I get a bit stuck reading this passage. The story about Levi meeting Jesus and throwing a party is straightforward enough. The Pharisees dispute Jesus and his disciples eating with sinners, and Jesus responds with the image of a physician who cares for the sick, not the healthy. The Pharisees dispute Jesus’ disciples lack of fasting, and Jesus responds with the image of a bridegroom and a wedding feast. I’m officiating at a wedding this afternoon and there is going to be a feast at which no one will be fasting. So far, in every wedding I have officiated, there has always been a feast and no one fasts.
I get all of this, at least on the level of understanding the basic progression of the text. But then Luke tosses out these two parables and a proverb about new and old garments, new and old wineskins, and new and old wine.
Here’s what happens as I read: I get stuck on the wineskins and the wine. I’ve spent a good bit of time trying to figure out WHY, if nothing else so that I could get past it and back into the Scripture afresh. In the spirit of disclosure, here’s the “why”: I have heard and read so many readings of this Scripture that excerpt the wine and wineskins, cutting the parables and proverb off from their context. The readings I’ve seen have concentrated on two particular interpretations. One is a reading from the Charismatic renewal that focuses on the new wine as the gift of the Spirit. The other is from church growth and church renewal work claiming that new ministry to reach new people needs entirely new forms – that you need new groups for new people, new worship services for new people, et cetera. Since parables and proverbs are very flexible things, able to be reused in lots of different ways, I don’t want to say that these well-meaning people have abused the text. And there’s plenty of practical insight (as well as debatable assumptions) in what they have to offer. I just don’t believe that these readings match the context of Levi meeting Jesus and throwing a party or, for that matter, the very next story (which we didn’t read) of the disciples picking and eating fresh grain on the Sabbath. (Fresh grain gets kind of chewy, like gum, and you can’t eat it in quantity. But the problem was that they picked, they harvested, even that puny amount, on the Sabbath day, when the law says – back in God’s Top Ten – that you should honor the Sabbath and keep it holy by doing no work.)
So, what I’d like to do is read from the end to the beginning of the text and see how the parables and proverb jive with Levi’s feast.
First parable, the old and new garments. For demonstration, I have here a pair of my old jeans and a pair of my newer (albeit already aging) jeans. I love old jeans and I wear them until I wear them out. They are always more comfortable than new jeans, so I wait as long as possible before replacing them. Instead of replacing them, let’s say I bought a new pair and cut patches out of it to repair the old pair. That would destroy the new pair and – at least if we were dealing with the fabrics in Jesus’ time that didn’t come pre-shrunk – would make the hole in the old jeans even worse. The point? God is doing a new thing that is fundamentally incompatible with the old thing. Trying to put them together is only going to ruin things.
Second parable, the old and new wineskins. You don’t put new wine into old skins. You put it into new skins that can still stretch and expand during fermentation. If you put it into old skins, the skins will be destroyed and the wine will spill, if not be lost altogether. The point? God is doing a new thing that is fundamentally incompatible with the old thing. Putting them together is only going to ruin things.
Proverb, the old and new wine. This one is a boomerang in flight. “No one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good’” (Luke 5:39). Wait a minute! Wasn’t Jesus on Prophet Isaiah’s “new thing” bandwagon, telling us that God is doing a new thing and that it is fundamentally incompatible with the old thing? But that’s exactly OUR problem, not Jesus’ problem. We like the old wine better. We like the old jeans better – even when they are extra “holy”.
So, let’s back up into Levi’s story. He’s a tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman imperial forces occupying Palestine. He has no friendships with the majority of good upstanding citizens. His only friends are tax collectors and another outcast class: “sinners”. Guess what? They show up to his party. And Jesus isn’t the slightest bit awkward. He seems to be having a good time: “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 to repentance.”
Remember that the common thread joining the stories in Luke 5, and actually the first story in Luke 6, is holiness and Jesus. Jesus has broken all the rules of establishment religion because his holiness isn’t going to be contaminated by anybody. He has broken all the rules so that he can make unclean people holy. He has broken all the rules for the sake of salvation.
One interpreter says that the Pharisees have a “salvation by [separation]”. It is a salvation that fixates on boundaries, on keeping the holy separate from the merely clean and the clean separate from the unclean. It is a salvation that is earned by your own efforts, a salvation that puts you – me – clearly in control of the outcome. And, it is nice to be in control of our own salvation. Particularly when we want to be sure that tax collectors and sinners DON’T get salvation too.
Jesus, on the other hand, has a “salvation by association” (W. Manson, cited in Fitzmyer, I:589). You’re not saved by what you are separate from. You are saved by association with Jesus. That’s as much control as we have – the ability to choose our Savior, not the ability to save ourselves. You stick this salvation in the wineskin of salvation by our own efforts and you’ve got a mess. This salvation requires a new wineskin to hold it, a new garment to express it. Jesus has come to call sinners “to repentance”. That’s not just a surface association, that’s not an “acquaintance” or a “I shook his hand at Levi’s party”. Jesus calls us to total change of life. An old wineskin doesn’t have the flexibility to change. This change, this repentance, requires regeneration, new birth.
The old garment is comfortable and familiar. But we won’t receive this salvation, this new thing, without some discomfort. We may have to share a table with some unexpected guests, some sinners. The old wine is superior, but this salvation, this new thing humbles us. We aren’t any better than anyone else. If we are God’s chosen, it’s not because we’re particularly special but because God wants us to extend grace, salvation, gospel, to someone else. The apostle Paul himself declared that he was the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
The old wineskin is brittle and rigid. It lacks flexibility, it is not open to expansion, it has no room for the transformation of the new wine. Jesus is telling us that our spiritual lives lack room to grow when sinners are missing from the table. Of course, we all know that sinners come to the feast – just not us.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor and church planter in Denver. The congregation she leads has a wonderful name: House for All Sinners and Saints. It’s Lutheran in name, referring to Martin Luther’s understanding that we are all simultaneously sinner and saint. And it fits the theme of today’s Scripture and Levi’s feast table. But it was a feast that the buttoned-down religious experts couldn’t bring themselves to share. Their loss (and our loss whenever we lead with similar pride) . . . old garments, old wine, and old wineskins with no room for transformation to touch their lives. Bolz-Weber tells a story of one of the women in the church who texted her: “hey rev I need some pastoral care”. They met for coffee: “I’m having a crisis of faith.” “I think I believe in Jesus”. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry, but like sometimes Jesus just hunts your *** down and there’s nothing you can do about it” (Nadia Bolz-Weber, Christianity 21, with Phyllis Tickle, produced by JoPa Productions, 2009).
That’s regeneration, rebirth that can’t be contained in the old wineskins. There’s no “old wine” that’s better than that. And unless we truly welcome and invite everyone to the feast of the kingdom, including those whose presence may make us uncomfortable, we’ll miss out on the blessing of transformation, of new disciples for Jesus. Unless we give up on salvation by separation and embrace salvation by association with Jesus, we’ll miss out on this blessing. Until we quit trying to earn our way to God, we’ll never get into God’s presence. As Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “the kingdom of God is founded not on the quality of the people in it but on the unrestrained and lavish mercy of the God who came and got us” (From her blog, http://www.sarcasticlutheran.typepad.com/ July 29 2010).