All is Kairos (A Reflection on Luke 5.33-39)

We in North America celebrated Labour Day on Monday. This means that culturally we’re transitioning into the Fall season. My thoughts have started to shift away from salads, shorts and sandals to stews and roasts, light jackets and layers and other trappings of the season that is on its way.

This shift came to mind this morning as I was reading the Gospel, from the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. In this story, some good religious folk complain that Jesus’ disciples don’t keep the weekly fasts like those of John the Baptist and the Pharisees do. Jesus defends his friends, not by saying fasting is bad, but by saying that now isn’t the time for that. He goes on to explain this using a few quick metaphors:

  • Wedding guests don’t fast in the presence of the bridegroom;
  • You don’t use new cloth to patch an old garment;
  • You don’t put new wine in old wineskins;
  • You don’t drink new wine when there is old wine to be had.

When I was young, these last two images were often weaponized in church culture and worship wars: proponents of charismatic renewal and accessible congregational music would talk about the “old wineskins” of the church not being able to handle the Spiritual power of their “new wine,” and traditionalists would clap back, “No one after drinking old wine desires new wine.” But in context, it seems clear that Jesus isn’t talking about things being good or bad, but about when they are appropriate in the circumstances:  There will come a time when the wedding guests will fast; you use old cloth to patch old garments; you can put new wine into new wineskins and use the old wineskins once the wine is aged; and only a small amount of wine — the estimates I saw suggest less than 1% — is meant to be aged beyond five years.

What Jesus seems to be saying is closer to the spirit of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:”

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3.1-8)

The Greeks had a word for this idea: καιρός (kairos)— occasion, opportunity, moment, the right time. It’s connected to the idea of timing, but it’s deeper than that. In fact, I have written on my whiteboard “All is Καιρός,” but I would never write “Timing is everything” there. For me, the former is truth, the latter is an excuse. 

In trying to tease out why I feel they’re different, the image that comes to mind is of a fruit tree. It’s one thing to go to a fruit tree at the start of summer and, finding its fruit immature, to shrug and say “The timing just wasn’t right.” It’s quite another to observe the tree, to learn and to understand that there is a seasonality to fruiting, and then to know what the right action is in the moment: is it time to fertilize? to water? to prune? to let it be? to pluck? To me, that is the idea of καιρός. It understands that life is a complicated mixture of things in our control and things out of our control, that there are cycles and seasons, but rather than use that to defend a kind of passive fatalism, it sees that, with wisdom, we can learn to read the signs of the times and know when and how to act appropriately to seize the moment we’ve been given. It may not be the time to do what we want, but what then is it the time for?

Going back to the Gospel, I think this is what Jesus is telling us. I think it’s a call to pause before acting and look at the big picture of what’s happening. (In the language of my series on character strengths as spiritual fruit, it’s a call to use our strengths of prudence and perspective). Only by asking ourselves “What does this moment call for?” can we know how we should proceed, whether it’s time to fast or to feast, for old wine or new. 

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