Part 1 He was more than a craftsman. He was an artist. He knew the precise size, age and condition of the goat required to yield the finest quality leather. He knew how to skin the hide – strip it skillfully in one piece so that it would have minimal openings and seams. The hair must be carefully shaved, no cuts or nicks, leaving just a hint of stubble for resin to adhere to. Then the massaging of olive oil into every pore to retain its suppleness. And this was just the beginning. There would be forty more painstaking steps before the goatskin was transformed into a high quality wineskin.
Occasionally a naïve customer would liken the wineskin-maker’s trade to that of the potter – a comparison he considered an insult. He said it was like comparing elegant leather to mud. A wineskin is a living thing. It moves. It breathes. It conforms to one’s body. It gives comfort. No one said the wineskin-maker was unbiased.
He could make air-tight containers of all shapes and sizes – huge ones out of oxhides that would hold fifty or more gallons of water all the way down to dainty ones for scented oil. But the ones in which he took greatest pride, those for which he was known widely, were his one-liter she-goat flasks. Subtle dyes and intricate stitching were his trademarks. But his “skins” were more than exquisite in appearance – they were undoubtedly the best preserving and most enduring leather bottles in Judah. If a purchaser followed the wineskin-maker’s initial instructions – warm the flask thoroughly in the sun, inflate it fully by blowing into it, then fill it to the brim with cool water so the resin would set up – it would last for decades. For best results with wine storage, fill it with cheap wine for a few weeks to cure it and to remove the tannin taste. Then re-fill it with the fine wine you wish to age and seal it tightly. The leather would remain pliant until the fermentation process was complete, then harden into a secure container for long-term maturing. Once a skin was re-opened and the wine consumed, it could serve indefinitely as a firm, durable water jug.
So confident was the wineskin-maker of his product that he pledged to replace any wine lost due to the failure of any of his flasks. But he had never had to make good on his guarantee, not in twenty years of marketing his work throughout the region. Not until the day a scruffy Bedouin entered his shop, threw down an armload of empty wineskins and demanded just compensation for the valuable wine he had lost. “Split wide open!” the Bedouin roared. “Spilled twelve liters of my best wine right into the sand!” The old wineskin-maker was incredulous. How could this be? He picked up one of the gourd-like containers. It was his, alright. He could tell by the stitching. A wide split opened its side, not along a seam but right down its center. The containers were stiff and old but not that old. He had never seen a skin split clean down the middle like this, not without a cut or gouge or some other sign of wear or damage. And certainly not twelve of them the exact same way! Could they have frozen and the wine expanded? Highly unlikely. “How long had the wine been aging?” the craftsman inquired, a perplexed scowl betraying his bafflement. “A long time…five years…maybe more,” the impatient stranger growled. The old craftsman lifted a ruined wineskin to his nose and drew a long whiff. Then grabbed up another and did the same thing. And another. The leather, which should permeate with the pungent aroma of vintage wine, smelled instead of sour, spoiled residue from fresh-pressed grapes. Caught! The conniving Bedouin turned tail and disappeared out the front door of the shop.
“Stupid,” the old wineskin-maker muttered to himself as he scooped up the worthless skins and heaved them into his scrap barrel. “What idiot would put new wine in old wineskins?”
A legitimate teacher does not disregard the law this way. Not a religious teacher. Yet, there he was, the Nazarene and his little band of followers, picking grain on the Sabbath in clear violation of the Torah. Sabbath is a day of rest – no work, no travel, not even meal preparation. But there, in plain sight, he and his group were helping themselves to an afternoon snack. Hadn’t even washed their hands. They shouldn’t have been traveling in the first place. They were well aware of the Sabbath-day-journey rule. And even if for some exceptional reason they did need to travel, at the very least they should have packed food the day before.
It was not as though the Teacher was ignorant of the law. He knew better. He had been active in synagogue life since he was a child and had quite a remarkable grasp of the scriptures. No, he was intentionally – blatantly, it seemed to a couple of rabbis who watched from the road – pushing the limits. When confronted as he came out of the field munching on a mouthful of grain, he dismissed the charges with some remark about the Sabbath being made for man and not the other way around.
Food was a big deal in Israel. The temple library was stacked high with volumes of dietary codes. After all, Yahweh Himself had specifically instructed Moses on what food was kosher and what was untouchable. Generations of rabbis had produced reams of regulations covering everything from bleeding a chicken to the proper method of washing your hands before dinner. What you ate, when you ate, how you ate, with whom you ate – these were no insignificant matters. In fact, dietary practices defined in large measure what it meant to be Jewish.
Food, it seemed, was important to the Teacher as well. Not the rituals but the feasting. It was common knowledge that he had a taste for excellent food and vintage wine. He readily accepted invitations to social gatherings in the homes of the rich where lavish smorgasbords were the center piece. The concerns of the religious leadership were justified. At the very least, it was a bad example for a teacher to set – a serious lack of discipline; but worse, it reflected a lapse of ethical if not moral judgment to eat the fruit of ill-gotten gain.
But this was not the biggest worry of the religious establishment. What troubled them far more was the message this Teacher had been spreading about the arrival of a new Kingdom, a brand new world order that judges people by the intent of their hearts rather than their practice of religion. One could never attain righteousness by scrupulously attempting to obey the law of God, he said. This was dangerous talk. Not only did it challenge the sacred foundations of the faith, it threatened the fragile political stability that Jerusalem had negotiated with Rome. As one might imagine, his words were causing no small stir within the Jewish establishment.
He knew full well, he admitted to a crowd that had gathered around him one day on the synagogue steps in Capernaum, that those most vested in the religious system would be most virulent in their opposition to this Kingdom. With their lock on theology and the momentum of tradition weighing heavily in their favor, they could advance a powerful argument that the orthodox way was the only true and faithful way. And so the teacher told stories. Instead of engaging in complex theological debates, he chose illustrations from everyday life to explain this new order. His down-to-earth examples had enormous appeal to the crowds, which made his presence even more worrisome to the leaders.
Someone in the crowd, more than likely a Pharisee, challenged him on the subject of fasting – a spiritual discipline the Teacher seemed to completely ignore. It was a legitimate question that deserved an honest answer. And true to form, the Teacher addressed it with an analogy about feasting rather than fasting at a wedding celebration. But the question behind the question was not really about fasting, he knew. It was about respecting the time-honored practices of the Jewish faith. Spying a wineskin that hung around the neck of a spectator – a finely constructed container with delicate stitching and artful design – he motioned for it and lifted it up for everyone to see.
No one puts new wine into old wineskins. The old skins would burst from the pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine must be put into in new wineskins. That way both the wine and the wineskins are preserved. No one who drinks the old wine seems to want the fresh and the new. ‘The old is better,’ they say.
I can’t tell whether my spiritual appetite is becoming more discriminating with age or if I’m just getting old. Increasingly, I find myself looking forward to Sunday morning worship at my downtown, historic Presbyterian church. I enjoy the 200 year old hymns we sing, the Apostles’ Creed with roots that reach back to the early church, the orderly reading of Scripture from the lectionary. I appreciate the thoughtful design of the worship service that weaves call to worship, music, scripture, sermon and benediction into a single cohesive theme. We have communion once a quarter, sometimes passed down the row on a linen-covered plate and little individual cups, and other times bread dipped in a common cup as we file past the altar. The most meaningful part of the service for me is the prayer of confession and hearing the great, good news: “In Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”
Sometimes the order of service is rearranged for a special occasion like a missions conference or Easter celebration. The pastor always prepares us for such changes well ahead of time. Surprises that interrupt the predictable flow of worship can be quite disconcerting. There are some folk in our church who would like to change things around – new songs, more spontaneity, less formality. The pastor was wise enough to create a separate service for them – the contemporary service, it’s called. They have guitars and overhead projectors and praise songs and sharing time. They even clap and raise their hands sometimes. There is something nice about the casualness of the contemporary service but I prefer the traditional eleven o’clock worship.
Some have called our church an old wineskin. And I think they might be right. I’m sure it would split wide open if a new, progressive young pastor imposed changes that significantly disrupted its culture. If he tried to replace the pipe organ and choir with guitars and bongos, let’s say. Or if too many folk from our homeless ministry invaded the service. As long as disturbance of traditional norms is occasional and handled decently and in order, it is tolerable – perhaps even colorful. Diversity is good. But in measured doses. Keeping up with the times is important. But let’s not move too fast. There is still enough flexibility in the old wineskin to allow a degree of fermentation. But not too much.
I readily admit that I like vintage wine. But I also know that a new harvest season is upon us. There is a whole generation of bright young adults who are not buying the traditional “church package.” Suspicious of authority, put off by convention, searching for authenticity, thirsty for community yet reluctant to commit – these are the 20 and 30 something’s who are emerging into leadership devoid of trustworthy spiritual moorings. Their less-advantaged counterparts in the inner-city, who have grown up on hip-hop, drugs, gold chains and $150 athletic shoes, view grandma’s religion as irrelevant.. The church is as distant from their culture as Wall Street is from a corner crap game. The wine that the Spirit will press out of this generation will require entirely new wineskins. The music, the methods of conveying truth, the style and places of communal interaction – all must be fashioned to accommodate this season’s yield. Poetry and rap, synthesizers and DJ’s, bars and coffee houses, drama and hanging out may characterize new ways of being “church.” One thing is for sure: the new forms will not look like the old wineskins.
Old wine is good wine. That is reassuring to me. No need to tamper with time-honored traditions so long as they remain full of richness and meaning. They are our connection to our spiritual heritage. They are very important, at least for a season. But as the Teacher from Galilee put it:
No one puts new wine into old wineskins. The old skins would burst from the pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine must be put into in new wineskins. That way both the wine and the wineskins are preserved.
Or to put it more bluntly in the words of the old wineskin-maker: “Stupid! What idiot would put new wine in old wineskins?”