“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment ..." (Matthew 9:16-17)

“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. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved." (Matt. 9:16-17)

What does the parable of the 'unshrunk cloth' mean?

Many have called this a parable by Jesus, but it is really more of an analogy. The difference between a parable and an analogy is that a parable is a symbolic tale - a story of sorts. An analogy, on the other hand, is a metaphorical comparison.

Jesus is making a metaphorical comparison in this instance. He is making a comparison between wineskins and spiritual teachings.

This analogy by Jesus - spoken to the disciples of John the Baptist when they questioned Jesus' disciples' not fasting - indicates Jesus' role as the authorized prophet and representative of God ("Messiah").

Let's consider the meaning of this analogy more specifically:

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment"

The "patch" here represents the message of the Supreme Being - which is ever-fresh and applicable to our particular culture, time and circumstance.

The "old garment" represents the teachings of sectarian teachers that teach out of context with the time and circumstances. This was the case with the institutional temple teachers during Jesus' time - who claimed their teachings represented the Prophets and quoted them out of context with current events and issues.

Today, this would be applicable to those sectarian teachers who quote Jesus out of context to his message, and the time and circumstances of today.

What is the difference between specific and general teachings?

There are generally two types of instructions given by a spiritual teacher, not just Jesus, but John and the other Prophets as well. There are specific instructions regarding how to live our lives in current circumstances, current society and situation. Then there are general universal teachings that apply to anyone at any time.

The specific instruction may apply to a particular individual or audience at a point and time. It might be appropriate at that time and circumstance, but may not be able to be applied centuries later, during a different time, circumstance and society.

The timeless universal teaching can be applied to any time or circumstance. For example, Jesus taught his students to love the Supreme Being. This is an example of a timeless universal teaching.

Specific instructions given by a teacher can easily be misunderstood and misapplied if they are applied centuries later.

Timeless universal teachings from ancient times can be applied in later centuries. 

This means that one must be able to distinguish between an ancient teacher's specific instructions and their universal teachings.

This is the topic of Jesus' analogy of sewing a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment:

The specific instruction misapplied centuries later is being symbolized by Jesus as like a "patch" pulling away from an old "garment." The specific outdated instruction will not apply to the current situation. Thus it can be seen as "making the tear worse."

This applies similarly in Jesus' next analogy:

"Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins."

The "new wine" represents the teachings of God's representative that can be applied in the current time and circumstances. And the "new wineskins" represent the physical vessel - the current representative of God who speaks in contemporary language to a particular time and circumstance.

Jesus is responding to the fact that the specific instructions of a former teacher - remember Jesus is speaking to John the Baptist's disciples - may not be applicable to the current condition - time and circumstance - of the audiences and students Jesus was teaching.

For this reason, the Supreme Being periodically sends His representatives to teach us in different times and circumstances. They may, or likely not, be obvious to the general public. This is because God specifically steers those who are serious to those He sends to earth. Jesus stated this clearly:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them ..." (John 6:44)
We can see that Jesus also applied this by the preaching efforts of many of Jesus' disciples who became teachers after Jesus left the planet. Those that did took on the role of representative of God. This is why Jesus sent them out to preach:
"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20)
Furthermore, Jesus acknowledges that before him came many Prophets, who also were representatives of God. This included John the Baptist, who Jesus highly praised, calling him:
Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11)
It is obvious from this question by John's disciples and the above statements that the holiday that John’s disciples and the Pharisees were observing commemorated a particular Prophet from the past. To honor a past Prophet’s day with fasting was a tradition for thousands of years in ancient times, as documented in various scriptures.

This also illustrates an accepted lineage of teachers - accepted by John the Baptist, the Pharisees, and Jesus himself. This is why Jesus often quoted the teachings of the Prophets.

"No, they pour new wine into new wineskins..."

God uses a living person who is surrendered to Him to communicate to us his message with words and example. We can see this by the many practical teachings made by God's representatives throughout the ages. We can also see that in each era, those teachings were applicable to the customs and the circumstances of that particular society.

While the same overall message can be received from these messages - to love and serve the Supreme Being - specific practical instructions may not apply to a later society and culture.

Assuming a person can distinguish between specific instructions and timeless universal instructions, we can follow the ancient teachers including Jesus in terms of guiding our lives. But attempting to apply specific instructions from 2,000 years ago today can cause confusion and misunderstanding.

What do the wineskins becoming 'ruined' mean?

Many from different sects around the world teach that their particular Prophet or Saint is the only real messenger of God. This may seem loyal, but it is an offense - not only to the Supreme Being's ability to have and send His other servants to save us - but also to those many servants who made a sacrifice coming here to the physical world to help bring us home in different times and places.

The culture and society of Jesus’ time were dramatically different from what prevailed when Moses or Abraham lived thousands of years earlier. The environment, customs, and daily circumstances were entirely different. Yet each was able to spiritually elevate those students who followed them - bringing them closer to the Supreme Being.

This analogy of the "ruining" of the "wineskins") that Jesus was speaking of, has also happened with respect to the use and interpretations of Jesus' teachings today. This comes as a result of political manipulation by ecclesiastical organizations who want to utilize Jesus' teachings to bolster the strength of their institutions and their quest for power and followers.

This was predicted by Jesus - who gave this clear answer:
“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:22)
Jesus is stating the bottom line here. Having a relationship with the Supreme Being is the goal. (Doing someone else's will requires knowing what that will is - and that requires a relationship.)

Jesus came to teach us - in words and actions - how to love God and do God’s will. And he was willing to suffer to underscore the importance of those teachings. He put aside his own physical comfort in order to serve the Supreme Being, and show us the ultimate love and sacrifice in that service.

But imitation is not the same as service. Service means understanding what the Supreme Being wants us to do now.

Through dedication, commitment, praise, prayer and making offerings to God - all universal teachings, we can connect with God. Gradually, we can change our consciousness from self-centeredness to God-centeredness: We can gradually develop our own personal relationship with the Supreme Being, and make Him the center of our lives.

As this takes place, He opens up more to us, and we begin to know Him more. As we come to know Him more, our love for Him can begin to blossom.

Developing this relationship with God is precisely what Jesus illustrated to us with both his teachings and his ultimate sacrifice. This is why he prayed to God:
“My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may Your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42)