“The old is nice”: Jesus meets the reflexive conservatives

I have not really reckoned seriously with the parable of the wineskins (Matt 9:14–17; Mark 2:18–22; Luke 5:33–39), and I probably need to. Anyone who is bemused as I am with the various ways in which the labels “conservative” and “progressive” are adopted as self-identifiers and hurled as other-blamers in American politics and religion probably needs to. Not that asking naïve questions like WWJD (or even WDJS or WWJ or WWJB [figure them out]) can be an adequate method for making ethical choices or theological judgments. But they’re always worth asking.

But this morning I’m pondering an additional statement that is added onto the parable of the wineskins only in Luke’s version:

⸋o[καὶ] οὐδεὶς πιὼν παλαιὸν ⸆ θέλει νέον· λέγει γάρ· ὁ παλαιὸς ⸀χρηστός ἐστιν⸌.

And no one who has drunk old [wine] wants new [wine]; for they say: “The old is nice.”

I have left in place the little sigla used in the Nestle-Aland text to mark points of variation in the manuscripts (and ancient translations and quotations). Some (clearly in error) omit the whole statement. Some omit the “And.” Some add “immediately” or “quickly” before “wants,” in order to soften the otherwise grimly pessimistic statement. And finally—the thing that mainly catches my eye—many have χρηστότερος instead of χρηστός, “better” instead of “good.”

This substitution of the comparative degree of the adjective for the positive (of “better” for “good”) has influenced some widely used English translations (most notably, the KJV, the NIV). I suspect that the KJV translators were looking at a Greek text that said χρηστότερος, while the NIV translators were looking at a text that said χρηστός, but were thinking some plausible but also possibly fallacious grammatical thing, like “the positive is being used here for the comparative.” (Making up rules, or invoking rules that others have made up, is too often a substitute for seeing and understanding the actual phenomena, and not only when people who don’t really know Greek well are reading Greek texts.)

Other English versions stick with the positive degree. The NRSV and ESV translate χρηστός “good.” Safe, I guess. But others seem to have spent a little more time wondering why the word here is χρηστός and produced (in my view) more interesting and likely translations. You can scan many of them quickly for yourself quickly online at sites like Biblehub. I particularly like “fine” (NASB), “good enough” (ISB, NET Bible), and especially “just fine” (NLB). I would suggest “nice.” I think χρηστός here is “useful,” “usable,” in the sense of “what we are used to,” i.e., “accustomed,” “comfortable,” “comfy.”

It’s not as though the reflexive conservatives whom Jesus neatly disses in this verse are connoisseurs who taste the old wine, taste the new wine, and pronounce on the basis of their refined palate that the old wine is better. It’s not as though they think through the teaching of Jesus, and its implications for how we must change, and find logical or theological flaws in Jesus’s new proposal. They don’t even try it on. They don’t ponder it and let it disturb them. They don’t “taste and see.”

Jesus offers new wine. And they wave him off with a mild and dull “we’re good—the old is nice.”

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