Sunday of week 8 of Ordinary Time

Commentary on Hosea 2:16-17,21-22; 2 Corinthians 3:1-6; Mark 2:18-22

TODAY JESUS compares himself to a bridegroom. It is an image of the relationship between God and his people which goes back to the Hebrew Testament.

Today’s First Reading is from the prophet Hosea. Hosea compares his own rather unsatisfactory marriage to a prostitute to the relationship of Israel with God. As a continuation of the symbol he speaks of later taking an adulteress as a lover. Neither is to be taken literally but are intended to be images of the kind of very deficient relationship that existed between God and his people. Yet, in spite of their unfaithfulness, God is shown to be utterly faithful and loving to his chosen spouse.

“I am going to lure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart. There she will respond to me as she did when she was young… I will betroth you to myself for ever, betroth you with integrity and justice, with tenderness and love; I will betroth you to myself with faithfulness, and you will come to know the Lord.”

It is such a deficient relationship between God and his people which is suggested by today’s Gospel reading. People who thought they were serving God were in fact adulterating the true spirit of the Law in reducing it to a set of legalistic observances. Jesus says it is time for change.

Why don’t they fast?

In the Gospel we are reminded that the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees had the custom of fasting regularly. For them 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 gives two replies in the form of parables or images. First of all, he says that a wedding feast is no time for the attendants on the bridegroom to be fasting. On the contrary, it is a time for joy and celebration. Jesus is clearly the bridegroom and his disciples the attendants. But this will not last forever. A time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away, then there will be times when fasting will be appropriate. And indeed fasting and other forms of abstaining have always had an honourable place in the Christian tradition, an important aspect in developing one’s spiritual life and helping towards freedom and detachment from lesser things.

But then Jesus continues with another kind of parable. No one, he says, 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 and things will be worse than before. Similarly, no one puts new, fermenting wine in old, used wineskins. As the wine continues to ferment and expand, the old containers, which were made of leather, have no more stretch and will burst. The skins are ruined and the wine lost.

What Jesus is saying very clearly here is that he and his teaching and the Way he is proposing cannot be judged by the old, traditional standards of external behaviour, e.g. fasting or not fasting, or the washing of hands on entering a house and the like. Jesus has brought a paradigm shift in the ways we are to relate to God and to each other. If we judge what Jesus does by the old ways, we will have difficulties in understanding his message and his vision. We need, as Paul says, “to have the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5).

New wineskins for our day

This teaching is still highly relevant in our Church today. Some 40 years after the Second Vatican Council, there are still people who have not understood the radical shift in thinking which it introduced. One often hears people ask, after hearing a sermon or talk, “But we were taught differently in school”. It is easy to think that the form in which the faith was presented to us was the way in which it was always presented in the past and how it will be presented in the future. This is not the case at all.

The Second Vatican Council, for instance, brought radical changes in the way the Eucharist was celebrated. For many, however, the changes are often just seen as cosmetic, on the surface. The language was changed, the priest was turned round to face the people. But in fact these changes reflected a very new (in fact, a very old) way of celebrating Mass. Yet it seems that many people still “go to Mass” with basically unchanged attitudes or understanding. Others try to cling to the “good old days” – Tridentine Masses, continuing to eat fish on Friday, following old devotions (some of which border on the superstitious).

There is still a lot of individualism and “saving my soul, staying in the state of grace to get to heaven” mentality… These are the old wineskins and the new wine of a changing Church does not fit in. New wine needs fresh skins.

New wine, old wineskins

There are many older people who still cling to the past ways and who do not appreciate the beauty of the new wine. Because of this, many of the young have never been given the opportunity to appreciate the form of the Church which the Second Vatican Council proposed. As a result, they have voted with their feet and just left.

The result is that our Church becomes more and more irrelevant in a rapidly changing world. The central core of the Gospel message is, of course, unchanging and unchangeable. But the living out of that message in a changing world calls for changes in the way we present and live the faith, in the symbols we use and in the needs we respond to. An Asian theologian used to say, “The world writes the agenda for the Church.” Unless we are in touch with the world and communicate the Gospel in a way that it can understand, we are wasting our energies. And the Gospel is not being preached.

Would it not be wonderful if the words of Paul to the Christians of Corinth today could be applied to all of us? “Unlike other people, we need no letters of recommendation either to you or from you, because you are yourselves our letter, written in our hearts, that anybody can see and read, and it is plain that you are a letter from Christ, drawn up by us, and written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on the tablets of your living hearts.”

Each one a letter from Christ

It is really a beautiful image to think that each one of us is a “letter from Christ”, addressed to all those around us. And it expresses the difference between the new wine and the old wine. The old wine emphasises external observance of laws and commandments but the new wine flows from deep within our hearts. “The new covenant,” says Paul today, “is not a covenant of written letters [tablets of stone or documents], but of the Spirit: the written letters bring death, but the Spirit gives life.”

That was what the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees did not understand. They were people of the letter of the Law, of external observance. The followers of Jesus follow only the commandment of love, the love which gives one’s life for one’s friends, the love that embraces both friends and enemies, the love that reaches out to the brother and sister in need. This is the new wine with which we need to be intoxicated.

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