"No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved." -- Matthew 9:16-17
This passage is rich with meaning. Every time I read it, I gain some new insight into Jesus' message.
We have been reading the Gospel of Matthew in the Wednesday Evening Adult Bible Study, and these verses are found in a section titled "The Question about Fasting," by the NRSV editors of my Bible. I did not understand the connection between new patches on old cloaks, new wine in old wineskins, and questions about fasting until someone read a commentary on the passage. Their commentary explained that the passage illustrates the fact that Jesus came to change things, to bring something new into the picture.
I sometimes think that Jesus did not say anything new because his message echoes all of the great prophets of old. It's all about loving your neighbor as yourself. But it seems like this message needs to be re-invented every so often. It needs to be re-taught again and again in fresh new ways every so often. Why?
Because we repeatedly get bogged down in doing the same things the same way, in traditions and rituals, even when they stop producing fruit, or having any meaning at all. The disciples of John the Baptist had a really difficult time thinking
of Jesus as the Messiah because he didn't do what they expected. They thought Jesus should fast, as they did. Why? Because that is the way things had always been done. They could not believe that one could have a close relationship with God unless one fasted.
But Jesus came to say that life in God's Kingdom wasn't about doing without, it was about doing for. He changed, or wanted to change, their focus. Some could accept this re-focusing, and some could not. Those who could not, were set in their ways -- they were "old".
Perhaps that is why Jesus repeatedly says that you must be like a child to enter the Kingdom of God. Children accept new things. They are open-hearted. They adapt to change much more easily than adults do. Generally. Some adults do stay young at heart, adapting to the changes that life brings with grace and insight. And some young people refuse to accept change. Being young at heart has nothing to do with how old you are in years. But it does have a lot to do with how well you adapt to new circumstances.
This week, changing our ways, has been a topic of conversation wherever I go. Since the election last Tuesday, there has been a lot of talk about the GOP needing to change if they ever want to survive. A political party consisting of mostly old white guys, who refuse to compromise, is not going to influence very many people -- certainly not the majority of the people. And so the GOP (which ironically enough stands for Grand Old Party) must change, must adapt to the changing times, or die, to put it harshly. They cannot keep preaching a message that only old white guys want to hear.
For an example of young people refusing to change, I don't have to look very far at all. Some of the high school youth of our church are adamantly opposed to change. They want things to be they way they have always been even though we have a new youth director and new cast of volunteer leaders. Every suggested change, even minute ones, are met with, "That's not how we used to do it." Or, "We want to do things the way [the previous director] did them." Sigh. It's been three months, and we are still hearing this. I wonder if they have ever heard of the Serenity Prayer. I wonder if they have ever read the book, "Who Moved My Cheese?" It seems that we will need to address this issue head-on if we are ever going to get past it.
I am reminded of a movie I saw recently. "Invictus" tells the story of how Nelson Mandela united South Africa upon becoming President after more than half a century of division promoted by the Afrikaner apartheid government. This is a movie about change, BIG change. The Afrikaners must get used to thinking of black South Africans as their equals. The black South Africans must get used to working alongside white South Africans, including those who previously oppressed them. Even Nelson Mandela has to change the way he has felt about some parts of the old regime. He (played by Morgan Freeman) says at one point in the movie, "If I cannot change when circumstance demand it, how can I expect others to?" The kind of change brought about in South Africa required, first of all, immense forgiveness. It's a powerful movie, and shows how the leadership of one very wise and courageous person can bring about tremendous change.
What would I like to see change?
Well, this week I was reminded again of something that really bothers me about the Christian church. In our Womens Study, we have been reading Rob Bell's "Love Wins", and this week, we discussed his chapter on the meaning of the cross. I like the way Rob Bell explains the many ways the cross was interpreted in New Testament times. I especially like how he explains how the writer of Hebrews interpreted the cross. The writer of Hebrews was speaking to a people who regularly sacrificed animals. Bell writes, "You raised or purchased an animal and then brought it to the temple and said the right words at the right time. Then the animal was slaughtered, and its blood shed on an altar to show the gods that you were very sorry for any wrong you'd done... Entire civilizations for thousands of years enacted sacrificial rituals, because people believed that this was how you maintained a peaceful relationship with the gods, the forces, and the deities who controlled your fate... So when the writer of Hebrews insisted that Jesus was the last sacrifice ever needed, that was a revolutionary idea. To make that claim in those days? Stunning. Unprecedented. Whole cultures centered around keeping the gods pleased. ... And now the writer is announcing that those days are over because of Jesus dying on the cross. Done away with. Gone. Irrelevant." (pgs. 124-5) Think about the impact that must have had on a culture, on a world, that had always sacrificed to appease the gods. Talk about changing things.
After reading that section of the book, I had a better understanding of where this idea of Christ's atoning sacrifice, which has always bothered me, came from. If this theory helped do away with animal sacrifices then it was clearly a step in the right direction. And maybe if I had lived in those days, it would have made sense to me. But today? Why is this interpretation still taught today when we are so far removed from the days of ritual sacrifice? The idea that Jesus had to die in order for my sins to be forgiven doesn't fit with my understanding of God or Jesus. In order for that to be true, God had to want or need Jesus to be sacrificed in order to forgive me. But this isn't the God I know or read about in the Old Testament or in words of Jesus. After all, God told Abraham that he did not want him to sacrifice his beloved son. Why would God then make this a requirement later on? Jesus forgave the sins of people... when he was alive. He said, "Repent and your sins will be forgiven." So simple. And Jesus said repeatedly, quoting ancient Hebrew Scripture, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice."
So, why is this idea of Jesus dying for the forgiveness of sins still such a prevalent message in the church today, in the liturgy, and in the songs we sing? Is it because this is how it has always been? What if this idea no longer bears fruit, or has meaning for people today? What if this idea is actually a stumbling block for many people who cannot understand how God could require such a sacrifice? What if this idea prevents many people from understanding what Christianity is really all about? While Jesus' death on the cross has many relevant meanings, a requirement for forgiveness of sins isn't one of them
So, this is one thing I would like to see change. There are others.
Dear God, may we all grow in wisdom and courage, learning your ways of forgiveness and compassion for all. Love always, Pam