Readings: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Psalm 37; Luke 5:33-39
One of the biggest obstacles to meditating on today's gospel reading is the power of the word 'new'. Advertisers know that it is one of the most powerful words they can use: notice how often things are on offer with this description: the new iPad, the new model, the new and improved formula. But the parables about new wine in old wineskins and new patches on old garments are not simply saying 'the new is better than the old'.
If we only had the accounts in Matthew and Mark it might seem that this well-established, almost obvious, interpretation is correct. The fact that it was the arch-heretic Marcion who first proposed this interpretation ought to be enough to stop us in our tracks. It became the preferred interpretation of Gentile Christians from Marcion's time to the present day. Some of the most distinguished contemporary interpreters of the Bible continue to follow this line - the religion of Jesus is 'new', and so radically better than the 'old' religion of the Scribes and Pharisees. New Christianity is better than old Judaism: is that not what Jesus is teaching here?
No, it is not. It needs to be said again: this is not what Jesus is teaching here. And it is Luke's account, read today, that holds us back from lazily drifting into this interpretation. Luke alone adds a third parable to the ones about the patch and the wineskins: 'no one who has been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, "The old is good"' (Luke 5:39). This contradicts any interpretation for which these parables are simply saying 'the new thing I bring is better than the old thing you already have'. In this third parable Jesus says it would be absurd to prefer new wine to old: everybody knows wine is at its best when it is old and not when it is new.
So this gospel passage is, thank God, more complex than it seems at first. To get out of what now looks like a contradiction - new is better, old is better - some propose that, in his final comment, Jesus is saying 'of course some of you guys will want to stay with the old rather than embracing the new thing I bring'. They are stick in the muds. But this has no basis in the text and, once again, misses the point.
So what is the point? The main teaching of Jesus here is this: 'Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?' The clear answer is 'no, it would be absurd to fast at a wedding'. Fasting when you ought to be feasting is bringing together two incompatible things. The point of the three short parables is to underline this message with a number of other absurd possibilities. Would you put a new patch on old clothes destroying both (especially a valuable old garment)? Of course not. Would you put new wine in old wineskins, destroying both (especially valuable old wineskins)? Of course not. Now that we are talking about wine, would you prefer new wine to wine that has aged and matured? Of course not. These are all absurd proposals, and any right-thinking person will answer 'no' to all these questions. In the same way any right-thinking person will answer 'no' to the question 'should you fast when the bridegroom is present'.
To be in the presence of Jesus, the bridegroom, is to be in a joyful place. It would be absurd not to be joyful, not to celebrate, when we are with him. To suggest fasting in the presence of Jesus is just as absurd as putting new cloth on an old garment, or new wine into old wineskins, as odd as preferring new wine to old.
And that is that for the moment. At this stage in the public ministry of Jesus, his relations with the Pharisees have not deteriorated to what they would become later. They are still curious about his teaching, and open, it seems, to consider what he has to say. Jesus does refer to what was to come , a time when the bridegroom would be taken away. His being 'taken away' is a clear echo beforehand of his passion. And that sad time of loss and grief will be a time for fasting. To continue feasting then would be the absurd, incompatible, thing.
Here is the heart of it: the presence of Jesus means joy, the absence of Jesus means sadness. To confuse these two situations would be absurd. To think otherwise about either of them would be folly. This is the simple and profoundly rich teaching which our wise master wants us, today, to realise.