Treasure New and Old: What Jesus Might Have to Say About Generational Differences
In my context, I’ve experienced and been familiar with both the old and new generation. I don’t feel either “old school” or “new school” (if there can be such labels) because I feel like my DNA/history as a Christian contains both. In my heart and life, I have to decide what it means to follow Jesus with the culture, scripture interpretation, and practice of faith I’ve inherited negotiating between the old and the new generation. What should remain of the old and what needs to become wholly new?
As we will see, when Jesus talks about wineskins in Matthew, it is analogous to generational differences. As I’ve sat with the wineskins text (Matthew 9:14-17) more and more has popped out to me that I never saw before in the passage. This has happened in part because in the past year I’ve learned to read the gospels narratively, so now I see the passage in the context of a larger narrative. For this reason, I am only interpreting the Matthew narrative, as Mark and Luke record the event a little differently. Here is the passage below in the NAB:
“Then the disciples of John approach him and said, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth, for its fullness pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse. People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:14-17, NAB)
Jesus and his disciples are leaving behind a tradition of fasting that both John’s disciples and the Pharisees followed. One possible reason for this, other than what Jesus straightforwardly says here (that since he is with them, they should not fast, but celebrate) is that Jesus’ ministry was very public constantly going to people’s homes and eating what is put before them. Whenever Jesus’ disciples went to the home of a “person of peace” they were required to eat whatever was before them accepting the person’s hospitality (Matthew 10:11). Such a posture might be impossible if they were required to fast. In order to do something new missionally, they had to let go of an old tradition.
What sparked the idea for this article was something I had previously always glossed over: the fact that in this passage the Pharisees were not the ones asking this question, but John’s disciples. Whereas the Pharisees often bear the full weight of Jesus’ ire, the disciples of John likely have a positive and friendly relationship with Jesus. John, according to Luke, was Jesus’ cousin, and John baptized Jesus. In the gospel of John, we see that a couple of John’s disciples became followers of Jesus. In fact, Jesus seems to revere John very highly in the Matthew narrative saying “among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (see Mt. 11:7-19).
As far as Jesus’ community that he had grown to know best, John and his disciples might rightly be called “old school.” John can rightly be connected with the “old school” generation, as he literally is said to “prepare the way” for Jesus. Nonetheless, Jesus and John are not exactly the same. Jesus, in esteeming John highly (see Mt. 11:7-19) wants to preserve and teach what was good and true about what John taught, but he also seems to be going in a different direction than John ever intended. Leading up to this point, we see John preparing the way for Jesus, and giving a true, but very incomplete view of the Messiah that focuses on wrath and judgment (Matthew 3:1-12). Jesus, in order to identify with sinners, asks John to baptize him, and John understandably is reluctant. He does not yet understand that Jesus came to identify with sinners and outsiders.
From the way Matthew records things, Jesus’ conversation with John’s disciples here does not seem to condone a throwing out of the old wineskin, which both Luke and Mark may indicate. Rather, Jesus seems to want “both preserved” (vs. 17). Yes, Jesus is doing something new, but the preservation of the old also seems to be of interest to him. Later in Matthew, Jesus says something else reminiscent of what he says about wineskins: “…every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” (See Matthew 13:52-53) We can see that Matthew is concerned with preserving both the new and the old.
This dynamic between Jesus and John reminds me of how generations often have different biases. Neither bias is inherently wrong; it’s just that one generation becomes fixated on a certain set of information while the next generation gets fixated on a different set of information. This can easily pit us against one another. For instance, millennials or generation z might come to church week after week and be frustrated that the sermons are focused only on how we ought to be set apart from the world, on abstaining from worldly influences, and avoiding false doctrine. What the millennial often hears is, “Let’s be more insulated than we already are.” It’s not the fact that being set apart from the world, abstaining from worldly influences, or avoiding false doctrine is wrong, untrue, or bad sermon material. It’s that many of the older generation in the room gives a hearty amen and the rest of the room feels we really should be focused on other things.
The younger generation might be frustrated with a church that, like John, has decided the best route is to go out into a wilderness where there are no worldly influences. The younger might see the older generation like the bug-eating, strangely clothed John who hardly has contextualizing God’s mission on his mind. He never really cared so much how he looked to the world in the first place. On the other hand, the older generation might see in the younger a compromising and worldly lot, who are too concerned with how they look and being “politically correct.” (I’m painting in broad strokes here.)
Likewise, whereas the “old school” generation in my church primarily focuses on the questions, “Is it in scripture? And if so how do we obey it?”, millennials and generation z seem to tag on to that question, “Well how does that end up working out?” Or in biblical terms, “What’s the fruit? Or what kind of person or community does that lead to?” In other words, the older generation’s emphasis on obedience sometimes sidelines the question of pragmatism, and the younger generation’s focus on pragmatism can sometimes sideline the questions of biblical truth and obedience. Philosophically, the older generation usually reflects the modern enlightenment need for absolute scientific truth. For instance, our Restorationist forefather Alexander Campbell thought we could scientifically deduce the “pattern” of New Testament Christianity. The younger generation, however, often reflects the postmodern emphasis on pragmatism and how truth narratives are often shaped by power.
When you have different generations in a room, you have different biases that lead people to want to focus on different information. When certain bits of information are preferred to others, different narratives are developed. Both narratives might be true in some sense, but the biases can be so different that they can even seem to contradict one another.
Biases and Scripture
This phenomenon is preserved in the biblical canon notably in the very different perspectives of Ezra-Nehemiah vs. Ruth, the former focused primarily on the need for holiness and exclusion, and the latter focused primarily on mercy and inclusion. Both of these focuses come from Torah, sometimes from the same passages! See my article on renew.org for more thoughts on the book of Ruth: https://renew.org/some-uncommon-thoughts-about-the-book-of-ruth/.
So how can such different perspectives coexist? Is it even possible? I believe that when different generations learn from one another, it makes the church able to be the full body of Christ. The older generation might help the younger avoid a fuzzy pragmatism that is only concerned with “what works” but pays little attention to biblical authority or conviction, but the younger generation may help the older to avoid traditionalism, exclusivism, and drawing lines where perhaps God never intended. We should thank God that we are being forced to be more nuanced by having different generations in the room. This generational listening is one of the best ways to avoid harmful extremes, and truly be the church we are meant to be in the world.
The younger generation might help the older appreciate the importance in scripture of creation care, racial reconciliation, and systemic injustice, whereas the older can help the younger to not ignore the judgment and wrath of God, hard truths, and reverence for the authority of God’s word (even the difficult parts).
In Jesus, we get an example of holding on to what is good of the old, while knowing when the old needs to be left behind so that the new can take place. In order to introduce something new Jesus had to know when and how hard to push against the old biases, and also when they needed to be upheld. I believe Jesus’ negotiation/confrontation with the old and in-breaking of new kingdom values is one of the main themes of Matthew.
Just as Ezra-Nehemiah and Ruth exist in the same biblical canon, people with different biases can coexist and thrive together in the same church, though it may not be without some healthy conflict. It might not be without approaching one another with the pointed question of, “Why don’t you…as we do?” and being curious and open to the response. Then we might grow together, bringing together the treasures both new and old.