The parable of the wine and the wineskins was notable enough to be recorded in all of the synoptic gospels. Mark 2:18-22 gives the parable and some of its context as possible: “The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. Then they came and said to Him, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old and the tear is made worse. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.” Matthew 9:14-17 gives a similar account, reading: “Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse. Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” Luke 5:33-39 gives the longest account, as follows: “Then they said to Him, “Why do the disciples of John fast often and make prayers, and likewise those of the Pharisees, but Yours eat and drink?” And He said to them, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days.” Then He spoke a parable to them: “No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved. And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.’””
Some people are fountains of new ideas. Bursting forth with inventive and creative thinking and reasoning, they take truths in one area and apply them to others, take ideas and draw out their implications, take scriptures and events that are not usually placed in the same context and draw insights from them of startling originality and distinction, which provokes admiration in some and envious hostility in others. Some of these new ideas and conceptions and theories may be of immense use in better understanding and living. Some may have broad and far-reaching implications far beyond the areas where they are first proposed. Some of these ideas are immensely destructive, wrecking habit within lives, families, communities, institutions, and societies. Some people are full of impatience and frustrations with the way things are, while others are intensely fearful of the disruption that comes from change, especially when that change is divorced from any sort of progress in what matters most to living a good and peaceful and honorable life.
It is not my intent today to give a complete explanation of this passage, but rather to note on its applications to the new wine and old wineskins that we must deal with in our current world. Let us note, though, before we enter into personal and historical applications of this passage, the initial context and Jesus’ concern for both new wine and old wineskins. Seeing the difference in behavior between the disciples of John and the Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples, there was some initial criticism from both John the Baptist’s disciples as well as the Pharisees. Most people have, quite understandably, focused on the new wine of the striking truths of Christianity as being the new wine, and have somewhat uncharitably considered the Pharisees and the general body of Judaism to be the torn old garment and the old wineskins. Even so, the parable is remarkably charitable to the old wineskins and the torn old garment, pointing out that the point of a patch is to allow the garment to be worn, and the point of preserving old wineskins is to preserve old wine and not destroy them. This concern for old garments and old wineskins is not something that tends to be most of notice by those who are full of the expansiveness of new wine, but when we realize that Jesus Christ, as the bringer of the new wine, was still concerned not to ruin and spoil old wineskins, but rather put new wine in new wineskins that both may age together and become fine wine to be appreciated by others, even those who despise new things, we can have a better and more compassionate view of those around us.
A few months ago, I ran afoul of a pastor in a neighboring congregation  who had never heard of Job’s complaint God being a covenantal lawsuit. I had heard of the term likely through both my reading of the UCG commentary on Job as well as my reading of the writings of prolific Christian Reconstruction figures. As it happens, there is at least another source of the thinking that I was not familiar with, but could have been, in that the late Elie Wiesel wrote a book on Auschwicz vs. God where various prisoners in the concentration camp set up a covenantal lawsuit against God for having abandoned them in their hour of greatest trouble, not noting their own long train of betrayals and violations of their own covenant with God throughout history. All of this makes for a fertile area of discussion and thinking, but it is clear that the pastor in question was an example of an old wineskin and it is clear that he viewed my ideas about covenantal lawsuits in the book of Job as unwelcome new wine. And, to be charitable to him, and to many like him, a great many of the ideas that people bring in are bad ones, and many people lack the time and inclination to engage in the test of new ideas to see which are good ones and which are bad ones, and so they reject any new truths or new ideas altogether as being unworthy of their attention and of being unwelcome anywhere around them. If their essential conservatism is a wise attitude but the way that they seek to preserve what they have is deeply unwise, and often unkind, how are we to address those valid concerns while also providing the room for worthwhile ideas to pass the test and to enter into a greater degree of acceptance?
There are several ways in which new ideas prove themselves. A novel scientific theory can explain previous observations that proved anomalous, even as it creates its own anomalies. Yet many scientific theories are viewed as being validated when they have failed to deliver the goods, like evolution, to give one of the most notable examples. Is there a way that a theory or idea can be tested apart from being viewed as legitimate without having passed a real evidentiary test? As it happens, there are such ways. One of the aspects of new wine is its expansiveness, and new ideas tend to be immensely fertile in their application. This very expansiveness can be used to provide a test for theories to allow them to be rejected or at least provisionally accepted as being worthy of greater scrutiny and investigation. A classic case study of this is evolution, which shortly after its original promotion in the mid-1800’s became expanded into Social Darwinism and eugenics, where societies were viewed as being in savage competition and where effort was put into culling the herd of humankind of its most undesirable progeny, in the eyes of various governments. As it happens, the savagery that resulted in World War II and among forced sterilization and the barbarity of people caught up in these applications of a scientific worldview combine to give a refutation of the truths that are claimed by evolution. If the applications of a theory lead to a decline in civilization and in the proliferation of wickedness and cruelty and evil, as has been the case for evolution, we may be able to judge the theory that spawned such applications as having been weighed in the balance and found wanting, even without understanding the entirety of the scientific picture involved.
We may view this as an expansion of human logic, an application of logic to novel circumstances that have hitherto not been considered. Seeing that we have been given a sound external standard by which to judge human thought and action through the revelation of God, even if we do not understand that revelation perfectly nor do we interpret it perfectly, and seeing that we have a decided target to aim at in terms of the moral topography of our lives  as growing towards the divine nature, then we have an indirect means of testing theories through their achievement of those aims. Just as a logician may disprove via the proof by contradiction, so too may we disprove by contradiction if the applications of a given theory lead to a decrease in civilization and to a proliferation of despair and evil, even if we cannot examine in a timely fashion all of the truth claims made by a given hegemonic theory aspirant. If a theory claims to be an immensely important new truth, it will make so many broad claims as to truth, and areas of application for that truth, that it will be able to be nailed down and tested on at least some level and in at least some application. If it is found to be wanting, as evolution is on the grounds of the savage lack of civilization and morality when it is applied in novel areas, then it is either a minor truth in very narrow circumstances and under heavy guard, or no truth at all. By such means we can provisionally test new theories and new ideas and force them to be refined before they become too heavily entrenched or before their application causes immense harm to the world as a whole.
There is one final caveat I would like to make, and it is a big one. The fact that all vitally important truths are applicable outside of their original boundaries has applications that many people fail to consider, namely that if a truth is universally applicable and vitally important it is applicable to all and not merely to some. If something is an important truth, it is a truth that covers our own lives and our own behaviors as well. Abraham Lincoln was fond, in the late 1850’s, of commenting upon the fact that southern apologists for slavery claimed that slavery was the best system by which to govern some people, namely the majority of their black population, but that no one sought to test the truth of slavery by becoming a slave, which indirectly indicated the falsity of the worldview of Southern slaveowners, a falsity that was further indicated by the failure of the slaveowning republic to defend its independence against northern arms and the denial of its appeal to heaven in claiming the right of rebellion. Nor is this caveat limited to historical applications. A few years ago there were some immensely dissatisfied ministers who had found themselves on the losing end of some political wrangling, who had preached and enforced a standard for years by which their own members who were discontented about mistaken decisions by those in authority, like themselves, were commanded to patiently endure injustice and irritation and frustration and were told that God would work things out, but were unable to patiently endure what they saw as injustice and let God work things out when they were the ones facing decisions by higher human authorities they viewed as mistaken. They forgot, and it is easy for all of us to forget, that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, and if something is true for others, it is also true for us. None of us are exempt from the general frailty of mankind or the general difficulty of not only doing the right thing but putting up with the absurdity and difficulty and frustrations of our human existence. Sometimes the wine we serve out to others is too new for us to handle in our own wineskins, and we become lessons of the tragic irony of wine that is spilled and wineskins that are ruined from imparting truth. Let us so live that both the wine that is in us, and the wineskins that we are, may grow old together and become fine wine appreciated by all who are called and chosen by God.
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