Not a Patch-Up Job!
I wonder if you've seen one of these shows on TV. There is a house that has seen better days and something needs to be done. So a team goes in and sets to work – a wall comes out here and a different door goes in there; the electrics are brought up to date and the whole place is redecorated. When the make-over is complete it all looks so very different from what it was before - but fundamentally it's the same old house. If you don't like the changes you might be tempted to say that the house has just been patched-up a bit!
People do the same kind of thing again and again – and so you can have your furniture restored, you can have your car souped-up or customized, or you can simply alter your old clothes – what used done out of economic necessity in days gone by is now a fashionable thing to do.
The changes might be slight or they might be extensive but when all is said and done the result is not a completely new item but a recycled one.
We're used to this kind of thing aren't we? And there is nothing wrong with it. At least there is nothing wrong until this idea is applied where it doesn't belong. Sadly many people think that religion is like this: a little addition here and a little patching up there. Such a reaction is totally out of place where the Good News of Jesus Christ is concerned. If you think that the Christian message just bangs on about how to patch up a life you're wrong, completely wrong.
The idea that religion is in this patch-up business is by no means a new one - it is the natural response of many a human heart. We all like to think well of ourselves and if we are aware of a problem in our lives we tend to think that a small change here or a minor adjustment there is all we really need. We like to think that basically we're alright, just in need of a little patching-up perhaps.
Back in Jesus' day that was how the Pharisees and many others thought about religion. Religion, according to them, was all about what you did or didn't do – the more extreme you were (the more serious you were) about this, the more religious you were and this was interpreted as meaning the better you were!
But Jesus didn't fit the mould and the Pharisees in particular didn't understand him at all and so they criticised him.
If you think that this "Jesus business" is about adding a few rules and regulations to life then you haven't understood him either – you are making him into the kind of person the Pharisees wanted him to be but wasn't like that!
Criticisms flow apace
Jesus wasn't long into his ministry but the criticisms were quickly multiplying.
We have already seen that the Pharisees and scribes in particular didn't like:
what he said – "your sins are forgiven"
the company he kept
We have seen how Jesus countered those criticisms:
with a miracle that confirmed his authority
with an explanation helped by the doctor/patient illustration.
Now comes a third criticism. It comes this time in the form of a question but it is criticism none the less. And it is a criticism that concerns the lifestyle that Jesus allowed his followers to enjoy. Surely, thought his critics, any religious teacher worth his salt would impose obligations and restrictions upon his disciples – if he didn't then what kind of leader was he?
As far as the onlookers could tell Jesus didn't impose any kind of harsh spiritual regime upon his followers; specifically, he didn't require them to fast and nor did he require them to say formal prayers. And these things were highly surprising to those whose understanding of religion was bound up with ritual do's and ethical don'ts.
You may have noticed that when religion is brought up in a conversation many people will respond by comparing themselves to others. And when people do compare themselves in this way they generally seem to come out of it fairly well. You've heard this kind of statement I'm sure:
"I'm better than those hypocrites who go to church" or "I'm no worse than her" or "I'm the same as them."
Maybe you've said that yourself or at least it's what you think.
There is nothing new in this, just think about the story that Jesus would later tell about the Pharisee and the publican who both went to the temple to pray. Do you remember how the Pharisee prayed?
Lk.18:11-12 "God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get."
And this is just what happens as Jesus is once more criticised – his practice is compared to that of others:
After all the disciples of John the Baptist prayed and fasted
and of course so did the camp of the Pharisees.
The criticism that is now addressed to Jesus is based upon the assumption that religion is about what we don't and what we don't do. The problem, as they saw it, was that Jesus was far too lax.
Criticisms Met and Countered
Jesus responded to this criticism and went to the very heart of the matter. Religion, true religion, was not so much about do's and don'ts as it was about relationship, close and intimate relationship with God.
(It is perhaps worth noting that as Jesus replied he spoke about fasting but not about prayer. If the casual observer did not see Jesus' followers engaged in formal prayer this did not mean that Jesus considered prayer per se as unimportant. In fact in both his teaching and his example he impressed the importance of prayer upon his followers and they as they observed him longed to pray like him.)
Now the person who thinks of religion in terms of doing things will naturally tend to judge what he sees being done. Thus the more a person is seen fasting or praying the more religious he must be, the better such a person must be.
But such an attitude does not reflect what the Bible actually teaches.
Take fasting for example: in the OT God did require his people to fast but that requirement was limited to just one day a year, the Day of Atonement. Nor was the emphasis in a true biblical fast placed upon the simple fact of skipping a meal or not eating but upon making sure one's faith In God was lived out properly.
The Pharisees however weren't content to stick with what God required and by the time of the NT they had increased the number of their fasts a hundredfold and were boasting (and how inappropriate such an attitude is with regard to fasting) of fasting twice a week!
And yes, Jesus was out of step with this performance related approach to religion but he was most definitely in step with God's relational approach!
In answering his critics Jesus used three more pictures to illustrate what he wanted to say: a wedding, a garment and some wine and wineskins.
A Picture Gallery – with three pictures to look at:
Picture One – A Wedding Banquet
It's difficult to imagine a more relational gathering than that of a man and a woman marrying and celebrating their union in the presence of God and in the presence of their friends and family members.
Jesus viewed religion like that, it was like a marriage. (The NT takes up and further develops this imagery using it to illustrate the relationship that exists between Jesus and his people.)
Now in our society we tend to speak of the day of the wedding as the "bride's special day" but in NT times the most important figure was not so much the bride as the bridegroom and it is with this bridegroom that Jesus identifies himself.
In other words Jesus is simply saying "I am the most important person there is and true religion is about having a relationship with me." This statement is in total harmony with the rest of Jesus' teaching where repeatedly he places himself centre stage and directs all men to look to him.
Now, developing the picture a little further, Jesus added that as he was currently present with his followers it would be totally inappropriate for his disciples to fast. Indeed it would be just as inappropriate as guest refusing to eat any of the rich fare on offer at a wedding feast. No a marriage is an occasion to rejoice and celebrate not for abstinence and being miserable.
(This wouldn't always be the case however. Jesus knew that he would be "taken away", violently snatched away" from them and then they would fast. He was referring to the events surrounding his death and burial – fasting would be appropriate then but not now.)
Therefore when Levi had thrown a party when he had become a follower of Jesus Christ he had acted just as Jesus wanted him to. Becoming and being a Christian is meant to be like that. Did you know that? Don't let anyone dupoe you into thinking that Christianity is rules rules rules – it is first and foremost a deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is a joy and a delight and the greatest reason for celebration we'll ever have!
Picture Two – An Old Garment
Now the changes that Jesus brings about in the lives of his followers are so important, so fundamentally transforming, that they can't be simply tacked on to an otherwise unchanged life – it simply won't work.
Jesus liked to make the truth simple and easy to understand and he drove it home by easy-to-understand illustrations drawn from everyday life. To highlight the newness, the freshness of what he was bringings to his followers Jesus spoke about a worn out garment.
Everyone knew what happened to clothes that had been worn for a long time – bits of them wore thin and holes developed – they would need repairing. But nobody in their right mind would take a piece of new cloth and sew it onto an old garment: it would stand out for one thing. But more importantly when washed the new piece of cloth would shrink and cause the original patched up hole to be made even worse!
No, you could make a new garment out of new cloth but it couldn't patch up the old. Of course, Jesus was not saying this to impart some sewing lessons to his hearers – they knew this – but he was telling them that what he was bringing was so new, so fresh that everything had to begin again, he wasn't involved in patching-up worn-out lives he was about making them completely new!
Picture Three – Wine and Wineskins
The third picture contains the same message as the preceding one. In those days wine would be kept in animal skins. When the skin was newly prepared it would retain a certain elasticity but once stretched as it would be as the wine it contained fermented the skin became hard and fairly brittle. If you were to take an old used wineskin and try to use it for a new batch of wine you were headed for disaster. The skin could no longer expand but under the pressure of the new fermenting wine it would crack or worse explode – the result would be the loss of both the wine and the skin.
No, any householder knew that – if you had new wine to store you needed to get some fresh wine skins.
And the life that Jesus was bringing to his followers was like that new wine. It could not be poured into old lives of his followers it could only be held in completely new lives, new lives that he had come to bring.
Newness, not novelty but freshness, is a rich theme that is developed in the Bible to describe the work of salvation that God promised, planned and carried out in sending Jesus into the world. Just listen to a list, an incomplete list at that, of the new things mentioned in the Bible:
a new covenant
a new creation – referring to both the individual person and to the entire order of things
a new heaven and a new earth
a new world
a new Jerusalem
a new life
a new heart
a new spirit
a new self
a new commandment
a new and living way
a new name
a new song
And if that is not enough there is also the forthright declaration in the last but one chapter of the Bible about the renewal of all things!
There simply is no way that what Jesus came to bring to lost sinners can be thought of as a mere add-on. His coming into the lives of his followers totally transforms them from head to toe. His coming is no small matter it is to be compared with new birth that is a radical new beginning, a fresh start in a new relationship of love and joy.
Christian that is what Jesus means and must mean to you. Don't allow the world to squeeze you into its mould that you begin to think again as the world does. If you do you will treat Jesus as though he were some fancy kind of spiritual dietary supplement and you won't appreciate and enjoy all that he has done for you and all he intends to do in you and with you.
If you are not yet a Christian then you must realise how monumentous a thing it is to become a Christian. It is so monumentous a thing that it is beyond your power to make yourself a Christian. But you can go to God and ask. He calls sinners to turn from their old lives – that is called repentance – and to have faith in his Son Jesus Christ, that is he wants you to have confidence in who Jesus is and in what he has done for sinners in dying for them on the Cross. But don't think for a moment that you can make yourself a Christian by adding a few religious dos or don'ts to your life.
Jesus said on another occasion that he had come to bring life, life in all its fulness – won't you call upon him for this life?
Jesus had nearly finished what he wanted to say to these critics but he had just one more thing to add. Many folk when confronted by this staggering newness of his message react with an extraordinary conservatism. They want to stick with what they know already and are simply not prepared for anything different.
"The old is good" they say, "The old is better…" and so they pass up the opportunity of the life transformation that is living in a wholesome and wonderful relationship with their Creator.
Are you amongst those who will stick with what you know even if what you know is far from perfect?
How easy it is to be stuck in a rut! Everything can be so comfortable there, so easy there, that we don't want any change to come along. But Jesus comes and offers us so much more. Come to Jesus Christ and begin to live life as it was meant to be!