Monday, February 22, 2016

Old Wine vs. New Wine

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve been reflecting on the parable of the wine and the wineskins. In Luke’s version, there is a sentence not found in either Matthew or Mark. It reads:

“No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’” (Luke 5:37-39).

The final sentence is unique to Luke and for this reason it deserves special attention. On the surface, it seems to confused the issue because the ending is not about new wineskins but about the wine. And it's saying that the old wine is better.

The final sentence of a parable like this is crucial to understanding it. It’s a bit like the punch line of a joke. If you skip it, the meaning changes.

For the longest time, I concluded that Jesus is contradicting himself since he said that the new wine is less desirable than the old. Since his being present with the disciples is the new wine (see previous post) then why isn’t his presence desirable? That won't preach. And honestly, who wants to say that the presence of Jesus is less desirable than that which came before. What about the miracles? What about the kingdom? What about the healing? What about the "setting the captives free"? Who wouldn't want the "new wine"?

However, if you know much about wine, Jesus' observation isn't actually shocking. Wine that has not been aged is tart and even bitter. It's not something anyone naturally desires.

In the Christian world, we talk about “new wine” as if it is something to be prefered, as if we are ignoring the facts about "new wine." There is a long tradition in the church of pursuing and promoting the "new wine." And we promote it so that we can promote our new wineskins. Jesus’ comments don't ignore reality as they tap into the common understanding that old wine does actually taste better. And when you taste the new, no one wants more.

So what do we do with this parable?

Jesus is simply using a common experience about life to explain what it means to be his disciple. The question to which Jesus is responding is about discipleship. The disciples of John the Baptist were asking why Jesus' disciples did not fast. In other words, why weren't they doing the normal stuff that prepares the way for the Messiah. (Note: this is not about following rules. This is about trying to figure out the right way to be Israelites in order to clear a path for God's Messianic deliverance). Jesus' response was to say that the bridegroom had come. The bridegroom is an image of the Messiah and since Jesus had come, they were no longer looking forward for God's deliverer.

However, there is a catch. The wine of Jesus' presence, that is the way of life that he offers, does not fit common expectations. It will taste like bitter wine to most. Doing something new—like following a Messiah on a journey to the cross—will not be something people are lining up to do. The old ways of doing a certain set of practices to make a way for the Messiah will be be more attractive than actually being in the presence of the Messiah. When Jesus followers tasted the truth of Jesus, they often returned back to their old comfort zones. 

Before we condemn "those faithless ones," it's important to recognize that this is a normal part of life. The old adage "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" is appropriate. The old wine represents those patterns of life with which we become accustomed. We don't think about them. They are just habits that make the life as we know it the kind of life that we like. This is one reason why we experience culture shock when we move to another country. Nothing "feels" right and therefore we feel lost. It's only natural that we are drawn back to what we find comfortable.

Jesus' presence was new wine, and his ways "stirred the pot." His wine was tart and bitter. His presence was, and still is comforting, but rarely comfortable. When God gets up close and personal, we begin to see the world in a different light. It calls for new wineskins.

But the emphasis here is not on the new, the next, or the novel. The emphasis lies on the fact that the disciples were with Jesus. This is the only reason that there is new wine and therefore a need for a new wineskin. Jesus was not a future expectation for them. He was a present reality in their midst.

Neither is God isnow a future expectation for us. We are in Christ. The Spirit lives in us. We are with God. And God surrounds us. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be with him.

But rarely do we think that being with God is enough. We expect results. We expect to do the stuff that Jesus did. We want to make a kingdom difference in the world. And sometimes it feels like the old wine can get more stuff done than the new wine we experience in Jesus' presence.

The list of things that need to change in the world are endless. We need new wine and new wineskins all over the place. Some of these places might include:

  • Personal issues
  • Relationship patterns
  • Work Struggles
  • Political concerns
  • Violence and war
  • Racism
  • Famine
  • Then of course there is the church that so many want to change. 
The common path to making a difference in these arenas is to attack them head-on, to make a plan and develop a strategy and structure that will change things. In no way am I saying that such efforts are unnecessary. But it seems to me that we find ourselves in a never-ending loop of trying to fix one thing after another. We often end up doing what we think God wants us to do, but we are doing it without him. God is up there telling us what to do, and it's up to us to pull it off. And while we do a lot of good things this way, this is not discipleship.

The wine of God in Christ did come to change the world. God entered into our life from the inside, at the lowest levels of society and he changed it from the bottom up. 

However, the change Jesus brought is veiled. It's only seen by those who view that the world is different because God is with us. They realize that God did not come to fix the world, or at least he does not fix like we fix.  

The first goal of God with us is to be with us, not to change the world. Changing in the world—new wineskins—is a derivative. The world is simply different because God is with us and being with us is the point of it all. This changes the world, but in a way that we don't expect. It's slow. It does not feel productive. It's hard to measure. 

And thus it tastes like tart, bitter wine. We get impatient with the way the new wine works. How does church leadership put on their annual report the ways that they were with God? How do we talk about leadership by saying that Sabbath rest is crucial to leading God's people? How does a pastor convey to his church that spending extended time with God is more important that being available to answer the phone 24/7? 

So we are tempted to return to the old wine. We get busy, busy, busy, caught up in the rat race of trying to make a difference, of trying to change things for the better. 

The wine of Jesus will not change the wineskins of the world the way we expect them to be fixed. Nor with the wineskins of the church. The call is to be with God. God's goal is not to fix everything externally while we remain alienated from being with God. He comes to be with us and as we are with him, then, usually in small ways, new wineskins develop that fit the patterns of being with God.

And thus everything changes. 

For those who have eyes to see.

Photo Credit: Josh Galloway via Flickr

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