New Wine, Old Wineskins


Rev. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

June 7, 2020


Texts: Hosea 4:1–6; Matthew 9: 31–38

      My father was a child of the Great Depression and he had this habit of re-using everything until it just couldn’t be used any longer. This was especially true of ordinary household objects, like cans and bottles. I remember–– now, I am really dating myself––when milk first came in non-glass containers. Squinting at the rectangular container, he began to figure out what he could do with it if he wasn’t going to leave it out for a milkman. 

      And the next thing my mother knew was that there were these waxed containers all over the house, holding everything from seedlings, which they were good for to home frozen packed fish from his fishing expeditions to holders for all of the many kinds of nails and screws my grandfather would carefully remove from anything broken beyond repair. And because we wasted nothing in my parents’ home, the fish heads were used for the tomatoes my grandfather planted. But, as I found out, they weren’t good for my bug collection. The bugs were all dead, but the problem was they would get moldy in those waxed containers. 

        In ancient Palestine, no one could afford to waste anything either, but as Jesus pointed out, for new wine, you need new wineskins. I have to admit, though, when I read a description of wineskin production, I had to wonder what wine would taste like when drawn from the inside of a goatskin. 

       Jesus had a deep insight into human nature and understood how we try to fit new experiences into old paradigms. Using our past experiences to analyze a present situation is a common approach to solving problems; it makes sense because our past experience is what we have to go on. 

         But when we are faced with totally new situations, we are forced to struggle with designing not just new approaches but sometimes we have to develop totally new paradigms or frames of reference to address the new situation. There are times when relying on the past just doesn’t work anymore.

        For instance, those of us who have had relationships or marriages that haven’t worked had to learn that in beginning a new relationship, old ways of relating may not work. This is perhaps the hardest thing about trying something new because it makes sense that we rely on past experience. The ability to reason through our past experience usually enables us to figure out how to get through a new situation. But sometimes reasoning through past experience makes us realize that the old paradigm and that we have to change the old way of thinking about something. 

        The same is true for how we think theologically. About twenty years ago, I had agreed to represent a young Sudanese woman in detention whose family had been brutally murdered. I asked her about her experience of being in an airplane. She told me that she had been afraid the plane would fall off the edge of the earth, which she had described as a large pie. 

         I decided to bring a Walt Disney book belonging to my son George that explained how the earth was round with pictures of the earth circling the sun and the moon circling the earth. I was really curious to see her reaction. A devout Roman Catholic, she looked at me in amazement. This is true? She asked. Yes, I replied. How wondrous! She exclaimed, God is even more glorious than I thought. 

         Now, why couldn’t those sixteenth-century bishops have had the same response to Galileo? For her, shifting the paradigm wasn’t an impossibility. We think, well, that’s a no-brainer! But there are many other areas where it isn’t such a no-brainer.

        Although more than 2700 years old, the words of the prophet Hosea speaks to this issue. The old wineskins of injustice and idolatry will burst if the new wine of justice is poured into it. If we look at how we frame issues of basic justice we get some idea of what is involved.

        First, when we talk about “justice,” we are not really talking about justice in the biblical sense of the word. Usually we think of justice as a form of retribution. Even the cry for “justice” in Minneapolis is not justice.

        It is a cry for retribution. Not quite an eye for an eye but pretty close. That is partly because what counts for justice in our “criminal justice system” does not take into account the healing concept of righteousness.

        True justice involves equity and fairness, something that has been lost sight of in today’s world. God’s justice involves righteousness, what is called tikkun olam, or repair of the world, bringing the world back into the wholeness of being by acting beneficially and ethically.

         But to put the new wine of true justice and righteousness, we need to discard the old wineskins. This past week provided examples of what happens when someone uses the old wineskin of political grandstanding and false piety. We need wineskins made from a new          understanding of equity. 

          Hosea saw that the idolatry of misusing political power was intimately tied with greed resulting in the lack of equity for the disadvantaged. Here in the United States that greed has caused many inner city children to suffer from asthma and other illnesses because factories with noxious fumes are built in their neighborhoods. Newark has some of the dirtiest air in the nation and one of the highest death rates for young children from asthma.

          This past week while our attention has been on policing in minority communities, the forces of greed have reversed important environmental regulations to satisfy corporate interests. The Yale Climate Connection, established to examine the effects of regulation and business, states that it will take decades to reverse the effects of the destruction of previous regulations under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

         True justice and righteousness means speaking out and taking action for racial justice and environmental justice for the two are inseparable. It also means reforming our police departments and looking seriously at how policing is done. It means restructuring society.

         It does not mean ignoring the criminality of looting something that upset many peaceful protesters who were out cleaning up streets and helping looted businesses. Nor does it mean clearing areas with force and violence for one man’s hubris.

        How do we make a new goatskin for the wine? By committing ourselves as a society to equity, to repairing the world. We really can make an Eden of the wilderness we may feel trapped in, but it will take imagination and commitment to develop new paradigms. As we strive to create a more just society, we cannot use old wineskins, for as Jesus so perceptively put it, they will burst and the wine will be lost. 

        Let us pray: We come to you, O God, for guidance as we face a new world of challenges that lay before us. Bring us into your presence and help us be a reflection of that presence to the world where we live. In the name of our model, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.