Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often,h but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
New wineskins. Jesus teaching on wineskins and the unshrunken cloth has often been taken to contrast the religious traditions of the Pharisees with the new thing that Jesus is teaching and doing. So the theory goes, the Pharisees represent religion and Jesus represents a relationship with God, so a new wineskin is separated and dissected from the religious traditions and starts off fresh and new.
I don’t want to entirely reject this line of reasoning, as there is a sense where the ministry of Jesus is intentionally contrasted with the traditions of the Pharisees in the Gospels. I do have some mild reservations about religion vs. relationship dichotomy, in large part because James talks about true religion (James 1.27). Nevertheless, I think there is a deep truth between the contrast between religious traditions and the newness of what Jesus brings. What I want to put forward is a more nuanced interpretation of Jesus’ words that suggests a different way that we come to the newness in Jesus Christ than what has “traditionally” been put forward by those emphasizing religion, personality spirituality, etc. over and against religious traditions.
Much of the time, usually implicitly and sometimes explicitly, the newness we face by coming to Christ is taken to be from our emotional lives and the changes experienced therein. As an intellectual who doesn’t always show my emotional expressions the ways that many other people of faith do, I have recognized this basic assumption and been subjected to a bit of skepticism because of it. At times, I have been treated as if my faith isn’t of the “heart” and that I didn’t really know and love God, but my faith was simply an intellectual thing. Undergirding this worldview, and it is a worldview that assumes the truthfulness of one’s faith is seen by one’s affectivity and emotional expression, is that the way we live into the newness that Jesus gives us through our emotional experiences of victory through the cross.1 At the heart of having these new wineskins according to this worldview is an emotionally-charged freedom from past traditions and teachings which have held us down, harmed us, and/or mislead us. The new wineskins is taken to be the new experience of God and freedom from the oppressive constraints of religious tradition.
Much of this I want to affirm, but I want to put forward that these feelings of victory, elation, celebration, etc., are all the consequence of rightly discovering the newness that Jesus gives us, but it is not our “relationship” or “spirituality” or “freedom” that is the new thing that Jesus brings. Allow me to use a metaphor: a severely depressed person is prescribed an antidepressant by a psychiatrist as they have regular appointments to discuss their life with them. As they take the antidepressant and participate in therapy for a few months, they slowly begin to emerge from their despair with a new sense of happiness and hopeful expectation. What is new in their life? Many things are new, but their new emotional life has been bequeathed to them because of the therapy and the new medication that helps to alter the neurotransmitters at work in their brain, altogether altering the way they think, interpretation, and feel. Something new from outside of themselves, the medication and the interactions with the therapist, causes them to become changed into a person who experiences a new joy in life.
I want to put forward that many of these things we associate with these sense of freedom, hope, and joy are intimately connected with the new wineskins that Jesus provides, but that the new wineskins are more like the therapeutic process that occurs when one is a disciple who is truly seeking after and following Jesus that allows us to take in the new wine. In other words, emotional victory is part of the new wine, but it isn’t the new wineskin. The new wineskin comes from learning from Jesus.
The metaphor of wineskins was used by Elisha ben Abuyah, a near contemporary of Jesus, to describe the process of studying and learning.2. When Jesus uses this language, he most likely echoes a similar expression: his disciples are in the process of learning, that is obtaining the new wineskin. If this is the meaning, the metaphor may be extended to regard fasting as a type of wine that is put into the wineskin. Jesus says that even though they don’t fast, the days will come when they fast, suggesting that fasting is the new metaphorical wine to be put into to the new wineskin. However, before they can appropriately fast, they will have to have the right “container” to direct their fasting towards.
Why would this be the case? Throughout the Old Testament, fasting was primarily used in a status of fear, mourning, repentance, shame, etc. People fasted to seek after God in their lowly, vulnerable state. However, the purpose of fasting had apparently begun to shift with some people, as it was often done in order to be seen (Matthew 6.16-18). Fasting also became a regular, ascetic practice (Judith 8.6, Luke 2.37). Given that such regular fasting could be taken as a sign of self-control and self-discipline, some people may have taken the regular fasting to be less about seeking God’s protection and help and the purpose of fasting may have also morphed into an ascetic practice of physical endurance. Altogether, the purpose that some Jews fasted seemed to have change from the way fasting was understanding throughout Israel’s Scriptures. Rather than coming before God in a humbled state, it was done falsely. Perhaps Jesus’ criticism of the fasting by the hypocrites in the Sermon on the Mount has in mind Isaiah 58.3-9:
Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
So, if the practice of fasting had been corrupted from the purposes that God found in fasting in Jesus’ time, what would happen if he started having His disciples fast early in His discipline? They would have likely fasted for all the reasons they were accustomed to seeing fasting being done. Our learning from our cultures are often deeply engrained in ways that we are often unaware of. Before they could fast in a faithful way, they would need to unlearn what their religious culture had taught them and learn newly from Christ. Their time with Jesus as the “bridegroom” was a time of preparation that would lead them to mourning and fast when the “bridegroom” was gone, which is perhaps an implicit foreshadowing of the way Jesus will be taken from them and crucified. While Jesus was with them, they would come to acquire new wineskins through learning from Jesus, so that when the time came to fast, they would not fast as the world around them fasted but they would fast because of their feelings of vulnerability and mourning at the injustice done to their Teacher. They are learning a whole new way of life from Jesus that will then direct the way they then engage with the practices of fasting and many of the other traditional markers of Jewish piety. In other words, Jesus did not come to get rid of the traditional markers of Jewish piety, but in teaching His disciples, he would make these practices restored to their true purpose by being radically recentered and reunderstood in relationship to Him.
In other words, we might say that traditional religious practices become powerfully renewed and transformed when they become radically recentered in Christ. When it happens, however, the people engaging in the piety of fasting, prayer, charity, etc., might not look much like what one is accustomed to seeing in the way religion is generally practiced. Religion restored to its true purpose often looks unlike the prevailing forms of the present. It doesn’t throw away the past, however, but like a faithful prophet, it calls judgment against and rejects the distortions and corruptions that have come in the present day practices and in seeking to call people back to faithfulness to what God has made known about Himself, it will lead people to look different from the spiritual drowsiness that they witness surrounding them. However, at the same time, to get to the true form of the old, it will also require a new act of God to open our eyes, unplug our ears, and restore our minds to come close to the the truth of the ancient ways. How can we know the truth of the ancient ways if we were entirely unfamiliar to it in the first place due to the way we learned and were taught in our culture? God must act powerfully to make His everlasting will and purposes known afresh, which He ultimately does through the word and life of His Son.
In our modern day where we see emotional healing that mirrors that of what we witness in therapy, I want to honor those things as deeply faithful to God’s heart as expressed through the Scriptures. However, lest we forget, it is through learning from Jesus that we have the new wineskins that form the new wine of our experience of emotional liberation. It is in learning from Jesus that we begin to see and understand the work and purposes of the Spirit’s work to bring about the new wine of new creation in our lives. Without this radical recentering onto the whole, fullness of Christ, I will continue to express the concerns that I have long held about the triumph of the therapeutic and that we are simply accommodating to what we find from the therapeutic practices of our culture, both the good but also the bad, rather than discovering a new way to learn to experience God’s healing for God’s life-giving purposes, which is really ancient.
- The reason for affectivity being at the center of this worldview is due to the way that many interpret the language of the heart in the Bible in the way we use the word heart today, to refer simply to our emotional feelings and emotional attachments. However, the heart in the Bible is closer to our modern understanding of intentions and motivations, which is subtly different from emotional experience.