Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New wineskins

Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’

- Mark 2:13-22

In beginning to read Mark's gospel, one is struck by the idea of transformation. There is a sense from the earliest encounter with Jesus at his baptism that something new is happening, a great new reality is making its impact in the society. The fulfilment of promises and prophecies doesn't bring exactly the expected, but rather initiates something transformational, a reality that bursts in upon the consciousness of what it is to be a spiritual disciple. The good news is of the kingdom, the message Jesus is here to bring.

In yesterday's reading and commentary, we see how transformation, progress and healing go hand in hand. Seeing sin as "spiritual paralysis" indicates a need to move forward, to transform, repent. Today's reading indicates the newness of this gospel, the change and the transformation on a personal and social level as well. It begins with the call to Matthew (Levi), a tax collector. Jesus tells him, 'Follow me.' This is a call from God, from the divine - not a request. Our free will is used to accept or reject this call.

Matthew is the only one of the twelve who has a powerful position in the society and presumably an education. He responds positively to Jesus' call, and in the next paragraph we have Jesus at supper in Matthew's house. Naturally, Matthew's friends and acquaintances are those of his social circle. The Pharisees and scribes are critical: Jesus is sitting at table with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus replies that he came not to condemn but to heal, not for the righteous but for the sinners, to call them to change and repentance. The introduction of the new, of the presence of this spiritual kingdom, is clearly a call to repentance, to change and transformation. It opens a door to those who have need of the door. A note in my study bible says that we see Jesus' kingdom as open to the outcast, and destruction of the barrier between the sinful and God. 'Follow me' is as much a call toward the new, to transformation and change, as it is to become a disciple, to be instructed. The action of spirit is to transform: Jesus is in the midst of the sinners and eats with them. Rather than defiling him, as would be the perspective of a legalistic understanding, it is Jesus' presence that heals and cleanses.

Jesus is also criticized because his followers do not fast. And then he announces a great secret, an understanding of the workings of this kingdom. The followers or friends cannot fast when the bridegroom is with them. The presence of the kingdom at hand, in the person of the bridegroom, tells us about the action of this kingdom, this Spirit, on all things. This doesn't mean that fasting as a spiritual practice is not useful and good: Jesus himself says his disciples will fast when he is no longer with him. What it does indicate is the healing, cleansing and sanctifying action of the presence of the kingdom, of Spirit. It is a transformational reality that His presence brings into our midst.

A note in my study bible says, regarding this dinner with Matthew (Levi)'s friends, that Jesus recognizes them as a distinct social group. But the nature of the call, "Follow me" means that regardless of his class or group, Matthew's friends will no long come first in his life. His friends remain his friends, but he is now a disciple, and discipleship must be put first, as the guest of honor at the table. Matthew has many friends, and they are brought to Jesus and become his followers. The transforming power of this kingdom means that their faith will lead to works of beauty and truth, worship and spiritual value. This new thing, introduced here at the beginning of Mark's gospel, is a call to which we need to respond - to see the reality of this new kingdom into which we enter. It is a call that is with us every moment, and is no less potent nor less "new" whenever we hear it. The Eucharist itself can be seen as this "supping" with the bridegroom, but each of us in our lives can make the choice to follow at any time.

Finally we have the great metaphor of the wineskins: you put new wine into new wineskins. Jesus' followers look different from the experts of the law. They are responding to a call that is new: that is there not to expiate evil but to transform it. This is a different, a new perspective. The call to transformation and repentance is, in and of itself, the good news, the new thing, the messianic reality that presents itself into the midst of this society at this time. Do we have the courage to hear it now? The same dynamics of "legalism" and true spiritual acceptance are always at play and remain with us all the time. "Follow me" is not a call someone heard 2,000 years ago that we read about in a book. It is always present to us all. We must be awake and alert enough to respond, and this call will always need new wineskins to take on the new wine.

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