Through these next few chapters of Luke's narrative it is important to remember Jesus' words about wine and wineskins. That idea -- Jesus is bringing a new wine that will not fit with the old wineskins -- will be lived out in the specific arenas of Sabbath and discipleship and preaching and beyond. As we work through the following verses we'll see how each develops Jesus' claims about himself, his wine, and his wineskins.
The Sabbath functioned as one of three key markers that kept the Jews separate from the surrounding cultures. Those three were the Sabbath, circumcision, and kosher food laws. Each created a tangible boundary, ensuring that the Jews recognized their distinctive identity and they didn't become "polluted" by contact with Gentiles. Without a doubt those three markers were enshrined in the Torah and had in some sense been commanded by God; but in the first century, they had become the tail that wagged the dog of Judaism. How often is it so, that something God creates for good gets broken, twisted, and then the keeping of this "law" becomes a terrible burden that impedes God's mission and God's will? Too often, I'm afraid. We have to be on our guard anytime we hear otherwise godly people taking a secondary (though good) thing and pronouncing absolutes around it. There is very little a Jesus-follower can say "never" or "always" about aside from the character of God. Even -- perhaps especially -- the Ten Commandments are apt to become a godless moral code instead of a life-giving covenant if we make them the touchstone of our own morality rather than arrows pointing toward a life-giving relationship with God.
So it was with the Sabbath. The rabbis of Jesus' time had lengthy debates about how they could avoid breaking the Sabbath. You can only travel so many steps from your home on the Sabbath, one said. A student asked, how do you define "home"? After some thought, the rabbi replied that home is where you leave your shoes at night. So if an observant Jew wanted to travel slightly farther on the Sabbath than the oral law allowed, he would go halfway the day before and leave his shoes along the way, return home barefoot, and he could, in good conscience, travel where he needed on the Sabbath, recovering his shoes along the way.
Such examples might seem silly to us, but the Judaism of Jesus' day was full of such debates, laws, policies and micromanagement because the Jews were deeply concerned not to break God's law. It is in this context that Jesus' disciples, walking through a grain field, roll the ripe heads of grain between their hands and enjoy the crunch of God-given abundance, and thus "break" the Sabbath. Jesus points to the scriptures, and recounts how David (whom the Bible calls a "man after God's own heart") completely broke the law by eating the bread of the Presence in the tabernacle, and fed it to his men. Similarly, Jesus chooses to heal a man whose right hand is withered. Healing, like harvesting, was considered work, and thus forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus chooses here and elsewhere to give life on the Sabbath. He radically reinterprets the Sabbath laws and proclaims himself "lord of the Sabbath." His new wine threatens to burst the old wineskins of brittle tradition.
What Jesus is pointing to has a couple sharp points. First, the separatism inherent in the Jewish practices of Sabbath directly contradict their God-given role as a kingdom of priests inviting all the nations to come and know God and worship him. What was designed to be a life-giving discipline of rest has become a heavy burden of abusive and abused laws. Second, Jesus' own authority stands over the Jews' practices of micromanagement around the Sabbath. This is a question not of law but of character. Obviously there are laws, God-given laws, about keeping the Sabbath, remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy, the necessity of rest, etc. Those are given by a loving God for the good of his subjects. But the rabbis have taken a life-driving principle and have made it into a burdensome set of absolutes. You Must Never. You Must Always. The loving character of God in Jesus is incensed by these life-stealing absolutes.
In John's gospel Jesus will sum his role up this way, and it's a deeper statement than we can realize: "I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly." His love for his people will break any wineskin that destroys the life he brings. Where we have taken his good guidelines and made them iron-fisted ethical absolutes, he will break us in order to set us free. He frees us not to become lawbreakers, but to live in relationship with his heart that gave us good guidelines in the first place. What we discover in the law-breaking Jesus who contradicts all expectations about Sabbath and such is very much like a child who, as they enter adulthood, find that they really are allowed to use the good dishes, handle the sharp knives, enjoy a glass of wine -- not in hiding, behind their parents' backs, but in the company of their parents who love them and who gave them guidelines designed to help them grow into responsible adulthood.
I have been marveling the last few weeks at the amount of freedom that the whitetail does give their fawns. As I write this, I have been watching a pair of spotted fawns graze past my window and through my yard. Eventually, their mother grazed through the meadow a hundred yards away, apparently unconcerned for them. There's a wisdom in this gracious freedom: if she is the helicopter parent, hovering and controlling, her children will never grow capable and responsible on their own. She must allow them into the risky world because she's a good mother and she loves them. I have been so delighted lately to talk with my own daughters and see that kind of responsible growth into early adulthood. It's exciting! God works much the same with us -- he loves us enough to give us incredible freedom, and he honors our choices, whether to shackle ourselves with niggling laws or to step out in freedom and take risks, even with the possibility of failing. He's a good Father.
Here's a shot of the fawns just now through my office window, glancing up to see where mom is at: