By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 11, 2001

Deuteronomy 7:7-13 The blessings of keeping the law

The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. But those who reject him he will repay in their own person. He does not delay, but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, take care to follow the commands, decrees, and laws I give you today.

If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land-your grain, new wine and oil-the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land that he swore to your forefathers to give you.

Mark 2:18-28 New wine in new bottles

Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, "How is it that John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?"

Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine is poured into new wineskins."

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is illegal on the Sabbath?"

He answered, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions." Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for mankind, not mankind for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."

True Christian Religion #784 The old and the new

The New Jerusalem, which is a new religion, cannot come down from heaven all at once. It can only descend as the false ideas of the old religion are banished. For new things cannot enter where false ideas have previously been implanted unless these are uprooted. . . . As the Lord said, "No one puts new wine into old bottles . . . ."

No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine is poured into new wineskins. (Mark 2:22)

The Gospels give every indication that the Pharisees and other religious leaders simply did not understand Jesus. Yes, they were jealous of him; yes, they considered him a threat; yes, they eventually decided that he must be eliminated. But in the early parts of his ministry from which today's reading from the Gospel of Mark comes, one of their main reactions seems to be confusion. Jesus and his followers didn't play according to the rules, and they couldn't understand why.

The ancient Jewish culture was, to put it in the most positive light, a culture of laws, and of obedience (or disobedience) to laws. In addition to the hundreds of laws given directly in Scripture, there were additional hundreds of laws added by their religious leaders little by little over the centuries, until it became practically a full-time job just to learn them, let alone to obey them all. The Pharisees were people who made it their business to learn and obey all those laws. And they tended to look down upon those who were not so assiduous. They had a certain sense of assurance that they were the righteous ones, and that others who did not keep the law as they did were not so righteous in the sight of God.

The problem with Jesus, from their perspective, was that he kept flagrantly breaking the law. And they kept asking him why. But the answers he gave did not fit into their legalistic worldview.

As our reading from Mark begins, the Gospel writer notes that John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. It was customary in those days for practicing Jews to fast twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. As with many other aspects of their religion, something that was originally intended as a special ritual of self-denial and humility before the Lord had become a matter of rote legal observance. Whether someone was inwardly in the spirit of fasting or not, whenever Monday or Thursday rolled around, it was time to fast. That's what their laws said, so that's what they did if they considered themselves highly religious.

Jesus didn't follow that law. Perhaps it was a Monday or a Thursday, or perhaps it was one of their holy days set aside for fasting when a group of people came and asked Jesus, "How is it that John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?" The answer Jesus gave them had nothing to do with legalisms. In essence, he said that when people are joyful--such as at a wedding feast--they can't possibly fast. No, the time to fast is when the joyous times are over--such as when the bridegroom is taken away. In other words, fasting must be driven by inner realities, not merely outward, legal ones.

This was the context in which Jesus made his well-known statement about putting new wine in new bottles. And his words are immediately followed by another example. "One Sabbath," we read, "Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, 'Look, why are they doing what is illegal on the Sabbath?'"

Characteristically, the Pharisees viewed the actions of Jesus' disciples through the lenses of their law. Picking grain was considered work, and this was not allowed on the Sabbath. Why, then, did this supposed religious leader allow his followers to do such illegal and irreligious things? If he was a true teacher, he would never allow such things! They simply didn't understand.

In response, Jesus quoted from their own Scriptures an instance in which David the king, one of the most celebrated figures in their cultural history, violated the ritual law--in the Temple no less--and yet was not considered guilty of any sin. The story he referred to (which comes from 1 Samuel 21:1-6) is one in which David's dire need overrode the strictures of the ritual law. And having given this example, Jesus told the Pharisees who were questioning him, "The Sabbath was made for mankind, not mankind for the Sabbath." In other words, laws are for the benefit of people, and only useful insofar as they improve the human condition.

But the Pharisees could not understand this. It simply did not fit into their view of things. As far as they were concerned, the law was the law, and there was nothing higher. Anyone who broke the law--no matter what the reason--was guilty of sin, and must be punished. In the end, Jesus broke so many of their laws that they condemned him to death--and proceeded to put that death sentence into effect.

The Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day were the personification of the "old bottles" that Jesus was referring to. They simply could not contain the "new wine" that he offered. Their world was governed by laws, and strict obedience to those laws. Jesus' world was governed by love, which the law also served. For the Pharisees, humans were created in order to obey the law. For Jesus, the law was created in order to raise human beings to a higher level--and any law that did not serve that purpose was invalid.

Notice that in both cases, there is a law. Jesus was not a lawless person. On the contrary, he said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17). The Pharisees observed the letter of the law, but Jesus followed the spirit of the law. This new, spiritual view of the law did not fit in the old bottles of the Pharisees' legalistic form of religion. That is why a new religion had to be formed. That is why, from our perspective, ancient Judaism gave way to Christianity. The new wine of deeper, spiritual truth that Jesus offered needed the new bottles of a different form of religious practice.

The story of the new wine in the new bottles is about an old, legalistic religious perspective giving way to a new, love-based religious perspective. And the religious practices of the Christians were quite different than those of the Jews of that day. Gone was the strict legalism; in its place was a spiritual enthusiasm and outreach to others based on love for the Lord and love for their fellow human beings. Until Christianity itself became corrupted, its people spent their lives reaching out to others and serving their spiritual and physical needs out of love.

All of this took place nearly two thousand years ago. And as always, we have to ask, "What does this have to do with our lives today?"

On an individual level, we go through the same transformations in our emotional and spiritual lives as humanity goes through at the various turning points in history. And the life of Jesus was the biggest turning point of them all. The belief and teaching of the Christian Church is that the life of Christ was the event that turned around the spiritual history of the world. From being a condemnatory, legalistic affair, religion was transformed into something that gave comfort, peace, understanding, and love to humankind.

This is also the change that takes place in us as we mature in our spiritual life. I remember all too well how, in my younger life, I believed that the essence of religion was to live properly according to the various teachings of the church. In a sense, there is nothing wrong with this. We are meant to live in a law-abiding way.

But when this becomes our primary way of being virtuous and religious, our "religion" tends to get off track. Speaking for myself, at one point in my life I would have made a pretty good Pharisee. Though I knew I wasn't perfect, I thought I was pretty darn good--and I knew that those other people weren't as "religious" as I was. They couldn't be, because they weren't living in the "right" way. They were breaking the rules. I suspect many of us can recognize ourselves in this, at some point in our lives.

However, another side of this is that if we are sincere, and not hypocritical about our religion, we tend to condemn not only others, but ourselves. If we are honest about ourselves, we realize that we don't always do a very good job of living according to our own laws. We fall short in various ways, and then we point the accusing finger at ourselves, berating ourselves for being so weak and foolish. And instead of being a source of comfort, strength, and inner joy, our religion becomes a hard taskmaster, always pointing out our faults, always seeing where we fall short, and in the end making us feel hopeless about ourselves.

Personally, I had to struggle with this legalistic view of the church for many years before my views of what religion was all about began to change. I can't point to any one event that brought about this change. Instead, I gradually began to realize the meaning of the Lord's words, "The Sabbath was made for mankind, not mankind for the Sabbath." I gradually began to understand that the point of religious and spiritual law is not so much to impose proper behavior on us from the outside (though there are times in our lives when we must relate to religion in this way), but more to transform us from the inside, so that our outward lives will be transformed along with our souls. I gradually realized that the law is not an end in itself, but rather is intended as a means toward expressing God's love in the world and among human beings.

This idea would not have fit into my old concept of religion. The old me believed that if I could just follow all the rules properly, I would be a good person, and would be saved. Putting the law subordinate to love would have seemed too slippery a slope. After all, isn't love a subjective thing? If we all just do what we feel like doing, won't we act just as often in a selfish, thoughtless way as in a thoughtful, caring way?

As long as we are thinking mostly about our own well-being--physical or spiritual--this is true. And looking back on it, I have to admit that my primary concern in those days was my own salvation. Yes, I wanted to do what was right; but I wanted to do it so that I would be right--so that I would be saved and wouldn't have to suffer as others do. And as long as we are focused mostly on our own well-being, our love cannot be trusted.

The real transformation comes when we begin to think about others as much as we think about ourselves, and especially when we begin to love God above all. If our primary goal in life is the happiness of others, then we have a love that can be trusted as a law of its own because this is the love that comes from God.

In fact, when our primary goal is to give others happiness, we will eagerly search out the laws of human existence so that we can use them in improving the lot of others. Whether we focus on their physical life or on their spiritual life, if we truly love others, we will want to know how we can speak and act toward them in ways that will give them comfort, strength, joy, and meaning. Our very love will become a force within us continually seeking to understand the laws of life so that we can use them to show God's love to others. The Apostle Paul expressed this beautifully when he said:

Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another; for those who love others have fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

This is the new wine Jesus offered, which burst the bottles of the Pharisees' old attitudes toward the law. We, too, must give up whatever there is of literalism and legalism in our view of religion and the church. If we find ourselves thinking we are better than others because we are more enlightened and more law-abiding than they are, it is time to throw out those old bottles and get new ones.

The point is not to be better and more righteous than others. The point is to do the best we can in showing others the love of God. Amen.

Music:  Secret Kisses
1999 Bruce DeBoer

Photo Courtesy of Corel Gallery