The Collision of texts
Let m read to you two texts from the gospel of St. Matthew. They seem to be in some disagreement with each other about things old and new.
“No one sews a piece of new cloth on an old cloak, for the patch will pull away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and skins are destroyed, but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved”.
“A scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
The Old and the New in Collision
When Matthew wrote his Gospel there was a debate going on in the early Christian church. It was a debate between Jewish & Gentile Christians, and a debate between conservatives and progressives in both of those camps.
Some wanted to retain all the past, and wanted only to add a patch or two to the ancient legacy of Judaism, and so repair a minor deficiency in their old faith. They were called the Judaizers. They loved the old wineskins, and just wanted the new wine to behave itself and stay in the container already provided by their ancestors.
Others knew that with the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, something dynamic had taken place. They wanted to go with this dawning of a new age and forget the past. Judaism, they said, was as dead as a do-do bird. The new faith canceled the old, they said. That tendency led to a man called Marcion,who wanted to throw away the entire Old Testament and jettison anything Jewish.
The Value of the Old & New
Now the writer of this Gospel, St. Matthew knows that old is of incredible value. The Old Testament with its history, the law, the prophets, the psalms, plus all the accumulated wisdom of the people of Israel for 2,000 years, was of immense value.
But he was also aware that the new was also of immeasurable value. The early Christians had been given the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which created the beginnings of a new community. A new age had dawned, with the renewal of all things already underway. A new song was already being sung. A new commandment was given to guide the church. The Holy Spirit, whose regenerating power makes all things new, had been granted to be their traveling companion.
O yes. The Old was invaluable, and the New was priceless, and St. Mathew knew both realities were true.
The Old and the New in Partnership
But in his day the collisions between the old and the new were picking up steam. Wine was being spilled. Wineskins were being destroyed. The church itself was in danger of fragmenting, and the Gospel was in danger of being spilled and spoiled.
But wise minds, like Matthew knew that the Old could be both a blessing and a curse. Retain too much of the old and we drown in the debris of history. Abandon too much of the old and without its strong foundations we fly off in the hurricanes of life.
But those same wise minds knew about the blessing and bane of the New as well.
The new days had brought about a revolution of love and joy, peace and power.
The new age had come, and the great transformation of all things was already evident.
But before the second century dawned new heresies were spreading. New forms of the Gospel were being proposed. As we noted in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, some were saying an angel had given them special insights. Paul assumes that they must have been Fallen Angels then. Novelty was the trend of the day and new forms of faith arose that threatened to destroy even the new wineskins and spill the good-news of our Lord Jesus Christ.
These wise leaders of the church knew that we needed to place old and new into a dynamic partnership. They were aware that the antidote to the weakness of the old, was the new, and the antidote to the debility of the new was the old. They knew that a dwarf, standing on the shoulders of a giant, sees more than the giant does. But that does not mean that we should despise the giant. Instead we should be forever grateful. The blind giant, who has legs, when carrying the legless man with eyes, creates a wonderful partnership.
Jewish & Christian Scribes
It appears that to the Jewish scribes, only the old was of interest. They had developed an antiquarian interest in the past. They saw themselves as Museum curators. In their minds nothing from their glorious past would ever be obsolete.
But Matthew has been converted from being a tax collector to become a Christian Scribe. Scholars speak of the “School of St. Matthew”. There is a strong suspicion that Matthew actually ran a school for Christian Scribes. He is running a seminary for the training of Christian leaders, just as Jewish Rabbis would have trained under men like Gamaliel.
What was the curriculum for this school? We are not sure of it all. The Gospel of St. Matthew itself may have been part of the instruction curriculum. But the brief parable may point to the heart of the curriculum. “A scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
A major task of the school may have dealt with the relationship between Judaism and the New Christian Faith. To the scribes that he is training Matthew says, “Retain the old for sure. Adopt the new by all means.” The ability to integrate the old and the new is the mark of a wise scribe. And if his school included many converted Scribes, they were already familiar with the old, but needed to be fully educated so that the new was included too. Matthew’s school existed to create a true partnership between old and new, in response to the extremist tendencies present in the closing decades of that first century.
Jesus the Teacher
But this is not simply the teaching of Matthew. It is the teaching of Jesus. It has long been noticed that almost everything Jesus taught could be found elsewhere. It soon becomes apparent that Jesus was notthe creator of new ideas. But Jesus took an old truth, removed the mildew, and the rust from it. Put the jaded gem into a new setting, and the power of the original came bursting through. He is a borrower of old and ancient things. He took the growing mountain of rabbinic quotations, blew away the chaff, and revealed the good grain that had been hidden there. He took the 613 laws that had been given equal consideration, and boiled them down to one law: Love of God and neighbor. He took old images of salvation, and refocused them. He took old ideas about righteousness, and retooled them. He made old things new again. He blended the old and the new, and so created a catalytic reaction that carried around the world.
By the way, all the great renewals of the church flow from re-finding and recovering what had been lost or obscured. New days do not often flow from the inventions of new things. New days come primarily from the renewing and refurbishing of things forgotten. It is always “Back to the future!” that we must go.
Why do I say all of this as we meander into the 21stCentury? Because, in our own day there are continued conflicts between the old and the new that are tearing churches and denominations apart. Instead of creating partnerships between the old and the young, the conservative and the progressive, the ancient and the novel, there is instead an increasing polemic that lacks all humility and Christian charity.
So let me speak a word to young people
Old time religion may sound a bit hokey to you. Technology has changed, music has changed, and ten thousand other things have changed in our culture. You may be prone to find humor in the old-fashionedness of some of the ways of the church. But you need to understand that some of us are forever gratefulto those who preceded us in the faith and still value their ways and means. Some of us prize those memoriesof those days of new beginnings in our own lives, that occurred 50-60 years ago, and still find joy in older songs and older practices.
Previous generations built the roads we travel on today. Previous generations built the bridges that we use to cross rivers, and they cleared the land that we build our homes on. And in the journey of faith these same older folks built our sanctuaries, built programs and cleared the paths that we travel as we worship God and serve one another.
Now let me speak to you that are older in years.
As we get older some of the creativity of youth diminishes. Some of the adventurous instincts of our beginnings grow cautious. If we are not careful we shall grow nostalgic for the church and the world as it was, and intolerant of new ways and new faces. If we are not careful we shall make the past an idol that we worship to our own soul’s impoverishment. Even as older saints, like Star Trekkers of every generation, let us boldly go where no one has ever gone before, to explore new worlds and new civilizations. Let us go boldly into the future, knowing that the Spirit of the Lord Jesus will also go with us into that undiscovered country too.
Some time ago a child asked me the question, “How old is God?” After some reflection my response was “Really old! Older than your grandparents. Older than the hills. Older than the stars.” But then I quoted the strange words of George MacDonald, “But God is not old at all. God is younger than we are. For we sin and grow old.” God is forever young. Never close to retirement. Never slowing down. Never outdated. God is ancient, but has never grown old, and He is forever young, without being immature.
St Augustine: Writes the same in the opening pages of his Confessions.
“You are … unchangeable yet all-changing; never new, never old; all renewing and bringing age upon the proud…. ever working ever at rest; still gathering but nothing lacking…. Seeking yet having all things….”
God is both the ancient of Days and the Lord of the unborn ages. He is described as “The One who is and was and is to come.” The Alpha and the Omega. And in his company we will treasure the past and aim for the future. Are we OK with that? Good stuff!