Jesus is known for painting more than a few word pictures, trying to get the common person to understand what it is that He's talking about. And when He talks about what it means to live under the new law, to live this radical new way that He's demonstrating and calling us to, He uses the images of patches and wineskins - things very common to the people of His time.
And He says, no one puts a new patch on an old coat because the new patch will shrink and tear, and you'll be worse off than before. And no one pours new wine into an old wineskin, for it will burst and ruin both. In Luke's version, He adds that no one who has had the old wine wants new anyway, for they say that the old wine is better (and anyone who drinks wine apparently knows this, for it is better when it is aged).
It's not really a...great...sales pitch for the new things that He wants to do among them, and it can be a little bit of a confusing passage to read when you're trying to figure out what it is He's saying about the radical new life to which He is calling them. Is He saying that His way isn't better? That the law is better than grace?
Actually, that's not what He's saying at all. He's speaking in reverse from the promise here, and that's what makes it so confusing for most of us. He's speaking to those who have the law and love the law, and He's telling them how hard it will be for them to accept what it is that He's preaching - namely, grace.
See, grace is the new patch that's going to tear apart their old coat. If they try to just weave it into the fabrics that they already have, it won't work. They can't keep the law and have grace, too.
Grace is the new wine that will burst their old wineskins; they simply can't hold it. Under the law, there is no room for grace, only mercy. And only then, sparingly and by an act of heart. This free grace, this getting what you do not deserve, it can't be conceptualized by the law because the law is give-and-take, one-for-one, tit-for-tat, if-this-then-that. Grace doesn't work that way, and filled with grace, the law explodes.
And what He's also saying is that for those who have the law and love the law, like their favorite cold coats and delicious old wine, will truly struggle with grace. They won't want it. It won't taste right on their palate. They'll try a little here or there, maybe, but what they'll conclude is that it just isn't as good. It will not, to them, have the same deep, rich flavor as the law they have always known and loved.
Now, that's true even if you're not a Pharisee. It's true even if you are, say, a modern-day young Christian trying to figure this all out. I think it's the hardest thing about becoming a person who lives under grace (and who lives by grace).
Our whole world is transactional, even our relationships. Just like the law, everything we know about this world is give-and-take, one-for-one, tit-for-tat, if-this-then-that. Everything. Everything we do has some kind of cost to it, some kind of limit put in place for how we can acquire and use and give and receive and whatever it is. Even when it comes to living with one another. We think, oh sure, I'll help old so-and-so, because one day, I'm going to need help and others will help me. It's the law, unwritten and unspoken, but we live by it every day.
Then we come to this place where Jesus says this...this is not law. This is not transactional. And it's hard for us to fathom it. We can't conceptualize of something like grace in our current framework. That's why most of us spend our Christian lives trying to earn it. It's why we work so hard to make sure God favors us. It's why we hold ourselves so accountable to sin as failure, not as transgression but as failure. Because we haven't lived up to our side of the transaction, and in not doing so, we think we've lost it all. We spend even our faithful lives laboring to "keep" Jesus, when He's told us plainly already that that won't work. That His grace bursts our old wineskins. That His love tears our old coats.
It's why so many leave the faith; they can never get past the law to get there. They can never get past that limited understanding that tells them they have to earn it, and they spend their entire lives feeling like failures and wondering why they keep doing this to themselves. Why they can't just get Jesus "right." Why they can't just be "better." They conclude they're never going to be better, never going to get their end of the transaction right, so they walk away. Better to be lost than be defeated.
The truth is, they think - like so many of us think - that the old way would be better. It would make more sense to us, we could live faith better, if it was transactional just like everything else. If we could stake it on what we do, on how well we do it, on how faithful we are. If it were tit-for-tat, if it were if-this-then-that.
Grace would be better if, like the law, we were in charge of administering it. As it is, it just blows everything up.
And that's what Jesus said. He said it would be hard for us to get it. He said it would wreck everything we know and love. He said a lot of us wouldn't be able to understand. He said a lot of us would struggle.
He also said it would be worth it. So worth it that He was willing to die just to show us.