Today’s gospel refers to problems associated with change. Jesus uses parables to teach about these problems, though his teaching is somewhat enigmatic. First, tearing a piece from a new cloak to patch an old one does seem silly. Other gospel writers record a slightly different parable, referring instead to a narrower problem of using unshrunken new cloth to patch an old garment, which causes the patch to tear away. (See Mark 2:21; Matthew 9:16). But Luke’s version points to the absurdity of ruining a new garment in order to patch an old one, when the patch will not even look right when it is completed – a doubly unsatisfying result.
The parable of the wineskins provides a further example that putting the new into the old is fraught with difficulty. Luke adds the observation that those who drink old wine don’t want the new, for “The old is good.” As humans, we like what is familiar and proven, and often with good reason. But we are often faced with the prospects of change, which requires our discernment.
All of this discussion arises from a question by the Pharisees: why do your disciples behave differently from our disciples or the disciples of John the Baptist? Why do they eat and drink, while the others fast? Human beings recognize when someone does not conform to their expectations. We are naturally curious, and in this case the Pharisees expected an answer.
To the credit of these inquisitors, they had the courage to ask Jesus straight away, rather than to speculate. But I am not sure that they were satisfied with the answer Jesus gave them. In the record of Jesus’ ministry, we find events unfolding at their own pace, which is not always the pace the audience expects. Human history had to wait for Jesus to come, and the Lord himself is not going to be rushed. Jesus does not tell them the complete story of his ministry. He lets the story unfold, allowing some time for it all to sink in. Jesus was indeed doing a new thing, but it would not be clear to them at once. Even the disciples closest to him were often mystified and muddled in their thinking, needing correction and some remedial instruction, as well as some additional time and distance before they understood what Jesus was really telling them.
It is important for us to remember that humans need time to discover the truth and to process it. Sometimes we want to dump the truth on others, and that almost never works out very well. Through the benefit of reflections by the apostles and many other saints, and always by the grace of God, we are allowed to piece together the meaning of the events recorded for us in scripture. In one sense, this is a new thing for every generation. But in another sense, we are intimately connected with those who have gone before us. Standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak, we see something truly new was being done through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord. The new thing fulfilled the promises contained in symbols and images from the past, but reflected a new direction, a new way of living, and a new hope.
As Paul writes, we are “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” To those who have been given much, much is required. May we have the grace to discern properly how to adapt to new situations and to transmit our faith to the next generation, as faithful stewards of the mysteries of God revealed to us in Christ. And may we be willing to give space – surrounded by our prayer and our love -- for those near to us who still need to hear and embrace the truth.
By Edward Morse