The image of the new wine and the new cloak help us understand the difference between grace and the law. It is tempting to to oppose the two and say that the goal of grace and the goal of the law are two completely different things. Jesus speaks to this temptation when He says that not one iota of the law will pass away until all things are fulfilled. The more insidious temptation however is to attempt to return to the law after beginning the life of grace. Baptism is the new garment we’ve been given – we shouldn’t use baptism as a patch that simply covers the hole in the cloak of the old man and the old law. Very concretely this means that we will rip and shred our lives apart at the core of our soul if we try to use the grace of Christ to give some appearance of perfection to others, to ourselves, or to God. Grace is not given to us so that we can simply do a better job of obeying the ten commandments – Grace is not a patch for our moral life. The grace of Christ is given to us so that we become intimately involved with the persons of the Trinity. Whoever insists that the major goal of Christianity and criteria to judge Christian life has to do with righteousness and moral purity is nothing more than a modern pharisee. They rip and shred themselves and others to pieces because Jesus becomes simply an enforcer of the Old Law instead of the Savior and giver of a New Law.
There is a temptation to understand our Christian life like a system. The fact that we would spontaneously associate holiness with hierarchy is a sign of that. If I do all the things I’m supposed to do – or at least the basic ones – I’ll be ok. We spontaneously suppose that those who have engaged their lives in the church system become holy or holier by that fact. Those of us who have never sinned, I suppose, have the right to be scandalized by the crimes church leaders commit. Those of us who have sinned, and are willing to recall that fact when we learn about crimes committed by others, have a right to be sad, hurt, confused, upset, etc. The method or system is not working, it has produced bad fruit, it needs to be reformed, etc.
A friend reminded me today of an interpretation of this miracle story that I’ve heard before. The basic gist of it is that the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was caused not by some supernatural quantitative multiplication of bread and fish, but rather by the fact that people had brought food with them and decided to share. This makes Christ out to be some kind of parental figure who gets his children to not be selfish but share. The miracle story becomes instead a lesson in morality about the importance of sharing. While sharing is important, it doesn’t quite express the freshness of the Gospel – any civilized group of people understands the probable utility and calculated risk involved in sharing; no need for the Gospel there.