Jesus had multiple discussions with the religious leaders of the Jews during his earthly ministry. One came when he called Matthew the tax collector to become one of his apostles. Tax collectors were seen as traitors to the Nation of Israel and just rejected by the synagogues and by their leaders. But Jesus didn’t just call him as a follower and apostle, he went to his home to a party thrown for other tax collectors. The notion you can tell a man by the company he keeps was prevalent in that day as in our own. So the Pharisees asked his disciples “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard their questions he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” They continued asking why he and his disciples didn’t fast like the Jews and their religious leaders and Jesus explained to them that they were trying to patch an old garment with a new piece of cloth and the result would be that the new patch would pull away and the garment be ruined. He said they were trying to pour new wine into old wineskins and the result would be the wine would ferment and stretch the wineskin and it would burst and lose all the wine.
Think of these two statements for a moment. The first one was a quotation from Hosea 6:6 which said, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Jesus quote was only a part of it, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” His challenge was for them to go and learn what that meant. In Hosea’s time, they were set on doing the rituals that God had given them, but had missed out on the heart they should have. They were intent on offering the sacrifices in just the right way but demonstrated none of the mercy, love, and compassion for those around them who were in need or trouble. Tying that to the situation Jesus was talking about, they were intent on following their traditions which involved the rejection of people like Matthew and his friends the other tax collectors but not interested at all in showing them mercy, forgiveness or a fresh start on a different way of life. Jesus, on the other hand, saw the heart of Matthew and even cared deeply for his friends to offer them hope, grace, and forgiveness.It is quite easy to apply the principle involved to our own time and situation. Far too often we are set on things staying the same and not changing anything that we have gotten used to, even though they may have no connection with Scripture and only relate to expediency. In such times it is easy to think only of what we like, feel or want and show no mercy or compassion for those who are searching for God’s way or even for the young or new in the faith. Mercy is at the heart of God. He has always cared more about our mercy to others than in following every ritual we think of.
The second part of this teaching relates to trying to bring aspects of the Old Law into the New Covenant of the Lord. Sometimes it wasn’t even a part of the law, but only their traditions around the law that they wanted to make certain became a part of the New Law. Jesus told them they were trying to patch an old garment with a new piece of cloth. They were pouring new wine into old, stiff and hardened wineskins that would burst when the new wine began to expand with fermentation. In Hebrews 8 the writer quotes Jeremiah 31:31-ff to say that the New Covenant wasn’t like the old one written and engraved on stones. The new was written on the heart and was known and read by all. God would be our God and our sins and iniquities would be remembered no more. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul compared and contrasted the Old Covenant with the New. The Old was a ministry of death written and engraved on stones and was being brought to an end. The New is a ministry of the Spirit and comes with even more glory. The old was a ministry of condemnation and the new a ministry of righteousness. The old was like trying to see God and his will through a veil and the New is one that brings freedom and that we should all with unveiled face, behold the glory of the Lord, being transformed into His image from one degree of glory to the next by the Spirit of God.
Luke’s account of this same statement adds one thing that I find especially intriguing. He added, “No one after tasting the old wants the new.” Even though the New Covenant or Testament is far greater, filled with grace and mercy and for all people alike, when people are used to the Old way of Law, condemnation, limited grace and lots of rules, they don’t normally want to change. Think about people you know who have lived their whole lives trying to keep every law and demanding that others do the same. They can’t see grace as overflowing and amazing but only tied to perfection in obedience. Offer them the picture of grace as presented by Jesus and the New Testament and they will always prefer the Law and condemnation, even when it leaves them always in doubt of their own salvation.