I cannot help but think of “The Church”, when I read this passage. In fact, whenever a church or leader is doing something radically different or new, they often cite this passage in justifying the new work they are doing and about which they are receiving push-back. They argue that there is a “new wine” for these new times and therefore there must be new skins. As some one who has worked in churches for the last 15 years, I have been in the thick of these discussions many times.
But I wonder if we throw this “new wine-skins for new wine” phrase around a little too freely. First of all, while Jesus is making a grand sweeping statement, it is done within a specific context: Fasting. I think it’s important to keep that context in mind. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Jesus is saying here, “there is a new wine in the culture, throw everything out and start over”. He cites that there is a time for fasting and now isn’t that time. Generally speaking, however, he does call us to examine the times we’re in and pay attention to what the times call for. I think this passage is a call to relevance more so than merely a call new things. Just as some old traditions might not be relevant anymore, so too could something new not be relevant. New does not necessarily mean good, right or relevant. I think what Jesus is getting at in this passage is that new times are among indeed us, so when guiding people into being disciples of Christ, make sure you do it in a way that speaks to the time, place, and people.
I’m reminded of a wedding I attended in a small fishing village in Belize many years ago. The church was founded by some Mennonites decades ago, but was now run by an indigenous Garifuna pastor. The Garifuna were brought over from Africa as slaves, but escaped during the journey and were never actually enslaved. This village was primarily Garifuna and steeped in Garifuna culture. Over the years, this church was able to operate not so much as a Mennonite church, but as a Garifuna church. It was lively, charismatic, authentic, colorful, and, to me, foreign (that is not to say that a Mennonite church can’t be those things). However, there were still some rules about certain things such as weddings. When I showed up at the wedding, suddenly nothing was foreign. The indigenous pastor was replaced by some one who looked and talked like me, only older. The bride had on a white wedding gown and the groom a black suit. There was a declaration of intent, vows, rings, a unity candle, special music, a pronouncement and a kiss. It was nice. But it was not Garifuna. The liveliness, charisma, authenticity and color were gone. the only thing that remained was the foreignness- it was foreign to the bride, groom and all others who attended. It was an unsuitable wine-skin for this wine, I thought.
I’d like to think this is what Jesus is getting at in this passage. I’d like to think that Jesus is saying to us, “don’t get so married to your traditions that you cram them into places where they don’t make sense. But also, don’t get so enamoured of new times, places and ages, that you throw out some wonderful ingredients.”