On a Sunday, in the stale valley, the stale church sang out stale songs. Meaning scampered out of reach as stale worshipers comforted themselves with the comfortable. The preacher stood and droned out a stale sermon he dusted off earlier in the morning. The worshipers stood and sang out a stale invitation song, long forgotten were the whys. And just as Stale Stanly was about to utter a stale prayer, a young man burst into the building like a fresh breeze. He shouted happily, “Praise God!” He sang excitedly a new song. He dropped to his knees and thanked the Lord with exuberance. The stale people of the stale valley wrinkled their noses. “Be gone!” they murmured. “Your joy is too new. Your excitement is not respectful. You’re not sufficiently stale.” The young man skipped out of the stale valley.
It is possible that Luke 5:33-39 is not really about the old and new law. Maybe it is about a stale approach to the One who makes all things new. Yes, I know Jesus came to fulfill the law. But he didn’t do away with the old law. He didn’t end sacrifice – he became the perfect sacrifice. He didn’t put an end to being holy before a holy God – he sealed it with his blood. Whether or not our passage took place right after the call of Levi and the resulting feast is beyond the point. Luke placed it here for a reason. There was a contrast between feasting and fasting. The Pharisees had ritualized fasting. Under the Old Law the people were commanded to fast once a year at the Day of Atonement. The Pharisees made it a rule of piety. If you were truly righteous, why you would fast twice a week. And as they turned it into a ritual they missed its purpose. But it is more than that. Their approach to God was about fasting instead of feasting. Their approach to the law was ritual instead of joy filled celebration. There is a time for fasting, but it is not to be found in ritual and it is not the main way of approach. Under the Old Law they were commanded to fast once a year. They were commanded to feast three times a year. They made fasting more important than feasting. They robbed the law of its joy by ritualizing it.
So, Jesus uses three parables and maybe a bit of irony. The sons of the wedding hall cannot be forced to fast while the bridegroom is with them. That would be silly. While the bridegroom is with them it is party time. Fasting would be counterintuitive. Jesus lets them know that the bridegroom will be taken away, which is strange. After the wedding feast it is the guest who leave. So, this is extenuating circumstances; a disruption of the normal. Jesus is speaking of his passion. Fasting will serve a purpose then.
Then Jesus talks about tearing a new garment to make a patch for an old garment. Which is also silly. The result is a torn new garment and an old garment that looks stupid with a mismatching new patch. In the same way everyone knows that you don’t put new wine in an old wine skin. New wine ferments and expands and the old wine skin no longer has expanding capability. The result is a burst wineskin.
Many approach these parables as Jesus’ statement about the old law being done away with and being replaced with the new covenant. Maybe. But it seems just as likely that he is commenting on a stale old approach to God; an approach that had been so ritualized that it could no longer receive the new. Notice that in the parables, the example is all about what is not to be done with the new. And then Jesus winds the whole discussion by saying, “And no one, after drinking old wishes for new, for he says ‘The old is useful.'” This is most likely a statement about the Pharisees who are satisfied with their approach. It has served them well. They don’t need a new wine or new approach to God. Their approach, after all, sets them apart from the common people. Their approach did not allow for feasting with the tax collector or the sinners. Their approach was dry, old, and stale.
This is important for us today. If we make this purely about old and new law, we can pat ourselves on the back and say, “But thank God we are under the new law.” But if it is about approach, there is a warning for us as well. When we react with righteous indignation over someone else’s joy in Christ, we may need to ask ourselves if our approach has become stale. There are things that are wrong. That is not the point. But our worship; our approach to God ought to be a fresh breeze. We are, after all, approaching the One Who Makes All Things New. And if we turn worship into ritual the joy will dry up and burst. We will be Simon criticizing the woman of questionable character who anointed Jesus’ feet. And the fresh breeze will never blow in the stale valley. Praise God with renewed heart. Let a new breeze fill your lungs with new life.