Today we’re going to tell you what wineskins are, and perhaps, the meaning of the words of Christ will be more clear for you. Neither is new wine put in old wineskins; for if it is, the skins burst and are torn in pieces, and the wine is spilled and the skins are ruined. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved. (Matthew 9:17).
What did ancient vessels look like?
Wineskins are leather bags of some sort, which were used for carrying liquids. People in ancient times could not use clay or stone vessels to carry water or wine with them on the go: they could break and were generally too heavy. That is where wineskins came in handy. The wineskins were bags made of animal skins (e.g., goat or camel skin). The skin was treated thoroughly and then sewn in such a manner so as to leave only one hole (where the animal’s neck had been), which served as the bottleneck. You might have guessed that wineskins came in various sizes depending on the size of the animal. They could be so huge that they held up to 18 bucketfuls of water.
New wineskins, like other leather products, were soft and flexible. That is why new wine was to be poured into new wineskins: fermentation continued within the soft vessel and the gases stretched it a bit. Old wineskins became stiff and more tearing-prone. That was why fermentation of new wine could cause them to burst. In that case, both the wine was spilled and the skins were ruined.
Where else does the Holy Scripture mention wineskins?
We read an interesting story in the Old Testament. Residents of Gibeon came to Joshua to make a peace deal with the Israeli people. Trying to fool the Israelites, they wear old clothes and take old wineskins with them, so that Joshua could believe that they had made a very long journey. They had to do so because God had forbidden the Israelites to make peace with their nearest neighbours (the Canaanites, to which Gibeonites belonged). Israeli elders were fooled, and the residents of Gibeon had their way thanks to this trick. When their trick was discovered, they could not be punished with death because the elders swore to keep them alive. Although Joshua didn’t exterminate the liars, he turned them into slaves: Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God. (cf. Joshua 9:23).
We learn more about the characteristics of the wineskins from the Psalter of King David, For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, yet do I not forget Thy statutes. (Ps. 119:83). It points at the fact that the leather vessels were blackened with smoke and became very dark. The Psalmist basically uses this image to point out that he has become black from grief.
The Meaning of the Parable of the Old Wineskins
It is especially important to pay attention to the context of this parable. Some disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus why his disciples didn’t fast. He responded with this parable, thus making it clear through simple images that one cannot lay a serious burden on someone who isn’t ready for it yet. Saint Ignatius Bryanchaninov explains it perfectly, “It is not only sin that is devastating for us. Even good actions can be harmful when we do good at a wrong time or out of measure. Thus, not only hunger but also eating too much food or consuming food, which doesn’t correspond to your age and physical needs, can be bad for your health… The Lord used this parable to emphasise that acts of virtue must by all means correspond to the condition of the actor, or else they will damage the actor and perish, that is, they will be to no avail and will turn out to be harmful for the soul, in contrast to what they were intended for.”
St. Elisabeth Convent
December 6, 2018