I’ve always found today’s Gospel reading difficult to understand. It feels as though Jesus was light years ahead of John’s disciples, and even his own for that matter. Then a thoughtful soul explained that, no, you really can’t fast in the middle of a feast. It’s rude for one thing, and insulting to your host. Jesus elsewhere describes himself as the bridegroom, and says that we are all invited to his wedding feast. Aha, I thought, it must be that both Jesus’ and John’s disciples didn’t realize they were at any feast at all, and that they were expecting that the usual rules of fasting still applied. Jesus still walked on Earth among them, so the host of the wedding feast was still with them. It wasn’t until after Jesus ascended into heaven that the disciples fasted again.
So far, so good. But what about the rest of the passage? How do old cloths and old wineskins fit in with a passage about fasting? And why is the reading so short? I’ve discovered that a short passage usually indicates a really important message, but I just wasn’t getting this one.
And then I realized that this passage does in fact pack a tremendous message, and it’s all about flexibility.
The disciples missed the message because they were expecting that the same rules of fasting that they had always followed still applied. They didn’t have the mental flexibility to break out of the old mindset. Jesus proclaimed himself the bridegroom, but his followers didn’t comprehend exactly what that meant. Jesus goes on to warn them that he will soon be taken away from them, and then they will return to their customary fasting. I don’t know if I am anything like them, but being still stuck on the first part of the message left me incapable of understanding the second. Once I realized that the “rule” that dictates behavior at a wedding feast outweighs the “rule” of fasting, things began to make more sense.
I wish I could say I received another flash of insight that tied the end of the passage back to the beginning, but I didn’t. I pulled out a wonderful commentary (The Gospel of Matthew by William Barclay) and discovered two very interesting things. The old cloth/new cloth symbolize the Old and New Testaments. And our minds are like the wineskins; an old hardened wineskin is like a closed mind. Neither can accept anything new. A new wineskin is flexible and can expand to hold the treasure of the new wine, just as our minds can be flexible enough to accept what is new and prove it against the old.
The common thread is flexibility. When we follow Jesus, we have to realize that the old tried and true rules don’t always apply. What works in one situation may not work in another. Instead of wasting time trying to force the situation to fit the old mold, take the meaning behind the old rule and apply it to the new situation. We can never be static and unchanging if we are going to follow Jesus. We must always be taking what He teaches us and applying it to our lives. If we can stay flexible and open, we will be better able to hear him in the people around us.