October 4, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I’m taking the good news from Matthew 9:16-17.
“No one patches an old cloak with a new piece of unshrunken cloth, for its fullness pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse. People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins burst, and the skins are ruined. Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Jesus is telling his listeners something important here. According to the New American Bible this parable “speaks of the unsuitability of attempting to combine the old and the new. Jesus’ teaching is not a patching up of Judaism, nor can the gospel be contained within the limits of Mosaic law.” According to Barclay, the Jews of Jesus’ time “were passionately attached to things as they were. The Law was to them God’s last and final word; to add one word to it, or to subtract one word from it, was a deadly sin….To them a new idea was not so much a mistake as a sin.” According to Franciscan Michael Crosby in Repair My House, Israel “had evolved in its history to the point that it became a religion without God. in its institutional model it had come to identify itself less as a people and more from its political, economic, and religious institutional expressions….The God revealed by such dynamics was a god of human making.”
That was the rigidity, the human kingdom, that Jesus was addressing. The New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary notes that the Greek word translated as “tear” also means “schism.” Jesus and his message represented a break from the old, from the status quo, from what was known and accepted. The law imposed by the scribes and Pharisees and elders had taken primacy over God’s love for his chosen people. Jesus, the word made flesh, was sent by God to correct that, to change the trajectory, to establish a new covenant based on love, not law.
However, Matthew adds something significant to the end of Mark’s telling of this parable: “and both are preserved.” According to the New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary, this illustrates Matthew’s ambiguity about whether he considered his faith community to be inside or outside of Judaism. Did it belong or not? The Jews answered that question for him. The rabbis of Jamnia issued a ban on Matthew’s community around 80 C.E. They pushed him out. So, Matthew wrote his gospel as “a handbook for church leaders to assist them in preaching, teaching, worship, mission, and polemic [doctrinal argument]….inserted into the story of a living person, Jesus Christ…to keep it focused on Christ and his kingdom as the good news of salvation.”
From the beginning of the Church, then, there has been a struggle to embrace the new while attempting to preserve and honor the old. So it has been throughout the Church’s history — progress in the understanding of the kingdom of God as Jesus taught straining against tradition, against established dogma and ritual. We see it playing out today as well. Vatican II was a radical break with tradition in many ways while honoring the basic beliefs of the Church, the creed. It is a rule of nature, God’s creation, that for every action there is a reaction. We are witnessing a reaction in today’s Church. Barclay again, “The history of progress is the history of the overcoming of the prejudices of the shut mind. Every new idea has had to battle for its existence against the instinctive opposition of the human mind….It may be that we would do well to remember that when any living thing stops growing, it starts dying.”
This struggle is painful. Sanford in The Kingdom Within writes, “It is because of the crisis-bringing nature of the kingdom that it has the power to bring a storm into our lives….When this happens, an ingredient called ‘faith’ is of crucial importance, for with this ingredient one finds that the storm is not chaotic but is under the control of the higher Power of the Son of Man. The storm is great indeed, but the Power of God is greater, and all the turbulent events are under his authority as he established himself in the soul.”
The kingdom of God has a crisis-bringing nature. It’s helpful to acknowledge that this is a natural course; it is to be expected. And it is to be encountered with faith in God’s authority.
That’s what I need to keep in mind. As I struggle with the Church’s reaction to pressures for change, I need to remember that all this is under God’s authority. It may be that the cloak may be torn asunder or that new wineskins will be created for the new wine so that both can be preserved. What He wants me to do is to keep an open mind, to try to embrace the new while honoring the old. I so often become impatient and ill-tempered, critical and judgmental. As Crosby writes, “[I]deally the truly ‘catholic’ Catholic would have an anchor in one theological stance without rejecting key elements of the other.” Good advice for me that comes from Matthew today.