Thursday, May 31, 2018

Thoughtful About . . . New Wine in Old Wineskins

There's a passage in Matthew. We all know it. But I admit it always baffled me a little. It's from chapter 9, verses 14-17.

14 Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?”
15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse. 17 Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

I've read this countless times. But not until recently, when we got to it in our Bible study, did it finally click. And I think in part it's because our culture doesn't make wine like they used to.

In Jesus's day, wineskins were made of leather. Now, leather has a bit of give to it--it can grow, and it can shrink as it cures. Back in Ye Olden Days, when you wanted a leather garment--gloves, pants, etc--to fit you perfectly, you would buy it a bit large and then soak it in warm water on your hand, etc., until it had shrunk to fit you. Then when you let it dry, voila! Perfect fit.

The leather used for wineskins would expand with the wine. As grapes ferment, they release gases, and the leather would grow with it because it was supple and new and hadn't been cured yet. So you could fill it up, and the container would grow as the contents demanded. Pretty cool, huh? But that only works with new leather. If you put the wine into an old wineskin that had already been stretched out . . . well, that's not going to go so well. The gases are going to be released, but the leather isn't going to have any more give. So it will break. Burst. And all the wine is lost.

That part I've known for a while . . . but I still wasn't sure how it applied to the question that John's disciples were asking Jesus. What does that have to do with mourning? For me, the key to understanding why this an appropriate reaction from Jesus required going back to the key point of the wine in wineskins. What was the basic problem? The wine doesn't fit.

That's what Jesus is getting at here. There are times in life when mourning doesn't fit. His disciples were still in celebration mode--their Savior was there! Among them! Teaching and performing signs and wonders. Preaching the gospel and healing the sick. This thing that humanity had been waiting for millennia--it was happening!

That, my friends, is cause for joy. So how could His disciples have partaken in the things of mourning, like fasting? Had they tried it, it would have burst its confines . . . and then what would have happened? The wine would have been lost.

But Jesus knew well a time was coming when they would mourn. The new cloth would age. The wineskin would grow to its limit. The relationships He cultured so carefully would mature, and then the disciples would be sent out on their own to become the teachers in His absence.

This is life. This is the way of things. Celebration eventually gives way to mourning. Life contains, always, both good and bad.

But here's what I really loved about this analogy as I paused to contemplate it. In His analogy, mourning is represented by the wine. The disciples are the wineskin. If you tried to force mourning into something unstretched, it would break. But wine itself wasn't a drink of mourning. It was a drink of celebration. And the oldest wine is the better wine, traditionally.

So what is best for the celebration? That which has grown and stretched, that which has mourned. That which is tested and tried.

Mourning is a part of our celebration . . . and celebration is a part of our mourning. The two are meant to go hand in hand. Celebration will eventually give way to sorrow, yes . . . and sorrow will give way again to joy. There's a cycle to it.

And the wise man is the one who knows which time is which and can see the presence of each in the other.


  1. This is so deeply meaningful! I love the idea that your celebration is made more poignant by the mourning that you have experienced ... I'm so thankful for a God who can use our pain for good things. :) Thank you for sharing! This was a fascinating read.