I finally found a new metaphor for understanding Jesus' instruction not to pour his new wine into our old wineskins. I could understand Jesus' metaphor; he explains it well, but it's just that we don't use wineskins anymore. Jesus said, "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" (Matthew 9:17, TNIV). Jesus is doing something new and we shouldn't expect to contain him in the old wineskins of our limited expectations. Alan Alda's biography titled Never Have Your Dog Stuffed introduces a new metaphor for understanding this wineskin concept.
When Alan Alda was eight years old he experienced a great trauma. "My father was trying to stop me from sobbing because we were burying out pet dog," so as Alan explains, "my father said maybe we should have him stuffed." It turned out to be a bad idea. When the dog came back from the taxidermist, he didn't look right. Alda continues, "We kept our stuffed pet on the porch and deliverymen were afraid to make deliveries. There are a lot of ways we stuff the dog, trying to avoid change, hanging on to a moment that's passed. There's a lot of my life that was learning that lesson over and over again."
Well, I loved Alan Alda's biography and I am so thankful that he gave me a new metaphor for what happens when we try to put Jesus' new wine into old wineskins. Sometimes we think we've finally got this "faith in Jesus" thing figured out. That's when we try to preserve it. We try to stuff the dog with our expectations of how things work with God. We want him to be predictable. We want to know that we understand how faith works. Alan Alda is right: that's just stuffing the dog and try to hold on to what we already know. Jesus is telling us that our faith is alive and will grow and change and expand and we better have new wineskins! Immediately, Matthew details two events to illustrate what Jesus meant. I want to quickly comment on the second one.
Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed."
This event presents a challenge for us to understand since the cultural differences are enormous. The quick version: this woman had NO life. She was more desperate than we can imagine. When the text says that she "had been subject to bleeding for twelve years," it likely means that since entering puberty this woman in her mid-twenties had been enduring menstrual bleeding and hemorrhaging in between her monthly cycles. In a pre-tampon, pre-bathroom kind of culture where these kind of bodily matters were talked about more crudely and publicly than in our culture, this young woman would not only be publicly shamed, she would be a total outcast. No one would accept her or try to help her because this kind of bleeding makes one unclean and therefore untouchable according to the Jewish law. I don't think we can imagine this woman's pain and humiliation. How can we relate to the fact that due to her bleeding she has been overlooked in the expected practice of having your marriage arranged by your father?
Even if we can begin to appreciate her desperation for healing, we find her approach unsettling. It's like she believes that Jesus is magical. "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed." (Mark's gospel really emphasizes this notion of magic.) There's something not right about that. We would've gone about it differently because we know it's about personal faith in Jesus, not about touching his clothing and experiencing the magic. We expect that we have to get our theology right first, before we ask, before we pray, before Jesus could answer us. And that is stuffing the dog! We want to put his new wine in our old wineskins.
Commending this woman's faith, such as it is, Jesus encourages her, "Take heart!" Jesus sees in her approach a "new wineskin" kind of faith. In total desperation she reached out to Jesus, believing that after twelve years of horrible suffering, she'd found the way out of it. And she was right! Jesus had compassion on her, "Your faith has healed you." Matthew wants us to understand that this is the "new wineskin" kind of faith that Jesus had been talking about. Plus, I suspect the TNIV (and other English translations) are weak in translating the Greek verb as "healed" when Jesus likely intended the more common meaning, "saved." "Your faith has saved you." She was saved, rescued from a horribly outcast life and brought into new life by the grace of Jesus through faith, "new wineskin" faith.
We expect that we have to get our beliefs right before God will act, but Jesus surprises us by having compassion on people who don't have it all figured out. He seems to race ahead when people show the slightest inkling of new wineskin kind of faith. A young preacher preparing for a huge stadium event in New York ran into a big problem the night before it was to begin. He was training a team of counseling volunteers who were to assist him but he could not be heard over the roar of airplane engines coming out of La Guardia Airport at the rate of dozens per hour. So the young preacher paused, glanced up and quietly said, "We'll have to do something about this noise. This just won't do." He bowed his head and said a simple prayer to the effect, "Lord we ask you to shift the wind and send these planes in another direction. Thank you. Amen."
Personally, I'm shocked that a preacher would pray that way. One of the volunteers that day wrote, "Well we were believers but this was a tall order. We weren't sure what, if anything, to expect. But God did it; he answered our prayers in a wondrous way! The morning newspaper reported that the winds had changed during the night, and the airplanes over the Stadium had to be routed another way. For several days thereafter, thousands of people came to Christ under Billy Graham's preaching. At the conclusion of the crusade, the winds reverted to their normal flow, and the airplanes returned to their normal flight patterns."
God works powerfully through those who like Billy Graham and the bleeding young woman have "new wineskin" kind of faith. Most of the time I still expect that I have to get my theology right first. I'm pretty good at stuffing my faithful dog. Alan Alda actually helped me to see that I've been doing that with my all of my life, not just my faith. Having new wineskins is all about giving God the space and the room to do something new, to actually change my life in ways I may not expect. My faith is to grow and change and expand, so I better be willing to contain it in a new wineskin, flexible and ready for what Christ will do. I am one of too many Christians who has been settling for a lesser faith, stuffing it with my own thinking about God and then putting this faithful dog out on the porch where it scares away any who might want to know more about faith in Jesus.
Note: The above picture of Jesus is a great painting called "The Touch" by Ron DiCianni.
The above blog posting is quite a "snip-it" from my sermon based on Matthew 9:17-26. We worship a Saviour who exceeds our expectations. This passage of Scripture has a pretty amazing approach to challenging our expectations and re-shaping our faith.