I don’t think most Christians want Jesus. They would deny it, of course, but what they really want is a violent god. They want an angry god. They want a god who looks like everybody else’s god, only better. A mightier smiter; a my-god-can-kick-your-god’s-butt-Chuck-Norris-style god. We suffer from the theological equivalent of trying to keep up with the Joneses. The peace-loving ethic of Jesus, who insisted that salvation was for everyone, that God sent rain on the just and unjust alike, who demanded we forgive our enemies instead of pouring out holy justice on them, because that is what (Jesus claims) God would do, just doesn’t make the grade. Deep down, we don’t understand all this peace and love rhetoric. That’s not how the real world works, we want to say. We want a god who makes us cringe, a deity who inspires terror and frightens us into submission. We want to be brutalized. It is the only language we understand. In fact, I suspect that if Jesus were to preach in most Christian churches today he would be labelled an anti-Christ.
I have been reflecting on Jesus a lot, especially given that Easter season is here, a season where I have to think carefully about how I intend to respond to what I see as the silliness of penal substitution theology, which finds greater prominence in Christian discourse at this time of year. I need to confess that I don’t find Easter easy, because I find the distorted image of Jesus preached from countless pulpits, or disseminated en masse in well-intentioned but theologically idiotic inspirational memes, offensive, and I am not sure what the most appropriate way is to process that offence. And I have to conclude that all of this – this farcical parody of Jesus’s teachings – is hardly surprising. The logos – the structuring principle – of human community is, after all, violence. Violence undergirds all of our notions of justice and informs all of our efforts at forging social cohesion. The ability of people to live together in large groups at all is wholly dependent on violence, or at least the threat of it. We simply do not know how to live any other way. It is little wonder, then, that to this violent society, Jesus’s vision of a Kingdom structured around a logos of peace just doesn’t make sense. A non-violent logos is weakness and foolishness to a violence-oriented social order. That includes Christians.
So I do not blame the church for (inadvertently, mostly) rejecting the teachings of Jesus. This is not a blame-game, after all. I simply wish to observe that we have done with Jesus what we always do with things that do not make sense to us – we have attempted to interpret the phenomenon through the lenses of our own paradigms. And we are not alone. In every time and place since Jesus, Christian communities have ended up remaking Jesus in their own image. The problem is that the lenses we use to look at Jesus and interpret him are not fit for purpose. There are variations on the theme, but all human culture has one logos in common: violence, which poses a dilemma when dealing with Jesus: violence and non-violence are completely incompatible as logoi. But in trying to fit Jesus into our world’s logos, we are forced to try to make violence and non-violence co-exist. And as a result, Jesus tends to become a lamb turned lion. It’s why we even as we proclaim Jesus as Prince of Peace, we can see no irony in insisting that when he comes back he will bring that peace at the edge of a sword. It’s why even though we are adamant that God loves everyone, we hold doctrines – like penal substitutionary atonement and the existence of hell – that suggest that God’s love and mercy are a great deal more limited than we would like to believe. It is why we can decry abortion while simultaneously campaigning for the death penalty. The Jesus we have today is a failed attempt to squeeze the non-violent logos of Jesus into the violent logos of human cultures. We have, to use Jesus’s own analogy, attempted to pour new wine into old wine skins:
36 He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’” (Luke 5: 36- 38)
It is a wonderful parable, and I am certainly not going to claim that I have the definitive interpretation of it. There are, I am sure, various cultural and contextual allusions that will completely pass me by, and which may be critical to the meaning-making process. But with that disclaimer, let me tell you how I read it, and why I find hope in it.
Even while he was alive, people tried to read Jesus through the lenses of their own logoi. This parable comes as a response to questions around why his disciples didn’t display religious piety in the same (socially acceptable) way that John’s disciples did. Jesus just didn’t make much sense to his detractors.
But his fans didn’t fare much better, to be honest. They attempted to make him king (John 6: 15). But Jesus, I think, understood that they would have had expectations that he should behave as human kings do. In fact, I suspect for that very reason, he often refused to accept the titles people tried to project onto him (Matthew 26:63-64 and 27: 11; Mark 15: 2; Luke 22: 70), insisting instead that those who wanted to be great in a world governed by his logos would need to emulate him and be servants to all (Matthew 20: 25-28). Terms like “King” and “Messiah” are too full of the baggage of socio-cultural expectations to be useful in a logos that derives its power relationally.
If we could find the collective courage, as a church, to acknowledge that our theologies – our thinking about God – could be as flawed as the Pharisees’, that hindsight has not given us any greater insight into Jesus than those who lived with him had; if we could be brave enough to see that God and thinking about God are not the same thing, that questioning theology does not imply questioning God; perhaps then we could see how vital Jesus’s rejection of power is. If we turn Jesus into a king (as we do in so many of our songs and liturgies), we will reduce him and the power of his message. By being a servant to all, by humbling himself even to the humiliation of death on a cross, Jesus rejected our violent logos. It would not have been possible as a king.
Sadly, though, we seem to have fallen into the same trap that generations of Christians, starting with Jesus’s own disciples, have. We expect to find (and so construct through our theologies) a God who cannot stomach a slight to His (and I use the problematic masculine pronoun deliberately) honour; we expect a God who jealously defends His status as supreme being of all the universe, who creates beings simply so that they can adore Him and sing His praises for all eternity. We want a king who vindicates our suspicions that certain ways of being in the world (which happily coincide with our own) are acceptable, while others (all of those not like our own, it turns out)are morally reprehensible and need to be eradicated. Just as the early in church in Jerusalem wanted all Christians to obey Jewish law, so today we find ways of insisting that following Jesus ought to express itself in ways palatable to our particular cultural tastes. A being of such obvious power would have to be a king, right? And there are certain protocols when dealing with a king, are there not? Bow, scrape, make offerings, obey. Old wineskins. We made Jesus a king and we reduced his message to incoherence in the process
It seems to me that in the parable of the wineskins, Jesus is commenting on the ways we make sense of God and how our theologies find expression in praxis. I think that in particular, he is targeting logoi. Remember that this is from John’s gospel, which begins with a discussion of logos (John 1: 1-18):
In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The Logos became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
(John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
From the beginning, the gospel writer has contrasted John and Jesus, and has insisted that Jesus as logos was incomprehensible to the world into which he came. In this parable, Jesus suggests that his logos (structuring principle) is incompatible with John’s (and by extension, the world’s logoi). He is suggesting that he is bringing something completely new, different even from John, for whom he had profound respect. But the logos Jesus offers is so radically different from what we know that if we attempt to assimilate it into our existing logos, we destroy both. Violence and love cannot co-exist. Violence will destroy love just as the old wine-skin will spill the new wine.
But the converse is true too. In the parable, they destroy each other. Love bursts the old wineskin of a violent logos. And this is one of the places I find hope in the parable. Maybe this doomed attempt to assimilate Jesus into our violence does spill the wine of his message, letting it drain away. But that very act of Jesus pouring out his life breaks the wineskin too. And indeed, I see evidence of that bursting wineskin. I see conversations around decolonization, around gender equality, around eradicating poverty, around destigmatizing homosexuality, that could not have existed even as recently as a hundred years ago. As a species we are beginning to question the violent relatedness that informs our social interactions. The wine skin is bursting; Jesus’s death is indeed salvific, but not in the way we have been taught. It was never God we needed rescuing from; it was ourselves.
So I need not be surprised when Christians try to make Jesus violent, and reject the nonsense of peace and love. People, as Jesus noted in the parable, tend to default to the familiar. “We prefer the old”, they insist, having tasted the new. And (this has been a revelation for me) we need not be discouraged by this rejection of Jesus’s love logos. The very act of the new wine of Jesus being introduced into the old wine skin of a cultural and social order founded on sacralised violence must inevitably burst the wineskin. The new wine alters things irrevocably, even when we fail to find a new wineskin for it.
But, I hear you say, sometimes old – not new – is better. Especially with wine. There is really no comparison between a well-aged merlot and a freshly bottled one, no matter how good the new wine. Any wine connoisseur will tell you that. And here is the genius of the parable, I think. The gospel writer has already framed his gospel as a retelling of the creation story (see my post here and here). There is, I think, a very real suggestion that it is in fact the Jesus logos of love that is the old wine. Since Jesus was the logos present at the creation of the world, according to the opening chapter of the gospel, it is fair to assume that a love logos predates the violence logos of human culture. The old wine we will all acknowledge as superior once we have tasted it is, in fact, a logos of love. Once we have seen it work, we will wonder why we ever ordered society around violence. The invitation is clear: taste of this wine; experience the world as love instead of the world as violence; and you will see that God is good. This, the parable suggests, is what God intended from the beginning. And that is where I find hope for the second time in the parable: the true and intended logos of the world is love.
Of course, we are still left with a burst wineskin and our wine seeping into the dirt. And this, I think, is the role of the church, as Jesus envisaged it. Our mission, I think, as Christians, is not to save souls from hell (a mission that finds no backing in the gospels unless you read that into them retrospectively); our mission is to wait for, and indeed participate in, the forging of a new wineskin: God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, where our relationships are rooted in an entirely different logos. I see, perhaps for the first time in a while, a glimmer of hope in that.