“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth onto an old coat. The patch will simply pull away from the coat, and you’ll have a worse hole than you started with. People don’t put new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the skins will be split; then the wine will be lost, and the skins will be ruined. They put new wine into new skins, and then both are fine.” Matthew 9:16,17
Maybe this passage seems intimidating because of the traumatic experience I had in an eighth grade home survival class: my teacher, Ms. Gibson, (who, by the way, contrary to any stereotypes about women in home economics, drove a red convertible, had her own tanning bed and looked like Barbie), made me sew pockets for my final project. I got a “D,” with the result being that I now avoid most things sewing-related.
Personal hang-ups aside, this passage is still a bit weird. In the previous verses, Jesus has just called Matthew (presumably the same Matthew as the writer of this Gospel) out of a dubious profession of tax collecting and into a life of discipleship. Now we find Jesus taking questions first from the Pharisees and then from John the Baptist’s disciples. The Pharisees want to know why it is that Jesus spends his time with sinners like tax collectors, today’s equivalent maybe being Wall Street traders, to which Jesus replies that his job “isn’t to call upright people, but sinners.” John the Baptist’s people want to know why Jesus and his disciples don’t practice the discipline of fasting, (which in their time was a way of remembering all of the tragic things in Israel’s history), to which Jesus replies that wedding guests can’t fast when the party is going on.
And then we get these two analogies from the two very different worlds of sewing and viticulture. Which, by the way, suggests that Jesus was appealing to a very broad audience of men and women when he said this, since I cannot imagine that men in Jesus’ time did much sewing. But what is Jesus really trying to say here?
N.T. Wright, in Matthew for Everyone, affirms that Jesus is drawing our attention to the new things Jesus is doing. In this sense, these three different pictures (of a wedding celebration, sewing project and wine-making) are meant to convey how impossible it is to mix the new with the old: they “have in common…Jesus’ insistence that the new and the old won’t mix. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the old was bad. Jesus came, Matthew insists, not to destroy, but to fulfill. It simply means that morning has broken on a new day, God’s new day, and the practices that were appropriate for the night time are now no longer needed.”
Wright doesn’t recommend reading too much into the details of each picture for what they might imply about Jesus in relation to the Judaism of his day. I won’t. But I am obliged to conclude here that Jesus was indeed a “Renaissance Man” in the two senses of the term. First, as an educated carpenter well-versed in the Scriptures, Jesus clearly also had at least some basic, working knowledge of two very different skill sets (sewing and wine-making). We know that he later turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana, for example. Who is not to say that he didn’t occasionally sew his own clothes, too?
Then there is also the “renascence” or “rebirth” to which Jesus is gesturing. The entrance of this God-man onto the stage of human affairs represents a whole new way of “being” for human beings. Yes, it is the fulfillment of Israel’s deepest yearnings for a Messiah who will redeem their tragic history, so long, sad faces and the dabbing away of tears with our Kleenexes really won’t work at the wedding celebration. Just like it probably won’t work to put rusty hub caps on a brand new Saab convertible, or to ask a really geriatric model to wear Dolce & Gabbana’s newest line of clothing on a runway in Milan.
But Jesus’ debut also represents more than the fulfillment of Israel’s longings for a Messiah. It represents healing, restoration, and abundant life. Not just for Israel but for the whole world in the form of “a new heaven and a new earth.”
God’s new world is “being born,” and from now on everything will be different, as Wright describes it. “The question for us is whether we are living in that new world ourselves, or whether we keep sneaking back to the old one where we feel more at home,” he writes.