New Wine, New Wineskins audio (5MB)
Most people dislike change. Some people think it’s a necessary evil; but evil nevertheless. But there are times when change is absolutely necessary; when the old ways won’t work; when the old ways will actually hinder the thing that’s coming.
One such moment in time was at the coming of Jesus. The Old Testament from start to finish points to his coming, but with his coming the days of the Old Testament are finished. The way God had taught his people to live as they waited for Jesus was about to be made redundant. The means by which they gained righteousness was about to be overtaken, replaced by a righteousness by faith alone. And the very identity of God’s people was about to be changed.
And we see all of this in great clarity as we read through the end of Chapter 2 and the start of ch3 of Mark.
A Nation of God-Fearers?
The old order established very strict boundaries of righteousness. These were largely built upon the 10 commandments but the rules had been widened to cover a host of situations that weren’t mentioned, in fact probably not even thought of, in Exodus 20. Similarly the old order was built around a belief that the Jews were God’s chosen people and everyone else was excluded. That exclusion meant that faithful Jews would have nothing to do with Gentiles: no business dealings and certainly no social dealings.
So here in 2:13-15 we find a very difficult situation for Jesus followers.
Jesus is walking along beside the sea and he sees Levi, a tax collector, sitting at his booth collecting taxes. Levi was the lowest of the low: a traitor, working for the Roman occupying forces. He was probably a thief, ripping off the people whose taxes he collected, skimming off enough to make himself rich at their expense. And in both his business and social life he would have mixed freely with Gentile merchants so he was obviously the type who ignored God’s law. So when Jesus stops and speaks to him there would have been surprised looks on everyone’s faces, but when he tells him to get up and follow him they would have been totally amazed. And then he goes a step further. He goes to Levi’s house for dinner, and all the lowlifes from the tax-collecting fraternity are there as well.
What’s happened to the idea that Israel is this exclusive community of God’s faithful people? If Jesus is supposed to be a respected rabbi how can he eat with such sinful types?
The scribes put that exact question to his disciples. Their question is as much a criticism of them for following Jesus as it is of Jesus himself. How can you follow someone who’s obviously a man of doubtful judgment?
But do you see how Jesus answers 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.” The scribes have forgotten what their job is. They think their job is to keep their people on the straight and narrow by teaching them how to apply the law to their lives; but in fact their job is just as much to call sinful people back to life with God. Certainly that’s what Jesus sees his mission as being. He’s come to call sinners to follow him, to come back into relationship with God. Just as we saw last week that the paralysed man needed forgiveness before everything else, so this tax-collector needs to repent and receive the forgiveness that God has for him. This is the same message that Peter was given in his dream of a sheet covered in unclean animals coming down out of the sky. God is the one who makes people clean. He does it through faith in Jesus. So no matter who it is they need to hear the gospel. The old order of exclusiveness is now gone. Jesus came to fulfil Israel’s role in being a light to lighten the Gentiles.
Immediately Mark draws our attention to another instance where the new clashes with the old. He tells us that John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting at this time. Perhaps it was a particular religious festival they were observing or perhaps it was just one of the regular fasts that the Pharisees undertook. Whatever it was, it highlights the way ceremony and ritual play a central part in most religious practices. Fasting is an age-old method, in a wide range of religions, for achieving a sense of spiritual connectedness. Abstaining from food was meant to be a discipline that allowed the mind to concentrate on things above. Moses fasted before receiving the law on Mt Sinai; David fasted when Bathsheba’s son was dying, Joel called for the people to fast to show God they were serious about following him, the people of Nineveh fasted as a sign of repentance and so forth. So Jesus is coming into a setting where the behaviour of his disciples seems out of place.
People wanted to know why his disciples didn’t fast when those of John and the Pharisees did. His answer is simple. If you have the bridegroom with you, you don’t fast, you celebrate. There would come a day to put on mourning clothes, to fast in sadness, but not now.
He doesn’t say this in so many words but what he means is this: the abstinence of the old law has been replaced by rejoicing and celebration because the Messiah has come. Although there are still occasions when some Christians fast, it’s no longer necessary in order to maintain our faithfulness, or our focus on God. God has given us his Holy Spirit to be with us, to keep our focus on him. Christians have replaced fasting with listening to the Spirit, walking in the Spirit.
You see, when Jesus comes everything changes. A new covenant is about to be brought in. And when things change, when there’s a new model of righteous living being brought in, the old ways have to change.
If you take a piece of new cloth, cloth that hasn’t yet been washed so it hasn’t shrunk, and use it to patch an old cloak, what’s going to happen? The first time you wash it the patch will shrink and tear away from the cloak and you’ll have a worse tear than before.
If you make a batch of wine you put it into a new wine skin. You could put it in an old wine skin, but as it ferments the wineskin will burst, because it’s too old and brittle to expand with the gases being produced. So too, the arrival of the kingdom of God, the arrival of the Messiah, bringing a new way of righteousness, means the old ways of ritual and ceremony need to be exchanged for something new.
Finally the laws surrounding the Sabbath need to be clarified.
Jesus is walking through a grain field on the Sabbath, and his disciples are plucking heads of grain and chewing on them.
The Pharisees, looking on, jump on this as breaking the Sabbath law. They’re reaping wheat! It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But when you’re intent on keeping God’s law to the letter, you have to decide what constitutes work. And they’d worked it out. They knew how far you could walk on the Sabbath, they knew how much you could do before it became work and this wasn’t in the list! In fact reaping was one of 39 different activities that were clearly forbidden.
Again, Jesus defends the disciples’ action. This time though he uses the sort of argument the scribes themselves would have used. He quotes 1 Samuel 21 where David is running away from Saul and goes into the house of God to find bread to feed his men. The bread he finds is the consecrated bread that’s meant for the priests. The point he’s making is that sometimes human need overrides the religious taboos we put in place.
So too, he says, with the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for humanity not humanity for the Sabbath. The Sabbath law was meant to free us up to gather together to worship God, without the constraints of work keeping us from gathering together. That’s a novel idea isn’t it? But it wasn’t meant to so limit us that we couldn’t enjoy our time with God.
Similarly in the next episode in ch3 a man is there with a withered hand. If Jesus heals him he’s doing work. But what’s more important? He asks the Pharisees: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” He can choose to heal the man or to ignore him. But to ignore him is equivalent to hurting him. If you have the power to help someone and you ignore them you’re really hurting them aren’t you? You’re depriving them of something that would make them better. So again the Sabbath laws take second place to human need.
And in fact there’s a greater principle involved. There it is in 2:28: “the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” Just as Jesus was able to forgive sins, so here we find that Jesus takes precedence over the Sabbath. What matters in the long run isn’t whether you avoid all work on the Sabbath but whether you give Jesus the honour that’s due to him.
The Pharisees were much more worried about honouring the Sabbath than they were about honouring Jesus, the Messiah.
For us the issue will depend on our context. Should we set aside one day a week to gather together for worship and mutual encouragement? Or is life under the new covenant such that our gathering will take place on various days of the week?
Will we look at those we know who are openly sinning and judge them, or avoid them? Or will we befriend them so we have opportunities to share the good news with them?
Will we choose to avoid certain food and drink because we think there’s something wrong with them? Or will we give thanks for all the good things that God gives us?
Now clearly in all those questions there will be decisions to make about how our behaviour affects others, about what is OK and what isn’t, about the ethical and moral grounds for our decision making. But in the end, whatever we decide must come back to the question of what it is we’re responding to. Is it Jesus as Lord or is it some human religious system? Is our behaviour going to help others discover the good news of Jesus Christ? Will it help us proclaim forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name?