Today’s Gospel reading brings Luke’s 5th chapter to a close. It is a passage with some perplexing parables, but can be better understood if we remember that Chapter 5 begins with the call of the first disciples (1-11). The call of Simon Peter, and of Zebedee’s sons, James and John, is achieved through the convincing great catch of fish, in spite of the fact that these professional fishermen had already called their efforts a failure.
As we worked our way through Chapter 5, we saw more signs of Jesus’ divine influence manifested in favor of a "leper" whose cure required an official confirmation (12-16); in favor of a paralyzed man who is first forgiven his sins, and then cured of his paralysis (17-26); and, finally, in the conversion of Levi, from Publican/Tax Collector, to disciple.
In each of these episodes, Jesus is the initiator, the one who takes hold of a situation in order to affirm some of the essential qualities of his mission.
Having invited Simon Peter to lend him his boat for his teaching the crowds, he moves on to the convincing catch of fish, and then to the solemn declaration, "I will make you fishers of people." Jesus commissioned his disciples for leadership.
The man with leprosy approaches Jesus with the conditional statement, "If you are willing you can make me clean." The reply of Jesus is a simple affirmation of his purpose and mission, "I am willing." The healing of the leper required that he seek the certification of his healing by the priests, and a thanksgiving offering to be made. Jesus did not dispense the man from the requirement of the law, rather, Jesus told him not to publicize the healing, but to perform the requirement of the law.
Jesus uses the episode of the paralyzed man who is lowered through the roof to be placed at his feet as another affirmation of his mission; he offers the man forgiveness of sin. It is only in response to the criticism he feels from the Pharisees and teachers of the law that he then removes the man’s paralysis in order to prove his ability to forgive sin.
When Jesus calls Levi to follow him, Levi responds immediately, and then has a supper party for Jesus to which he invites his Publican associates. Once again, the Pharisees and teachers of the law criticize Jesus. His response is a foundational statement for the Church, "I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."
What has emerged from our reading of Luke’s Chapter 5? We see that the underpinnings of the Church, its foundational tenets are being revealed by Jesus. His leadership will be shared with a group of his disciples; the "will" of Jesus is that we be freed of the social discrimination exemplified by the way that leprosy isolated individuals; Jesus has come for the forgiveness of our sins and to restore our personal autonomy and responsibility; his followers will mesh and interact with the persons whom society denigrates.
In summarizing these events, Luke focuses on the question that has been dogging the Pharisees and the teachers of the law: why do your disciples engage in partying ("eating and drinking"), while our disciples and the disciples of John practice prayer and fasting? Luke answers the question with his first cited "parables": The old and the new cloth; the old and the new wineskins; the old and the new wine.
We are used to thinking of parables as narrative "stories," used to teach by examples. In later development they are. When we find these first parables of Luke’s gospel, we are seeing the root expression of a parable, a "comparison" that teaches. But these three parables are rather "un-instructive" if we don’t see them in connection with their context.
"No one tears a piece from a new cloak to patch an old one. Otherwise, he will tear the new and the piece from it will not match the old cloak." The followers of Jesus will be experiencing something entirely new under the power of God’s Holy Spirit. They must respect the integrity of their new life in Christ and his Church.
"Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined. Rather, new wine must be poured into fresh wineskins." The religious traditions and priorities of the former "wineskins" are unable to serve the demands of a new fermentation which is to produce a new wine. The mission of Jesus will bring new forms of leadership, and new standards of inclusive membership, both of which will shape the body of believers into the new Body of Christ.
"And no one who has been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’" The old wine has aged in its old wineskins, and those who have grown accustomed to its age and flavor will find the new wine overwhelmingly new. But the old wine will be consumed and an empty wineskin be left behind. The Church of Jesus Christ is always being renewed by the Sacramental vitality given it by the Holy Spirit; we need to entrust our newer generations with plenty of new wineskins into which they may pour their new wine.
Fr. Arthur Carrillo, C.P. is the director of the Office of Mission Effectiveness for Holy Cross Province. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.