Of Patched Clothes and Old Wineskins

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity
Matthew 9:14-17
November 15, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.

The appointed readings of the yearly lectionary succeed in presenting the chief doctrines of the Christian faith and life throughout the year, but one thing that’s lost in selecting a series of readings from here and there is the narrative context. How did Jesus and the disciples get to where they are today? What’s the logical progression of what the author is trying to say? How does this particular reading fit within the large work of the Apostle or Evangelist?

To put today’s Gospel a little wider context, listen to the verses that precede it: Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “For what reason do we and the Pharisees fast much, and Your disciples do not fast? And Jesus said to them, “Are the sons of the bridal chamber able to mourn while the bridegroom is still with them? The day will come when the bridegroom is taken away, and then they will fast. No one puts a new patch of cloth on old clothing; for the space will pull away from the clothing and the tear will become worse. Neither do they put new wine into old wineskins; if it is, the wineskins will burst, the wine will pour out, and the wineskins will be destroyed. But they put new wine in new wineskins, and both are preserved (Mt 9:14-17).

2.

The question put to Jesus is why His disciples don’t seem very disciplined. The Pharisees are always fasting. John’s disciples are always fasting. But Jesus’ disciples don’t seem to care about that. They go to wedding feasts, serve bread to thousands at a time until everyone is full.

First, Jesus observes in just a few chapters that your critics will always find a reason to criticize you, no matter what. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, “He has a demon!” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they said, “Look at the man, a glutton and a drunkard; a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 11:18-19). This is what happens once sinful nature puts away wickedness and picks up piety. It’s like a deranged Goldilocks—no piety is just right except the one you practice.

Think of it this way: when you’re out driving on the highway—it doesn’t matter if you’re going the speed limit, or you sneak up to five above, or if you’ve got a real lead foot—you think that anyone driving faster than you is a maniac and anyone driving slower than you is a moron.

Echoing Ecclesiastes 3, Jesus responds that there’s a time for fasting just as there’s a time for feasting. Then He offers two metaphors to put fasting and other outward piety in the proper perspective. The first is mending an old piece of clothing with a new cloth patch. The idea is not that you can’t patch or mend clothes, but that you can’t make old, worn out fabric new again simply by mending it. Furthermore, if you use new, unshrunk cloth to mend a hole, when the new cloth shrinks it’ll make the tear worse than it was before.

This metaphor shows the usefulness and limitations of outward disciplines like fasting. It can provide some external, if temporary, benefit, but it can’t make things new again. Likewise, since even our most pious outward works are still soiled with the sin that clings to our nature, they too will grow old and worn. And if the Christian faith is simply a patchwork of piety, it will cause a worse injury than before. God expects more than patchwork; He wants you completely new.

The second metaphor is of old and new wineskins. Wineskins, after some time, would become brittle and cracked, and no longer able to contain liquid under some pressure. The fool who puts new wine into old wineskins is guilty of the travesty of both ruining the skin and spilling the wine. New wine is meant for new wineskins.

Whereas the metaphor of patched old clothes shows that you can’t preserve the old by putting on something new, the wineskin metaphor shows that you can’t preserve something new by putting it into something old. St. Paul puts it this way in his epistle to the Corinthians: Therefore we are not discouraged. But if our outward man is being destroyed, our inner man is being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16). The inner man, born from above by water and the Spirit, is a surpassing weight of eternal glory (2 Cor 4:17b), says St. Paul, and it cannot be housed by an old, worn out skin, no matter how splendid the outward discipline.

1.

In today’s Gospel, neither the woman in the crowd, nor the dead daughter could offer a very impressive show of piety. One was dead and the other was the walking dead. Threadbare clothing and old, brittle skins. Their oldness isn’t on account of their actual age, but because of the old sin that inheres in human flesh since Adam.

These two godly women show us that true piety is not a matter of ability, but of disability. Sin cannot be fixed by a patchwork of good works any more than the woman’s hemorrhage could be cured by a Band-Aid. She needed inner healing. And that’s what Jesus provided. “Have courage, daughter, your faith has saved you.” And the woman was saved from that hour (v22).

Jesus didn’t give her a set of spiritual disciplines to restore her to health. Faith saved her, and it did so immediately. There is a great truth here about outward discipline for the Christian, which is summarized for us so perfectly in the Small Catechism on who is worthy to receive the Sacrament of the Altar. Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine, outward training, but that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” But it’s not that faith is disconnected from the body because the divine power of the Son of God is not disconnected from His body. The woman believed that if she only touched His clothes, she would be healed. What at first blush sounds like superstitious relic worship, that there’s some mystical power in inanimate objects associated with Jesus, is really a confession of the person of Christ. It’s not the fabric that Jesus is clothed in that has the power, but the flesh. The divine power of the eternal Son of God is communicated to the human nature, and thus the flesh of Jesus. So it’s impossible for a Christian to say, “Today I have faith, so I have no need of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament,” for by saying so, you reveal that you have neither the Sacrament nor faith. These words require all hearts to believe.

In a similar way, the inward gift of faith is communicated to the body. This is what we call sanctification. But it’s not as if the gift of God and the inner working of the Holy Spirit empowers the flesh to do good works. Our Lutheran Confessions describe the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing about good works through the Law’s third use as a restraining of the flesh, restricting the Old Adam, to allow the inner man who is the work of God to be revealed. That’s the purpose of fasting and other bodily disciplines—not to produce good works, but to put to death the deeds of the flesh. So St. Paul writes, But I discipline my body and enslave it, lest after preaching I myself would become disqualified (1 Cor 9:27). The word that Paul uses here for discipline means to wear yourself down.

When the question of fasting was put to Jesus, He didn’t say it was not necessary for His disciples to fast, but that their fasting would come. But not by their own choosing. Fasting and discipline of the body is something that God has prepared for you to show you that it’s His power that works for your good. Also, Paul teaches this in a very consoling way. He explains that God in His purpose has ordained before the time of the world by what crosses and sufferings He would conform every one of His elect to the image of His Son. His cross shall and must work together for good for everyone, because they are called according to God’s purpose (FC SD XI.49).

As the outward man is being restrained, afflicted, and finally destroyed, the inner man is being renewed. But just as new wine needs a new wineskin, so also does the renewed work of God in us need a new body. The bookends of today’s Gospel, then, remind us of the final goal. Sanctification, finally is the death of the flesh. God does not count your sin against you, but sin still clings to your flesh until the day you die. Only when your body has returned to earth will you be fully free from its curse.

The raising of Jairus’ daughter is a picture of what will happen on the Last Day. The final goal of your sanctification is the resurrection of your body. Not weak and frail as it is now, threadbare, old, and brittle, but it will be glorified. A new wineskin patterned after Christ. For if you are conformed to the image of Christ by your crosses and afflictions, then you will also conformed to the image of His resurrection. No more suffering, no more affliction, no more fasting. Only the eternal feast.

Martin Luther comments on this section of Matthew’s Gospel with a German proverb that goes something like this: “These clothes need to be repaired—with a new set of clothes.” So it is with faith:

It’s Time to Repair Your Old Self with a New Self

That new self has begun—from this very hour your faith has saved you—and it will be complete when Jesus calls you to wake from the sleep of death.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA