Living with Luke: Old Wine and New Ways (5:33-39)

33 Some people said to Jesus, “The disciples of John fast often and pray frequently. The disciples of the Pharisees do the same, but your disciples are always eating and drinking.”
34 Jesus replied, “You can’t make the wedding guests fast while the groom is with them, can you? 35  The days will come when the groom will be taken from them, and then they will fast.”
36 Then he told them a parable. “No one tears a patch from a new garment to patch an old garment. Otherwise, the new garment would be ruined, and the new patch wouldn’t match the old garment. 37  Nobody pours new wine into old wineskins. If they did, the new wine would burst the wineskins, the wine would spill, and the wineskins would be ruined. 38  Instead, new wine must be put into new wineskins. 39  No one who drinks a well-aged wine wants new wine, but says, ‘The well-aged wine is better.’”

Having objected to Jesus’ dinner guests (5:27-32), someone next objects to his disciples’ partying:  “your disciples are always eating and drinking” (v.33). 

Luke carefully sets the scene by identifying two main renewal groups in Israel as the counterpoints to Jesus’ disciples:  disciples of John and of the Pharisees.  These groups represent three distinct visions for the renewal and restoration of Israel.  John and his people are all about the eschatological moment of judgment that they believe has befallen Israel, thus their tone of “hellfire and damnation” repentance-preaching.  The Pharisees focus on the national and ethnic separation of the people from the pagan Gentile nations as a way of showcasing their role and status in God’s plan.  Jesus’ followers are on about kingdom inauguration – the dawning reality of the climax of God’s purposes in and through Jesus of Nazareth.

It is important to note that Jesus connects to oldest primal visions of and dreams for Israel – God’s creation dream in Genesis 1-2 of Creator-Creature communication, communion, and community throughout the ages on the creation.  The Pharisees emphasis on national and ethnic identity viz-a-viz separation from all other peoples had a role in the formation of the people in the Old Testament as they grew from the family of Abraham.  John’s urgent sense of impending divine judgment is of even more recent vintage in the preaching of the nation’s prophets. Remembering this will help us interpret the enigmatic v.39.

At issue in this scene is whether to fast and pray or not.  John’s followers and those of the Pharisees do; Jesus’ don’t.

Now there’s nothing wrong with fasting or prayer, to be sure.  It’s not these practices themselves that are at issue here.  Rather it’s a matter of timing and the identity of Jesus. And two are connected.

Neither John’s people nor the Pharisee’s followers know what time it is in terms of salvation history and this lack is related to their inability to rightly identify Jesus.  Jesus draws on a venerable image seared deep in Israel’s imagination and heart – that of YHWH and his people as husband and wife (see Song of Songs; Hosea 2:14-18). Jesus’ announces the moment for this wondrous occasion is at hand.  The groom is present and the wedding party is on.  No time for fasting and prayer now.  That will come, he darkly hints, when the groom is taken away (v.35).  It’s time to party on now that he is here!

Notice that by identifying himself as the groom, the husband of Israel, Jesus also identifies himself with YHWH is the closest possible way.  In this great image of the marriage of God and his people in the Old Testament YHWH is always the groom.  Jesus claims here that in some way he is YHWH’s stand-in (or “double” may be a better word) with every right to claim this people as his bride.  Obviously, to fail to discern this about Jesus is also to fail to grasp what time it really is.  Thus John’s people and the Pharisees’ people continue on with their renewal programs and cannot understand why Jesus’ people do follow their example.

Jesus tells a parable to explain (vv.36-39).  It is not difficult to catch the sense of his examples.  A patch taken from a new garment will only spoil it and fail to match the old garment on which it is put.  New wine needs to be put in new wineskins.  To put it in an old one will only destroy that wineskins and result in the loss of the new wine as well. 

So far so good.

Jesus is obviously styling his renewal movement as the “new” in these illustrations.  The latest and greatest that puts that renders these “old(er)” movements passé.  Or so we think.
But not so fast, my friends (apologies to Lee Corso of ESPN College Game Day).  In v.39 Jesus repeats a truism:  “well-aged” wine is always better and to be preferred over newer wines.  This is hard to jibe with our usual way of taking these terms.

But remember our comments above concerning the vintage of the visions of these renewal movements.  It is actually Jesus who enacts and announces the oldest primal vision of God for his people and his world (the “well-aged” wine).  The Pharisees and John represent visions that had currency at some points in Israel’s story but were in themselves partial and inadequate expressions of the fullness of God’s hopes and dreams.  And in the presence of the “well-aged” wine of Jesus, these newer visions could only limit and mar what Jesus was on about.

Thus the debates about Jesus’ dinner guests, his claim to bestow forgiveness, his healings and exorcisms all come into fresh focus.  Now, instead of unorthodox and even irreverent displays of chutzpah no faithful Israelite should ever countenance, these “new ways” are seen to be, in truth, expressions of the very life of God breaking out afresh right in their midst!  Thus, Luke invites us to see these “new ways” of Jesus flowing out of the “well-aged” wine of God’s creation dream for his world!


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