By Peter G. Bolt, adapted from The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel.
In his parable of the bridegroom (Mark 2:19–20), Jesus’ language evokes Old Testament passages about the last days: “days are coming” (eleusontai de hēmerai); “and then” (kai tote); “in that day” (en ekeinēi tēi hēmerai). Jesus had begun his ministry with the announcement, “The times are fulfilled; the kingdom of God has drawn near” (1:15). One era has drawn to an end; another is about to dawn (cf. 10:30). In the midst of these last days, the bridegroom will be taken away.
Jesus reinforces this expectation with two more parables that make the same point. The parable of the patch (v. 21) is a warning not to try to absorb Jesus into Judaism, or even into what John the Baptist was doing. The Old Testament law and John the Baptist pointed towards Jesus in all his newness. To expect him to conform to the practices of first-century Jewish piety is as inappropriate and foolish as sticking a patch of unshrunken cloth on to an old garment. He has not come to patch up this old system. This human religion is simply a part of a fallen world that God is about to roll up like a garment and throw away (cf. Ps. 102:26–28; Heb. 1:10–12; Hag. 2:6; Heb. 12:26; Jeremias 1963: 118).
The parable of new wine (v. 22) makes a similar point. The joy of harvest-time was a common prophetic symbol of the new age, and so too was the image of new wine (oinos neos). God’s salvation beyond judgment was pictured in terms of Israel once again enjoying the fruit of the land, including the blessings of wine (Hos. 2:22). A statement in Amos (9:13–14 ESV) begins with exactly the same words as in Jesus’ parable:
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine.”
When this new wine begins to drip from the hills as the new age was dawning, it is complete foolishness to expect it to be contained by the old wineskins. Both parables “bear on the newness of that which has come into the world with Jesus’, and point out the folly of trying to accommodate the old and the new together. “The ministry of Jesus is not to be regarded as an attempt to reform Judaism; it brings something entirely new, which cannot be accommodated to the traditional system” (Dodd 1961: 88).
Jesus has not come to join a system whose rules and regulations could speak only of sinfulness, uncleanness, sickness, mourning, decay, and death. “It is clear that the opposition between life and death is fundamental to the whole ritual law … Death is the great evil, and everything suggesting it, from corpses to bloody discharge to skin disease, makes people unclean and therefore unfit to worship God” (Wenham 1995: 77). Jesus has not come to be absorbed by this religion of tears. He is the bridegroom, bringing the great time of last days’ feasting when the shroud of death is finally cast away once and for all.
Let the new wine flow! Let the eschatological salvation flow out from Israel to the nations and issue in a whole new creation!