Luke 5:17-39 New Wine Skins


Let’s pause for a moment and take stock of just how radical things are about to get.  Jesus is beginning to articulate the overthrow of systems – both outer systems of oppression, and inner systems of spiritual complacency and false allegiance.  From the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, we’ve heard about the mighty being brought down low and the lowly lifted up, the hungry being filled with good things and the poor sent away empty.  That is, in fact, the content of Mary’s song, The Magnificatand it’s indisputably radical. For some, it’s hard to take. I once heard Barbara Brown Taylor preach on The Magnificat.  She talked about having heard a contemporary version of it sung on Christian radio, in which the poor were lifted up and the hungry filled, but all of Mary’s lines about the mighty being brought down and the rich sent away empty were left out.  Obviously, the singer and the station’s listeners couldn’t stand to hear about loss of power and prestige. But Taylor pointed out that these words are only threatening if we believe that no spiritual good can come of losing power or experiencing hunger.  What if God wants the mighty to be cast down and the rich sent away hungry for their own spiritual good?
If we’re honest, many of us will react to this possibility with fear and anger, rather than joy and hope, particularly if we’re people of relative wealth and comfort.  If we do, then we should pause and acknowledge some sympathy with the scribes and pharisees. They are correct in sniffing out Jesus’ radical agenda, and we can hardly blame them for having the same qualms that we do.  Because when Jesus forgives sins and heals, when he eats with sinners and societal outcasts, he is essentially saying that the whole program of his culture is wrong. They care about, and get angry about, the wrong things.

Peter Rollins in his book The Idolotry of God offers the same critique of our culture, particularly of our religious culture.  He writes that the good news of Christianity

is sold to us as that which can fulfill our desire rather than as that which evokes a transformation in the very way that we desire.  Like every other product that promises us fulfillment, Christ becomes yet another object in the world that is offered to us as a way of gaining insight and ultimate satisfaction.  Jesus is thus presented as the solution to two interconnected problems: that we exist in a state of darkness concerning the meaning of the universe and that we are dissatisfied with our place within that universe.

And he goes on to ask the question

what if we cannot grasp the manner in which Christ is the solution to the problem of our darkness and dissatisfaction precisely because he *isn’t*the solution?  What if, instead of being the solution (i.e., the one who offers a way for us to gain certainty and satisfaction), he actually confronts us as *a problem*, a problem that places every attempt to find a solution for these ailments into question?  To put this another way, what if Christ does not fill the empty cup we bring to him but rather smashes it to pieces, bringing freedom, not from our darkness and dissatisfaction, but freedom from our felt need to escape them?

Rollins challenges us to understand what the Pharisees actually felt.  Their quibble wasn’t with a misuse of tradition or a breaking of the rules.  We can’t dismiss them that easily. They correctly understood that Jesus was going to smash their entire way of looking at the world into pieces.  The things that had given them spiritual satisfaction wouldn’t any longer. The methods and practices that they used to look for that satisfaction would fail them.  All of their thinking and ways of beings had to be stripped away – they were old wine skins, and it was time to discover new wine skins that could be filled with something else.  What that something else was, they didn’t know yet, and that made it even more scary.

We should feel the same fear as we read Luke’s Gospel.  Our worlds really will be turned upside down. We really will be asked to embrace the unfamiliar.  And if we’re treating our religious beliefs as a commodity, if we feel that we can buy, sell, and own Christ, we’ll be disabused of that notion pretty quickly.  Jesus is not about self-help, or even simply self-transformation. Jesus is ultimately about divinity manifested on earth, and divinity is always more than our selves.  When we truly come to experience resurrection, the self falls away, and only love is left.