Herb Montgomery | April 17, 2020
“Moments like these not only call us to reassess our systems, but also our own personal values and the values our societies have been built on: the systems we are accustomed to and our own personal action and behaviors are connected.”
In all three of the synoptic gospels, we read:
“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22)
“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)
“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.” (Luke 5:37)
Jesus called his audience to accept new wine and new wineskins to hold the new wine: he wanted us to participate in the distributively just vision he was offering human society. New wine simply won’t work in the old wineskins. New wine and old skins are incompatible, and you can’t incorporate Jesus’ new wine into our present system. They are too different from each other. We must be open to new wine, new paradigms, and new systems or skins to live out a set of ethical values that is life-giving, inclusive, safe, just, and compassionate for everyone, not just the privileged and the elite.
New skins/new wine was not the only metaphor that the gospel authors used. They also used the metaphor of a path that most people do not choose to travel:
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:12-14)
I’ve often been struck by how in U.S. society, a system that strives for distributive justice for all simply does not resonate with most people. Even poor people have absorbed the false hope that they are tomorrow’s next millionaire capitalist. The term socialism is used to incite fear, and most people fall for it. This past political season, what we saw competing on the Democratic debate stage was more akin to social democracy than socialism, either democratic socialism or authoritarian socialism. Yet even a social democracy that leaned toward more distributive justice proved too much for most American voters. We’ll see how this November plays out, but for now, the old skins proved they couldn’t tolerate even a hint of new wine.
Our context could help us to understand the social context of the gospel stories: the Jesus in these stories was calling for a more compassionate, just and inclusive society in his own culture and time.
Is it time today for a reformation where we try to infuse old skins with new wine or is it time for the life-giving, healthy transformation of the systems we’re trying to make a more distributively just society fit? Change can be scary if you feel you have too much to lose. But in a distributively just society, the goal is not to have someone lose so you can win. The goal is a world where we all win together.
I believe it’s time to dream up new skins that are capable of expanding with new wine.
As we often say at RHM, another world is possible, if we collectively choose it.
One Example of New Wine
The gospel author critiques the legal concept of lex talionis. Lex talionis is Latin for the “law of retaliation” and encompasses the formulaic severe penalties for specific crimes found in many ancient cultures. Some propose that these penalties were intended, at least in part, to prevent excessive punishment from either an avenging party or unjust ruling elites. The most common expression of lex talionis is “an eye for an eye,” however, lex talionis does not refer to exclusively literal eye-for- eye codes of justice but to an entire penal, punitive legal system.
The Jesus story’s new wine pushes us beyond the skins of a system that only punishes to systems that restore and transform.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not use retaliation, even if it has been authorized by your law, against an evil person. Instead, if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your Chiton, hand over your Himation as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you [even if you are on the verge of the Jubilee] You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your fellow Israelite and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies too! And pray for those who even persecute you, that you may be children of your Parent in heaven. God causes God’s sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Personal paraphrase of Matthew 5:38-45)
Jesus sought to lead us away from doing life through lex talionis and towards the “Golden Rule” that many traditions evolved into teaching.
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you [The Golden Rule]; for this was the intended goal of where the law and the prophets were always headed. Enter then through the narrow gate of the golden rule; for the gate of lex talionis is wide and the road of lex talionis is easy, but it leads to the whole world being blind, toothless and annihilated, and there are many who are presently on that path. For the gate of the Golden Rule is narrow and this road is hard but it leads to life, and there are so few presently who have discovered it and are traveling on it.” (Personal paraphrase of Matthew 7:12-14)
Other great people have made similar statements:
“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” (Mohandas Gandhi)
“The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
“And then the whole world would be blind and toothless.” (Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof)
There are other examples in the gospel stories. For today, how can you see our present system bursting through a new embrace of more life-giving values?
Take a moment and list them.
There have always been voices calling for new wine and new wineskins here in the United States. The present system is in crisis and amplifying these voices. Two weeks ago, states competed with each other and even with FEMA, driving up the price of life-saving equipment and PPE for medical personal across the country. This is not simply inefficient as some have described it. It is immoral.
The crisis has shown that our system is a well-oiled machine that profits a global few at the expense of the rest of the masses. But there must be higher values than profit, capital, and production. If not, then people become disposable. Lives lost become collateral damage and our economy becomes our highest concern.
This is not to say that our economy cannot be one of many competing concerns. What we are discussing here is our innermost, prioritized values. What do we value most: people’s lives? Or something else?
This is a call for those within a system that has steadily valued profit over people, over the last forty years especially. It’s a call to reclaim our humanity. Even as Congress provided some aid, there was also talk of ensuring whatever aid was provided didn’t prevent people from wanting to return to the endless cycle of production so that others may profit from their labor. Even our elders have been on the chopping block. Our entire system, from groceries and mortgages to rent and health insurance, is built to keep large swathes of people in our society desperate and motivated to be the cogs in the machine producing capital for the richest 1% of the world. Crises like our present one bring that low-level desperation to the surface and amplify it.
Moments like these not only call us to reassess our systems but also our own personal values and the values our societies have been built on: the systems we are accustomed to and our own personal action and behaviors are connected.
While you are at home during this time, if you can be at home, take a moment to pull away from endless production and dream. What would a society whose members take care of each another look like?
Pick up the Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Matthew or the sermon on the plain in Luke, and with pen and paper, brainstorm what a society that prioritized equity, justice, love, compassion, and people, especially the presently marginalized ones, would look like.
Life is cyclical. It’s time not just for new wine, but for new wineskins with it.
It has been shown that we have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”
We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time, and encouraging each of you to stay virtually connected and to practice social distancing. We can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. We ask that when you do go out, you keep a six feet distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.
This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.
This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. For now, let’s figure out new ways to take care of each other while we are physically apart.
- List examples of how our society would be different if we structured our systems after the Golden Rule? Discuss with your group.
- Taking the example of lex talionis, how would the U.S.’s criminal justice system be different if its purpose was not mere punishment, but restoration and transformation. Discuss with your group.
- Can you dream of any other life-giving differences our present systems need, whether in our education systems, or medical systems, or any of our other industries/systems that our present crisis has made apparent? Discuss with your group.
Thanks for checking in with us this week.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, working toward justice.
Another world is possible if we choose it.
Stay well! And if possible stay home.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week.