Friday, February 26, 2010

New wineskins

Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’

- Mark 2:13-22

Our first paragraph in today's passage tells us that Jesus is reaching out to new members of his flock. Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. In the midst of the crowd, Jesus picks out the tax collector. With the words, "Follow me," Jesus issues a call to discipleship. Levi is the apostle better known as Matthew, who will go on to write his own splendid gospel which gives us, among other things, the Beatitudes. My study bible explains that Matthew is the only one of the twelve apostles who had a powerful position in the society, and presumably an education. A note points out: "He has probably already heard of Jesus. Follow Me is a divine call, a command, not merely a suggestion. Of course, Matthew, like anyone receiving a call, must respond by his own free will."

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. It's quite interesting that we learn here that many tax collectors and sinners were following Jesus. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners. In the context of the reigning understanding of spirituality, the question of the scribes and Pharisees is logical. My study bible explains that under the Law, teachers sought to expel evil. But Jesus' role is to transform it, to restore all to right relatedness. He reaches out to the outcasts; no one is barred from this table of restoration. My study bible reads: "In dining with sinners, Jesus shows the Kingdom's openness to the outcast, and its destruction of the barrier between sinful men and God. Jesus recognizes these people as a definable group. It is possible to follow Jesus and remain in one's social class; however, friends no longer come first." Jesus has already shown - by touching the leper and healing him - that what is unclean does not defile by contact. It is his touch that restores and "makes clean." What's more important here is the introduction of the notion of the Divine Physician, and the message of the gospels in its fullness comes to us about healing. Jesus' ministry and mission is all about restoration; full health is not just about one aspect or another of our lives, but full restitution to relationship and spiritual standing. The outcasts are made whole in this sense; if they follow the call to discipleship, they are restored. Jesus will make his ministry among the outcasts, as in this example from the gospel of John.

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. Fasting is clearly not prohibited by Jesus here; he rather notes that they are in a special circumstance. The Bridegroom is an important concept, introduced by John the Baptist himself in another context, that touches upon this particular story. Traditional understanding of Messiah is that he is Bridegroom to Jerusalem (or, the people of Israel), the Bride. Jesus here makes clear reference to himself as the Bridegroom, come to call his bride, while the wedding guests must feast during this time. There will be seasons and times for fasting, but for now, the banquet is here. Jesus' startling words, and the title he gives himself of "bridegroom" once again introduce us to something new and astonishing in the sense we are to receive through Mark's gospel. This is something startling and new, and no one has ever spoken like this!

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins. Affirming the sense of the new and startling, astonishing, Jesus gives his famous example of the new wineskins, and the patch on the old cloak. Calling the sinners to himself, to restitution and restoration, to spiritual health, is a startling and new call. And Mark continues to call us to this vision and this understanding. In calling himself Bridegroom, Jesus does not distance himself from historical Jewish spirituality, but rather points to himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures and expectation. His new teaching, this astonishing news of this ministry, should be seen in this context.

How do we think of "new wineskins" and "new wine?" Clearly we are to understand the expansion of teaching, the newness of the concepts that Jesus is introducing, the startling news of restoration and healing - and the expansion of the flock, as well. We are to open our eyes to it, in the same way the skins must expand to contain the new wine, to make room. In each of our lives, we, too, must be prepared to accept to "make room" and build our spiritual expansion with fresh wineskins for new wine. Jesus always asks us to expand our understanding and grow, and for that we need to be fresh, we need to renew how we hear and listen to his words and his teachings, and what we find when we listen in the heart. Are you prepared to be astonished? To look at things in a new way? We all need to be healed; sometimes that requires that we change our point of view. But always that we turn to the Source and listen to what he is teaching us today, startling as it may be.