Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:15-16,NKJV)
Before we go any further, I want to pause for a second on a line from verse 15: “and sinners also sat together with Jesus…” Just reflect with me for a moment on what this verse really means! We have a Savior who is not afraid to associate Himself with sinners! He’s not afraid of our dirt; we don’t have to worry about making Him uncomfortable with our baggage. That’s good news, isn’t it? BUT, at the same time, Christ has a very determined purpose in this interaction, as shown by His response to the scribes: “When Jesus heard it, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’” (vs. 17, NKJV). Jesus’ purpose is to call us to repentance and to bring healing to our lives. Sometimes we’re quick to jump on the first part of Christ’s response — so that we can put those self-righteous snobs in their place! However, we must never forget our own desperate need of healing life transformation. I appreciate how the New Living Translation renders this passage: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” Theologian William Barclay further expands on this point:
Mark 2:17 is a highly concentrated verse. It sounds at first hearing as if Jesus had no use for good people. But the point of it is that the one person for whom Jesus can do nothing is the person who thinks himself so good that he does not need anything done for him; and the one person for whom Jesus can do everything is the person who is a sinner and knows it and who longs in his heart for a cure. To have no sense of need is to have erected a barrier between us and Jesus; to have a sense of need is to possess the passport to his presence. (Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Mark)
Jesus’ actions here are of course deeply threatening to the socio-religious constructs that the scribes and Pharisees have worked so hard to erect, and in the next scene cut, Jesus is once again at the center of religious controversy. We pick up in verse 18: “Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, ‘Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?’” You see, in Christ’s day, the Pharisees went far beyond the Torah’s prescribed yearly fasts and actually practiced fasting on a regular weekly basis. When the Pharisees fasted, they would wear tattered, disheveled garments and would even whiten their faces so that it would be unmistakably obvious that they were fasting. This, of course, was all done for public show, so that the common people would admire the Pharisees’ austerity. That’s why Jesus would later teach, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16, NIV). So in our Markan passage, it is apparently one of these self-imposed fasting cycles that Jesus and His disciples are accused of not observing. Let’s read Christ’s response to the confrontation:
Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.
“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before.
“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:19-22, NLT)
For his first counter-example, Jesus picks the most joyous occasion in the Jewish culture. Wedding celebrations would go on for days of feasting and partying! Custom forbade participants from fasting during this time so that nothing would risk spoiling the joyful mood of the occasion. So by implication, Jesus is basically warning the Pharisees that if they don’t recalibrate their thinking—if they remain stuck in their “old wineskin” mentality—they’re going to miss out on God’s own great wedding feast! The Bridegroom of Israel is present, living and walking among them, and they don’t even have a clue. How very, very sad… I am reminded of this excerpt from E.G. White which I find here to be particularly meaningful:
The Prince of heaven was among His people. The greatest gift of God had been given to the world. Joy to the poor; for Christ had come to make them heirs of His kingdom. Joy to the rich; for He would teach them how to secure eternal riches. Joy to the ignorant; He would make them wise unto salvation. Joy to the learned; He would open to them deeper mysteries than they had ever fathomed; truths that had been hidden from the foundation of the world would be opened to men by the Saviour’s mission.
John the Baptist had rejoiced to behold the Saviour. What occasion for rejoicing had the disciples who were privileged to walk and talk with the Majesty of heaven! This was not a time for them to mourn and fast. They must open their hearts to receive the light of His glory, that they might shed light upon those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death. (White, The Desire of Ages)
You know, the more I have studied this passage in Mark, the more convicted I have felt lately to reflect and ask myself: Where in my life could I be missing out on “God’s party next door”? All because I’m stuck in an “old wineskin” mentality and spirit? Where in my heart do I need to allow God to recreate me into a new wineskin, so that I can receive the fresh blessings and the new opportunities that His Spirit wants to pour out on me?
As we approach the end of Mark chapter 2, we see that this chapter was written to teach us that the old garment can’t just be “patched up.” The old cynical, judgmental mode of thinking which seeks to exclude people who don’t measure up to our biased standards… The old legalistic approach to religion which seeks to impose burdensome, man-made rules in our relationship with God… These old attitudes, biases, and prejudices have absolutely no place in the New Kingdom that Christ is here to proclaim! “New wine calls for new wineskins.”