Today's message contemplates the dogmatic quandary suggested by Jesus's parables of the new cloth and the old wineskins. The parables appear in all three synoptic gospels:
16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse.
17 Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.”
And he spake also a parable unto them; No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.
It is well understood that the context for these parables was the question of how to reconcile the old Jewish doctrines with the new insights Jesus was bringing to the table. The larger issue is what is new and what is old, and which is better?
The following interpretation of the parables appears in Wikipedia:
"The parables follow the recruitment of Matthew as a disciple of Jesus, and appear to be part of a discussion at a banquet held by him (Luke 5:29).
The metaphors in the two parables were drawn from contemporary culture. New cloth had not yet shrunk, so that using new cloth to patch older clothing would result in a tear as it began to shrink. Similarly, old wineskins had been "stretched to the limit" or become brittle as wine had fermented inside them; using them again therefore risked bursting them.
The two parables relate to the relationship between Jesus' teaching and traditional Judaism.
According to some interpreters, Jesus here "pits his own, new way against the old way of the Pharisees and their scribes." In the early second century, Marcion, founder of Marcionism, used the passage to justify a "total separation between the religion that Jesus and Paul espoused and that of the Hebrew Scriptures."
Other interpreters see Luke as giving Christianity roots in Jewish antiquity, although "Jesus has brought something new, and the rituals and traditions of official Judaism cannot contain it."
The interpretation favored by John Calvin does not suffer from the inconsistencies and the disconnectedness of the interpretations listed above. In his Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke Calvin states that the old wineskins and the old garment represent Jesus' disciples, and the new wine and unshrunk cloth represent the practice of fasting twice a week. Fasting this way would be burdensome to the new disciples, and would be more than they could bear."
The following interpretation appears in "Bible Tools":
Jesus' illustration derives from a well-known fact: No one with a reasonable amount of experience in mending clothes would waste a piece of new cloth to repair an old garment. If new cloth is used to patch an old garment, and the patch becomes wet, it shrinks as it dries and puts strain on the old garment. The tear becomes worse than it was.
Jesus is showing that His "new" doctrines do not match the old rites of the Pharisees, which required a lot of fasting. If His "new" doctrines were attached to their old ones, it would distort the truth. Christ is preaching against syncretism, the mixing of beliefs. We must completely replace the old human way of life with the new godly way of life (II Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:9-10). Because God's "new" way is righteous and spiritually strong, it cannot be combined with the "old" wicked and weak human way of life. They are incompatible.
Ashan 1614, in her blog Wikinut makes these comments in her article, "Out With the Old; In With the New… Maybe":
"1.The patch and thread are stronger than the material around the patch, and the old material of the pants will tear (rent) around the circumference of the new patch. 2.The new patch will not match the old material. 3. You have now ruined perfectly good new cloth by tearing a piece out of it. So what does this mean with respect to our lives? It means that we can’t keep trying to patch small areas of our lives. In doing so, we cause more damage in the end. We have to find a permanent “fix” for whatever problems we may have. We need to recognize, also, that the patch is obvious to everyone. The world can see that your life is old and raggedy despite you fixing up a small part of it. We must work on improving every aspect of our lives. It is a slow and gradual process, but it allows us to renew our entire self, leaving no old and new parts to war against each other. And should we have something new and good, we shouldn't waste it on trying to save something not worth saving."
Verses 37-38 speak of not putting new wine into old bottles. The bottles in this case refer to goat skins sewn tightly together to form a watertight container. A wine maker would tell you that wine expands in volume as it ages. A new wineskin is pliant enough to expand as the wine inside expands. Whereas an old wineskin has become too rigid to expand, and will burst when the new wine inside begins to expand. We, too, often become so rigid in our thinking that we cannot contain new ideas or accept new ways of doing things. So we try year after year to make changes in our behavior without changing our mindset or our methods. It will never work. All of our blessings and opportunities will wind up spilled on the floor – wasted. It takes a new container to hold a new thing. So we have to become a new bottle. We have to be willing to change the way we think, change the way we look at things and change the way we do things."
The United Methodist Memo makes this comment:
"Jesus told this simple parable about cloth and wineskins in response to a question about why his disciples didn’t act as religiously as the John’s disciples and the followers of some other spiritual leaders. The parable suggests that changes in people’s attitudes and actions that may be needed are difficult to achieve. Jesus seems to concede that it is practically impossible to make a new idea or action fit an old model.
Jesus was the new wine of God’s love and action that was incompatible with the old attitudes. He was the new wine whose time had come to move the people in a better direction and closer to God.
Is there new wine in the immediate future for the ministries of Bolivar United Methodist Church? Maybe not if we turn the wineskin parable upside down! Jesus is now the old wine that we have enjoyed and trusted since his death and resurrection set us free from sin and death. What we need to create is a new method to our ministry.
Imagine that this church could reform itself and become a “new wineskin.” There is no problem with pouring the “old wine,” into a “new wineskin” for ministry. The “old wine” that we still have in store is the timeless truth that Jesus Christ remains the Lord of all and Christ is the best we have to offer to the world.
We do not need any new wine. We have Jesus to give to others. What we need is a new mode of operation; a “new wineskin” of glad and willing service that reaches out to form creative relational ministries."
Clearly (or unclearly) there is a lot of gray area surrounding this word "new". In interpreting these two parables, there is a lot of room for assigning different symbolic meanings their narrative elements. Even the texts themselves suggest a contradiction: in the Mathew and Mark versions it appears that the parable is pointing toward the virtue of new wine, yet in the Luke version, a very sticky sentence is tacked on:
"No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better."
Now notice that the parable doesn't claim that old wine is better, it merely states, "HE SAITH, the old is better;" And what about this word "straightway"? New wine doesn't AUTOMATICALLY take a superior position relative to old wine--it might eventually, but not "straightway". There is a slightly ironic twist to this addition, and it makes the water not clearer but murkier--surely we are not to conclude that just because old wine is better, old clothes are also better? So what is good about "new" and what is good about "old", and how do we choose between them?
What follows are a number of biblical passages containing the word "new":
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God [is] with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, [and be] their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.
2 Corinthians 5:17
"Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
"But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter."
"As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.
For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh.
But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature."
8 All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
"Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed."
These last two passages get closer to the point I will eventually be driving at: that the newest things have already been of old, and that the choices we make must be based on the imperishability of the thing chosen--not its newness or oldness relative to sequential time, but the experience of newness in the old eternal verities of the heart.
Speaking of the old verities of the heart, here is a passage from the 1950 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech of William Faulkner:
"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."
Now, William Faulkner was one of the most original and innovative writers of the 20th century, and yet he makes a case for writing about the old verities of the heart as the only thing worth writing about. How are innovation and tradition compatible?
C.S. Lewis has this to say in one of my favorite passages from "The Screwtape Letters" which I have read here before:
"The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart--an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He doesn't WISH THEM TO MAKE CHANGE, ANY MORE THAN EATING, AN END IN ITSeLF, HE HAS BALANCED THE LOVE OF CHANGE IN THEM BY A LOVE OF PERMANENCE, He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in his church, a spiritual year; they change from a fast to a feast but it is the same feast as before."
One of the primary battlegrounds of the new and the old is in the area of dogmatic belief: which truths do we hold to be self-evident and which don't we? I remember one such dogmatic conflict in the old Nazarene Church of my youth between the farmers of Indiana and the farmers of West Virginia: the West Virginia farmers condemned the Indiana farmers because they grew crops of popcorn--this was a sin because the only place you ate popcorn was in the Sodom and Gomorrah of the moving picture house; of course the Indiana farmers condemned the West Virginia farmers because they made their living growing tobacco, the devil's weed.
When I started teaching at Anchorage Christian School, I had to fill out a lengthy form expressing my beliefs on the subjects of evolution and other fundamentalist dogmatics. Well, clearly, anybody who insists that the world was created in seven 24-hour days is just D-U-M dumb, but I didn't put it that way: I said,
"I have be honest--I don't really CARE about the whole evolution controversy: my whole life is a stream of little miracles, one after the other, such that it is no problem for me to accept the possibility of creation in a moment of time. In a supernatural world, created by a supernatural God, what DIFFERENCE does it make whether six days is an allegorical expression or a literal expression? The miracle is there regardless of how you think about it, and it defies us to achieve any rational apprehension of it. Faith is the evidence of things not seen, and yet it takes no faith to see the world right there in front of us--right now. Thank you God!"
I have no problem accepting things like the virgin birth, a star hovering over a manger, or Jesus rising from the dead; but these events seen as HISTORICAL EVENTS are robbed of their spiritual significance which is beyond the power of sequential time to add or detract. Obviously, formulating some kinds of dogmatic boundaries for ourselves is necessary to retain our sanity--we need to say things in words so we can think about them, ponder them, contemplate them, and lose ourselves in them. But I don't think we need to believe at the expense of some one else's beliefs, or even that we need to adopt a rigid, written-in-stone attitude relative to out own dogmatic conclusions; we have to be able to redefine and re-articulate what we think, as new information comes our way; we have to be willing to accept new truth as truth on its own merits, not in the shadow of what we passionately believed YESTERDAY. We have to be willing to change what we think, because, no matter how you cut it, what we think is a dark, imperfect reflection of what we KNOW in our hearts; we just have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath.
Many more of the scriptures I have quoted above proclaim newness of life as a spiritual imperative than they extol the virtues of the "old time religion;" of all these, my favorite is, of course:
"O sing unto the LORD a new song: sing unto the LORD, all the earth."
But let us not forget that, seen from the spiritual perspective, the new is always contained in the old, and we MUST keep the eternal in our sights, as we struggle to find new ways of articulating transient, temporal, earthly experience.
At the end of the "Paradiso", Dante describes a scene where he is rising in heaven toward the face of God, and suddenly notices the static, eternally fixed face of God changing and modifying itself into ever new expressive forms. How can this be? he wonders.
"Not that there was more than a simple appearance
In the living light which I gazed upon
And which is as it has always has been;
But my sight grew stronger
As I looked; and so the static face of God
Transformed itself with every change in me."
Let us pray: Jesus, lend us your divine intelligence so that we may see ourselves growing and changing in your transforming light. Prepare us to accept the new wine of your eternal changeless truth as it leads us ever upward to a heaven where all contradictions are moot, and all peace and love calm our clamoring voices into silence. Amen.
May 29, 2011