Commentary on Matthew 9:14-17
Today’s reading follows on yesterday’s challenge of Jesus by some Pharisees. On that occasion they asked why Jesus was eating with sinners and outcasts. Now they go one step further and ask why he is eating at all. They put forward the example of John the Baptist and his disciples who used to fast regularly. Jews were only required to fast one day in the year, on the feast of Atonement. However, like the Pharisees, it seems that John’s disciples used to observe fasts which were not prescribed by the Law in the hope that their extra devotion would bring about an early coming of the Kingdom.
Jesus answers their question in two ways:
First, people do not fast when they are in the company of the bridegroom. That is a time for celebration. By implication, of course, Jesus is the groom. As long as he is around, it would be inappropriate for his disciples to fast. However, he says a time will come when the groom is no longer with them and then there will be reasons to fast.
His second answer is more profound and takes the form of two examples. It does not make sense to repair an old piece of clothing with a patch of new cloth. The new cloth, being much tougher, will under stress only cause the older cloth to tear. In the second example, he says that it is not wise to put new wine into old wineskins. Wine was kept in containers made of leather. Because new wine was still fermenting and expanding it needed to be put in new leather bags which were resilient and could expand with the wine. The old bags would be already stretched and new wine would only cause them to burst. Then both the wine would be lost and the bags ruined.
What did Jesus mean by these images? He was giving a clear message to his critics. Jesus’ ideas were like new wine or new cloth. They could not be fitted into old containers. People like the Pharisees were trying to fit Jesus’ teaching and his ideas into their ways of thinking. It would not work.
Clearly, the old garment and the old wineskins represented Judaism in so far as it contained elements which were being replaced. The new cloth and the new wine are the spirit of Kingdom as proclaimed by Jesus. The ex gratia devotions of the Pharisees and John’s disciples were like patches on old cloth or new wine in old wineskins, trying to put life into something that was giving way to a totally new order. The new wine that Jesus brought involved what we would call now a paradigm shift, a radically new understanding of how God was to be loved and served.
So John’s disciples wanted to know, for example, why Jesus was not fasting. Because, in their book, a Jew fasted and a pious Jew fasted more often. But Jesus did not measure religion by external actions like fasting or keeping other requirements of the law (such as washing hands before eating, etc). For him religion was a matter of the inner spirit as we saw in his deeper interpretations of the Law during the Sermon on the Mount.
Over the centuries the Church has moved its position in many areas as it reaches a deeper understanding of the faith and how it is to be lived in a changing world. Such a movement took place with the Second Vatican Council. It involved much more than external changes (like having the Mass in the vernacular instead of Latin). It involved a whole new way of seeing our faith and our place as Christians in the world.
There are still, however, people who try to live in the post-Vatican II Church with a pre-Vatican II mentality. It is like trying to squeeze new wine in old wineskins. It is a source of much friction and misunderstandings in many Christian communities. We all have an obligation both to enter fully into the mind of Christ as presented in the New Testament and into the mind of the Church in this post-Vatican II era.