Thursday, July 26, 2018

Luke 5:27-39

Though the story of Jesus eating with Levi and the tax collectors and sinners is usually separated from Jesus' words about wine and wineskins, the two belong together. Sometimes we treat Jesus as if he is subversive in the sense that he comes to intentionally undermine the religious or political establishments of his day. This view completely undervalues Jesus' authority and power, and misunderstands his agenda.

When Jesus chooses to eat with the tax collectors and sinners, when he calls a tax collector to be one of the Twelve, he is not living out some sort of parable that will offend and expose the religious leaders. Rather, Jesus is living by a completely different set of standards that he called "the kingdom of God." Under the rules and systems of that kingdom, the tax collectors and sinners are the right people to have dinner with, and Levi is the right person to call to follow him. Jesus lives out his rightful authority as King. He is simply living out his kingship. The religious leaders judge themselves by questioning and opposing him.

Occasionally you see this same kind of event in major leadership transitions. A congregation that is deeply chained to its tradition gets a new leader who, simply by living according to kingdom principles and seeking to advance a mission for the church that reflects God's character, enacts sweeping change. The powers that be -- the matriarchs and patriarchs of the congregation -- question and oppose. And, if the leader accurately reflects God's character, they judge themselves in the opposing. Once in a while a congregation will weather this stormy period and come out on the other side more missional, more dynamic, more passionate for Jesus and reflective of God's character. More often, the new leader gets crucified for the sake of the tradition.

Jesus helps us to understand all this with his words about garments and patches and wine and wineskins. In both metaphors there is something old being matched inappropriately with something new, and damage ensues. The new patch tears away from the old garment. The new wine in its fermenting bursts the old, brittle wineskins. The most obvious way to apply this in context is to say that Jesus is bringing a new wine into the calcified tradition of the Jewish people, and the interaction of the two is going to do violence.

What are the "new wineskins" Jesus uses to package his new wine?

  • He calls people as his followers who the tradition deemed unacceptable -- tax collectors, fishermen, the demon-possessed, the poor, the outcast. He heals them and loves them and commissions them.
  • Jesus rejects the traditional interpretations of laws about Sabbath and food and who a good Jewish person should associate with and more. 
  • He demands that the claims of God on a person or a community supersede the claims of the tradition.
  • He refuses to be categorized when it comes to attitudes about Rome or Herod or the priesthood or the temple. He seems willing to work with all of these powers if they are in appropriate subjection to the kingship of God; he speaks judgment and destruction on each if they refuse to submit to God's kingship. 
  • Jesus enacts and models a new kind of relationship with God -- one not based on law but based on love. His followers continue to proclaim this.
  • After Jesus' death and resurrection, his followers practice some new wineskins -- Sunday worship, the Lord's Supper, baptism, acceptance of believing Gentiles, non-geographic worship, lack of loyalty to the temple or to Jerusalem, willingness to coexist but not compromise with Rome -- and abandon many of the traditional markers, the old wineskins. So they let go of the requirements of Sabbath observance, kosher food laws, and circumcision.
  • It is worth noting that expanded roles of women (and a deep, rich sense of the value of women) is an integral part of Jesus' ministry and of his church moving forward. Those today who grasp at a few verses that seem to limit the role of women in the church fail to recognize what an amazing transition was happening from a totally patriarchal culture toward one where women gained full acceptance in Jesus' movement. In the face of the contemporary cultural realities, statements like Paul's words that there is "neither male nor female" and even his statement that a woman should learn at home -- this was radically permissive in world where the idea of women learning was laughable to most people! -- are indicators of the radical new wine Jesus was bringing to God's good creation of male and female and how it is to be lived out in partnership. Jesus' own choice of Mary Magdalene to be the first witness of the resurrection -- and specifically to the male disciples! -- is a mind-blowing new wineskin.
And of course there is so much more. This, in the end, is what gets Jesus crucified -- he is pouring new wine into new wineskins, and the keepers of the old refuse to allow it. Jesus rightly points out that "no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, 'the old is good.'" Jesus isn't talking about a finely aged bottle of wine; rather he is saying that those who are entrenched in religious or political or social structures that maintain their comfort and power will refuse to be unseated and broken, even in the face of the Son of God. 

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