Valuing the Old and the New

People often used to ask me to name my favorite Bible verse. I don’t have one. I’ve never had one. So when asked, I would usually say I liked the whole Bible or I would name whatever verse I had read most recently. Or if I was feeling snarky I’d name the verse where Jesus rebukes the religious leaders for over-valuing the Scriptures. Actually, there was a time when I would piously mention Deut. 23:13 as my favorite verse. I gave myself extra points if I could keep a straight face.

I still don’t have a favorite Bible verse, but in recent years I’ve developed a special appreciation something Jesus says Matthew 13. This line comes after Jesus tells a bunch of famous parables, so we often overlook it. Jesus says, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

This verse resonates with me on several levels. One is simply that the person Jesus is describing is a scribe. Scribes were people who knew texts. They probably made copies of texts by hand. They may also have written out texts for people who knew what they wanted to say but couldn’t write. The scribe was not the genius or the entrepreneur. The other thing that resonates with me is that this scribe has the ability recognize what is valuable in both the old and the new. Our culture is obsessed with the new. For instance, one of the dangers in talking about the ‘New’ Testament is that we hear it as a dismissal of the ‘Old’ Testament. That isn’t what those terms are intended to do.

I once worked in an archive. The archive was run by an organization that also had a small museum and a research library. Both of those were open to the public. The archive, however, was in a sort of bunker that stretched under the parking lot and was behind closed (and locked) doors. It was dedicated to preserving documents and other items of historical interest. My job, for the few months I worked there, was to sort through donations: photos, journals, letters, meeting minutes, membership records, stuff like that. One of the most interesting items I catalogued was a land deed that was written on vellum and predated the existence of the nation.

My boss was an older woman who had spent much of her adult life in the archive. I heard rumors that she sometimes used her own money to buy items for the archive that would otherwise have been sold to people who didn’t understand them. She taught me the basics of cataloguing, but she also taught me how to appreciate the old items. Within those donations she saw lives. She saw the evolution of communities. She saw difficult decisions and understandable compromises. She would often chuckle at how those old things looked now.

An archivist is a bit like a scribe. I think we’ve often overlooked the scribes, the sorts of people who keep things going, the sorts of people who know our history, the sorts of people who can make the subtle decisions about what to keep and what to leave out. The good scribe isn’t biased toward maintaining the status quo or toward blowing it up. The scribe looks for connections. The scribe tries to translate learning from one situation to another.

In the context of our larger culture, these are often the kinds of people who do quiet work keeping valuable institutions going. Even in the church world, there is a propensity to fixate on new, disruptive tricks and trends. The opposite exists too: a fixation on the old as something forever binding, something that limits our growth. What’s impressive, at least if we have the words of Jesus in mind, are those people who can discern the value of both. These people are willing to make a contribution to the life of the community, even if they don’t become the star. 

In the congregation I serve I find myself especially thankful at this moment for people who keep things going. These are often committee members, but not always. These are people committed to our community of faith and to doing the necessary work to keep our congregation vibrant and engaged. These are not people who feel the weight of doing everything or who think their way is the only way. These are the people who are willing to sort through the treasure trove, including the old and the new, and find what is needed for this moment. I’m thankful for the scribes. And maybe I do have a favorite passage of scripture, at least for now.     

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