Wednesday, December 12, 2012
What does "the old is better" mean in Luke 5:39?
When preaching Sunday before last on Luke 5:27-39, I was intrigued by the conclusion to the "parable" (vv. 36-39) of the new patch on the old garment and the new wine in the old bottles (skins). Here are some notes:
Jesus concludes in v. 39 by saying, “No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith the old is better.”
Now, what does this parable mean? We might think it would have been nice if Jesus had given the authoritative interpretation as in the parable of the sower (see Mark 4:13-20).
The standard interpretation is that the new thing (patch, wine) refers to Jesus’ teaching and to his disciples who would be joined to the old practices of the religious Jews of their day with the result of schism and conflict. The new wine of Jesus’ teaching and way of life would require a new wineskin of the church, apart from the synagogue. This would include the end of the civil and ceremonial aspects the law, the end of the dietary rules, the end of the sacrificial system, the transformation of the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week, etc. The final quote then in v. 39 is meant to be taken ironically, indicating the hard heartedness of those who reject the new teachings of Jesus. This line of interpretation seems to be the one followed by conservative men both past and present.
Another possibility, however, would be to turn things on their head and say that Jesus was in fact saying that it was the scribes and Pharisees who had introduced something new; whereas, it was he who was the guardian of something that was ancient and proved. Let’s take fasting as an example (the point of conflict in this context; see vv. 30-35). Though there were many times and occasions when Israel fasted in mourning or grieving over her sin, the OT only prescribed fasting once a year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29 speak of “afflicting yours souls” which is usually taken to be a reference to fasting). The tradition which had developed among the Pharisees, however, was that of twice weekly fasting (see the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18:12). This was a novelty that, in fact, went beyond what was written in Scripture. One might say that it was Jesus himself and his disciples who were upholding the old practices, and the Pharisees who were offering something new that resulted in division and destruction. In that case, when Jesus cites the hypothetical man who prefers the old wine to the new by saing “The old is better” (v. 39), he does not do so ironically but in a straightforward manner. It is Jesus not the Pharisees who is preserving the old paths.