Thoughts on Matthew 9:14-17
At this point in history, there were a number of sects and factions within Judaism. There were, of course, the Pharisees (the most prominent) and Sadducees (who denied the resurrection and supernatural), the Essenes (ascetics who separated themselves), as well as the Sicarii and Zealots (revolutionaries). Then there were the upstarts – the disciples of John the Baptist (so, the first Baptists?), and the ragtag group of fishermen and tax collectors who followed Jesus of Nazareth. Eventually, Christians would become, for a short time, viewed by the Empire as just another Jewish sect.
Matthew 9:14 reveals a question – or rather, an accusation of impiety – from John’s disciples who wanted to know why Jesus and his followers didn’t fast like they and the Pharisees did. Jesus taught about fasting in his Sermon on the Mount and that it’s something his disciples should do (see this post). However, rather than reiterate the benefits of this spiritual discipline, Jesus challenges his inquirers to change their perspective on both him and his teaching.
Jesus begins his response with one of his favorite analogies – a wedding. He asks a rhetorical question about whether it’s proper for wedding guests to mourn during the ceremony and associated events, especially when the bridegroom was present. The culturally corrects answer, as they well knew, was “no.” Jesus’ question begs another: who is the bridegroom, and who are the guests? Jesus proceeds, seemingly assuming the listeners had at least begun to connect the dots, by using another analogy that was sure to be understood.
Jesus’ comparison about new cloth being sewn on old cloth doesn’t resonate much these days in our culture because we simply drive over to some clothing store and buy a new shirt or pair of pants if one we own is damaged. Back in Jesus’ day, garments were mended and worn until they could not longer adequately serve their purpose. However, Jesus wasn’t interested in a debate about textiles. Likewise, Jesus’ discussion on the art of wine making was not about the process of making wine. He presumed his audiences would understand his reference to the malpractice of putting new wine into old wineskins that cannot withstand the pressures of the fermentation process. Why would anyone do such a foolish thing? Not only would a good wineskin be ruined, something even worse would happen – wine would be lost.
Here’s a quick side note before this post concludes…
Reading a passage in context – meaning within the immediately surrounding verses, sections, and the whole book – is probably the single most important consideration with studying the Bible, and this passage is no exception. When it comes to the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), it’s also crucial to study parallel passages. When we do this, we gain a better understanding of Jesus and what he’s saying or what’s being said about him.
In the passage at hand, Jesus was taking a jab at the “old” religion – the “old” way of thinking that could not withstand the application of the new paradigm Jesus was bringing (such as he laid out during the Sermon on the Mount). What the listeners didn’t know was that Jesus was about to allow himself to be touched by an unclean woman (the woman with the flow of blood) and respond with compassion, and then raise up a little girl whom everyone presumed to be dead.
The people of Israel had not seen or heard of such miraculous acts happening since the time of Elijah and Elisha; however, this was not just a resurgence of supernatural activity and a call to turn again to the Law and Yahweh. When they put everything together – the teachings, the healings/miracles, the rejection by the religious elite, and, eventually, the execution on the cross – the Jews should have begun to see something new was at hand. It was nothing short of the New Covenant spoken of by Jeremiah (31:31) and inaugurated by Jesus at the Last Supper (Luke 22:20, 1 Corinthians 11:25 and most of Hebrews).
Up to this point in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has already stated he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Why is that so important for them and for us? Because not one of us is capable of perfectly fulfilling God’s Law or meeting his righteous standard (sinless perfection). But, “thanks be to God,” Jesus did it for us. The Gospel is certainly about Jesus dying on the cross to bear our punishment in himself so we could be declared innocent and be reconciled to God (penal substitutionary atonement), but it’s also about the fact Jesus lived a perfect life in our place. Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to us so God sees us as righteous. This is the “new cloth” that covers us. The “new” wine is the wine that represented Jesus’ blood that he shared with the Disciples during the last supper – the very thing we remember every time we take the sacrament of communion. Let us do as Paul admonishes us to do and “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” with joy and boldness.