By the seashore and at the table, Jesus continues his teaching ministry. This story begins beside the Sea of Galilee among the crowds—which seems to be a regular habit on the part of Jesus (“again,” Mark writes)—but ends at a table filled with “tax collectors and sinners.”
And Jesus does not teach with words alone. He demonstrates the kingdom of God by not only teaching the crowds but also eating with sinners. Jesus’ table exhibits a new way of living—new wineskins for new wine.
Sometimes the first story is separated from the second (fasting). The headings in our translations tend to separate them as well. But the controversy over fasting takes place in conjunction with the banquet scene. The contrast between banqueting and fasting is important for understanding the text.
New wineskins (or, new garments) represent the newness of Jesus’ ministry, which is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. The parable puts into words the previous deed of Jesus—his reclining at table with sinners. The parable illuminates the deed, and the deed illuminates the parable.
Jesus took the initiative. He found Levi, a tax-agent or collector; part of a despised, wealthy, and exploitive social class in Palestine. He invited Levi to join his group, a different sort of group—to embrace the kingdom of God. The other disciples must have been aghast, perhaps even horrified—especially the fishermen whose taxes Levi often collected (we presume). Yet, Levi followed him. This is the second “calling” story in the Gospel of Mark, the first called Peter, Andrew, James and John in chapter one.
Immediately Jesus is described as part of a festive celebration, reclining at the table with Levi’s friends and with his disciples. It is important to notice that the disciples participated—they must have come to terms with the kingdom nature of the ministry of Jesus, at least in this respect. Levi had been invited to participate in the kingdom of God—he was celebrating. Joy is the appropriate response; his friends are the appropriate co-celebrants. They are his circle of friends—“tax collectors and “sinners.” And they are attracted to Jesus rather than “put off” as many are today by the behavior and attitudes of Christians. Something about Jesus enabled them to feel comfortable in his presence.
But others were there as well, watching the celebration. They were shocked by Jesus’ presence at this gathering. These are the very people who, in view of the scribes and Pharisees, are excluded not only from the kingdom of God, but excluded from social interaction with the righteous. They are the outsiders. The Pharisees are separatists—they separate themselves from the unclean and impure. They isolate their righteousness so that they enjoy table only with the righteous.
Jesus’ response values a total reversal of the Pharisaic attitude. He seeks the sick rather than the healthy; he seeks sinners rather than those who think themselves righteous. Instead of separation, Jesus sits at table with “sinners.” Instead of prideful isolation, Jesus seeks relationships with “sinners.” Instead of distant condemnation, he sits with “sinners” to invite them into the kingdom of God. This invitation is a call to repentance, to a new way of living—a new life.
New life is possible because someone new has arrived. The Bridegroom is here; the Messiah and his kingdom have arrived. It is a new garment. It is new wine for new wineskins. It is a new era. The old is passing away, and everything is becoming new.
The Pharisees recognized the newness, and they objected. “The old is better,” as the proverb goes. The Pharisees rigorously pursued fasting—twice a week even. This, in fact, was an expression of their separatism from the unclean (“sinners”). They yearned for the Messianic age that had not yet come, and they grieved their present status as a conquered and still exiled nation.
But Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. They feast! Oh, they will fast when the Bridegroom is taken from them, but while he is with them they will feast at the great banquet Levi has thrown. They will eat while the Bridegroom is with them (and he is with them at the table in the post-resurrection community!).
The new is better than the old. But the new is not simply a matter of eating rather than fasting. Rather, the message is about what that contrast represents. To eat is to sit with sinners and invite them into the kingdom of God. To fast, in his context, is to separate oneself from sinners and condemn them to their own depravity. To fast is to mourn and wait for the kingdom of God. To feast is to experience the present reality of the kingdom of God.
New wineskins are not minor adjustments to ritual (e.g., no more fasting), but it is to embrace the kingdom of God in the present. It is a new way of living.
New wineskins are not about praise teams, responsive readings, drama in the assembly or even new methods of “doing church.” It is not about the latest fad in order to be “new,” “current” or “relevant.” Rather, it is life transformation—a new way of relating to people, embracing “sinners,” living in reconciling ways, and dismantling the barriers that divide.
To use new wineskins or to put on a new garment is to act in ways that demonstrate the presence of the kingdom of God in the world. Jesus did it at table with sinners. We “do it’ in our own context.
We demonstrate it when we seek out friendships and show hospitality to the “others” (as Luke calls them in Luke 5) in our culture—the poor, gays and lesbians, the Arab, the illegal alien, the disabled, etc. We demonstrate it when we sit at table with the “others” and invite them into the kingdom of God. But the invitation rings hollow when it is shouted at a distance, with a shrill voice filled with hatred and condemnation. It only rings true when we are at the table with them.
We are followers of Jesus. We followed him into the water, we have followed him into the wilderness, and now we must follow him to a table with “others.” Disciples of Jesus cannot do otherwise. But, remember, it also the path to suffering—to being mocked, scorned, excluded…it is the way of the cross.