“To bring in the new, you have to destroy the old or the old will destroy you” captures the famous saying of Jesus on the new wine in old wineskins . After a series of five confrontations with evil (Mark 1), Mark brings together another series of five confrontations in Mark 2:1-3:1-6, but now against the religious establishment (aka the ‘pharisees’). By the fifth incident, the Pharisees are found conspiring to “destroy” Jesus (Mark 3:6). In psychology, the concept of ‘cognitive flexibility’ is the ability to go through transitions with ease. Of course the opposite is that any change or anything ‘new’ is fiercely opposed by the cognitively inflexible. I can’t think of a better example than the toddler phase of human development, where any disruption or interruption to play time, etc. is met with loud protests!
At the center of the sequence of five incidents (incident number 3, Mark 2:18-22) lies the famous saying about the wineskins. Anyone familiar with the imagery (as the audience would have been) catches the point. An older/brittle goatskin would crack if new wine is poured in; both wine and skin are lost as a result. The religion of the Pharisee (who started so well as ‘scribes of the Scripture,’ see Ezra 7) had turned the teachings of God (aka the ‘traditions’) into their own system of commandments (aka ‘traditionalism’). By healing someone or plucking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus and His disciples squeezed the pressure point of the Pharisees. Jesus challenged their entrenched traditionalism and they hated him for it. Jaroslav Pelikan (late professor of Church History at Yale) put it this way:
“tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
– Jaraslov Pelikan
What this means is we can’t become disciples of Jesus and hang on to traditionalism. It’s either one or the other. More than than, traditionalism will destroy you because it blinds you to the real purpose of the Gospel, which is to redeem and heal broken lives. The Pharisees became blind to the “Good News” themselves: they got mad because Jesus restored a life on the Sabbath! They made God’s good law of a day of rest into an absolute. They lost sight of the main thing.
In the fifth incident in Mark 3:1-6, Jesus is said to be angry and “grieved” at the Pharisees’ “hardness of heart” (aka cognitive inflexibility Mark 3:5). This state of affairs, however, is not the end of the story for ‘inflexibles.’ The Gospel is not for the healthy and ‘righteous’ (which is actually a non-existing category of people), but for the “sick” and “sinners” (Mark 2:17). In fact, Scripture makes it a point to describe the complete turn around of one famously inflexible Pharisee: Saul of Tarsus, aka Paul the Apostle (Philippians 3:5). The point of that? Even the most hardened inflexible is not beyond the reach of the Gospel, the power of God for salvation.
Questions for reflection:
There is a fine line between good traditions based on the Word of God and our human traditionalism.
- In what way have we given way to traditionalism in our lives?
- Do we care so much about external appearances and styles that such incidentals push us into the category of the cognitively inflexible?
Let the Savior come alongside you and me and remind us that the essence of the Gospel will never keep our focus on the externals but on Jesus Himself. It is about forgiveness of sin and obedience to His Word rather than rote observations of man-made rituals.