Luke 5 – Days of Wine and Wineskins

The end of the fifth chapter of Luke’s gospel presents a parable from Jesus that historically has been subject to a variety of interpretations, many of them reflecting a supercessionist bias. Let’s see what the text says and what exegetical evidence other Jewish literature can provide.

[The Pharisees] said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” And Jesus said to them,“Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.”

He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” Luke 5:33-39 (ESV)

Throughout the history of western theology, this particular parable has often been interpreted as Jesus saying in some way that the “new” testament and the “old” testament are incompatible, and what was once Israel and Judaism is becoming the Church and Christianity. But does that interpretation fit the context of the chapter? A supercessionist reading certainly doesn’t appear to fit with 5:39. In Luke 5, we see Jesus’ selection of disciples – what if the “old” and “new” represent the type of individual Jesus is calling to discipleship? That does seem to be one emphasis at play here, the fact that Jesus is calling ordinary individuals such as fisherman and tax collectors – and not advanced Torah students – to follow him. That would better fit the context than appealing to an anachronistic supercessionism.

It would be helpful to our exegesis if we could find a similar type of parable presented in a similar style, and in fact there is one – let’s compare Luke 5:33-39 with a passage from the Talmud, Pirkei Avot 4:20:

“Elisha the son of Avuyah would say: One who learns Torah in his childhood, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on fresh paper. One who learns Torah in his old age, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on erased paper.

Rabbi Yossei the son of Judah of Kfar HaBavli would say: One who learns Torah from youngsters, whom is he comparable to? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks unfermented wine from the press. One who learns Torah from the old, whom is he comparable to? To one who eats ripened grapes and drinks aged wine.

Said Rabbi Meir: Look not at the vessel, but at what it contains. There are new vessels that are filled with old wine, and old vessels that do not even contain new wine.”

Do you see the connection? The similarities between these two passages shouldn’t surprise us, given that Jesus taught and interacted with his fellow Jews in Jewish milieu.

Wine is often compared to Torah, and Torah remains the focus of what is taught – the parable says nothing to us about Jesus replacing Torah or symbolically replacing Israel. What this comparison provides is additional evidence that Jesus’ parable at the end of Luke 5 is about his disciples… the individuals he chose were ordinary people who hadn’t been deeply educated or influenced by the debates between the Sadducees, Pharisees, or Essenes – they were individuals who were more open to Jesus’ teaching and not subject to significant bias or prejudice. If we were to translate this parable into an English idiom, we might say that Jesus is telling the Pharisees: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. 1Special thanks to Thomas Lancaster’s King of the Jews The focus of the teaching remains Torah-centered, with the emphasis being on Jesus’ choice in disciple.

It should be safe to say that the traditional supercessionist reading of Luke 5 no longer has force behind it, when kept in its historic and cultural context.

References   [ + ]

1. Special thanks to Thomas Lancaster’s King of the Jews

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