"No one repairs an old garment with an unshrunk patch: Otherwise the new patch that was put on will become undone, resulting in a bigger hole." (Mark 2:21)Jesus is answering a question being asked regarding an ancient custom of fasting on holy days. Here is the question:
Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, "How is it that John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?" (Mark 2:18)Why would this question be asked of Jesus? Because Jesus is also a disciple of John. He was baptized by John in the Jordan River and was regarded at that time as John's most acclaimed student. Yet Jesus' students didn't follow some of the customs that John's students did. Why not?
The first element of Jesus' answer - discussed with his symbolism regarding the bridegroom and the bridegroom's attendants. Now we find he uses yet another parable or analogy in his answer. What does it mean?
Here is the parable as recorded in the Books of Matthew and Luke:
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse." (Matt. 9:16)
“No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old." (Luke 5:36)While Matthew's and Mark's versions are practically identical, Luke says it slightly differently - and thus clarifies the symbolism further.
Both Mark and Matthew utilize "unshrunk" to describe the new piece of cloth or garment. Luke simply describes it as "new." As such, the point of whether the garment is shrunk or not is not the issue. It is new versus old, not unshrunk versus shrunk. The fact that it is unshrunk relates to the reality that it is new.
What does the parable mean?
"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment."Remember that Jesus is answering John's disciples about why Jesus' disciples are not fasting during the holiday that John's disciples and the Pharisees and their followers fast on. As indicated by the bridegroom parable, this is most certainly relating to one of the holy days commemorating either the appearance day or disappearance day of a particular prophet - which was typically observed by fasting.
So now Jesus is speaking of following a particular ritual or observance - which relates to an old custom and teaching. The "new garment" or "unshrunk garment" symbolizes his teachings geared towards the current society and culture.
Remember that the question related to Jesus' disciples not following this ancient custom. They are following Jesus' teachings, which were aimed towards people at a particular time in history, and a particular time and circumstance.
The "old garment" is the ceremonial customs and teachings that had been passed down over the centuries and still observed.
While Jesus did not abandon the central tenets of the teachings of the prophets such as Moses, David, Isaiah and others - Jesus also recognized that some of the customs - some of the rites and rituals - were not applicable to the current culture and society.
For example, we see that Jesus did not consider the ceremonial washing before eating to be an important ritual:
"But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal." (Luke 11:38)Yet we see this was a big deal to the Pharisees and other Jewish ecclesiastical teachers:
“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (Matt. 15:2)This ritual wasn't a big deal to Jesus because he understood that while it might have been recommended by a previous prophet, it was not critical with respect to its importance to Jesus' students' spiritual lives.
Yes, it is a matter of priority. God's representative recognizes that there is only so much time in the day and there is only so much room for focus in our lives. What is more important? Washing the hands or coming to know God and working to please the Supreme Being?
"Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse."Again, the "new piece" symbolizes those spiritual teachings aimed at a particular time and circumstance, while the "old" represents the teachings of the prophets from the past aimed at a particular culture and time.
Jesus was able to discern which of those ceremonial rituals were important, because he understood what pleases the Supreme Being.
For example, Jesus did recommend the offering of gifts to the Altar of the Supreme Being:
“See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matt. 8:4)
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the Altar ..." (Matt. 5:23)
"... leave your gift there in front of the Altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift." (Matt. 5:24)
"You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the Altar that makes the gift sacred?" (Matt. 23:19)So we find that Jesus certainly did respect and recommend the ancient practice of making offerings to the Supreme Being. And he also quoted from many of the teachings of the prophets. So he wasn't teaching the abandonment of the core teachings of the prophets.
He was discerning those rites that would please the Supreme Being and bring his students closer to God from those that might be nice, but weren't so necessary.
And offering to the Supreme Being is an essential practice (though unfortunately not taught in today's ecclesiastical institutions) because by making an offering to the Supreme Being we are extending ourselves to the Supreme Being: We are communicating that we want to get closer to God - to come to know Him and learn to love Him and please Him.
What does a gift communicate to someone? What does someone think when we offer them a gift - even a simple gift such as a drink of water or something to eat? They understand that we are extending ourselves to them. We want to be friends - we want to express our care for them.
It is for this reason that offering to God was maintained by Jesus - and he himself illustrated this as he offered food to the Supreme Being - incorrectly translated as "giving thanks" - before he or others ate.
Jesus knew what pleased the Supreme Being. He understood that abiding by ceremonies like washing the hands wasn't that pleasing, while offering to the Supreme Being was pleasing. This is because Jesus is God's representative. He enjoys an intimate loving relationship with the Supreme Being:
"By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but Him who sent me." (John 5:30)And Jesus understands that one can please the Supreme Being by helping others get closer to Him:
"But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13)Jesus is quoting the Book of Hosea, where the Supreme Being states:
"For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6)Jesus is communicating that the Supreme Being just wants our love. He doesn't need our sacrifices. He owns everything and can do what He likes.
But what pleases Him is love. He wants those of us who have rejected our relationship with Him in the past to decide for ourselves that we want to return to Him. He wants us to decide to turn from our rebellion of Him and return to our loving service relationship with Him.
Why? Because He loves us and wants us to be happy - and this is the only way we will be happy.
Just look around. We are each seeking happiness within the forms and things of the physical world yet we remain empty. No matter how much money we have - no matter how big our family is - no matter how big our house is or how famous we are - we are still empty inside.
This is because we are not these physical bodies. We are each spirit-persons who reside within a temporary physical body. Because we have rejected our relationship with God, He is allowing us to pretend to be someone we are not and chase our self-centered dreams around for a while. He is allowing us - and enabling us through the facility of the physical body - to ignore Him.
God's representative comes to try to convince us to have a change of heart. Jesus is asking those around him - and each of us - to abandon our self-centeredness and return to our loving service relationship with God because only this will make us happy.
This is the sum and substance of what Jesus is trying to communicate to those around him - at a certain time and circumstance. He is trying to convince those around him - and all of us - to decide to return to our loving relationship with the Supreme Being. This is confirmed by his most important instruction, as was also given by Moses:
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’" (Mark 12:30 and Deuteronomy 6:5)