From the Gospel of Mark:
Jesus said: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 2: 22 (NRSV) – March 14, 2014.)
I remember preaching on this text some years ago and doing a lot of research into the meaning of “new wine” as used in the Bible (tirowsh in Hebrew, oinon neon in Greek) — whether it meant fermented wine or yet-to-be-fermented newly-crushed grape juice. There is a lot of differing scholarship on the issue, both among Biblical scholars and oenologists. I came to the conclusion that all of that scholarship is an interesting waste of time. None of it matters to Jesus’ meaning in using this metaphor for the spiritual life.
So what does it mean? I have to admit to being somewhat confused by it. One thing it could mean is that Jesus’ new teachings don’t it into the “old skin” of the Judaism contemporary to his day, either the Temple Judaism of the sacrificial system or the synagogue Judaism of the Pharisaic rabbis both of which were in operation. That is a popular interpretation among evangelical Christians. The problem with it is that Jesus, though critical of the manner in which Jewish leadership administered the religion, was faithful to it and, by his own statement, did not come to abolish it but to fulfill it. (Matt. 5:17)
I think what Jesus might have been referring to was not the formal structures of religion, but the attitudes of religious people. There’s not a church leader around who hasn’t heard the words, “We’ve never done it that way before” or “We’ve always done it this way.” I think the sentiment or attitude behind those words, the minds that conceive and use them, might be the “old skins” to which Jesus is referring. New ideas, new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things cannot be held by such attitudes, cannot be encompassed by minds which are hardened by “the ways we’ve always . . . . ”
I’ve noticed that new programs or new initiatives in an older parish are usually undertaken among and bought into by the newer members of the congregation, newer members who have little of the power in or control of the congregation. Older members used to and comfortable with the “the ways we’ve always” are not only less likely to participate in new initiatives, they are also prone to undermine them. This is why church leaders often apply the wineskin metaphor to the churches in which they work and remark that it is easier to start up a new congregation than to re-start an older one: the wineskin of “the ways we’ve always” haven’t yet hardened in a new church.
I don’t actually like to use the metaphor of the wineskin to refer to the church itself. The church, I think, is less like the wineskin and more like the burden-bearer that carries it, the donkey on which large wineskins were laid for long-distance transportation or the servant given smaller wineskins from which to serve at a banquet. The church can carry several wineskins, new and old, some containing the old wine of long-standing programs, services, and ways of being that “we’ve always done,” some containing the new wine of new initiatives that “we’ve never done before.” Members of the church can choose which “wine” to enjoy. Some, as Jesus remarked in Luke’s version of this story will say, “The old is good enough.” (Luke 5:39) Some will find, as God speaking through Isaiah noted, that there is a benefit in the new wine. (Isa. 65:8) But both are ministry of the church; neither should be denigrated or discarded.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.