The remainder of Luke 5 needs to be interpreted in the light of the end section.
I say this, even though we know that the original texts did not have chapter divisions as we have them, so we can’t pretend that Luke set this up as if it was leading to this ‘ending’.
Even so, the sayings at the end of the chapter provide an overall framework for understanding the events which following the ‘swamping’ of Peter and his mates.
The chapter ends with challenges about new wine and patching your jeans (so to speak).
Arguably, the heart of this chapter, and indeed this first main section of Luke’s Gospel is verses 30 and 31. Some religious teachers (scribes and Pharisees they are called here) complain that Jesus eats and drinks with ‘tax collectors and sinners’. The tax collectors were a hated bunch, because they were essentially collaborators: the occupying Roman power allowed people to tender for the collection of taxes. Whoever held the tender could basically collect as much as they liked, so long as the required amount was handed over to the Romans.
In this chapter, Jesus called Levi, a tax collector, to become his disciple. Levi threw a banquet for Jesus and lots of his tax collecting buddies joined in.
After the complaint, Jesus declares (v.31): ‘Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have come not to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners.’
Here the challenge is to those who think they have no need to repent. In effect, Jesus is saying that whoever thinks they have no need to repent, he has nothing to offer them. He has come, as Matthew expressed it in his ‘beatitudes’, for those who know they are poor, spiritually in need.
Then, at the end of the chapter, Jesus is challenged again, because unlike John the Baptist, his disciples seem not to be fasting and engaging in the same spiritual disciplines. In short, they seem to be celebrating, having a good time. Jesus says this is how it is when the Bridegroom is present. You drink and eat.
The time will come for fasting, when the bridegroom is not present. But for now, this is a time for celebration.
Then come some unusual sayings about doing what is appropriate: don’t put a patch of new cloth on an old garment. Don’t put new wine into old wineskins. New wine should go into fresh wineskins.
The question in all this is: what is the appropriate? Basically, this is about the coming of the ‘day of the Lord’ announced in chapter 4. God’s favour is with the people. This is what is evident in chapter 5:
- Peter sees a great haul of fish, symbol of a new era, when the masses of the people will be invited into God’s community.
- A leper is cleansed, healed. Remember, these persons were feared. It was a dreaded disease, and the lepers were cut off from their family, from community, and from the Temple. They were excluded from the community of God’s people.
- A paralytic is healed. These people too were rejected. King David had said that the blind and the lame should not enter the temple. They were held to have sinned, in some way; this was the reason for their affliction. But in this incident, Jesus assures the paralytic man that his sins are forgiven, and when challenged about this, Jesus says that to heal his lameness it the same thing as assuring him that his sins are forgiven. Here there is a direct conjoining of God’s over-flowing (swamping) grace, for all—even tax collectors— and a concern for physical and social healing.
So there we have the new wine: forgiveness, new community, restored relationships, and an upsetting of the religious prejudices which kept the poor, the infirmed, the unfortunate at the margins. No, they are central to Jesus’ concerns here.
What then of the way of Jesus for us, today?
Who are the people pushed aside by religious prejudice and social traditions?
What is the new wine, to be dispensed today?
And where is it that Jesus and his followers are inviting us to celebrate?
It seems odd that I even have to ask these questions. Does this suggest that I, and the community to which I belong, are more like the scribes and Pharisees than like those first disciples followers who received his invitation with joy and celebration?