Mark 2: Contemplations on an enigmatic passage

Application

When I read Mark 2, the first thing that impresses me is, again, the sheer amount of action. Mark maintains the feverishly staccato pace that he established in chapter 1. In 27 verses, we have no less than five distinct scenes which document the first seeds of conflict with the Pharisees. To be certain, there is a lot of great stuff here. One could talk about the friends’ faith and determination to see the paralytic healed, or how Jesus demonstrated his power to forgive sins and proved it with a miracle. We could cover the fact that Jesus made a point to call Matthew, a loathed tax collector, to follow him and then went and dined at Matthew’s house with all of his tax collector and “sinner” friends. We could discuss the role of fasting in the Christian’s life or explore acceptable and unacceptable uses of the Sabbath, and all of that would be readily applicable to our lives. But for some reason, as I read Mark 2 this week, I find myself drawn to the enigmatic verses 21 and 22.

I say enigmatic because these two verses don’t really fit with either of the adjacent scenes. In fact, in a quick survey of three different sources, I found three different ideas on the context of these two verses. Matthew Henry lumped it together with vss 18-28, interpreting them as a scathing rejection of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. The New International Version groups it with the conversation about fasting, indicating that the way things were done in the past (e.g., fasting) has now become obsolete. And Charles Ryrie distinguishes it from both sides, understanding them to be proof of Christianity over Judaism. And as a person who ardently holds that the context of a passage is essential to understanding it, not knowing how these two verses relate to the passage around them presents me with something of a problem. What shall we do with Mark 2:21-22?

Far be it from me to suggest that I know more than any of the profoundly qualified commentators, but I would like to suggest a couple of thoughts about these two verses.

What if the new wine isn’t Jesus’ teachings, but his disciples? These twelve men (and all who have followed them) were not religious experts. In fact, they likely could not have been farther from religious experts. This collection of fishermen, tax collectors, etc., were ordinary people. To be certain, over the next three-ish years, they would be learning a lot about the kingdom of God while they followed and sat at the feet of Jesus. Along the way, they would be exposed to teachings which would expand their understanding of the precepts and principles they had learned from childhood, witness miracles which would alter forever their perceptions of the way God works, and take active roles in events which would revolutionize their understanding of who God was and what He wanted for His people. Then, one fateful day three years down the road, they would be there for the outrage and horror of the crucifixion, and they would finally realize what real love was all about. Three days after that would come Easter and, some 40 days later, the ascension, and they would at last grasp that God’s kingdom was bigger than this world and life. And then there was Pentecost, where when the Holy Spirit would rush upon them and they would truly know the indwelling presence of God. Like new wine, which expands due to the production of gases during the fermentation process, Jesus’ disciples had a lot of growing to do, and Jesus had no intention of restraining their growth with an old, brittle wineskins of artificial rituals such as this fast which was apparently elevated from a tradition (i.e., something the Jews came up with somewhere along the line of their own volition) to a maxim (i.e., something the Jews decided unilaterally was just as important as the rest of Scripture).

What if the new patches were Jesus disciples, too? When Jesus arrived on the scene in the first part of the first century, AD, the Jews were ready for a messiah. After five hundred years of oppression at the hands of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Alexander the Great, and presently the Romans, the Jewish people were eagerly awaiting someone who would be sent by God to deliver them from their enemies and establish Israel as the kingdom of God on earth. The problem was, that wasn’t the plan. Over the next three years, Jesus would try time and again to explain this to the disciples, but they were slow to understand. When he finally ascended into the heavens in Acts 1 and the Holy Spirit arrived in Acts 2, the disciples got it, but no one else did. And then, as more and more people bought into the gospel message, the old guard took it upon themselves to prove their point. It started in Acts 6 when Stephen was grabbed off the street, dragged before the Sanhedrin, and ultimately stoned to death outside of Jerusalem. It continued in Acts 12 with the execution of James, the brother of John. It went on for the next three hundred years before Christianity became mainstream in the Roman Empire. And it goes on even today in nations around the world where it is illegal to believe in Jesus, much less proclaim His name. It seems to me that this rash of persecution could easily be compared to the act of putting clothes through the wash, where they are agitated (read that, “beat up”) and heated (read that, “pressured”) until they shrink. Could it be that Jesus knew that his disciples could not know the full significance of fasting and other components of the old religion until they were tried, tested, and shrunk by persecution?

How much difference was there between an old wineskin and a new one? The crowd Jesus spoke to in first-century Palestine was dramatically different than the culture of twenty-first-century America. For one, everyone would have readily understood why you patched clothing rather than ran out to Wal Mart and bought another of the exact same thing: more often than not, people only had one set of clothing. And they also understood what Jesus meant when he talked about wineskins. Generally, a wineskin was constructed of two pieces of animal hide sewn together into a kidney-shaped pouch. When filled with grape juice, the thing would fill out, and once sealed, it would be stashed away and allowed to ferment for some time. As it did, two things would start to happen. First, the fermentation process, as noted above, would force it to expand further. And second, the leather would start to dry out. Both of these things contributed to making the skin hard and brittle by the time the wine was ready to drink. It may have started to change colors from a light tan to a rich brown. So there were certainly differences. But the two – new and old wineskins – were still essentially the same thing. And in fact, as the wineskin aged, the wine in it actually became better and more desirable. The significance of this, for me, is huge. In an era when a lot of people seem drawn to shiny new churches and facilities, this tells me that the old congregations are not necessarily to be relegated to the trash.

How do we apply this to the church today? To be honest, I think this single question is the one reason I have been chewing on this passage for a week now. Perhaps it was a personal slant or fear or something, but I have wrestled for days with this passage, wondering what it should mean for our church and I. Are we part of the old and therefore obsolete? Should we be replaced with something new and shiny? And I guess that, just this afternoon, I finally realized that, while there may be fewer old wineskins floating around in circulation, they are the ones that everybody really wants. Old churches are not to be discarded. Crack them open, and they contain some of the strongest, most mature believers out there. This is an immeasurable strength which is, in the kingdom of God, of priceless worth.

The thing is, though, that even the best wine does no one any good unless it’s poured out and offered as drink. So I guess that, at the end of it all, we must recognize that, regardless of whether our church is, or we are, old or new, our objective is to minister. We can’t shelve ourselves forever. Get up and minister!

Note: I want to say a special thank you Br. Frances Therese Krautter, whose conversation was extremely helpful in solidifying thoughts about this passage.s

Notes

  • (1-2) Once again, the people of Capernaum gathered looking for Jesus to perform miracles and other amazing things.
  • (3-4) Talk about dedication, these guys didn’t worry about the work involved in getting their friend to the roof, digging through the roof, or even paying back the home owner for the damages. They just did it.
  • (5-12) Again, Jesus reminds us of the purpose of his miracles. They were not for show; they were evidence to confirm what he said.
  • (13-14) There is only one way that this could possibly happen: Matthew had seen Jesus and heard what He was saying and wanted, desperately, to follow, but didn’t think himself worthy of following. When Jesus looked straight at him and bid, “Follow me,” it was all Matthew needed to jump up and go.
  • (17) In case anyone should think that Jesus came simply to edify the already-faithful, he makes very clear here that his primary objective was aimed at the broken and lost. As Christians – followers of Christ – our primary objective should be the same! And as the body of Christ, the church’s primary objective should be, too!
  • (18-20) Often, Christians have a tendency to overlook the discipline of fasting, myself included, but Jesus here indicates that it should be a part of our faith.
  • (21-22) If this applies to religion, as so many have suggested, how does it apply to the church? Does this mean that old churches should be closed to make way for new works? Or is it just that the old church should be closed if it refuses to embrace truth and/or be effective?
  • (23-28) This is not to say that the Sabbath is out, but rather to say that the Sabbath wasn’t supposed to be merely a legal statute that it must be done on this day, in this way. Rather, the Sabbath is to be a day of rest for people. We should rest on the Sabbath so that we are refreshed and recharged for the new week!
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2 Responses to “Mark 2: Contemplations on an enigmatic passage”


  1. 1 Sharon March 22, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    I like your thoughts on this! I have never thought of it in this light, but I think you are on to something. 🙂

  2. 2 Br. Francis Therese Krautter March 23, 2010 at 7:36 am

    Bravo!

    You put together some really great and original reflections! Thanks for taking the time to share your meditations with us. Let us bring the wine of the Spirit that has been poured into our hearts to all those who thirst!

    🙂


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