John Calvin: Wineskin and Cloth Parabel (Commentary)

Matt. 9:14-17 (NASB)   Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?”  15 And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 “But no one puts  patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. 17 “Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Can the children of the bridegroom mourn? Christ apologizes for his disciples on the score of the season, alleging that God was still pleased to indulge them in joyous feelings, as if they were present at a marriage: for he compares himself to the bridegroom, who enlivens his friends by his presence. Chrysostom thinks that this comparison was taken from the testimony of John the Baptist, He that hath the bride is the bridegroom, (John 3:29.) I have no objection to that view, though I do not think that it rests on solid grounds. Let us be satisfied with Christ’s declaration, that he spares his disciples, and treats them with gentleness, so long as he is with them. That none may envy them advantages which are of short duration, he gives warning that they will very soon be treated with greater harshness and severity.
The apology rests on this consideration, that fasting and prayers are adapted to sorrow and adversity: extraordinary prayers I mean, such as are here mentioned. Christ certainly intended to accustom them, by degrees, to greater patience, and not to lay on them a heavy burden, till they gained more strength. Hence we ought to learn a twofold instruction. When the Lord sometimes endures the weakness of our brethren, and acts towards them with gentleness, while he treats us with greater severity, we have no right to murmur. Again, when we sometimes obtain relief from sorrow and from vexations, let us beware of giving ourselves up to enjoyments; but let us, on the contrary, remember that the nuptials will not always last. The children of the bridegroom, or of the nuptial bed, is a Hebrew phrase, which denotes the guests at a marriage.

And no man putteth a piece of fresh cloth. He supports the preceding statement by two comparisons, one of which is taken from garments, and the other from vessels of wine. Those who think that he compares worn-out garments and decayed bottles to the Pharisees, and new wine and fresh cloth to the doctrine of the gospel, have no probability on their side. The comparison is beautifully adapted to the matter in hand, if we explain it as referring to the weak and tender disciples of Christ, and to a discipline more strict than they were able to bear. Nor is it of any consequence that the idea of being old does not agree with scholars who were only commencing: for, when Christ compares his disciples to old bottles and torn garments, he does not mean that they were wasted by long use, but that they were weak and wanted strength. The amount of the statement is, that all must not be compelled indiscriminately to live in the same manner, for there is a diversity of natural character, and all things are not suitable to all; and particularly, we ought to spare the weak, that they may not be broken by violence, or crushed by the weight of the burden. Our Lord speaks according to the custom of the country, when he uses the word bottles instead of tuns or casks.

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