THE PARABLES OF JESUS: An Invitation to Unravel Matthew 9:14-17
Pastor Yvonne Biel — Have you ever felt like your life was unraveling? As if all the threads that held your life together at one point were coming undone. I’ve been there. I woke up at age 27 in my high school bedroom looking at a calendar with absolutely nothing to do. I was thinking back on a time in my life where Jesus seemed to make sense, and I knew who God made me to be. I was living as a missionary in Vienna, Austria, teaching students the Bible and they were coming to me with their questions about Him. Each day I was praying the gospel over me. I was so confident and I knew who I was and I knew who God created me to be. But, I was back in Michigan longing for some answers. I found myself listening to an album called “The Undoing.” It felt like all these ways that I interacted with God were coming undone. I picked up a book called “Thrashing About with God” because that what it felt like. I didn’t understand, necessarily, how to interact with Him, and I felt like He was calling me into a new season, to just learn how to BE with Him. But I didn’t know how to do that. I just really hoped, and I wished, and I wanted to go back to a season where things made sense, where I knew how to interact with Him. But I found myself in this place of unraveling.
Maybe you’ve found yourself there. Maybe it was a season where you left your structure, your home, and your community environment and went off to college. Then you start asking all these questions about faith, and about who you are, and what you’re suppose to do with the rest of your life. That can be a place of unraveling. Maybe it was in the middle of your life where there’s a death of a loved one, and you don’t know how to act, or be, or function without them. Maybe it’s a loss of a job; you were so confident in that place and now it’s gone. Maybe it happens even later in your life and you’ve finished your season of work and you entered into a new season called retirement, and you think, “God, I don’t know what to do now and it’s not what I used to do.”
I think this is normal that we all go through seasons of unraveling. You know why I know that? Because I see that over and over in the Scriptures lives have been unraveled. You think of Abraham who’s been called to leave his home and his family and his culture and go to the place that God would show him. Man, that can be uncomfortable. You think of Moses who’s been asked to lead the people out of Egypt. They had confidence in being slaves; they knew what to do the next day. What about Joseph? Man, his family throws him into a pit, then he’s in prison for something he didn’t feel he was at fault for. What about the time his family comes back to him and they’re trying to figure out how to do life in family environment again? There are a lot of times in life where life doesn’t make sense and we’re trying to navigate it. The more that I study the spiritual journey, the more I realize this is normal.
At Denver Seminary, I’ve been through the program on Christian Formation and Soul Care. One of the authors I’ve been reading has been Walter Brueggemann. He’s an Old Testament scholar. He describes how in our spiritual journey there are three places we often find ourselves. We find ourselves sometimes in this place of “orientation,” where everything seems to make sense. We know who we are. We know who God is. We know how to interact and it’s oriented, it’s stable, it’s secure. Sometimes we find ourselves in this place of “disorientation,” where things make no sense. That phase in our life where things seem to be unraveling. Maybe we feel stuck. Maybe we feel like we’re driving ahead and it’s all fog in front of us. Or, sometimes we find ourselves in a place of new orientation, where we’ve gone through this process and we’ve been given a new realization and we’re able to enter into life in a fresh way, maybe with a different paradigm or a different perspective, as if God gave us new glasses and we’re able to see again.
So we find ourselves in one of these places throughout our spiritual journey. Today we’re going to enter into a parable, because this is our last week studying the parables. The way that I read this is in the context of disorientation. It seems like the Old Testament gave a lot of structure and order, where the disciples of Yahweh were trying to learn his way. They were trying to figure out his heart and connect to Him. God gave them the Law, He gave them structure, He gave them order. I think one of the biggest moments of disorientation in all of Scripture is when Jesus enters the scene. Because what are you going to do with this guy?! Who is he? I don’t know how to interact with God in this way, what do I do?
Today I’m inviting you to open your Bibles to Matthew 9:14-17. Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is pilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
Here we have the disciples of John. I think this is interesting, because it seems like in the New Testament we hear about the Pharisees, and the scribes, and the ones who are true to their Torah and their Law and are law-abiding citizens. When they come to Jesus and ask him a question, it seems like they’re trying to test Him and prove that His way is not good, and that He’s not who He says He is. Then we have Jesus’s disciples who are in this place of disorientation and they’re just partying with Jesus, they’re trying to figure it out as his disciples, his apprentices. But it’s interesting to me that this passage is about the disciples of John. John the Baptist was their rabbi, in a sense. Maybe he was a little bit crazy because he was out in the wilderness, and he wore weird clothes, but he talked about the coming of a Messiah and that the kingdom of heaven was near, and that there was a gospel of repentance and turning toward God again. It’s THESE disciples, I think, who are invited into this place of disorientation, but they don’t know if they want to go there yet.
This parable is directed to these disciples because they were fasting. They had been taught in their life and their orientation that fasting was the good thing to do. Sometimes I accidentally fast because I forget to plan out what I’m having for lunch, but these disciples were intentional about fasting. They were fasting about twice a week, because they were taught that was the way to connect with God. By fasting, they were refraining from eating something in order to connect spiritually with God and make themselves available to connect with Him. That was a really good practice. So it makes sense that they would think, “What in the world is going on? This is the way I know how to connect with God. What are we to do now?” What I love about the disciples of John is as they’re seeing this, as they’re seeing that their practices are maybe working but not as good as the disciples of Jesus, they go to Jesus and ask Him a question. I think we have something to learn from them here. I think the disciples of John remain curious and seek Jesus out. Sometimes in our place of disorientation we just want to revert back and we don’t really want to deal with what God is calling us into, so we avoid it. We just want to go back to what’s safe and what feels good. Sometimes I think we freak out in this place and we don’t want to hear Jesus’s answers. We want to just follow after whatever the culture says or get lost in our questions, and we come to the bottom of ourselves and there is no answer. I think there are people right now in our Christian culture that are coming to that place. They are asking these kind of deconstruction type questions and they’re not going to Jesus. They’re just landing in their questions, and landing in the muck and the mire. They’re giving up on marriages. They’re giving up on walking faithfully with Jesus. They’re giving up on Christian community and leaving the church. I don’t think that’s what the disciples of John are doing. What we can learn from the disciples of John is that when we experience these seasons of disorientation, or an invitation to unravel, we need to remain curious and keep seeking Jesus.
When they seek Jesus, how does He respond? It’s not necessarily like many of the other times when Jesus responds to maybe the Pharisees or Sadducees. Jesus gives them a parable. He gives them an image. I love this, because I think oftentimes in our seasons of unraveling and disorientation, the best thing Jesus can do for us is to speak through image, through parable. A parable is simply an image, a metaphor, that comes alongside our life and as we look at it we can see ourselves in it, like a mirror. If we let those parables, or those images, or those visions, or those dreams, or metaphors that come from the Spirit of God speak to us in our place of unraveling, we can meet Him in a place that doesn’t have to do with fear, it just has to be enjoyed.
I think Jesus still gives us parables today. He’s always been speaking in parables. When Jesus gives us a parable, we need to ask two questions: 1) What is significant about this image in my life? 2) What might Jesus want me to take away from this image? In today’s passage, we actually have three different verses with three different images. So today we’re going to go through the process of asking those two questions of each of the images.
The first image is in verse 15. And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Check out what word comes up twice here — bridegroom. In each of these verses, the image we’re going to call out is said twice. Here Jesus is inviting them to see the metaphor of the bridegroom. Oh man, I love this image, because a bridegroom is not just a father, or a master, or a friend. The bridegroom is a relational promise. The context of what John’s disciples were thinking about is different than today’s wedding, because there is a process of waiting that we do for the bride, right? In this case, the end of the Jewish processional would begin the beginning of the celebration. The entire town would come out to celebrate because the groom has shown up on the scene. Jesus is saying that He’s shown up on the scene, that He’s present. That he’s there. He says, “Why are you fasting when I’m here?!” There were ways that they were connecting with God, maybe similar to ways that we would connect with a loved one when they’re far away. We’d get out our FaceTime, we would get out our Skype and connect with them. But if they get on a plane or an Uber and show up on your doorstep and actually arrive, are you going to get out your FaceTime? No! You’re going to just enjoy them. You’re going to sit down over a meal together, share life, exchange stories, and be together.
The bridegroom is the image of the presence of Jesus. He’s not some ethereal, faraway God or judge out in the universe. He wants to be present with them. He’s promised to be present with them. He’s promised to come. I love that this is the metaphor of a relational vow. Long ago Jesus had promised that He would come. He promised that He would come to save and redeem and restore, and He’s there. So, the disciples of John are being invited into Jesus’s presence. Invited to be in relationship with Him. Relationships are messy. It’s not necessarily organized and structured and you can’t figure it out. Sometimes if you focus too much on the mechanics of the relationship, you’re not actually IN the relationship. Jesus is inviting them to be. He’s inviting them to engage in relationship.
You might ask, “Yvonne, that’s cool. Jesus was there in the flesh, but what about NOW?” He said he would go away and he did go away—the manifestation of him in human form. But he promised that He would send something better. He would send his Spirit that would never leave us, that would never forsake us. Now we live in a time where we can connect with the Spirit of Jesus, every single day, every single moment. Jesus wants us to be present to relationship with him. I believe Jesus is inviting us to actually let go of our structures so that we have the freedom in our hands to hold on to our Savior, to hold on to that relationship. If we focus too much on the mechanics and how we can connect with God, we may end up missing out on the relationship with God. If we think we can check off the boxes of…..I did my devotions today. I came to church. I fasted through Lent. Whatever XYZ. We may end up missing out on the fact that he wants to be near us, that he wants to be present to us, that the Spirit of God—the One that raised Jesus from the dead—is living inside of us. He wants to speak and be in relationship with us. So the metaphor of the bridegroom is letting go of our structures and holding onto our Savior.
Let’s look at verse 16—No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. This may seem to be a little unrelated, but I don’t think it would be that unrelated in Jewish thought. What do you do when you go to a wedding? You dress up, right? You get out your new outfit. The word “garment” is used twice here, and I think that’s because there’s a purpose for a garment. There’s a garment that you wear to a wedding. There’s also a garment you wear when you fast. The image earlier was that you aren’t going to go to a wedding in your mourning clothes. Imagine putting on all your dirty clothes and sackcloth and ashes and showing up at a big party where they’re joyous and celebrating. That just doesn’t fit. Or, you have a favorite outfit that you’ve worn to every single wedding for the last seven years. It’s wearing out but you love it so much that you pull it out of the closet and realize it has a tear in it. Well, I’ve got this new outfit but I don’t like it that much, so let me just rip part of that off and repair this old outfit, so I can go to this wedding and look beautiful like I always want to look. Right? You get to the wedding and bend over for a picture and RIPPPP! That would be so embarrassing. You wouldn’t actually put a new piece of cloth on an old garment. No! You’re going to go out and buy a new outfit.
Jesus is inviting them to a new garment. This is interesting because if you do any sort of peripheral study of the word “garment” throughout Scriptures, Jesus uses this image so often. The God that we serve is a garmenting God. It says that He garments the heavens in splendor and majesty. The first time God provided a new garment was way back in Genesis. God comes to Adam and Eve and finds them in hot-flashes of shame, not knowing what to do with the pain of their sin. They’re trying to cover themselves because they’re embarrassed. God comes to them and actually kills an animal and covers them with skin. He creates new garments for them. I think that’s a beautiful invitation that Jesus is inviting the disciples of John to look at. There’s something that Jesus is offering in terms of covering their shame. He wants to provide something new for them, something fresh. This isn’t something the disciples can do on their own. They can’t patch up their shame. They can’t just cover it up. They need Jesus to invite them in and HIS righteousness can cover their shame.
There’s a gal that really inspires me. Her name is Joni Erikson Tada. She says that every single day when she wakes up, as a quadriplegic, she requires help putting on her garments. She wrote an article and in it says that she thanks God every single day that she can’t dress herself, because she realizes that it’s God’s garments of righteousness that she can’t put on herself. So every day she receives that kind of promise as she’s clothed by others. I think that’s true for us too. In this image of the garment, Jesus is inviting us to actually put down our patching up and invite God to cloth us in his fresh grace. Jesus invites us to give up on patching up our old ways in order to receive his fresh grace. When we’re in this posture of receiving this fresh grace, we’re able to know that it’s not of ourselves, it is a gift of God. We come to Jesus with dependence; we can’t figure it out on our own. Sometimes I think when we’ve gone through a time and we’re able to connect with God in certain ways, and maybe we feel this breaking from that and it seems like we’re not able to connect with God like we were before…maybe reading the Scriptures like we use to is not adding up for us anymore. Maybe it’s coming to church or being in a certain group…..there’s an emptiness that we’re feeling in it. I think Jesus may be inviting us to try something new, to receive fresh grace. Maybe go out for a walk in nature and just be present to Him. Maybe it’s trying out a different stream of Christianity…..like doing some liturgy or doing some forming, centering prayer, where God can come to us in a fresh way and we can receive something good and fresh for that season. I believe the image that Jesus gives with the garment is not patching it up and instead, coming to Him and receiving his fresh righteousness and fresh grace.
Let’s look at the next image from verse 17 — Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved. Here’s a picture of a wineskin. I find it fascinating that the wineskin is also a garment. It was the garment of the sacrificed animal. The wineskin itself is actually a container. The image Jesus was inviting me to look into was actually what goes through that container. It’s a grape. So we’ve got the groom, the garment, and the grape.
They would have used the wineskin to put the crushed grapes in, and it would have to go through a long process of transformation. My friend, Rich Obrecht, was telling me his process of making wine. One of his favorite images from this process is that the grape—this spherical, fun little fruit that you can toss up and catch in your mouth and enjoy its juicy goodness—has to have the skin break. It has to go through this process of crushing. Once it’s put into this container, a wineskin, this container of transformation…..which I think, may be symbolic of these moments in our lives of disorientation, where literally the grape doesn’t stay a grape. It goes into the wineskin and the yeast starts to eat on the sugars, and the entire chemical makeup of the grape changes. The outpouring of this transformation is a completely different chemical makeup. I think many of you delight in this process—that it’s an entirely different delicious drink. It doesn’t taste or look anything like it was before.
I think Jesus is inviting us to go through this transformation, to let the wineskin do it’s work in us. It’s a process. The crushed grapes are in the wineskin for a very long time. This is a drawn out process, and often in our seasons where we step into times of disorientation in an instant world…..a world that we can click a button and have something delivered to our door. We live in a microwave generation where things happen fast and we get answers fast. It’s hard to go through a long and arduous process of transformation, but that’s what the grape has to do. It has to sit there and ferment. It has to engage in that process for a long time. I think we need to engage in that process, however long it takes, in order to come out the other side as something better.
There’s another account, of this similar question from John’s disciples, in the gospel of Luke 5:39. At the very end, Jesus tacks one comment onto this parable — And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says the old is good enough. How often do we let our lives, our structures, and our orientations to God be good enough, and we’re afraid to go through this long process of transformation every day where we come out the other side something different? I think Jesus invites us to let go of that “good enough” in order to process further transformation in our lives. That yesterday’s good enough is going to be a grape, but if we stay grape, we’ll never get to the wine.
The wine is such a beautiful metaphor because all throughout Scripture because the wine represents JOY! There’s delight. There’s merriment. There’s pleasure in what comes from the wine. We would miss out on the joy if we stayed a grape. We would miss out on the better ending. Once we’ve seen some of the new things out there, we don’t want to go back to the old. Look at how many smartphones you guys have! Do you want to go back to those long cords on the wall? You guys have seen the Smart TV’s, right? Who wants to go play with an antenna and make sure you can actually get a signal? NO! That’s because the new is actually good. Sometimes we don’t see it. So I believe that Jesus is casting a picture of the wedding. He’s casting a picture of the bridegroom, the relationship that we can have with him. He’s casting the vision of the garments that will cover us with His righteousness. And the joy that will come through the process of transformation. If only we consent to the process.
So I know, for me, in my journey of disorientation that God has taken me through a long process. I can say that I would not be standing here today, speaking to you, I wouldn’t have even allowed myself to do that, if it weren’t for this process of disorientation. God has allowed me to reorient in some ways, to be filled with joy in His presence, and to learn how to be with Him in a new way. I think that can be true for you too. That doesn’t mean that I’m done with all my disorientation. We’re going to find ourselves in one of these three places throughout our entire lives. But I can say that the process of that transformation, if you let Jesus do His work in your life, it will be good, it will be freeing, it will be joyous.
I’d love for us to consider: As we’re going through these phases of disorientation, what would be helpful for us to remember? What would be helpful for us to take away? On one hand, we can learn a lot about Jesus’s posture towards us in our disorientation. We can see that He’s the groom. He vows to be present to us through his Holy Spirit. Sometimes the way he’s present to us is through the community of believers, where we are actually able to connect with the Spirit of Jesus because we show up in a place where the Spirit of Jesus is in one another. Jesus promises the garments. He offers us new clothes to cover our shame, so as we’re journeying through this process of disorientation, there may be times we feel we’ve messed it up. But that’s okay. He wants to offer us NEW garments and FRESH grace. I do believe that Jesus promises that his posture toward us is that He WILL transform us when we consent to that transformation. He’ll show up if we just let him do his thing.
I believe there are some things we can do in our process, in our places of disorientation, when things are feeling like life is coming undone or that our whole world is unraveling. We can keep seeking Jesus, instead of looking toward the culture and all these self-help books and just trying to understand what’s happening. Although those are good things, we can’t miss that we have to meet Jesus. It is HIM that will give us that fresh grace. It is HIM that can do that transforming work that results in amazing joy.
Let me give you a little time to think about what practices could you do in your season of disorientation. Maybe this week you could meditate on one of these images—the garment, the bridegroom, the grape. Allow Jesus to use that metaphor to come alongside your life and to mirror it in some way. Maybe you’re in that season of disorientation and you’re thinking, “What can I do?” Maybe you just open your hands/palms every single day and ask the Lord to cover you with his fresh grace. In Lamentations, it says his mercies are new every morning, so he will be faithful to show up, when you’re faithful to go to him. Maybe you’re in a season where God has reoriented you, or you’re in the process and you just need to remember that he is doing that transformative work. So we can rejoice in the slow, steady transformative work in our life. Look for the little wins—like oh, I didn’t react in the same way I used to. That’s good. Oh, Jesus came and met me as I was staring up at the trees. That’s good. Whatever that is, continue to rejoice that His presence is with us and that His grace is afresh.
I know when we go through this process with Jesus, when we consent to our transformation, that God is good to show up. Because there will be a day when there is an entirely giant, epic wedding feast—it’s called the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. One day, Jesus the Bridegroom is going to come again. As he comes again to us, we are going to have the biggest party of the ages. I am super excited that the Bridegroom is going to be there, and we’re going to be clothed in new garments, garments of glorified bodies. I believe that we’re going to be grabbing the biggest goblet we can find and be toasting and celebrating God’s transformative work in our lives that He has over and over come through for us. I’m hoping that it is the best wine in all of history as we toast and clink glasses to Jesus and the transformative work that He has done in each and every one of our lives. I hope to see you there and I hope to see that you have consented to that kind of unraveling. Let’s pray.
Father God, King Jesus, Holy Spirit, it is you who is the Groom. It is you who is present to us. It is you who covers us with your righteousness, and it is you who shows up for our transformation. May we consent to being transformed this week. In Jesus’s name and the power of His Spirit, and all God’s people said…..Amen.