I love reading about the circumstances that went before Jesus teaches His parables. The context in which He teaches is illuminating to the parables themselves.
How often do we tell someone a story after they've shared some information with us, or recently experienced something dramatic or amazing? Stories tie us together. If I tell you that I received a speeding ticket on the way home from church (!), you might tell me that you let fly a swear word right when a fellow church member rounded the corner at the supermarket. It connects our humanity and makes us realize that we all have things we go through--for better or for worse.
So, let's look at what preceded Jesus' teaching on old coats and on old wineskins in Matthew 9:16-17.
Starting in Chapter 9, we see Jesus having returned by boat "to his own town." The friends of a paralytic man brought him to Jesus. "When Jesus saw their faith," He then lovingly forgives the man's sins.
Obviously, the greater paralysis is of his soul. How many times was he angry at God for his condition? How many times did he envy people who passed by him? How many nights did he cry alone, just wanting for one moment to leap up and run outside? Sin and sadness, anger and regret, swirled in this man's soul like a tornado, and He saw the many layers of dust in the man's spirit.
Of course, the religious leaders are outraged that a mere man would take God's office and forgive the man's sins. Jesus rebukes them, and stands on His authority "to forgive sins." He wasn't blaspheming, as they evilly thought. Why? Because He is the One of whom the ancients foretold.
The man arose, healed in body and soul, and went home, much to the amazement of the crowds.
Jesus goes on and sees a tax collector. He calls him to follow Him, and Matthew leaves his post and follows Jesus. Jesus comes to dinner at Matthew's house and of course, Matt's choice of guests are the very ones that the Pharisees despise.
They question Jesus' disciples about the wisdom of their rabbi eating with such folks. Jesus then pointedly comments that the sick need a doctor. He quotes a verse from Hosea about how God "'desires mercy, not sacrifice,"" and tells the leaders that they need to learn what that means.
On the tail end of this, here comes John's disciples, observing with some consternation that they and the Pharisees fast, but Jesus' disciples do not. Interesting to see John's disciples making common cause with the Pharisees, who despised John. They were probably hovering about in the crowd, listening to the Pharisees excoriate Jesus and didn't want to tick them or Jesus off. So, they ask a question as if they and the Pharisees are on the right path with their fasting, and Jesus is either misleading or undermining the law with his practices, or lack thereof.
He sets the tone by equating himself to a bridegroom, and how in this celebratory atmosphere, fasting would be inappropriate. The time will come, he tells them, when his departure will cause fasting. But not now.
So, given what Jesus just did--forgave sins, healed, called a scorned member of society to be his disciple, dined with more scorned members, and allowed for joy in his disciples and not ritual, he starts to teach in parables: “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither
do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will
burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they
pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Hmmm...interesting. Jesus is exploring trying to use both old and new, and what will happen to each.
"Unshrunk cloth" is an interesting one--it hasn't been washed, beaten on a rock and left in the sun to dry. There's nothing wrong with such cloth, as long as the surrounding fibers are the same. If the whole cloth is "unshrunk," then it will go through the wash in a unified way, each fiber stretching together to face the wear and tear.
Now you have a garment that has hole in it--this implies it has been worn a lot, faced many washing days and needs to be repaired in order to be worn again. Fair enough! But, unshrunk cloth is not the solution, not because it is not good cloth, but because of its incompatibility with the fabric to which it's going to be attached.
So, we have a problem: a worn-out garment in need of repair and a patch of fabric that once sewn on, will make the hole even bigger as it shrinks. The new will "tear away" from the old. Maybe, at first, there seems to be a compatibility between the two: the new patch hides the hole nicely. But on wash day--that day when fibers are stretched and pounded in order to be cleaned, then the incompatibility will become painfully obvious and damaging to both the old and the new. The garment has a bigger hole and the new cloth cannot cover it and is ruined by the stretching of its fibers.
Now Jesus could have stopped there. But let us stop for a moment. The fabric for the Tabernacle in the Old Testament was woven to very specific instructions, as to color and what materials are to be used. The priests' garments were woven very specifically as well. God gave His law in an orderly way, by using Moses as His intermediary, and the Tabernacle was a place where Moses met God and received instructions. The Old Testament is the Old Covenant and Jesus is inaugerating the New Covenant. But that's our view, looking back.
All his listeners had was The Covenant--the Law and the Prophets. Every day of his ministry, Jesus is enacting a new way of thinking and acting before God. The Pharisees with their not-so-gentle reminders of the Law and the Prophets, represent what will later been seen as the Old Covenant, but only in the light of what Jesus will fulfill on the cross. That's in the future, however.
A new fabric is being woven in the work of this man from Nazareth. The "unshrunk cloth" is Jesus dealing with sinners, forgiving and healing them, and calling the lowly into the Kingdom of his Father. This is a Kingdom of the Law written on the hearts of those who love God and will act righteously out of love, not out of obligation or ritual.
The old garment is in need of repair--the following of rules and regulations, and hearts acting out of obligation has led to the coldness and snobbery of the Pharisees. They have a hole in their hearts, exemplified by their contempt of the masses, and their arrogance in thinking they alone know God.
The two are incompatible. The day is coming when the old garment will be cast aside for a new raiment, washed in the blood of the Lamb and shining white. It will endure the rough treatment of the world, and all its threads will face trial united and strong.
Now, Jesus talks of wine and wineskins. New wine is valuable. The old wineskins are just that--they have served well. The vigorous pouring of new wine into such skins will be a loss for both: the new wine will spill on the ground and the old skins will be torn. Both are ruined.
The old garment had its place in covering the sin of the people. The old wineskins had their place in holding the truth about God. However, a new wine is coming.
The new wine is the New Covenant. Someday soon, Jesus will take the cup at Passover and tell His disciples that this wine represents His blood that will be poured out for the forgiveness of sins. He will be THE Passover lamb, whose blood will take away the sins of the world.
So, this new wine will be poured into new wineskins: Jesus' New Covenant will produce a new kind of follower of God, one who is committed and driven by love for those around him and for God. A person whose heart will be filled with the Holy Spirit and who will serve God well because the old nature "has been crucified with Christ" and we walk as new creations, where the old is passed away and we are empowered from within to live the life He requires. The Old Covenant is being ful-filled with the wine of the New Covenant.
The "new wineskins" and the "new wine" are both "preserved"--they can be used again and again to serve at the table. With Jesus' blood, we stand in a new relationship to God: fully forgiven and free to serve Him. No religiosity, no ritual, no righteousness by works: He pours His newness into us, and we are free to serve Him and our fellow man.