Mixing the old and the new

Luke 5:36-39 NLT
Then Jesus gave them this illustration: “No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and uses it to patch an old garment. For then the new garment would be ruined, and the new patch wouldn’t even match the old garment.

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the new wine would burst the wineskins, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine must be stored in new wineskins. But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. ‘The old is just fine,’ they say.”

I’ve always found this saying of Jesus a bit hard to get a grip on. What was Jesus trying to say really? He had just been talking about the place of fasting in the lives of his followers. Now he starts speaking of the old and the new. But what is old and what is new?

Could it be that fasting represents the old way of relating to God whereas celebration represents the new? The old is about religious observances whereas the new is about relationship with God through Jesus.

“Either or,” or “both and”?

So what does Jesus mean when he says we should not mix the old and the new? Is he actually saying they cannot be mixed, or should not be mixed? Or is he just making an observation about the difficulties of mixing them?

He has just said that a time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them when they will fast, but isn’t that to practice the old when they should be practicing the new? Are our lives to contain “either or,” or “both and.” Is he saying that both are good, but there is a time for one, and another time for the other? A time when celebration is the right thing to experience and another when religious observance will form the shape of our interaction with God? Are they chronologically separate, but both legitimate?

When Jesus says that no one seems to want the new wine, I hear him saying that people naturally tend toward the old system of religious observances, rather than the new style of relationship and celebration. But is this simply an observation about human nature or is it a value judgement? Is the new better than the old? Is one meant to replace the other?

And for us later disciples of Jesus there is an even more relevant question: If the “new” really is about relationship with Jesus, how do we practice it now that he has departed from the earth in bodily form? How do we relate to Jesus, a person we cannot see or touch, in this time when Jesus dwells with us in his Spirit rather than his body, as he did with the disciples?

Spiritual relating

Relating is about presence – spending time together – but it is also about communication – speaking and listening, laughing and wondering. How do I do that on a spiritual level? When the “bridegroom” is absent, religious disciplines are easier than “celebration.” They give us something concrete to do. How do you celebrate, how do you “eat and drink,” with the Holy Spirit? Under the circumstances, I understand that some people prefer “religion” (“the old is just fine,” they say”) to relationship (the new wine), just because it is easier, even if the latter is more exciting and ultimately satisfying.

Living with the old and the new

It is hard to answer these questions, and perhaps wrong to try to draw too many conclusions. Perhaps Jesus is just making some simple observations for us to ponder: first, that the old and the new don’t mix well, second, that the old is damaged but cannot be effectively “patched” with the new, third, that when the new is used to try to fix the old that the new is “ruined,” and fourth, that people prefer the old to the new, prefer to stick with what they know than to try new things. There is much to think about here.

What can we conclude from Jesus’ words? It is not clear cut. But there are a few things I have learnt from thinking about what he says. First, there is still a place for fasting, which represents religion, the old traditions. I should not judge those for whom liturgy and ritual are part of their interaction with God. Liturgy and tradition are things that I can engage in too, without feeling that I am betraying the new ways that Jesus introduces.

Second, that I can enter into the joy of celebration, eat and drink with Jesus and others who know and love him, and that knowing a God is not just about religious observance but can look a lot more like a party, or a wedding feast at times.

Third, that I should not condemn the new. This is something that I have often seen in my life as a Christian: judgement and condemnation from the traditionalists for any new move of God. But I have equally seen judgement and condemnation in the opposite direction, from those experiencing renewal and revival toward those who are still living in their tried and tested traditions and rituals. This too is something that is wrong.

Remaining open

Finally, I need to live in both realities, recognizing the tension that exists between them. I need to know when is the right time to celebrate, and when is the time to fast. And even as I continue in my traditions and habits of relating to God, I need to be open to new moves of his Spirit, constantly seeking to understand and experience the personal relationship that God offers between my spirit and his.

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