Over the span of our careers as church-attenders, how many movements or “new things” can we recall that claimed to be the “new wine”? By my count, there’s at least one major one every decade. So it grates on me a little when people talk about wineskins and new wine, and their hope or plan to be the new wine, based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 9.
My books are all stamped with an imprint that says, “Three things: old friends, old wine, and old books.” For my birthday last year (a round number), some good friends gave me a plaque for my wall that says, “Friends and Wine should be Old.” They know. See, this always bothered me about this weird pursuit to be the new wine… who’d want to be new wine? It isn’t drinkable, it makes you sick and spit it out. It isn’t ready yet, and the desire to be new wine now is in some way the desire to be irrelevant, isn’t it? At least until you age a little. As Luke adds to the account, “No one after drinking old wine wants the new.”
No, the desire to be new wine is a reactionary plea that is more a complaint about the old wineskin than the old wine. It’s a statement that the old wineskin doesn’t fit the new wine, and an admission that one is the new wine, the unaged vintage.
The translators who title the passage with catchphrases that equate to “new = better” have really missed it, and do an injustice to the old wineskins… and perhaps to their forebears. The problem with the old wineskins is that they have already done their stretching. The wine they contain was once new, and once upon a time that wine rejected an older wineskin in favour of a new one, which then aged with it, the wine stretching the skin until it matured, both able to serve their purposes together for having been appropriately matched. Old wineskins are not so much inflexible as they are no longer flexible… and it must be recognized that they do not therefore become useless. An aged wineskin would be suited just fine for a beverage that wasn’t fermenting and didn’t need the skin to stretch.
Now, if the new wine were less self-focused and less intent on critiquing the old wineskin, it might be observed that putting new wine into new wineskins protects the old wineskins as much as it protects the new wine. The problem, and the comparison, is not a good/bad one; it’s less about the irrelevance or incapacity of the old as it is simply about the inappropriateness of the mismatch.
Dropping the metaphor, if we represent the new wine, we would break the old church. And that isn’t good… Jesus doesn’t want that. If we represent the new wine, we must recognize that we have much to learn as we press the bounds of the new wineskin. And let’s not presume we’re ready to drink before our time. Beaujolais Nouveau notwithstanding.
It’s time to discover the new wineskin which contains us, to press and stretch it, yes… but this we do to the new wineskin, leaving aside our criticism of the old simply for not being what it isn’t. I have hope that once matured, we’ll have something of value to offer from a stretched wineskin, something more and better than we have today. Shall we age together?