“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Jesus; Mk. 2:22).
This little proverb’s immediate context is a dispute about fasting, and possibly it’s just about that. But it resonates throughout the larger context of Mark’s entire Gospel, inviting us to hear the passion narrative itself as new wine into old wineskins, with the wine and skins both lost (Jesus crucified; the Temple veil ripped open also as a sign of its coming destruction). Pulling the camera back further to take in Paul’s letters: the struggle to keep both the new wine of the Gospel and the old wineskins of its adherents intact (“What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ [1 Cor. 1:12]).
I suspect that an account of how the New Testament tries to keep wine and wineskins intact would be multi-dimensional. It would include the various ways in which Paul speaks of metamorphosis, e.g., “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (metamorphousthe) by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). It would include the metaphor of new birth, for Nicodemus certainly grasps the scope of the challenge (Jn 3:4). And, earlier in the Gospels, John the Baptist.
John’s task: to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Mk. 1:3). What I hadn’t realized until I came at John via the wine/wineskins parable is that a crucial part of preparing the way was bridging the gap between popular expectations of God’s promised future and Jesus. The gap doesn’t disappear: even John wonders whether Jesus is the coming one (Matt 11:1-6). And there’s enough of a gap between popular expectations and John that perhaps the bulk of the religious authorities end up on the far shore (Mark 11:27-33). Nevertheless, John’s warnings that the status quo is unsustainable and that more compassion/justice is needed (Luke 3:7-14) can get folk moving in the right direction, even while leaving aside the more contentious questions of whether established notions of justice/righteousness need revision (they do), and whether outsiders will receive God’s mercy (they will). So John, unpalatable in so many ways, is a fundamental expression of God’s mercy or—to switch frames—God’s marketing. From popular expectations to Jesus: no way. From popular expectations to John to Jesus: that happens. “Prepare the way of the Lord” indeed.
Preserve both the new wine and the old wineskins? Borrowing from Billie Holiday, The difficult God’ll do right now; the impossible will take a little while.