New Wineskins--A New Way of Living
Text: Luke 5:27-39.
Luke’s Jesus teaches, for the most part, at the table. But the table is more than teaching for Jesus, it is the embodiment of the kingdom of God. It is not merely oral teaching, but social demonstration of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ table exhibits a new way of living—new wineskins for new wine.
Sometimes (a good example is Bock’s NIV Application commentary) the story of Levi’s calling (5:27-32) is separated from the discussion of fasting (5:33-39). The headings in the NIV tend to separate them as well. But the controversy over fasting takes place as part of the banquet scene. It may function as a summary of the whole chapter. Jesus calls a sinner like Peter to be his disciple, touches a leper, and heals a paralytic. And he eats with “sinners.” At the very least, however, it is part of the table conversation at Levi’s house.
New wineskins (or, new garments) represent the newness of Jesus’ ministry which is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. The parable puts into words the previous deed of Jesus—his reclining at table with sinners. The parable illuminates the deed, and the deed illuminates the parable.
Jesus took the initiative. He found Levi, a tax-agent or collector; part of a despised, wealthy, and exploitive social class in Palestine. He invited Levi to join his group, a different sort of group—to embrace the kingdom of God. Levi left everything and followed him, which is a narrative indicator of his repentance.
Levi then took the initiative. He threw a “great banquet”—a festive celebration, reclining at the table with his friends. He had been invited to participate in the kingdom of God—he was celebrating. Joy is the appropriate response; his friends are the appropriate co-celebrants. They are his circle of friends—“tax collectors and others” (left undefined by Luke’s own description).
But others were there as well, observing the celebration. They were shocked by Jesus’ presence at this gathering. They made it clear that they regard Luke’s “others” as “sinners.” These are the very people who, in their view, are excluded not only from the kingdom of God, but excluded from social interaction with the righteous. They are the outsiders. The Pharisees are separatists—they separate themselves from the unclean and impure. They isolate their righteousness so that they enjoy table only with the righteous.
Jesus’ response values a total reversal of the Pharisaic attitude. Instead of separation, Jesus sits at table with the “others.” Instead of prideful isolation, Jesus seeks relationships with the “others.” Instead of distant condemnation, he sits with the “others” to invite them into the kingdom of God. This invitation is a call to repentance, to a new way of living—a new life.
New life is possible because someone new has arrived. The Bridegroom is here; the Messiah and his kingdom have arrived. It is a new garment. It is new wine for new wineskins. It is new era. The old is passing away, and everything is becoming new.
The Pharisees recognized the newness, and they objected. “The old is better,” as the proverb goes. The Pharisees rigorously pursued fasting—twice a week even. This, in fact, was an expression of their separatism from the unclean (“sinners”), their yearning for the Messianic age that had not yet come in their estimation, and sorrow over their present status as a conquered nation.
But Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. They feast! Oh, they will fast when the Bridegroom is taken from them, but while he is with them they will feast at the great banquet Levi has thrown. They will eat while the Bridegroom is with them (and he will be with them at the table in the post-resurrection community as well).
The new is better than the old. But the new is not simply a matter of eating rather than fasting. Rather, the message is about what that contrast represents. To eat is to sit with sinners and invite them into the kingdom of God. To fast is to separate oneself from sinners and condemn them to their own depravity.
The new wineskins are not minor adjustments to ritual (e.g., no more fasting), but it is to embrace the kingdom of God in the present. It is a new way of living.
New wineskins are not about praise teams, responsive readings, drama in the assembly or even new methods of “doing church.” It is not about the latest fad in order to be “new,” “current” or “relevant.” Rather, it is life transformation—a new way of relating to people, embracing “the other,” living in reconciling ways, dismantling the barriers that divide.
To use new wineskins or to put on a new garment is to act in ways that demonstrate the presence of the kingdom of God in the world. Jesus did it at table with sinners. We “do it’ in our own context.
We demonstrate it when we seek out friendships and show hospitality to the “others” in our culture—the poor, the homosexual, the Arab, the illegal alien, the disabled, etc. We demonstrate it when we sit at table with the “others” and invite them into the kingdom of God. But the invitation rings hollow when it is shouted at a distance, with a shrill voice filled with hatred and condemnation. It only rings true when we are at the table with them.
We are followers of Jesus. We followed him into the water, we have followed him into the wilderness, and now we must follow him to a table with “others.” Disciples of Jesus cannot do otherwise. But, remember, it also the path to suffering—to being mocked, scorned, excluded….it is the way of the cross.