Thursday, December 29, 2016

Tattered Hearts and Tattered Garments: A Theory on Matthew 9:14-17, Luke 5:33-39, and Mark 2:18-22

Thank you all so much for your thoughts and prayers! My dad’s open heart surgery was a success! The man had FIVE bypasses. It’s not uncommon to hear of single, double, or triple bypass surgery, but FIVE!? What an overachiever! (the maximum is six, in case you were wondering.)
 
The surgeons hooked him up to a heart-lung machine to take over those vital organ functions while they intricately cut his clogged arteries and grafted in new ones. As we waited together, I couldn’t help but imagine his heart as a tattered, worn-out rag that the surgeons miraculously sewed together into something whole.
 


 
 
It called to mind Jesus’s parable about patching garments: “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made.”  (Matthew 9:16)
 
Fortunately, my dad’s tattered heart was mended with his own veins—“shrunk” cloth, if you will. Yet I couldn’t shake the imagery of the poorly patched garment, and it spurred me to further investigate this passage of scripture, for which I’ve never found a satisfactory explanation.
 
To put it into context, this passage is told in Mark, Matthew, and Luke’s gospels. Up until this point, the story has focused on Jesus choosing his apostles with a few asides for miraculous healings and answering questions from snarky Pharisees who dislike Jesus’s choice in friends.
 
  
Then the disciples of John approached him and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast [much], but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them
 
“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
 
No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth, for its fullness pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse.
 
People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:14-17)
 
As I said, I’ve always had difficulty understanding this particular passage. I’ve heard various explanations, but none of them seemed to add-up. Most interpretations take the first parable (the bridegroom) at face-value while they interpret the second two to mean that the Old Covenant should not be mixed with the New Covenant, and should be thrown out.
 
There are a few reasons I can’t fully buy in to this popular theory:

1.      The popular interpretation of the second two parables doesn’t seem to reiterate or build off the first, nor does it directly answer the question posed.

2.      Jesus was speaking to the disciples of John (or in Mark & Luke’s versions, generic “people”), not the Pharisees. Their main concern was not strict fidelity to the Law, but rather they were eager for the coming Messianic age. The disciples of John, in particular, would have been earnestly interested in learning Jesus’s teaching (and perhaps a little bit slighted that he didn’t choose any of them as disciples?)

3.       I don’t think the natural, surface-level response to not having a proper patch for an old garment would have been to throw it away.

4.      In Luke’s version of the parable, he adds, “And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (Luke 5:39). This doesn’t seem to jive with the out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new idea.

5.      Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)
 
On reflection, I believe Jesus’s overall message to the disciples of John in this passage was to give them some space to train His apostles so the New Covenant could unfold in God’s time, and that it would be worth it in the end.
 

  1. “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast."

 

Metaphorical Key:
Wedding Guests: Jesus’s disciples
Bridegroom: Jesus
Bride: Hypothetical future Church
Wedding Feast: Crucial step in the covenant process
Bridegroom taken away: Covenant is completed

 

Concerning the first parable about the bridegroom, I agree with the typical interpretation. Jesus represents the “bridegroom” while his disciples are the “wedding guests.” Jesus was simply saying: Now is not the time for mourning; it is a special time to be with my disciples. This is a temporary step.
 
 

  1. ”No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth, for its fullness pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse.”

 
Regarding the second parable about the unshrunk patch, I get a little hung-up. Common interpretations would have one believe that the solution is to discard the old garment altogether in favor of a new one. Now, I’m not much of a seamstress, but my rural sensibilities generally object to the idea of throwing away a garment that could be fixed. Upon reading this passage about the “unshrunk” patch, I thought, “Duh! Use pre-shrunk fabric!”
 
I have to believe that the disciples of John were also prudent people, having followed the camel-hair-clothed wanderer through the desert. After looking up Greek root word for “unshrunk”, I am even more convinced that their natural response would not have been to throw away the old garment.
 
ρακος αγναφον: that cloth which has not been scoured, or which has not passed under the hand of the fuller
 
So the more than just being “unshrunk,” the fabric simply wasn’t finished. This was my ah-ha moment in understanding the cast of characters for this particular parable.
 
Metaphorical Key:
Old Cloak: Old Covenant (broken)
Uncarded Cloth: Jesus’s disciples (unrefined sinners
Fuller/Tailer: Jesus
Repaired Cloak: New Covenant fulfilled (made whole)
 
A person should use finished, conditioned fabric for a patch, and Jesus needed to work to train his disciples in this growth phase. Once the disciples were trained and apostles were chosen, He would be ready to fulfill the Old Covenant by instituting the New Covenant. In summary, as He was speaking to the disciples of John eager for the fulfillment of God’s promises, I think He was saying: I need to train my disciples before God’s promises can be fulfilled.
 
(It is worth noting that while Matthew and Mark’s Gospels both reference “unshrunk” or “unconditioned” cloth, Luke’s Gospel (which he transposed from Mark) actually references taking a patch from a new garment to apply to an old one, which indeed does seem like a foolish thing to do. In context, it seems that Luke has used this passage as a defense of Jesus’s choice of disciples, insisting (in echo of ancient allegories on Torah education) that no one introduces a new lesson to an old student, but rather works with a new student who is trainable. Again, this reiterates His point that conditioning is necessary, taking a slightly different angle of why He chose to use unrefined people for His mission.)
 
 

  1. “People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

 

Luke’s version adds: And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (Luke 5:39)

 
When it comes to the third parable about the wineskins, right from the start I had a different interpretation than the common one of the New Covenant not fitting into The Law. I think being married to a brewer helps me wrap my head around this one. Nonetheless, there is a lot to unpack from this metaphor.
 
Metaphorical Key:
New (fermenting) Wine: The unfolding covenant
Old Wineskins: “rough” disciples in need of reconditioning
New Wineskins: (future) apostles after Jesus’s training
Old Wine: (future) New Covenant, once completed
 
An initial reading of the verse leads the reader to believe that a new animal hide was created for each new batch of wine, but this wasn’t the case. While the Greek word for “new,” neos, is used for the wine itself, an alternative is used for the wineskins: kainos, which is more directly translated to “fresh” and likely refers to old wineskins which were reconditioned (made fresh) by being cleaned and soaked in oil. Similarly, Jesus was conditioning his disciples to be apostles, vessels to distribute the New Covenant. Again, He was saying: Conditioning is necessary.
 
By virtue of my husband’s profession, it also seems pretty clear to me that new wine is inferior to old wine. Similar to new beer, the fermenting process makes the wine bubble and expand, which would make old, brittle wineskins burst. It would also make a drinker sick. Again, Jesus was making the point that the New Covenant was not yet established. Rather, it was in the development phase and couldn’t be bounded by disciplines such as fasting. Like yeasty wine, most people couldn’t stomach His words at this point. Once this fermentation phase is over, the wine would be palatable; once the New Covenant was fulfilled, Jesus would be accessible. Following their conditioning, there will be fulfillment.
 
Most popular interpretations of this passage are confounded by Luke’s additional line at the end:  “And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (Luke 5:39) Popular interpretations believe that Jesus is basically shrugging off why people can’t accept His message, because they’re “stuck in their old ways.” However, having tried immature wine, I’d have to agree that the old is better. I believe that Luke’s addition has Jesus letting John's disciples know that it’ll be worth the wait.
 
 

Phew, that was a lot of unpacking! Now let’s line everything up and see if it makes sense:
 
The disciples of John asked Jesus why His disciples don’t fast.
He answers:

Now is not the time for mourning; it is a special time to be with my disciples. This is a temporary step.
I need to train my disciples before God’s promises can be fulfilled.Conditioning is necessary.
Following their conditioning, there will be fulfillment.
It’ll be worth the wait
 

 
Ok folks, I realize that I took a major detour from my dad’s surgery. I think I might be able to bring this back around…let’s give it a shot!  
 
Thankfully, they’ve found the right balance of pain and nausea medicine to alleviate his pain (it was rough-going at first), but he still has a long road ahead. As a farmer, I’m sure it’s going to be really hard for him to have patience with the recovery process. I think he, too, can head Jesus’s message: This is not a time for mourning. Cherish this time on earth with family and friends. Your heart will need training before you’ll feel whole again. Conditioning will be necessary. Following the conditioning, there will be healing. It will be worth the wait.
 

I promise I did not develop that theory just to bring it full-circle to my dad’s recovery! Sometimes things just work that way. In any case, this is not an official interpretation of any church as far as I know, but what do you think? Does it make sense?
 
 
 

 

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