PassageIn these two passages Jesus has a couple of conversations with the Jewish religious leaders on some finer points of the law.
It starts with a tax collector, named Levi. Jesus comes across him at his tax booth and asks Levi to follow him, which Levi promptly does, leaving behind all that he has. Levi then throws a banquet, at which is not only Jesus invited, but also all of Levi’s tax collector friends. The Jewish religious leaders grumble about this, wondering aloud why Jesus, a religious leader himself, would be eating with such people. Jesus answers them…
… “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (verses 31–32 (ESV))The religious leaders also ask him about fasting: John’s disciples fast, and the Pharisees’ disciples fast, but Jesus’ disciples don’t seem to fast. Why is that? Jesus answers with a metaphor: wedding guests don’t fast at a wedding, while the bridegroom is still with them, they celebrate. There will come a day when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they’ll fast. In other words, “my disciples don’t need to fast, I’m still with them. When I’m gone, they’ll fast.”
He follows this with a parable:
… “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (verses 36–38 (ESV))
ThoughtsIt’s helpful to remember the political situation at this time: The nation of Israel has been conquered, and is now under Roman rule. They have some levels of autonomy, for some things, but but they’re by no means their own nation; neither are they, necessarily, Roman citizens. (Some of them are, though—Paul is a Roman citizen, for example.) Citizen or not, they’re under Roman rule, rather than their own. This is part of the reason that there is so much confusion about the role of the Messiah: Looking back, we know that Jesus’ work on Earth was to take a punishment he didn’t deserve, on our behalf, so that we wouldn’t have to be punished—thereby paving the way for us to have a real relationship with God. (As explanations of the Gospel go, that wasn’t my finest…) The Jews, on the other hand, when they’re thinking of a “messiah,” are thinking of a political leader. They want someone who will raise up an Israelite army, push out the Romans, and establish Israel as a nation again, becoming its king.
This comes up throughout the Gospels in a number of ways, but in this specific case, it’s the reason why the tax collectors—specifically the Jewish tax collectors—are so hated at this time: it’s not just the fact that they like to collect more taxes than are necessary to line their pockets (though that’s part of it), it’s that they’re seen as Roman collaborators. The Jews are looking forward to the day when they can throw off the shackles of the Roman oppressors, and meanwhile these tax collectors are collaborating with the enemy! This is how the Jews see Levi and his fellow Jewish tax collectors. It’s even how the religious leaders see them, though it’s (in my mind) more of a political thing than a religious thing. (Then again, when a nation is a theocracy, as Israel was, I guess every political question is also, by default, a religious one…) So this is why it would be so shocking for Jesus to call Levi as a disciple, and to go to his house and eat with him and his tax collector friends.
On the point of Jesus saying, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance,” we shouldn’t take that to mean that Jesus thinks the religious leaders are actually righteous. He doesn’t even think they’re comparatively more righteous than their fellow Jews. It’s more of an attitudinal thing: because Levi, and others like him, don’t consider themselves to be righteous, they’ll be open to accepting the righteousness imparted from Christ. Because the religious leaders think they’re already righteous, because they think they don’t need any help—because they don’t think they’re sick, to use Jesus’ metaphor—they’re not going to ask for healing, and so will never receive it.
I don’t understand the finer points of wine making or using wineskins but new wine needs to be put in new wineskins, because the skins will need to stretch as the wine ferments. If you were to put new wine in old wineskins, which have already been stretched out, then when the wine began to expand as part of the fermentation, the skin would burst. Similarly, if you were to try to patch an old garment using a new piece of cloth, as the clothes get washed and the new piece of cloth—which hasn’t yet shrunk—starts to shrink, it will tear away from the old cloth. Jesus is using this metaphor to say that the Jewish religion, as it’s stood for however many thousands of years up to this point, and religion going forward, after Christ’s sacrifice, are going to be very different in many ways. This was always intended, it’s not like God changed His mind—the old was always pointing forward to the new—but day-to-day, things are going to look different. So you’re not going to be able to just “patch up” Judaism with Christianity, or to just “pour Christianity into Judaism.” As much as they both come from the same God, and both are centred around worshipping Him, they’re also fundamentally different things. The most obvious example of this is the sacrificial system: we no longer offer sacrifices, because Jesus has sacrificed himself, one time, for all of His children.
It’s interesting that Jesus ends his parable by saying, “And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” I don’t know if I’m stretching things too far, but I think Jesus might be talking about our natural desire to try to be good on our own. I’m thinking this relates to the book of Hebrews, much of which is focused on convincing new converts to Christianity from Judaism that they’ve made the right choice, and that the new is better than the old. There is a part of us that’s not comfortable simply accepting the gift of Grace; we want to try to do it on our own, we want to try to earn our salvation. (And we want to think we’re better than others, who haven’t earned their salvation!) We want to think that the reason we’re saved—even if only in part—is that God saw something in us that was special, and thought He had to have us. There is a way you can look at the Old Testament Jewish religion as being about works, and the New Testament Christian religion as Grace/faith; I don’t think that’s an accurate dichotomy, but it’s one that many of us fall into. Aside from all of this, there is also a sense in which we’re more comfortable with something we’ve been doing, we’re less comfortable with anything that’s new, so Jesus’ listeners would have been more comfortable with the religious practices they were already used to.
The metaphor about fasting when the bridegroom is taken away, and the parable about the wine and the wineskins, are, in my mind, related. (It’s probably not a stretch to make that assumption: when two stories come back-to-back in the Gospels, especially when they’re within the same chapter like this, it’s often because the writer put them together on purpose. In this case, it seems to be part of a larger conversation with Jesus, so all the more reason to assume that they’re related.) One of the major things that makes New Testament Christianity different from Old Testament Judaism is Christ, and the disciples are right to be focused on being with him, rather than by fasting. If God Himself came down to Earth to visit with you, you wouldn’t fast, you’d rejoice. (If, that is, you could be convinced that you weren’t going to be consumed by God’s Holiness…)