It might surprise a lot of people that many Hindus accept Jesus. The puga area of a Hindu home contains images of various deities and revered personages, and in many homes you will also find the image of Jesus—perhaps right next to Ganesha.
Hinduism is very open to adopting new gods and Jesus is a good candidate, as is the Buddha who actually taught against key Hindu beliefs. The nature of Hinduism allows easy acceptance of such persons as part of their religious structure.
I am glad these Hindus honor Jesus, but I am afraid they miss the point. Following Jesus cannot be incorporated as part of another religious system. However, Hindus are not the first to try; there were those in Jesus’ own time who attempted to force him into their old religious system.
Jesus’ Message Cannot be Simply Accommodated to Old Religious Systems
Jesus shares two metaphors to show how such accommodation cannot work. These picture stories follow immediately after the question of his disciples not fasting, so the attempt to require them to observe the rituals of the old system might have triggered these metaphors. They also address previous conflicts over forgiveness of sins and eating with sinners.
Mark 2 reports Jesus saying:
No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.
I remember when washing new clothes for the first time made them shrink. Imagine that months or years later a hole wears through a favorite shirt. If one tries to fix it by sewing on a piece of unshrunk cloth, the result will be just as Jesus described. The two are incompatible, and the new cannot fix the old; a new shirt is what is needed.
And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.
The same principle is involved. New wine is poured into new wineskins which are soft and pliable. But the effect of fermentation and the of aging of the wineskin make it hard and brittle so that it can no longer withstand the pressure of fermentation; it will burst open. The precious new wine will be lost and so will the wineskin. A new wineskin is what is needed.
The point is that the good news of God’s kingdom on earth cannot be an add-on as part of the old religious system. The good news is new wine and new cloth; to become part of God’s new work requires choosing the new in place of the old because the new and the old are incompatible.
Did Jews Have to Abandon their Jewishness?
This does not mean that the Jews had to completely reject their Jewishness and become something else, but it did mean they could not cling to their old religious structures and add Jesus to it. There was much in their culture they could bring into their life of following Jesus and other aspects of their culture that required transformation in light of the good news. Jewish believers were still Jews, but they were transformed Jews.
This raises an interesting and sometimes controversial question. If the Jews could follow Jesus while still being Jews, can the same thing be true of Hindus, for example? I think the answer is yes. There is much in the cultures of other religions that can be brought into genuinely following Jesus—but it would radically change their Hinduism; they would be transformed Hindus. Jesus cannot be simply a patch on their old religious system.
I think we have often gone too far in forcing Jesus followers of other religions to abandon everything in their religious culture to conform to Western concepts, but this is a discussion for another day.
We must examine ourselves to see whether we are trying to work Jesus into our old, rigid Christian religious system. Are we old wineskins? If so, we can become new.
Jesus Provides a Third Metaphor to Demonstrate His Point
The book of John has another example Jesus gives to make his point. A Pharisee named Nicodemus, apparently attracted to Jesus’ teaching, came to Jesus with questions.
In John 3 he says:
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Nicodemus is interested in Jesus and the kingdom, but Jesus addresses his situation straight on—he must be born again. Many believers will respond, ‘Of course! He has to be saved!’ And what they mean is that Nicodemus must go through some ritual in order for God to change his status from ‘lost’ and going to hell to ‘saved’.
Though being ‘born again’ is equated with being ‘saved’ in the mindset of many believers, it is foreign to Jesus and has nothing to do with his point here. Those who followed Jesus never ‘got saved’, they just decided to follow Jesus and identify with the kingdom. But they couldn’t bring their old religious system with them; they had to change their minds about the old (repent) and embrace the good news of the kingdom instead.
The old and new were incompatible.
Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must become receptive and teachable like a new baby instead of set in his ways and trying to fit Jesus into his old religious system. Matthew 18 shares a similar statement:
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Spirit Cannot be Contained in Old Religious Systems
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Whether or not Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus’ metaphor or was participating in it to ask how a person can change their religious system, Jesus makes it clear.
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Humans produce humans, and humans create human religious systems; but the Spirit of God is free and cannot be contained in an old system. They are incompatible. The Spirit changes those who are born of the Spirit no matter what their previous system is. Let us be sure we are open to the message of Jesus without clinging to our old religious system–even if it is a ‘Christian’ one.
Next time we find Jesus getting into trouble with the Pharisees yet again for disrespecting their religious system.
Articles in this series
Jesus Begins His Work:
The Beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Anointed One
Do Jesus’ Words and Actions Demonstrate Empathy — or Judgment?
Does Jesus Disagree with John the Baptist’s Message of the Coming Judgment of God?
Why Didn’t Jesus Recruit Better Help for His Galilean Work?
Did Jesus Really Heal People?
Do Demons Exist?
Jesus Adds a Shocking Twist to Healing
Jesus Calls a Fifth Follower—and What a Loser!
Jesus Refuses to Ask His Disciple to Fast
Entering the Kingdom Requires Abandoning Old Religious Systems
Jesus Gets into Trouble for Disrespecting the Law
What Do We Learn from ‘Jesus Begins His Work’?