(Continuing our series in Matthew chapters 8 & 9, and looking for the big picture Matthew’s trying to get across.)
Sometimes, my grandmother would speak a different language. Not a foreign language. It was still English. I understood the words – they just made no sense.
For example, a favourite saying of hers was: “I’m not as green as I’m cabbage-looking.” Right. Never thought you looked like a cabbage. More, say, cauliflower, if I had to make a vegetable comparison. What on earth are you saying?
Or if you were looking for something, and asked her where it was, she’d say: “up in Annie’s room, hanging on a tack.” Theirs was a single-story house, but I was for many years suspicious of a hidden attic containing a family secret.
She’d sometimes say we had “eyes like two burnt holes in a blanket”. I wouldn’t know. I don’t smoke in bed.
And my favourite, if my shirt wasn’t tucked in properly: “Giddy giddy gout, your shirt’s hanging out. Six miles in and seven miles out.” I used to point out that that meant there was only a net of one mile hanging out, which, proportionally, wasn’t so bad.
Now, I make fun of my grandmother, but I’ve started to notice myself coming out with expressions that I think are perfectly normal. But they leave younger generations puzzled. A while back I was trying to explain to my Greek class that there was a number of different ways to translate something, and they were all correct. I said: “there are many ways to skin a cat”. You should have seen the look of horror on the faces of all my young students. “Why would you want to skin a cat?” one of them asked, wide-eyed. Like two burnt holes in a blanket.
And at that point, it hit home: I’d become old. As my grandmother would say, “they don’t put new wine in old wineskins.”
No, hang on, that was Jesus, wasn’t it. Have you ever wondered what he meant by that? Does it even make sense? Or is it just another grandma saying? “They don’t put new wine in old wineskins” – let’s have a look at the full saying and see if we can work out what’s going on. Start from v16:9:16 No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.
Now this one come from an era when clothes didn’t come pre-shrunk, and when people actually patched their clothes rather than threw them away to buy new ones. But we can work out what’s going on. You put a patch over a hole in some old jeans, and the first time you wash them, the patch shrinks and just makes the hole worse. So far so good, we get the picture.9:17 Neither do they pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.
Now obviously it would make a little more sense if you were living in first century Palestine, as you’d know all about wineskins. Me, I’ve never even seen a wineskin unless you count the picture on the right that I found on Google. And if you look closely, it has a Land Rover logo on it, which I’m pretty sure weren’t around in Jesus’ time.
But I am capable of reading Bible commentaries, and I did high school chemistry. So here’s how it works. Apparently the old wineskins were already stretched to the limit; so when the new wine expands during the aging process, it ends up bursting the wineskins. So after a little bit of research I think I’m up to speed with the average Galilean peasant circa AD 30. But it still doesn’t really help me understand the point Jesus is getting at. I mean – is he just giving out tips for clothing repairs and wine storage? Why is he saying this?
So let’s go back a bit further and look at the context, to see what might have prompted this little bit of folk-wisdom:9:14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”
OK, so the context is fasting. Something the Jews did as an act of lament and mourning. Going without food, to symbolise their sorrow at the state of the world. And their desperate prayer for God to act to rescue his people. The disciples of John the Baptist would fast. So did the Pharisees. But Jesus’ disciples didn’t, and Jesus was asked why. Here’s his reply:9:15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.”
I suppose that’s clear enough. When you realise Jesus often uses the image of a bridegroom to refer to himself. And especially in the context of being the Messiah: the fulfilment of the Jewish hope for restoration and rescue. Why should his disciples fast – a sign of lament and a prayer for God to act – when Jesus is here? It’s a time for joy, because God has acted by sending Jesus! So far so good.
But then, Jesus goes all grandma on us.9:16a, 17a No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment… Neither do they pour new wine into old wineskins.
I’m sorry, how does that relate? Don’t lament, but rejoice, because God has sent me! Now be careful how you mend your clothes and store your wine…
Maybe we should go back further. To the start of chapter 9. We’ll take a look at the two stories that come before this rather odd statement, and see if they shed any light on it. But that’s for tomorrow.
To think about
What do you think the wineskins thing is all about?
Should we be in a time of mourning and fasting, or a time of rejoicing and feasting? Why?