Do you remember that Bible story about the time Jesus was asked by the disciples of John the Baptist why his own disciples did not fast like they did? If so, you may remember this response by Jesus: Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
What do you make of this answer? And why is it so important that we all understand it today if we are to make disciples for Jesus Christ? Especially if we are United Methodists in light of our recent General Conference just concluded in Portland, Oregon.
Notice that Jesus uses two different metaphors here in his answer about how best to understand fasting as a religious ritual. One has to do with marriage. The other has to do with wine. And perhaps he counted on our making a connection between the two.
Years ago my family therapy mentor, Marian Lindblad Goldberg, Ph.D., herself a protégé of the renowned therapist, Salvador Minuchin, M.D., taught me to assess the extent to which partners in marriage counseling had each “left home” before getting married. By leaving home I mean: Had they divorced their family of origin before taking on a new marriage? Were they able to now be monogamous, or were they still married to their past as well as their present? The Bible calls this process by the terms “leaving and cleaving,” but the point is always the same: we have to divorce our family of origin, amicably if at all possible, if we are to enter a new covenant of marriage. Yet, blessing or no blessing from the original parents, a bride and groom must “leave” home before they can “cleave” to one another in their new home.
Emotionally, one typically finds couples in marriage counseling quite ambivalent. That means, they have mixed feelings between wanting things to be different and yet wanting them to be the same. Can’t we be like Mom & Dad were and still be ourselves in the present? Well, no. That just doesn’t work. Sorry, but the emotional pain of losing the one must come before the joy of gaining the other. Bigamy, or adultery, just doesn’t cut it. Period. A decision is in order. Live in the past, or else live in the present. There can be no cleaving without leaving.
So I wonder if Jesus wasn’t doing a bit of marriage counseling in this scene from Matthew 9. I wonder if he wasn’t challenging John’s disciples to choose between John’s ways and his own ways. The ways of the past, the Law of religious rites and rituals, or the way of the present and future, which involved feast above fast, Love above Law, forgiveness above judgment, and even grace above justice.
And I wonder what Jesus might say to the conflicted factions in today’s global United Methodist Church? If he were our marriage counselor, what would he ask us to do differently if we were hoping for different results ahead?
Do you suppose Jesus might remind us of that metaphor of the wineskins? And, if so, might he challenge all of us to decide: the ways of the past or the way of the future? Because it just doesn’t work to do both. Ambivalent or not in our feelings, our desires for both the old culture of our Bible and the new culture of the Kingdom requires us to choose. The Bible and its ancient culture, however well suited for ancient brides, is simply not the same as God’s Kingdom and its new culture. One is of the world and the other is of heaven. They are different. Different cultures, different family systems, different roles, different rules. And to be married to both Bible and Kingdom is to practice bigamy. And marriage conflict!!!!!
As in marriage, it’s always nice to have the blessing of Mom & Pop. Nice to leave amicably before working to cleave anew. Most times, the family of origin blesses the new wine while expecting the old wineskins to work just fine. So it’s even better when the folks back home bless the new wineskin of marriage as well, praising the feast as they once praised the fast. That’s always nice. But it’s not always necessary. Likewise, it would be nice if the Bible blessed same sex marriages and the full range of gender or sexual orientations for the coming Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. But it’s not necessary.
Marriage to Jesus in the present is different from marriage to the Church in the past. Marriage to the Kingdom (God’s new family through marriage) is different from marriage to the Bible. Different family system with different roles and rules. Different wine. And, yes, different wineskins, too.
So if I were to have any voice today as a retired marriage counselor but also a retired Elder in the United Methodist Church, it would be to encourage the church to divorce the old wineskins and mourn for what used to be. Do our fasting then. So we can now getting on with our marriage to our new wine, the celebration of our new covenant, and the enjoyment of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven……… to which we are, as of today, only betrothed but not yet consummated. After the fast comes the feast. The new wine. In new wineskins.