Matthew 9:16-17

THE PROBLEM OF THE NEW IDEA

Matt. 9:16-17

“No one puts a patch of unshrunken cloth on an old garment, for, if he does, the patch which he uses to fill in the hole tears the garment apart, and the rent is worse than ever. No one puts new wine into old wine-skins. If he does, the wine-skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins perish; but they put new wine into new skins, and both are preserved.”

Jesus perfectly conscious that he came to men with new ideas and with a new conception of the truth, and he was well aware how difficult it is to get a new idea into men’s minds. So he used two pictures which any Jew would understand.

(i) “No one,” he said, “takes a piece of new and unshrunken cloth to patch an old garment. If he does, on the first occasion the garment becomes wet, the new patch shrinks, and as it shrinks, it tears the cloth apart, and the rent in the garment gapes wider than ever.”

The Jews were passionately attached to things as they were. The Law was to them God’s last and final word; to add one word to it, or to subtract one word from it, was a deadly sin. It was the avowed object of the Scribes and Pharisees “to build a fence around the Law.” To them a new idea was not so much a mistake as a sin.

That spirit is by no means dead. Very often in a church, if a new idea or a new method or any change is suggested, the objection is promptly raised, “We never did that before.”

I once heard two theologians talking together. One was a younger man who was intensely interested in all that the new thinkers have to say; the other was an older man of a rigid and conventional orthodoxy. The older man heard the young man with a kind of half-contemptuous tolerance, and finally closed the conversation by saying, “The old is better.”

Throughout all its history the Church has clung to the old. What Jesus is saying is that there comes a time when patching is folly, and when the only thing to do is to scrap something entirely and to begin again. There are forms of church government, there are forms of church service, there are forms of words expressing our beliefs, which we so often try to adjust and tinker with in order to bring them up to date; we try to patch them. No one would willingly, or recklessly, or callously abandon what has stood the test of time and of the years and in which former generations have found their comfort and put their trust; but the fact remains that this is a growing and an expanding universe; and there comes a time when patches are useless, and when a man and a church have to accept the adventure of the new, or withdraw into the backwater, where they worship, not God, but the past.

(ii) No one, said Jesus, tries to put new wine into old wine-skins. In the old days men stored their wine in skins, and not in bottles. When new wine was put into a skin, the wine was still fermenting. The gases it gave off exerted pressure on the skin. In a new skin there was a certain elasticity, and no harm was done because the skin gave with the pressure. But an old skin had grown hard, and had lost all its elasticity, and, if new and fermenting wine was put into it, it could not give to the pressure of the gases; it could only burst.

To put this into contemporary terms: our minds must be elastic enough to receive and to contain new ideas. The history of progress is the history of the overcoming of the prejudices of the shut mind. Every new idea has had to battle for its existence against the instinctive opposition of the human mind. The motor car, the railway train, the aeroplane were in the beginning regarded with suspicion. Simpson had to fight to introduce chloroform, and Lister had to struggle to introduce antiseptics. Copernicus was compelled to retract his statement that the earth went round the sun, and not the sun round the earth. Even Jonas Hanway, who brought the umbrella to this country, had to suffer a barrage of missiles and insults when he first walked down the street with it.

This dislike of the new enters into every sphere of life. Norman Marlow, an expert on railways, made many journeys on the footplate of locomotives. In his book Footplate and Signal Cabin he tells of a journey he made not long after the amalgamation of the railways. Locomotives which had been used on one branch of the railways were being tested out on other lines. He was on the footplate of a Manchester to Penzance express, a “Jubilee” class 4-6-0. The driver was a Great Western Railway driver who had been used to driving locomotives of the “Castle” class. “The driver did nothing but discourse with moody eloquence on the wretchedness of the engine he was driving” as compared with the “Castle” engines. He refused to use the technique necessary for the new engine, although he had been instructed in it, and knew it perfectly well. He insisted on driving his “Jubilee” as if it had been a “Castle” and grumbled all the way that he could not get better speed than 50 miles an hour. He was used to “Castles” and with him nothing else had a chance. At Crewe a new driver took over, a man who was quite prepared to adopt the necessary new technique, and soon he had the “Jubilee” travelling at 80 miles per hour. Even in engine-driving men resented new ideas.

Within the Church this resentment of the new is chronic, and the attempt to pour new things into old moulds is almost universal. We attempt to pour the activities of a modem congregation into an ancient church building which was never meant for them. We attempt to pour the truth of new discoveries into creeds which are based on Greek metaphysics. We attempt to pour modern instruction into outworn language which cannot express it. We read God’s word to twentieth century men and women in Elizabethan English, and seek to present the needs of the twentieth century man and woman to God in prayer language which is four hundred years old.

It may be that we would do well to remember that when any living thing stops growing, it starts dying. It may be that we need to pray that God would deliver us from the shut mind.

It so happens that we are living in an age of rapid and tremendous changes. Viscount Samuel was born in 1870, and he begins his autobiography with a description of the London of his childhood. “We had no motor-cars, or motor-buses, or taxis, or tube railways; there were no bicycles except the high `pennyfarthings’; there were no electric light or telephones, no cinemas or broadcasts.” That was just a century ago. We are living in a changing and an expanding world. It is Jesus’ warning that the Church dare not be the only institution which lives in the past.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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