What is Old? What is New?

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” [Matthew 13:52] We continue our series on Jesus’ parables with this piece to add: the kingdom of God (heaven) is a marriage of things old and new. Jesus is saying that to understand the kingdom of God, there needs to be an understanding of value, a way to fit old and new together. Those who would be teachers about these things -- teachers who stood in the tradition of Israel and its scriptures, history, and customs -- would need to be as wise as the owner of the house.

Simply put, the kingdom of God somehow transcends the temporal and time-bound, the faddishness of the present, and especially what we could call “the tyranny of the new”. The kingdom of God breaks those categories so that all is left is value itself -- the old and the new in harmony.

And this brings us to consider what exactly we mean by old and new. It is a worthwhile exercise to consider some of our unexamined cultural biases around the words “new” and “old”. Be honest now, what is your gut reaction to each. For the most part, “old” means throw away, and “new” means better, right? Perhaps this is because we are so scripted by technological process in almost every area of our daily experience. But how much does this habit skew our vision of life itself?

But what if the oldest things, the first things, were to become new again? One of the most memorable and impactful pieces of writing I have ever engaged was the chapter entitled “The Ethics of Elfland”, in G.K. Chesterton’s classic book Orthodoxy (originally published 1908). Chesterton opened a window toward the past in a way I hadn’t yet conceived, challenging the idea that newer is always better. Frankly, newer is only sometimes better.

Chesterton says that we need to claim a place for the past if we are going to live wisely and well. We need to understand how the earliest truths and perceptions of the world -- the things that were voiced by our most distant and earliest ancestors -- can remain valid for us, even definitive. While our ancestors made mistakes (to be sure), they also saw life in more personal terms, more alive with wonder, more dynamic than our present mechanical and technological models allow. In fact, while musing on the ancients, Chesterton was taken back to his earliest memories of childhood, to the wonder he felt about life, and somehow intuitively knew was the best explanation of things. He said:

… I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious: that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story teller.

Musing on the way his mind worked as a child, Chesterton saw the connection with the most ancient ways of seeing things: where life was a wonder, a story, a meaning, and that modern thinking had actually sterilized the world. Chesterton then does this most amazing thing, reversing everything we tend to think about new and old, describing the world through a child’s eyes and seeing God himself (the ancient of days) as the youngest and freshest and most exuberant life there is. It is we adult moderns who are old and fading away. Here is his memorable quote:

A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never go tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

God is younger than we are; we are the old and fading ones. It is the mechanical world we have imagined that is lifeless, while the joyful reality of God is not mechanical at all, just an overflowing excess of celebration. What a reversal!

The kingdom of God is not an easy thing to understand and that is why Jesus told so many stories to help us get a sense of it. But one thing is for sure: we are not served well when we automatically think new is good and old is bad. Better to be wise about this and preserve what is valuable. Better to look at life itself.

questions and ideas to ponder:

1. take some time to work out how old and new are used in cultural conversations (it might be helpful to do a review of our advertising) 2. how does the Chesterton quote about God’s youth affect you? how does it shift your mental model of things? 3. this is a difficult theological question that is not addressed in the writing above, but, how would you understand what Jesus makes new? and what does he preserve from the past? with what kind of wisdom does he do this? 4. how would you describe our cultural attitudes towards elderly people? why is our culture so intent on celebrating youth? 5. in light of this parable, how might you live differently?