Bible study · quotations · textiles in literature

Texts & Textiles: The Parable of the Old & New Garments

In our Community Corps Bible study this month, we’re studying the parables. Although I’ve read the parables of the gospels countless times, I’ve not studied them systematically. To begin my research, I found a helpful table of the parables in chronological order, i.e. in the order they are recorded in each of the gospels.

The first parable recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that of the new patch on the old garment. I was surprised to see that it was first, but it makes sense: Jesus takes a situation perfectly familiar to his audience–the need to mend a worn garment–and uses it to reveal something mysterious about the kingdom of heaven.

For a modern reader, the basic situation may seem less vivid, unless the reader is an avid mender. Natural fibers–especially wool–shrink during the final stages of preparation. The word “new” here literally means “unshrunk,” i.e. cloth that hasn’t been fulled.

The context of the parable is a conversation with the Pharisees. They have asked Jesus why his disciples do not fast (i.e. follow the established religious custom), while those of John the Baptist do.

As with all parables, interpretations have varied. Some see the story as an indictment of the old garment (old rituals and practices), and the impossibility of “repairing” the practices of Judaism in light of Christ’s new covenant. Others point out that Christ’s response to the Pharisees does not forbid fasting, but calls it unnecessary when the “bridegroom” is among his friends. Moreover, we know that Christians did fast from the earliest days of the Church. Still others call the parable a warning: Jesus, recognizing that his disciples were still very new in their faith, were like the weak garment that could not endure the stronger practices of discipleship, such as fasting.

Some commentators see the parable as a mysterious image of the right relationship between what is ancient and what is new. The new garment may be stronger, but the following parable (just a few verses later), reminds us that while new wine must go in old wineskins in order to mature, it is the old wine everyone loves to drink.

How do you read this parable? Have you ever tried to patch a garment, and worried about whether the old and new fabric “agreeth” (in the words of the KJV)? What is the right relationship between tradition and the fresh work of the Spirit?

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