On Monday we began a quest to work out what Jesus meant when he said “they don’t put new wine in old wineskins” (Matt 9:17). If you’re joining us now, you’d be advised to read that one first. In fact, since last week we’re on a quest to find the big picture Matthew is stitching together for us in chapters 8 & 9.
Yesterday, we saw Jesus shock people by claiming to forgive sins, bypassing the Temple establishment and sacrificial system. The second story is just as shocking. This time, it’s not because of what Jesus does. It’s just because of who he hangs out with.
9:9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
We don’t much like tax collectors today. But in first century Israel, they were held in even lower regard. Many of them were corrupt – lining their own pockets in a way that would make New South Wales politicians look like saints. (For international readers: substitute your own government here.) And worse – they were collecting taxes for Rome. The enemy! The foreign invaders who not only occupied their land but defiled it by their presence – their idols and false gods. Tax collectors were the sorts of people drug dealers wouldn’t let their kids hang out with.
The story continues:9:10a While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house…
He’s at his house! I mean, even these days you don’t share a meal with just anyone. But in the first century, eating with someone was a sign of acceptance. Jesus, this supposed holy man, hanging out with scum:9:10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.
Sinners, by the way, is the Bible’s polite way of referring to prostitutes. This is Jesus on an episode of Underbelly: Jerusalem. (For international readers: The Jewish Sopranos? I don’t know…) This doesn’t sit well with the Pharisees:9:11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Why does a religious teacher associate with the local low life? They just don’t get it. Jesus is quick to answer:9:12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”
That is, I’ve come to those who most need my help. I’ve set up my clinic where disease is most rife and medicine is most scarce. Why should that surprise you? He continues:9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Yeow. That hurts. He tells the Pharisees – experts in the Scriptures – to go and learn what Hosea 6:6 means. ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’. God isn’t into rituals that mask a hard heart. Going through the religious motions so we can fool ourselves that we’re right with him. When inside we’re consumed by bitterness, selfishness, and pride.
Jesus didn’t come to call the “righteous” – those who think they’re good enough. He came for the sinners – even the worst of the worst – who know they’re not good enough. People who know that no amount of good deeds – even if they could do them – can make up for what they’ve done. People who throw themselves on God’s mercy. That’s who Jesus came for.
But still, the Pharisees didn’t get it. Jesus is running a rescue clinic for the most needy, and they’re more worried about what it looks like. About reputation. More worried about “The Rules” rather than this astounding new work God was doing – among the most unlikely of people.
You can almost hear the popping sounds as their brains exploded.
Kind of like old wineskins that have been stretched too far.
Because the new wine was too much for them to handle. So Jesus went looking for new wineskins to pour the wine of the gospel into. New wineskins like tax collectors and prostitutes and Galilean fishermen. Ones that were open to being stretched and amazed. Open to the new thing God was doing.9:17 They don’t 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.”
So what does this mean for us? Don’t be grumpy old wineskins like the Pharisees – be new wineskins! I suppose. We’ll get to that, but it’s not the main point.
Forget the wineskins for a minute – rejoice! There’s new wine!! Isn’t that great?? Even if you’re a Baptist, you can still rejoice. It’s new wine. It hasn’t fermented yet. It’s just like Maison, so it’s OK, you can get excited.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ turning water into wine – it wasn’t just a cool party trick. It was a statement that the Messiah had arrived. A fulfilment of Jewish expectations, that the time of God’s intervention to rescue his people would be a time of abundant food and wine.
New wine, because God was doing a new thing in history. Out with the old, that had degenerated into a set of rules and regulations and status markers. Outward restraints that tried hard to produce holiness, but ultimately failed. In with the new, which was not about the letter of the law, but the spirit behind it. (Remember the Sermon on the Mount?) The new is based not on the power of the law as an external restraint, but on the power of the Holy Spirit within us. Transforming us from the inside.
God was doing a new thing. Where people could be set free despite the fact that it was Sabbath. Where prostitutes and tax collectors could encounter God, without having to clean up their act first. Where people could have their sins forgiven without having to sacrifice animals and go to a priest. Where it was about mercy, not sacrifice. It was a change of heart, rather than a set of rules.
That’s the new wine God was bringing in. So no wonder the disciples weren’t fasting, but rejoicing! No wonder they were acting like guests at a wedding, not mourners at a funeral! In Jesus, God has done something new. Our response? Rejoice!
What’s more, rejoice – because we are the new wineskins. This isn’t so much a warning about not being old wineskins. After all, this Gospel wasn’t written to Pharisees and teachers of the law. It was written for Jews who had embraced Jesus as Messiah. Who were full of the new wine of the gospel. This was written to new wineskins. To people like us. If anything, the message is: ignore those grumpy old wineskins, they just don’t get it.
But we do.
‘Cause we’re not clinging to our supposed good behaviour to make us right with God. We’re not relying on our religious service to earn God’s favour. We were the miserable sinners who knew we needed a doctor and who weren’t ashamed to dial triple-0 (or 911 or 999 or whatever its where you live) and ask for help. We are the new wineskins!
So live up to who you are. Allow yourself to be stretched by what God is doing. To be surprised by how God acts in new ways. Don’t fall into the trap of grumpy old wineskin thinking that insists on doing things the old way no matter what. That puts “the rules” before people. That puts appearances before the heart. ‘Cause that’s not us. We’re the people who rejoice in the new stuff God’s doing.
To think about
What are the things God is doing in his world now that excite you the most? Spend some time in praise and celebration.
When are you tempted to be a grumpy old wineskin? What might the antidote for that be?