Commentary on Mark 2:18-22
The disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees fasted. It was a sign of a deeper commitment to the service of God. How come then that the disciples of Jesus were not fasting? In their defence, Jesus speaks a kind of parable. A wedding feast is no time for the attendants on the bridegroom to be fasting. It is a time for joy and celebration. Jesus is clearly the bridegroom and his disciples the attendants. A time will come when the bridegroom will no longer be visibly with them, then there will be times when fasting will be appropriate.
Jesus continues with another image. No one uses a piece of new, strong cloth to patch an old garment. At the first sign of stress, the new patch will pull and tear the weaker, old cloth. Similarly, no one puts new, fermenting wine in old, used wineskins. When the wine ferments and expands the old skins have no more stretch and will burst. The skins are ruined and the wine lost.
In both images Jesus is saying that he and his teaching and the Way he is proposing cannot be judged by the old, traditional standards. Jesus has brought about a radical shift in the ways we are to relate to God and to each other. The traditional ways identified with the Pharisees and with John the Baptist was basically one where loyalty to God was expressed through strict observation of laws and external practices of commitment like fasting. The Way of Jesus is quite different. It is primarily interior rather than just exterior. It is ultimately rooted in relationships based on love, a love that always seeks the well-being of the other. If we judge what Jesus does by the old ways, we will have difficulties. We need, as Paul says, “to have the mind of Christ”.
This is still relevant in our Church today. There are many who still are living their Catholic life with the Pharisee mind-set. Several decades after the Second Vatican Council, there are still people who have not understood the radical shift in thinking which it introduced. In the liturgy, for instance, the changes in many places are often just cosmetic, on the surface. There are people still “go to Mass” (note the expression) with basically unchanged attitudes or understanding. Others try to cling to the “old days” – Tridentine Masses, continuing to eat fish on Friday, following old devotions (some of which border on the superstitious).
There is still a good deal of individualism and “saving my soul”, staying in “the state of grace to get to heaven” mentality. There are people who still see sin as primarily the breaking of laws and rules rather than a breakdown in loving relationships with God, with others, with self. It is possible to be perfectly ‘orthodox’, affirming the doctrinal teaching of the Church to the last detail and yet be devoid of love in the way one’s life is lived and showing very little concern for the needy of this world. Sad to say, Pharisaism is alive and well. But it is like trying to force the new thinking of the Vatican Council into the old wineskins of past behaviour.
The new wine of Jesus’ teaching needs to be contained in new wineskins. And part of the problems of the Church in certain parts of the world where Christians are falling away can be traced to our unwillingness to let go of old wineskins.