33 They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.”
34 Jesus answered, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? 35 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.”
36 He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
We continue on this rapid run through Luke to consider the behaviour of a disciple. This time, Jesus is questioned about religious performance and he answers with a series of short parables.
The religious leaders saw continuity in the disciples of John who kept up their fasting and praying as per Jewish tradition. Jesus and his followers seem to be breaking the mould and this disturbed those leaders because it appeared to take the gravity and seriousness out of the practice of faith.
Jesus response is to make them think about the point of fasting and praying. He seems to say that there is no point in fasting and praying just for the sake of fasting and praying, but that the circumstances of any given situation determine the importance of the practice. So, he says, it would be inappropriate for the friends of the bridegroom to be miserable on the morning of his wedding. On that morning they celebrate. But when the bridegroom is gone, then they can lament.
The proper action is determined by the relationship to the bridegroom and the circumstances of the given moment. It is not possible to determine the actions of the companions by rule or regulation, but only by the relationship to the bridegroom.
This is a new way of thinking about faith and the practice of faith that the religious leaders of Jesus day found difficult to take. And they’re not alone. The parables about clothes and wineskins drive Jesus point home. It is not that the old clothes that need patched or the tight, unyielding wineskins had no value in their time. Indeed, once upon a time they were new, and shiny and attractive. But they aged. And in their aging they had an attraction of their own but their usefulness declined.
It is the height of foolishness then to rip up a new piece of clothing in order to patch up an old, torn piece (5:36). Both are destroyed. Likewise with tough, unyielding old wineskins, don’t store new, unfermented wine in them or they will burst and you will lose everything (5:37). Instead, put new wine into new wineskins and let them age appropriately together (5:39).
We all age. And so do our practices of faith. And that’s not an issue in and of itself. It becomes an issue if we make the vessels in which we have aged the proper shape for everything that comes after us. And so we end up making new disciples wear our old clothes. And we store those who are growing and changing in the vitality of new faith in the old containers that were new once for us but now lack the pliability needed to contain the new.
I look back over the course of my life and the many twists and turns it has taken. I was once young, and passionate and argumentative about faith. Later, when I married and had children and wanted to pass a meaningful faith to them I had to moderate and change in what I looked for from my faith and the practice of it. Now, I’m in a different stage of life and faith, and the things I once looked down upon from the lofty heights of my youth, are things that are becoming increasingly precious and valuable. And I am less tolerant of what I now look upon as the excesses of my younger days. It’s the nature of things.
And whether one is young or one is older, it can be deeply damaging of one’s discipleship to force a pattern of faith and practice by rule, rote and regulation. The practice of faith is always changing to fit not just the stage of life a disciple is at, but also for the era they find themselves in.
I wonder how many churches have closed, and how many disciples have walked away from faith because their fellow believers have tried to force them into old patterns of belief and practice, or, equally damagingly, have tried to force new patches onto old clothes.
There is no right size fits all. Virtue is not measured either by the age of something, nor by the newness. It is measured by the relationship to the bridegroom and by the exact time and circumstance in which that relationship lives.
Take some time today to think back over the course of the days, months and years of your walk with Jesus. When it was new, what practices energised you and sustained you? How, if at all, has that changed over time and circumstance? What was it that helped you adapt to new times and circumstances?
Why not pray for those who you know who are at a different stage of their walk.
Who at the incarnation
Made yourself subject
To the passing of time
And the change it inevitably brings.
Make us mindful
Of how time both deepens us
And restricts us.
Strengthen us to resist
The pride which asserts
That our time is right.
And make us responsive
To the energies and freshness
Of those whose time
Is a different one than ours