The Seven Last Words of the Soul
James C. Denison
Here’s news you need to know: Singer Jessica Simpson has told People magazine that Tony Romo is her “perfect guy.” How do we know? She wrote a song for him titled “You’re My Sunday,” featured on her new album coming out September 9. And even more, she changed her cell phone number and e-mail address so her ex-boyfriends can’t communicate with her any more. That’s true devotion. Now if she’ll just stay away from Cowboys playoff games we’ll all be happy.
It’s good to move on with your life, even if such a decision is 400 years late. This week’s New York Times reported that the Roman Catholic Church is considering a statue for Galileo Galilei, its most illustrious heretic.
Four centuries ago, the Church condemned Galileo for insisting that the Earth revolves around the sun. Galileo was not a perfect man—he savaged his critics in print and had three children out of wedlock. Nonetheless, the Church’s condemnation of his scientific declarations has been a black eye for the Vatican ever since.
They allowed some of his works to be published in 1718; in 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret over the episode. Now an anonymous donor wants to fund a statue of the Italian astronomer, to be displayed somewhere in the Vatican. (I’m guessing the basement men’s room may be its final location.)
Change is tough. It’s far easier to live in a past we can remember than a future we cannot see.
In that context, today we’re going to discover the single most important characteristic in lives which God uses fully. People who make a real difference, who live with true significance, who know all that God can do with them. People who count for eternity, who find the real joy and power and purpose of Almighty God.
There is a single thread running through the lives of every person ever used fully by God. It’s not in their abilities or achievements, their opportunities and circumstances, their background or education or possessions or social status. It’s something else entirely. Let’s unpack Jesus’ parable, then find the secret to a life used fully by God. What you do with what you discover is your choice.
New wine in new wineskins
Our text begins, “They said to him, ‘John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking'” (v. 33).
Matthew’s version of our story tells us that “they” were some of John’s disciples (Matthew 9:14). Jesus and his followers have just come from a feast at Matthew’s house, probably on a Monday or Thursday.
Though the only time the people were commanded to fast was the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29), Pharisees and apparently some of John’s followers fasted on these days each week, eating and drinking nothing from sunup to sundown. They chose Monday and Thursday because these were market days, when more people would see their pious sacrifice.
By contrast, Jesus’ followers “go on eating and drinking.” Jesus fasted during his wilderness temptations (Luke 4:2); early Christians sometimes fasted as well (cf. Acts 9:9; 13:2, 3; 14:23). But for the most part, they lived life with all its normal events and circumstances, ignoring the legalistic rituals of his critics.
Jesus’ answer was one of the funniest things he ever said. In the English it comes across as rather stilted and formal: “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” (v. 34). But the statement was actually quite humorous and ironic.
“Can you make…” assumes a negative answer in the Greek and is better translated, “You certainly cannot make….”
“Guests of the bridegroom” were akin to groomsmen today, except that they were in charge of all the wedding arrangements. They are now standing with the bridegroom as the wedding is underway. Suddenly they announce that the entire event must wait while they observe a fast. We can picture the bride at the altar, holding her bouquet, her bridesmaids standing in line, everyone waiting in the pews while the groomsmen go on a fast for a few hours or even a few days.
That’s what it would be like for Jesus’ disciples to fast while he is still with them. However, “the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast” (v. 35).
“Taken away” translates a word which means to grab suddenly and violently. It is Jesus’ first reference in the gospels to his approaching death.
He is saying that the Bridegroom will one day be put to death. When that happens, of course the groomsmen will mourn and fast. But in the meanwhile, to impose Old Testament rituals on New Testament grace is like holding up a wedding while the groomsmen fast for the rest of the day.
Jesus knew that John’s disciples wouldn’t understand or believe him without further persuasion, so he told them two similar parables. The first: “No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old” (v. 36).
A “new garment” has not yet been washed and shrunk. If someone “tears” a piece from it and sews it on an old garment which is washed, shrunk, even tattered, nothing good will happen. The new garment is ruined by tearing out a piece of cloth. It will shrink and further tear the threadbare fabric it is intended to patch.
The second parable: “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (vs. 37-38).
Wineskins were typically made from the skin of a young goat. The skin was removed without slitting it; the openings at the feet and tail were then sewed shut, leaving the neck as the mouth. Such wineskins are still made in the Middle East today. The skin was soft and pliable when it was fresh, but became stiff as it grew old.