thoughts on tradition
I recently took a huge life step: I bought a MacBook Pro. That’s right, I am one of those people now, a Mac person. But I promise it wont change me! This retina display, the 2.6GHz core i5, this brushed aluminum won’t change….well I need your prayers.
That’s kind of a joke, but I really do love it so far. It set me back quite a bit of money, but I can do so many things creatively, musically. I can pretty easily put together demos of songs that I write, and Downton Abbey has never been so crisp and high definition.
A few nights ago I was really bored in my apartment, so I packed up and went to a coffee shop down the street. As I was putting my computer into my backpack, I noticed a hole in the bag. Now I say I noticed it, but I know that hole has been there for a long time. This is my old college backpack, I used it everyday, all day for years, and it served me well. I suppose it’s more accurate to say I became aware of the hole in my backpack in that moment.
I realized as I was packing up that my old bag was probably not a very good carrier for my new prized possession. With it’s holes, minimal padding and no protective sleeve, it probably isnt the best idea to continue to throw my computer into it. There was a time when this backpack would’ve been the perfect vessel for a Mac, but those days are probably over.
As I rumenated about this on the drive, I remembered something Jesus said. I came across it recently in Mark, but it appears in other gospels as well.
Mark 2:18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. So they came to Jesus and said, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast?” 2:19 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they do not fast. 2:20 But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and at that time they will fast. 2:21 No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. 2:22 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins.”
So what is happening here? Some religious people are calling out Jesus and his disciples for not fasting. “You should be fasting? We’re fasting, why aren’t you following the rules?” And Jesus responds with some strange stuff about weddings and sewing and proper wine storage…how weird.
What an interesting response. I’ve been thinking about this for the past several days.
To give you a little background, in those days, wine was often stored in skins, usually goatskins. The 1st century equivalent of a growler, wineskins were a great way to carry your favorite adult beverage around town. They were lightweight and extremely portable. The only problem was that they didnt last. Eventually, the wineskins would grow old, wear out, begin to crack. After a certain point, you ran the risk of your wineskin breaking and losing your wine. If you just bought some nice wine, you would want to make sure you had a fresh wineskin.
So this is actually a pretty outrageous thing for Jesus to be saying. Why are you fasting? What are you waiting for, I’m right here? He compares the Pharisees fasting rituals to old wineskins. They are taking new wine and putting it in old wineskins. They might even be at risk of losing the wine.
In 21st century Christianity we are always quick to judge the Pharisees, but I think this idea hits home more sharply than ever. As Christians, we have been given new wine, fresh wine! I’m talking of course about the Gospel. We have this sweet, life-giving thing meant for all to enjoy, and sometimes we cram it into old, cruddy wineskins. Too often we take the message of Christ and package it in things that are old and conveinent. Traditions. rituals. “religion.”
Here’s an example: I grew up in a very traditional church. Hymnals, organ, responsive readings, robes, cerimonial candle lighting…all that stuff. It was a great place and I’m grateful to the people at that church, but it was mostly old people. Old people who loved their traditions. I remeber once we had a huge row about whether or not we were going to replace our 60 year old pews with new, comfortable interlocking chairs. New chairs would be more comfortable, more versatile, and more asthetically pleasing for a modern church experience. But many of the more tradional members of the congregation felt very strongly that we should not replace the pews with chairs. I overheard things being said like: “It’s just not church without pews.” and “If we dont bring pews back, I’ll just have to leave.” I was dumbfounded. Even as a teenager, I knew that these people were entirely missing the point. They were more concerned with the wineskin than the actual wine.
I think this happens all the time. We cling to rituals, songs, & musical styles, for no reason other than personal preference. We elevate the wineskins above the wine itself.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s biblical to say that we should do away with all traditions (Lord knows I love a good liturgy), but I think it is biblical to say that every tradition should be examined for cracks. Jesus gives us a pretty clear example.
Throughout the Gospels, he shows very high regard for certain traditions. He goes to the synagog, he prays, he sings hymns, he observes the Passover and other holidays. But at the same time, whenever he spots a bad tradition, a bad ritual, a bad wineskin, he is very quick to throw it out. He is not precious at all with ‘the way things were.’ Whenever he encounters a practice that no longer serves its purpose, he ignores it, or replaces it with something else. Why? Because he was showing us that the wine is what is important.
So what does that mean for us?
I think if we are to follow Jesus’ lead, we must constantly examine our wineskins, our ‘religion.’ Is this wineskin helping us to preserve and distribute the wine? Or is it putting it at risk of spilling it? Are our practices helping us to spread the love of Christ, or are they making things more difficult and turning people away? Christianity is a relationship, not a ritual.
A wineskin without wine is empty. Religion without Christ is empty.
Just like my old tired backpack does not reflect the magnificence of my new computer, old broken systems do not do justice to the magnifecene of the Gospel.
Honor the wine. Serve the recipients. Check your wineskins.