because they haven’t acquired a taste for the Pharisee’s self-worshipping religion. They are fresh wineskins that Jesus can pour into. Fresh garments that won’t rip with his new patch. They will be able to take Jesus’ teaching joyfully, whereas to the Pharisees, anything new will leave nothing but a bad taste.
So think to yourself in light of this parable, are you a new garment, or old? Are you a new wineskin, or old? Do you have a taste for a religion that makes you comfortable, makes you feel superior, or is based mainly on following a set of rules? If so, you may be the old. Even today, Jesus’ message is a radical departure from conventional religion. He calls us to reckless love, unconditional grace, and complete self-denial. Reflect to yourself whether or not that’s a message you can receive with joy, or whether it’s one that challenges your worldview.
I pray that if I am like the Pharisees in any way, make me new. Refresh and renew me so that I don’t reject the truth of Jesus, but instead accept it joyfully. Help me not to follow a manmade religion of rules and self-righteousness, but Jesus’ gospel of freedom, mercy, and love.
In Jesus’ Name,