Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Call of Levi, Part Two.

Luke 5: 33-39

33 And they said to Him, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers; the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same; but Yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? 35 But the day will come; and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days.” 36 And He was also telling them a parable; “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins 39 and no one after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says ‘The old is good enough.’”

So we left off with Jesus pointing out to the outraged Pharisees he would call a “Tax collector” to be a disciple…so now they make another “call out” to Jesus on his faulty administration of his followers by pointing out the bad example they set; not even acting like his cousin John’s disciples, nor their own disciples by following prescribed fasting periods. So what is going on here? Let me see if I can clarify a bit.

First of all, who were the disciples of John the Baptist? These were people who were seeking forgiveness by repenting of their sins publicly and receiving baptism to symbolically “wash away” their sins in “living water.” Any water that was running was considered “living” and in purity circles was able to render the penitent “clean.” Remember that followers of John the Baptist were those who had fallen into the “cracks” of Pharisaic Judaism who were trying to find forgiveness of their collectors, prostitutes, and other un-desirables.

When we see the reference to the followers of the Pharisees here, what were they looking for in their fasting? It seems they may have been looking for justification of their adherence to Torah, the earned right-standing before Yahweh in the great Temple; could they have been looking for an “at-a-boy” for their following of the Mishnah (the interpretation based on rabbinic teaching) and comparing themselves to John’s disciples?

Let me give you an example from Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner ( 2007) of Mishnaic teaching examples:

Mishnah-Tractate Shabbat 16:8

A. A gentile who lit a candle—
B. an Israelite may make use of its light.
C. But [if he did so] for an Israelite, it is prohibited [to do so on the Sabbath].
D. [If a gentile] drew water to give water to his beast, an Israelite give water to his beast after him.
E. But [if he did so] for an Israelite, it is prohibited [to use it on the Sabbath].
F. [If] a gentile made a gangway by which to come down from a ship, an Israelite goes down after him.
G. But [if he did so] for an Israelite, it is prohibited [to use it on the Sabbath]. (p.189-190)
Do you see the ‘hair-splitting’ going on here? Now I understand I can’t give the full scope of the Mishnaic interpretation of the Torah here, but I can give you a glimpse of what was going on with the Pharisee’s party of believers? They wanted to justify their own behavior and to compare themselves to the disciples of John the Baptist.

Of course Jesus makes clear that as the long awaited Messiah (the bridegroom) now is the time for celebration, not fasting and mourning…but he foreshadows  that this will come later, after his Passion.

Jesus then begins to clarify by using parables to teach the listening crowd of this new time at hand by first illustrating how not to handle his new teaching of the Kingdom of God. The example given first is the faulty method of repairing an old garment by tearing a patch from a new garment. As Jesus point out in v.36 both the old and new would be ruined. John Noland (1989) writes:

In both parables…the focus is on what is (not) to be done with the new. And in each case the point is made that the new must be allowed to have its own integrity…it is not to be reduced to a patch on the old; nor is it right to attempt to contain the new within the constraints of the old. The apparent absurdity of such a method of repair needs to be placed in the light of v.39 to come: the high value set on the old may indeed lead to inappropriate attempts to preserve it. The Lukan parables, however, do not address themselves to what is to be done with the old in the light of the presence of the new: their attention is restricted to what is (or is not) to be done with the new. (p. 249)
So Jesus is teaching followers of the old Torah something entirely new; and he is not offering a ‘band-aid’ fix. This is truly the ushering in of the New Covenant.

And finally, the old wine/new wine parable with the odd wording in v 39 “And no one after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’” Let me explore this a little more…

Have you ever been to a wine tasting? The best education in how to understand and appreciate wine comes from lessons in what you taste, and how to understand the complexity of a great vintage. But anyone wanting to invest in a cellar wine understands that you are not looking for an established old (and very expensive)wine, you want to find a young wine with potential. This is a skill; to be able to “taste” the future. Can you taste a young wine and get a hint of the future complexity and flavor that with aging in your cellar will be the next great old vintage?

Jesus was saying that the Pharisees were not willing to “taste” the future, they were content with the “old wine”, and were going to miss what was to come…the New Wine of later exceptional, priceless worth…the vintage that will be shared with us in the fulfilled Kingdom.

Yes, they preferred the old wine~ to their eternal loss.


Jacob Neusner & Bruce Chilton (2007) In Quest of the Historical Pharisees. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.
John Nolland (1989) Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 35A, Luke 1-9:20. Dallas, TX: Word Books Publisher.

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