Old and New, Good and Bad

“And He was also telling them a parable: “No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined.  But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.  And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough.'” (Luke 5:36-39 NASB)

Luke’s version of this parable is different than either Matthew or Mark. Those two match almost word-for-word. That Luke does not might mean he made an editorial choice to bring out a particular meaning. If that’s the case, then this meaning would be kind of important. The basic differences are 1) the reason for not using a new patch on old cloth is that they don’t match, and 2) the additional phrase of preference of old wine over new. Together these two differences may help us understand how Luke (and perhaps Paul) understood this parable.


In Luke’s version of this parable, the new and old don’t match which is far less violent than the resulting tear from shrinkage in other two Gospels. The new wine in old wineskins is the same, but then he adds the qualitative statement affirms the old over the new. So old and new are held as distinct, yet both are valuable: Jesus lends value to the new because He identifies Himself with it (or does it? See below). Yet He also affirms the value of the old in that people prefer the flavor of old wine (or does He? See below).

But how do these differences affect Jesus’ point? Jesus is answering Pharisees when they ask about fasting (why He and His disciples don’t when others and their disciples do). He responds on two fronts; that while he’s with them fasting would be inappropriate, and now about old versus new. This context is vital when understanding both Jesus’ point and any lesson Paul may have gained from it. It sounds, on the surface, especially in the other two Gospels, as if Jesus is saying the “old Pharisees” are wrong/bad, and that He and His new disciples are right/good. And then Luke adds the final Pharisees about how the old is good, no one wants the new. So I have three possible interpretations for this.

Since Luke’s Gospel is accepted because of his association with Paul, I will looking at the context of the lesson Jesus taught, but also the influence Paul and his understanding of Jesus’ teaching had on Luke. One of the typical issues faced by Paul in his missionary travels was the problem of meshing Gentile Christianity and Jewish Christianity. His underlying teaching on this point may have come from this parable. What he advises is for Jews to remain Jews, and Gentiles to remain Gentile. His point is that both come to God through faith in Jesus and require a life of faith in Him, not the Jewish religious practices.  The three possible interpretations all can be seen to influence this view of Paul.


It could be that Like is preserving the value of the old ways. The other Gospel accounts don’t require a view that the old is bad, it’s the tearing and bursting that makes sound that way. Luke tempers this with miss matching cloth and good old wine. For Jesus this could mean that He is telling the Pharisees that what they do, their work and religious views are important. This could mean for Paul that old Jewish practices are valuable along side, but not mixed with, Gentile Christian practices; these need to coexist. Jesus does His thing and the Pharisees do theirs; both coexist.


It could be that Luke’s comment really means that people say the old is good, but miss that the new is necessary. Without making new wine, there wouldn’t be old. Or perhaps age is no great indicator, old wine is only good if made well. This would mean that Jesus is telling the Pharisees that they need to be reaching the sinners and tax collectors, outside of their comfort zones. Paul maybe telling the Jews that the Gentile converts don’t need to adopt the old Jewish ways to worship the One True God.


What if Jesus is actually saying His position of reaching the wayward people of God is actually the old way? That would mean the Pharisees position of rejecting them is actually new, and therefore foreign to God and Scripture? In this case, Luke is pointing out that Gentiles are more like Abraham who wasn’t justified by law (it hadn’t been written by then), but by faith. Paul makes this point, and it has value.  It ties both Gentile believers and Jewish believers back to the same roots, the faith of Abraham.


What if they’re all right, depending on the day and circumstance? In other words there may be a lesson from each possible interpretation.  How can that be when they are particularly mutually exclusive?  Hm, let’s see if I can help illuminate the possibilities.

Perhaps I need the lesson on a given day that I don’t have to do every ministry; that churches can focus a certain group of people in a particular need instead of trying to minister to people in every place with every need.  At times I may need to be reminded that I’m too comfortable in my one ministry niche and I’m missing a group of people important to my Master.  Then at other times I find that my Master is reminding me that I don’t need to change for the sake of change; that sometimes the old way of ministering is right.

What did you learn? What is your view through the knothole?


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