New Wine Into New Wine Skins
Ordinary 8 Year B
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Mark 2: 18 — 22
We know from several sources that St. John the Baptist was a particularly devout follower of the traditions of Judaism. No one denied this: not even the Pharisees when they interacted aggressively with Jesus. John was a “bastion of orthodox Judaism” (R. Cole). This is especially important to understand since several of the disciples of Jesus had come from John’s followers, and when called to become apostles, brought with them a strictly orthodox background. This was the reason the group of questioners (especially John’s disciples), were puzzled by what they interpreted as Jesus’ apparent lack of respect for traditional culture.
They were puzzled that the disciples of Jesus appeared soft and lax; at least, not very fervent. The Law of Moses did not require regular weekly fasting but by the first century C.E. this had become an established practice of the devout Jews. (This passed over into Christianity which altered the actual days but retained the practice which is still in place today.)
The attitude of Jesus to fasting quickly became a test case as to whether this young rabbi was rejecting the traditions of the elders. It would help to remember at this point that Jesus never repudiated the “traditions of the elders” when they helped the devout apply the Torah, the Divine Law in their lives. But He did object to the way some rabbis made such traditions out to, in effect, supercede, or over-ride the Law. In our short text, Jesus is challenged sincerely by deeply religious people who wanted to know. Without in any way demeaning John the Baptist, our Lord answers His interrogators in a way which was designed to lead them to ask much deeper questions about Him.
Some Reflections on the Text
The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed
to fast. People came to him and objected, “Why do the disciples
of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your
disciples do not fast?”
We do not know whether the people who asked the above question were John’s disciples. Both groups were fasting, but they were most likely doing so for different reasons.
The Pharisees fasted voluntarily on Monday and Thursday each week as an expression of piety and self-consecration. (Lane).
John’s disciples may have been fasting as an expression of mourning for the imprisonment of their master; or, perhaps even more likely, as an expression of repentance to hasten the time of redemption. (Lane).
Our Lord seems to be aware of their motive in asking the question, and uses the moment of opportunity to undertake some teaching. He is gentle, however, as His questioners may have been, or included, disciples of John (see Matthew 9: 14). If this were so, they would have sincerely wondered why Jesus was not also fasting. In reply, Our Lord used three illustrations, all of them intended to establish the same thing, that we should observe a fitness and a propriety in things. This phrase is important and reflects a Hebrew understanding of proper order and protocol to be followed in the Household of God.
The remainder of our text for reflection is devoted to recording these three examples.
Verses 19 and 20
Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests fast while
the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the
bridegroom with them they cannot fast.
But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away
from them, and then they will fast on that day.
In good, sound Jewish tradition, our Lord answers the question with another question!
This is not a strategy of our Lord to side-step the difficult question: “Why do the disciples of John, and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus simply wishes to open up the question so that His reply will be straight-forward enough for His listeners to take in. It is also His method of inviting dialogue, discussion and on-going reflection — exactly what we are doing now.
This first illustration would have puzzled more than a few onlookers. Nowhere in the Old Testament was the Messiah represented as a bridegroom. This means that no one present would have interpreted at that time our Lord’s words as referring to the Messiah. That came later. (Lane).
The illustration has been explained in this way:
The children of the bride-chamber ― that is, men who had the
special care of the bridal chamber, and who were therefore his
special friends — would not think of fasting while he is with them.
With them it is a time of festivity and rejoicing; and mourning
would not be appropriate. When he is removed, or taken away,
then their festivity will be ended, and then will be the proper
time of sorrow. So, says he, John, your friend and teacher, is in
captivity. With you it is a time of deep grief, and it is fit that you
should fast. I am with my disciples. It is, for them, a time of joy.
It is not fit that they should use the tokens of grief and fasting
just now. When I am taken away, it will then be proper that they
should fast. (A. Barnes)
No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak.
If he does, its fullness pulls away, the new from the old,
and the tear gets worse.
Barnes explains further:
A second illustration was drawn from a well-known fact, showing
also that there was a propriety or fitness of things. None of you,
says Jesus, in mending an old garment, would take a piece of
entirely new cloth.
There would undoubtedly be unavoidable waste in doing so. An old piece, or a piece like the garment, would be better. The word here translated new, in the original means raw, rough, not pre-shrunk or bleached by the cloth-maker or processor. In this state, if attached to an old garment, especially if wet, it would contract and draw off a part of the garment to which it was attached, and thus make the tear worse than it already was. So, explains Jesus, my new doctrines do not match with the old rites of the Pharisees. There is an unfolding in the fitness of things.
Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise,
the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins
are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.”
The above commentator completes his explanation:
The third illustration was taken from wine put into bottles. Bottles,
in eastern nations, were made, and are still, of skins of beast.
Generally the skin was taken entire from a sheep or a goat, and,
properly prepared, was filled with wine or water. They are still
used, because, in crossing deserts of sand, they have no other
conveyances but camels, or other beasts of burden. It would be
difficult for them to carry glass bottles or kegs on them. They
therefore fill two skins, and fasten them together, and lay them
across the back of a camel, and thus carry wine or water to a
great distance. There were of course of different sizes, as the
skins of kids, goats, or oxen might be used. Bruce describes
particularly a bottle which he saw in Arabia, made in this manner,
of an ox-skin, which would hold sixty gallons, and two of which
were a load for a camel.
By long usage, however, they naturally became tender, and
would be easily ruptured. New wine put into them would ferment,
and swell and burst them open. New skins or bottles would yield
to the fermenting wine, and be strong enough to hold it from
So, explains Jesus, there is a fitness or propriety of things. It is not fitting that my doctrine should be attached to, or constricted by the rabbis’ interpretations of the Mosaic Law, venerable and well conceived though they might be.
New things should be put together, and made to match.
This principle was established by our Lord for the protection of the old order just as much as it was for new.
In this wonderful reading from St. Mark’s Gospel, we witness a very beautiful moment in the public ministry of Jesus. It is unique, yet not unlike a few other accounts of how Jesus takes His listeners through the transition from the Old Dispensation, into the New. These few verses show how He can be so very incisive and yet ever sensitive, respectful, and affirming. As He said Himself elsewhere, He had come not to destroy but to fulfil.
As we have noted, the audience around Jesus on this occasion was probably a mixture of adherents to the Pharisees, some disciples of John the Baptist, and some of our Lord’s own disciples. It does not matter that we do not know for certain. What is of special interest is that He chooses to impart a message for each of these groups which He intends the others to hear and ponder.
The disciples of John the Baptist knew that their Master had prepared the way for, and pointed to, the Lamb of God. They were instructed by a great prophet who taught them about the Messiah who had come into their presence. They were therefore among those who wondered why Jesus did not seem to be conforming to devout orthodox Jewish practice. It is obvious Jesus was sympathetic to their situation and understands their sincere bewilderment. He loves them for their loyalty to John and to their Faith. However, this is the moment of truth which cannot be sidestepped, and Jesus demonstrates how he can honour the Old Covenant and at the same time lead in the New.
In the first parable, verses 19 and 20, Jesus implies that it is right for John’s disciples to be fasting, whether in mourning for their Master, or as an act of penance. And then, lovingly, He gives a most unexpected response, implying that while He is present with His disciples, fasting is not appropriate. But their turn will come!
Here, our Lord strongly affirms John’s disciples in their continued loyalty. He does not challenge them to follow Him, but leaves them to return to John and comfort him in the dark, dank dungeons of the morbid fortress of Machaerus until he meets his tragic death. But He does not leave them feeling lost and disheartened. They belong to the Old Covenant yet He opens a window, especially for them, and lets them see into the New. He honours them with the first ever revelation that the Messiah is a bridegroom. They are left to take that back to their Master, whom Jesus proclaimed the greatest of all prophets, and seek his wisdom about what it means. We do not need to know the precise outcomes. Enough for us to know that Jesus has, in one act, affirmed them in their devoted discipleship of the great prophet, yet shared with them a glimpse into His new order of things to come. This moment has been captured for us so that we too can share in its warmth, sublime dignity, and outpouring of love for both the Old and the New.
The second parable about caring for an old but much loved garment is just as powerful. A garment is not to be discarded just because it is old or needs mending. As we are all aware, such a garment may well outlast many a newer one, provided it is mended carefully and with due attention to, and respect for, what has gone into the making of it. It has its own life, and that must be honoured.
In this beautiful parable, our Lord is showing His love and supreme respect for the Jewish Faith which has nurtured Him and brought Him to this moment in time. Jesus has no dispute with Judaism or any of its loyal adherents who are the common folk going about their daily life. He does, however, take issue with individual, educated Pharisees who try to discredit Him and even destroy Him. They are a case apart.
The parable shows how the old garment of the Jewish Faith must be allowed to retain its own character without intrusions and being got at by those who don’t know what they are tampering with. Some Christians may find this difficult to understand but the parable makes it clear that it is something they must accept! It is a mystery and indeed a beautiful one.
The parable of the new wine being only for new wine skins, is now addressed to our Lord’s disciples. They will in due time come to understand that the new teaching ― the new wine, needs to be housed in a new container. It will be Jesus Himself who will be both the teaching and the container, for it will be the Church, His Mystical Body which will be the depository of his Word.
Our calling is to be fairly and squarely located within the teaching He commanded to be passed on: that is our Torah ― Christ the Word. That is what is meant by being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
What are we to make of all this? In some respects, it would do no harm to note what we should NOT make of it! Jesus is not authorising every Tom, Dick or Harry to declare what is old and therefore to be discarded so they can bring in whatever suits them and their usually tight-knit bunch of immediate supporters! The Church today is fighting this very battle on All fronts. If you have not noticed this, do not be afraid to see it for what it is: false religion masquerading as Christian.
Our Lord was the instrument whereby God took our salvation history into a new age. As part of this great beginning of the Church, the Holy Spirit was breathed into it and it became a living being: indeed the Body of Christ.
We need to beware of all and sundry who proclaim to the world that there is a new in-breathing of the Holy Spirit and therefore all manner of things must change. That is the battle cry of every misfit who wants to engineer change in the Church. It is actually (though not to be admitted) a manifestation of what we generally call today, New Ageism, of one sort or another. It is counterfeit renewal but under the guise of “reform” or “new growth”. Those who promote it always make very emphatic claims that they have been inspired by the Holy Spirit to proclaim their various messages. Many make reference to no authority other than a constant repetition: “God told me”.
Our Gospel text clearly establishes Jesus as the one-and-only Messiah. In Him, all of the Old Testament teaching and prophecy find their fulfillment. He instigates the true New Age. The Jews who became members of his Church saw the Body of Christ as the New Israel and its members true sons of Abraham. That does not mean that John the Baptist and his disciples, along with other devout Jews, many of whom never met or heard Jesus, were part of some disestablished religion. They were called to serve within that old and venerable order, and it is not for us to attempt a determination as to where they and their successors fit in the plan of salvation for all humanity!
Jesus established a new order and in our text above, succinctly established a simple principle that, (using a truly appropriate Hebraic mode of thinking) we should observe a fitness and a propriety in things (Barnes). His followers for all time would so observe the teaching and ordinances He put in place. It would not be for those who wanted the freedom to make changes to adapt His teaching to comply with market-place values; to take charge and marginalise those who remained loyal to established traditional Christian principles. We tend to emphasise this dilemma frequently since it is of such concern today. The situation is getting worse instead of better. No wonder meticulous meditation on the Gospels is also a practice which has been marginalised: it exposes the fraudulent movements for what they are: infiltration by an alien spirit. We commend this matter to your prayer.
It is a strange thing about us human beings, that sometimes we do not appreciate some things until we lose them. This can apply to matters of the Faith as well. False teachers and fake prophets abound everywhere, and many people are flocking to them. Whilst this highlights the false teachings which beguile unsuspecting recruits, it also brings into focus for us the beautiful treasures of Biblical Truth which stand out more clearly. We should not allow our attention to be fixed on the false and fake, but rather on the true, authentic Teaching and Words of our Lord Jesus Christ. He, alone, is the Word, the Torah of the Father. We are privileged to have been born again into His Household, and to be enriched by every word which the Father wishes to share with us. Now that is a true birthright we need to treasure and foster, within ourselves as well as all whom we love. Let us pray for those who have “thrown discretion to the wind”, and followed false idols And let us pray that we will remain true to our Blessed Messiah — the Anointed — the Christ: the Word of God. Amen.
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(Mark 16: 15)
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New Wine Into New Wineskins
Ordinary 8 Year B Mark 2: 18 — 22
1. A large number of Christians will say that when they were taught from this passage of St. Mark’s Gospel, it was usually to justify a break from Judaism and its replacement with Jesus’ teaching and religious practice. Towards the end of the second millennium, many people started to rediscover the value of appreciating the continuity between Judaism and Christianity.
The three short but powerful visual images our Lord portrays are not about casting off the old and replacing with the new. They are about honouring both streams of divine revelation and helping the devout to make the transition into our Lord’s age of fulfillment. Of course this is a mystery which we will fully comprehend, and value, only as we enter into it.
As we study and reflect on this teaching of Jesus, we will discover increasingly, the beauty of our Hebrew heritage and how it contains the key to unlocking the essential truths and divine Teaching so magnificently presented by our Lord and Messiah, blessed be His Holy Name, whose glorious kingdom is forever.
2. In this, as well as other passages recording His instruction, Jesus intimates — if we would but observe closely — a certain “fitness or propriety of things“. Such a phrase can be empty, or virtually meaningless unless we approach the Scriptures very humbly, with an honest intention to ponder their great truths. We can too easily look on the Bible as a source of quotations to rattle off when we want to prove something with absolute certitude. The Bible is not a “Mechanics’ Manual” to flick through until we find something which for us, cements an idea in place. It reflects first and foremost the splendour and majesty of God and requires us to model our thinking on His, rather than our using “bits” of His Word, to underpin what we wish to believe. There is indeed a fitness and propriety of the things of God.
We need to remember that our duty is to LISTEN to the Word of God, and permit our understanding to be guided by the Holy Spirit, who empowers Christ’s Body, the Church, to pass on to us the meaning and truths contained in the Sacred Scriptures. This may sound a little obscure, but it is exactly what is taking place in our short passage from St. Mark.
3. The disciples of St. John the Baptist are the first people chosen by Jesus to hear Him proclaim that the Messiah, among other titles, is a bridegroom. The infant Church came to see very early that, collectively, they formed the Body of Christ — His Spouse, whom He loved. Thus there developed within the Church, a vibrant relationship of intense love between the Lord and each of His members. This understanding had its origins in the Jewish Scriptures, and reached its fulfillment in the teaching of Jesus.
For us, it is a beautiful and abundant wellspring of our Christian Faith and daily spiritual life.
Mark 2: 18 ― 22
Ordinary 8 Year B
18 12 The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed
19 Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests fast 13 while
20 “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away
21 No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak. If
22 Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.
13  Can the wedding guests fast?: the bridal metaphor expresses a new relationship of love between God and his people in the person and mission of Jesus to his disciples. It is the inauguration of the new and joyful messianic time of fulfillment and the passing of the old. Any attempt at assimilating the Pharisaic practice of fasting, or of extending the preparatory discipline of John’s disciples beyond the arrival of the bridegroom, would be as futile as sewing a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak or pouring new wine into old wineskins with the resulting destruction of both cloth and wine (⇒ Mark 2:21-22). Fasting is rendered superfluous during the earthly ministry of Jesus; cf ⇒ Mark 2:20.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised