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.
JTR

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you got that one backwards. Perhaps you should study this one out a bit more.

Pastor Jeff said...

I think I accurately explained both the traditional interpretation of this passage and the alternative explanation. Please enlighten me as to what I got "backward."

Rusdy Simano said...

Thanks for this interpretation, Jesus' conclusion at the end is indeed intriguing, after saying the parable.

Anonymous said...

I think you got it right. I heard a message on this yesterday, and the preacher said "The new wine is better". I've heard messages about the "new wine in new wineskins" for years, and its always taken as "God does new things in new ways and our old methods can't hold it". I don't disagree with that statement per se (Jeremiah 4:3-4; Hosea 10:12; Isaiah 43:19), but the messages usually left out Jesus' closing statement "The old is better".

A problem with thinking that Jesus was ironic / sarcastic is that its saying that the Holy Spirit "improved His methodology" the second time (or without the sarcasm: Got worse the second time!). So that doesn't hold water. Or wine.

Another thing: old wine was new wine once. Take it back through a few iterations, and the first move of God is (by logical extension) pretty ordinary. None of us would actually think that, but that's where the logic leads.

Also, there's no other parable or place in the gospels where Jesus makes a remark in parable that runs contrary to the point He was making, so to conclude that He was speaking ironically or sarcastically seems in-congruent.

So those are reasons why the new wine / new move of God interpretation may not hold.

The reasons why your interpretation does hold (in my opinion):
1. Jesus came to fulfil the Law & the Prophets, not do away with it (Matthew 5:17)
2. Jesus spoke against the ways & traditions of the scribes and Pharisees and the burden they put others (Matthew 23:15)
3. This one is possibly the most intersting: Matthew 19:8. Jesus said that because of the hardness of the people's heart, Moses made a concession regarding divorce "but from the beginning it has not been this way". If you think about it, Jesus is saying that old way is better...

Essentially, the journey from the Garden of Eden to the cross on Golgotha has been one of redemption and restoration. When God speaks, it is perfect, righteous, and just - including when it makes no sense to us. Man have consistently made their own additions and accommodations, but whatever God says, simply is (Matthew 24:35).

Sorry for the long post. I just heard something yesterday from a man I greatly admire but I just disagree with on this point. I have been reading a lot of views since then and trying to hold everything to the light of Scripture and trying to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying. Thank you for your post - it really spoke to me and helped me.