Pithy but Puzzling Parables
We continue our study of some of Jesus’ hard sayings by looking at two short parables from the Gospel of Mark. Sometimes Jesus’ parables and teachings are misunderstood while at other times these teachings are simply not understood to begin with. This hard saying more often than not falls under the latter category.
Jesus says Mark 2:21-22 is where this parable is found:
“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
In Mark 2, we read about several confrontations that Jesus experiences in response to something He says or does. In verses 1-12, He pronounces forgiveness of sins over the paralytic, something the scribes chafe at, accusing Him of blasphemy. In verses 13-17, after calling Matthew the tax collector to follow Him and dining with other tax collectors and sinners, the scribes and Pharisees confront Him again, essentially accusing Him of guilt by association.
Finally in verses 18-22, an unnamed group simply referred to as “people” confront Jesus about the lack of fasting that characterizes His ministry as opposed to the routine fasting of the Pharisees and even the disciples of John the Baptist. Fasting was a voluntary spiritual practice usually for one of two purposes: to express grief over a personal or national tragedy or to express personal piety and longing for God.
Up to this point in His ministry, Jesus seemed to be a rabbi at least on par with these other two groups, so naturally the people questioned why He and His disciples didn’t more regularly practice this expected spiritual discipline. Suddenly the distinction between Jesus and the other religious authorities had begun coming into focus. He is beginning to break the mold.
Jesus responds with three short parables. The first is easy enough to understand. Jesus likens Himself to the bridegroom at a wedding. Ancient near eastern weddings were occasions of great celebration and feasting that would have lasted several days. It would have been totally inappropriate and unexpected for guests of the wedding to fast during the wedding festivities while in the presence of the bridegroom.
In the same way, Jesus says that He Himself is like the bridegroom at a wedding. His arrival has marked the beginning of a period of celebration and feasting. He alludes to His death and the subsequent grief and longing for His return by saying that the bridegroom would soon be taken away. But for now, fasting is out of step with the current state of affairs: the long-expected bridegroom has arrived!
While the first parable is straightforward enough, the second and third are more puzzling. Jesus begins to talk about using a new patch of cloth to mend a torn garment and an old wineskin to hold new wine. Both of these scenarios would spell disaster. If a new piece of cloth is used to patch the tear, eventually it will shrink and make the tear worse. If new wine is put into an old wineskin, when the new wine eventually expands during fermentation, the old wineskin will burst and all the wine will be lost. What do these short parables have anything to do with what has immediately preceded them? And what do they mean for us?
Out with the Old, In with the New
The first and most crucial step for interpreting parables is to determine what real-life situations or spiritual realities correspond to the elements and actions of the parable. In our current parable, there are the elements of the new patch and the new wine and the old garment and the old wineskins. There are also the actions of sewing the patch and filling the wineskins.
These encounters with Jesus and His teachings occur in the very beginning of the book of Mark. Even so, it is already apparent to observers that in Jesus, someone totally new and unprecedented has stepped onto the scene. Again, Jesus is breaking the mold of what others would have expected from Him. In this particular scene, Jesus is being compared to both the Pharisees and the disciples of John. Both of these groups, especially the Pharisees, represent the ways and perspectives of traditional Judaism.
In interpreting this parable, the old garment and the old wineskin represent Judaism in general and the Pharisees in particular. The new patch and the new wineskin represent Jesus and His teachings.
The point of the parable then is that Jesus and His teachings are incompatible with the ways of traditional religion in the same way that a new patch of cloth is incompatible with an old garment or new wine is incompatible with an old wineskin.
On top of the practices of traditional Judaism prescribed in the Torah were the man-made rituals and regulations that the scribes and Pharisees had added, and fasting would have certainly been included in these.
Jesus then is saying that His teachings cannot and should not be mixed with or merely added to the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees. They are certainly a continuation of all that has come before, but they are also an expansion and deepening of these things. In that sense, they are radically new.
Writing in a commentary on the Gospel of Mark, James Edwards writes:
“Jesus is the new patch and the new wine. He is not an attachment, addition, or appendage to the status quo. He cannot be integrated into or contained by preexisting structures, even Judaism, Torah, and the synagogue.” 1
What then do these two concise parables mean for us? Whether we realize it or not, all of humanity operates with a default mindset when it comes to relating to God. The mindset is that if we can do enough good things for God and avoid enough bad things, then we will be in good standing with God. Every person wants to feel like they have earned or deserved God’s approval or affection. And every traditional religion and form of spirituality follows this mindset. Islam has the five pillars. Buddhism has the eightfold path. Hinduism has the concept of karma. All of these traditional religions emphasize certain rules, regulations, and rituals in order to earn the favor of the divine. Traditional religion says “do these things and God will love you and bring you to heaven one day.”
Biblical Christianity, however, could not be further from all of these things. The gospel comes and shatters all of our notions about how God relates to sinners. It stands in opposition to all the traditional religions that give us a list of things to do or attitudes to adopt. Rather than telling us to climb the ladder of religious activity in order to get to God, the gospel tells us that God has climbed down the ladder to us.
Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, has fulfilled all of God’s requirements for being in a relationship with Him. Perfect obedience has been achieved and complete atonement has been made. We could never have thought up such a salvation. No one could have ever imagined that God would come down to us in order to bring us up to Him.
By application, these parables are telling us that we must forsake the old and default mindset of relating to God through our moral actions and compliance to a list of self-imposed regulations, and to instead adopt the new and gospel mindset that we can relate to Him only because of His grace. Jesus isn’t asking us to add Him to our preexisting lists of religious rules and rituals. He is calling us to embrace Him and His finished work on our behalf.
Again, Edwards writes,
“The question posed by the image of the wedding feast and the two atom-like parables is not whether disciples will, like sewing a new patch on an old garment or refilling an old container, make room for Jesus in their already full agendas and lives. The question is whether they will forsake business as usual and join the wedding celebration; whether they will become entirely new receptacles for the expanding fermentation of Jesus and the gospel in their lives.” 2
Though Jesus spoke these parables 2,000 years ago, His gospel remains new and unparalleled. Much like how wine gets better with age, the gospel continues to get better and better the longer you allow it to ferment in your heart and life. And yet paradoxically, it is ever new to us, shattering our default conceptions of God and how to relate to Him. So, let us daily rehearse the good news of the gospel to ourselves and one another. Let us not try and mix our old notions of how to relate to God with the new and far better truth of the gospel of grace.
 James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary.