(DEAR READERS: In the next several weeks my sermons shall not be based on the Revised Common Lectionary).
6 Pentecost Yr B, 12/07/2009
First in a Series of Sermons
On The Parables of Jesus in Mark
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Introduction, fasting & feasting, old & new”
Today, as I often do during this longest season of the church year; I am going to digress from the appointed Bible passages in order to begin a new sermon series on the parables of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. So, for starters then, we ask: What is a parable?
Biblical scholars have come up with several definitions. The simplest definition may be as follows: A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly message. Another definition runs like this: A parable is a very short story with a double meaning—the surface or literal meaning and the deeper or symbolic meaning. Here is my attempt at a definition, which is a bit longer: A parable is a word-picture story with a zinger of a message. The parable is cast in creative language; often born out of a conflict situation; designed to surprise the hearers and lead them into deeper thinking followed by appropriate action. A parable may or may not include an interpretation.
Parables are found in both Testaments of the Bible, and were a common method of teaching employed by Jewish rabbis. In addition to Jesus’ parables in the Gospels, you likely remember the parable that Nathan told King David about the poor man and his only little ewe lamb in 2 Sam 12; or the song-parable of the unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5.
The Greek for parable is parabolé. Etymologically, a parabolé is simply a comparison, a putting of one thing beside another to make a point.
G.K. Chesterton, who was a master of the apt illustration, once gave some sardonic advice about the limitations of parabolic discourse. He said that if you give people an analogy that they claim they do not understand, you should graciously offer them another. If they say they don’t understand that either, you should oblige them with a third. But from there on, Chesterton said, if they still insist they do not understand, the only thing left is to praise them for the one truth they do have a grip on: “Yes,” you tell them, “that is quite correct. You do not understand.”
To put it simply, Jesus began where Chesterton left off. In resorting so often to parables, his main point was that any understanding of the kingdom his hearers could come up with would be a misunderstanding. Mention “messiah” to them, and they would picture a king on horseback, not a carpenter on a cross; mention “forgiveness” and they would start setting up rules about when it ran out. From Jesus’ point of view, the sooner their misguided minds had the props knocked from under them, the better.
In any case, speaking in parables was second nature to Jesus, and it quickly became the hallmark of his teaching style. Clearly then, if we want to hear the actual ticking of Jesus’ mind, we can hardly do better than to study his parabolic words and acts over and over—with our minds open not only to learning but to joy.1
So let us now take a look at our first parable in Mark’s Gospel, which is actually a triad of parables lumped together on fasting and feasting, along with the theme of old and new, found in Mark 2:18-22. The parables also are found in Matthew 9:14-17 and Luke 5:33-39, but more about that later.
The parable begins with a question put to Jesus about the fasting of John’s disciples and the Pharisees’ disciples—why do they fast while Jesus’ disciples do not fast? In Jewish tradition, the only required fast was on the Day of Atonement. However, more strict Jews fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays; although this practice was not a requirement.
Jesus answers the question by saying that it is not proper to fast at a wedding feast in the presence of the bridegroom. In Jewish tradition, a wedding often lasted for about a week. For many poor Jews, it was the most joyous celebration of a lifetime. The week long wedding feasting was the highlight of their life. Who would want to fast during a wedding celebration? Fasting at a wedding would be about as ridiculous as wearing nothing but a swimming suit outside in minus 40 degree temperatures.
Of course, the deeper meaning here is that the bridegroom refers to Jesus himself and the wedding party feasting with the bridegroom refers to Jesus’ disciples with Jesus during the time of his life in this world. In the Jewish tradition of the First Testament, the wedding language is also employed and refers to God and his covenant with the Israelites. So the overall message here is that while Jesus the bridegroom is with us he comes to give us joy and we celebrate his presence among us. That is why in Christian worship we sing hymns, which express our deepest joy in Christ. What a joy and privilege it is celebrating Christ’s presence among us.
Now we turn to Jesus’ words addressing the theme of old and new. He gives two down-to-earth examples. “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.” The new unshrunk piece of cloth reminds me of times when I’ve bought new shirts; tried them on in the store; liked them; bought them; brought them home; and washed them. And guess what? The shirts don’t fit—they’ve shrunk. According to Jesus, new unshrunk cloth is too strong for an old well-worn cloak. The threads and fibres of the old cloak rip even more as the new patch shrinks after a wash. Old and new don’t always work together well. A one-hundred-year old man or woman is not going to run a full-length marathon. In fact, they might not even be able run period. Yet, go back when they were twenty-five-years-old and they might have won an Olympic gold medal.
Jesus goes on with the same theme of the old and new by saying: “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
In Matthew and Luke, we discover there are some variations. What strikes me though is that in Mark, the point comes across as an instruction of how to store new wine properly and the consequence if one fails to do so. In Matthew, the additional words “and so both are preserved” provides a purpose for storing the new wine. The implication being that preservation is necessary for the drinking of a high quality wine. In Luke, verse thirty-nine communicates more explicitly, what Matthew communicates implicitly—namely that everyone who drinks old wine prefers it to new wine.
Now historically, this parable has been interpreted allegorically, something along these lines: The old wine and wineskins symbolize the Jewish people and God’s covenant with them or the Torah and Judaism. The new wine and wineskins symbolize the Church and the new covenant or Christ and Christianity. The exhortation not to mix old with new is practical—the fermentation process of new wine expands the wineskins and old skins that have been stretched to their limits can only expand so far, then they will explode. However, is there also a theological point here? Is this exhortation not to mix the old with the new a hardening of positions between church and synagogue? Or is it a reflection of the Torah teaching forbidding certain mixtures? For example, according to the Torah you would not mix certain kinds of fabric for clothing or certain kinds of foods like dairy products with meat, they had to be separated and eaten separately.
It is interesting—and I believe instructive for both Jews and Christians—to note that in the parable, in all three versions, both the wine and the skins seem to be valuable. If that is true, then we can make the case for valuing both the Torah and Judaism, the Jewish people and their covenant—and the Church and the new covenant, Christ and Christianity. Indeed, thanks to Judaism, the Torah has been preserved and remains God’s Living Word. The same is true of the Church concerning the new covenant and the Gospel.
Finally, Luke’s additional conclusion to the parable in verse thirty-nine is, if interpreted along these lines, a remarkable compliment to Judaism and the Torah. According to Luke, Jesus concludes by saying: “And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’ “
So, it would seem that in certain matters the old and new do not mix, and the new is superior to the old. In other matters, the reverse is true, the old as in wine, is superior to the new. Jesus calls us to think deeply about the old and new. What of the new do we need to accept and celebrate? What of the new do we refuse? What of the old is good and do we need to honour and keep? What of the old needs to be left behind? One thing is certain, Jesus loves us whether we are old or new or in-between; and one day, God shall make all things new. Amen.
1 Cited from: Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., the Zondervan Corporation, 1985), pp. 8-11.