Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?


 On the same day, when evening had come, He said to them, "Let us cross over to the other side."  Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was.  And other little boats were also with Him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling.  But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow.  And they awoke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?"  Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace, be still!"  And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.  But He said to them, "Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?"  And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, "Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!" 

- Mark 4:35-41

 Also He said to them, "Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed?  Is it not to be set on a lampstand?  For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear."  Then He said to them, "Take heed what you hear.  With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.  For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him."   And He said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how.  For the earth yields crops by itself:  first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head.  But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."  Then He said, "To what shall we liken the kingdom of God?  Or with what parable shall we picture it?  It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade."  And with many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it.  But without a parable He did not speak to them.  And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.

On the same day, when evening had come, He said to them, "Let us cross over to the other side."  Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was.  And other little boats were also with Him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling.  But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow.  And they awoke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?"  Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace, be still!"  And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.  But He said to them, "Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?"  And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, "Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!"  Power over the elements is another sign of divinity at work, that Christ is divine.  At the same time, the fact that Christ needs sleep is a sign of His full humanity.  My study bible says that, as in this case with the disciples, God often permits difficulties into our lives in order to perfect and strengthen our faith.  The image of Christ and the disciples in the boat is a traditional illustration of the Church itself.  My study bible says that God both permits storms and delivers us through them, so that we can see his protection more clearly.  Christ's rebuke of the storm is also an illustration of His calming the tempests in the human soul.

I'm always struck by the quality of this passage (and the one that will follow), how in some sense it is like the "adventures" in the Greek myths, such as that of Odysseus or Jason.  The disciples set off, following Christ's commands, across the sea.  This is the Sea of Galilee, which several of His disciples know very well as they are fishermen whose home is Capernaum in Galilee.  But this journey is different; here they are asked to cross the sea into strange territory, unfamiliar to them.  This, I find, is a kind of perfect parallel to the spiritual life, where God will lead us to growth of both our faith and thereby enhanced capacities for virtue, such as strength or courage.  It's an odd, sort of paradoxical reality, but the more we depend on God, the greater our capacity for manifesting the strengths that come with faith.  All tests and difficulties seem somehow "designed" so that such an outcome of greater faith and enhanced virtue -- particular that of courage or strength -- is possible.  Just like the apostles in today's reading, we may struggle through terrifying challenges, that ramp up our emotions and bring out even our deepest, most frightening fears and needs we think we have.  But through the work of God, we somehow come out the other side, with something more to us, a greater independence of "the world" and what we thought we needed, and a greater dependence upon God, upon Christ.  The world of psychology reveals that we may have deep-seated fears within us; today's reading teaches us that these are only human, part of the experience of human beings in the world.  But there is more, there is a faith that connects us with something deeper, bigger, transcendent -- and which runs through all things.  There is a thread which we need to follow, and Christ's words we need to reflect upon, "Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?"   We mustn't forget that these disciples are on the journey of a lifetime.  Once they become His disciples, each new challenge will be a challenge to their faith.  One of them will succumb to his own disastrous impulses and betray Christ.  But the "adventure" that starts here is one that goes through their lifetimes.  Their struggles will become greater, and the rewards and outcomes also greater -- bigger than the lives of a handful of men from Galilee, including a few fishermen, could have conceivably become by worldly standards.  Yet, here it is, here is their fear, and Christ with them.  Let us remember this picture when we feel terrified if we are confronted with our deepest fears, and know that Christ is with us, and will see us to a different destiny than one we could imagine for ourselves, even through the challenges, even when everything else seems to let us down or abandon us.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it?


 Also He said to them, "Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed?  Is it not to be set on a lampstand?  For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear."  Then He said to them, "Take heed what you hear.  With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.  For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him." 

And He said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how.  For the earth yields crops by itself:  first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head.  But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."

Then He said, "To what shall we liken the kingdom of God?  Or with what parable shall we picture it?  It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade."

And with many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it.  But without a parable He did not speak to them.  And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.

- Mark 4:21-34

Yesterday we read that again Jesus began to teach by the sea.  And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea.  Then He taught them many things by parables, and said to them in His teaching:  "Listen!  Behold, a sower went out to sow.  And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it.  Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth.  But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away.  And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.  But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced:  some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."  And He said to them, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"  But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable.  And he said to them, "To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that  'Seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them.'"  And He said to them, "Do you not understand this parable?  How then will you understand all the parables?  The sower sows the word.  And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown.  When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts.  These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time.  Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word's sake, immediately they stumble.  Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.  But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit; some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."

 Also He said to them, "Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed?  Is it not to be set on a lampstand?  For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear."  Then He said to them, "Take heed what you hear.  With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.  For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him."   This continues Jesus' teaching on the meanings of the parables, and the purpose of the parables (see yesterday's reading, just above).  My study bible says it's a call to attentive listening and discriminating response.  Jesus has been emphasizing the "spiritual ears" of the heart, and our understanding.  Here the indication is that we must not only hear but also hear properly.  The promise here is that more will be given to those who respond with open hearts.  These will grow in understanding.  My study bible quotes mark the Ascetic:  "Do the good you know, and what you do not know will be revealed to you." 

 And He said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how.  For the earth yields crops by itself:  first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head.  But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."  This parable is found only in the Gospel of Mark.  Here, my study bible tells us, the kingdom refers to the whole span of God's dispensation or plan of salvation.  The man is Christ, and the seed is the gospel (as in the parable of the Sower, yesterday's reading, above).  In this reading of the parable, that the man sleeps indicates Christ's death, from which He will rise.   That the man does not know how the seed grows shows Christ does not manipulate man's response to the gospel, it notes, but rather each person is free to receive it and let it grow in his own heart.  The harvest is the Second Coming, when all will be judged on their reception of the gospel.  Of course, the parable bears resemblance to all levels of growth of the Kingdom; we can see in its illustration that of the Church, of groups of believers, as well as for individuals, and God's work of mercy through all things where the word is received.

Then He said, "To what shall we liken the kingdom of God?  Or with what parable shall we picture it?  It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade."  According to Theophylact, the mustard seed represents the disciples -- who began as a few men, but "soon encompassed the whole earth."  As with all parables (and the previous one above), it can be read and applied to other levels of faith -- such as that which enters a person's soul and causes an inward growth of virtue.  My study bible says, "This soul will become god-like and can receive even angels."

And with many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it.  But without a parable He did not speak to them.  And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.   What is hidden in the parables?  To unbelievers, they remain bewildering.  But to those with simple faith, as my study bible notes, these stories which use common images reveal truth in ways they can grasp, as they were able

What is quite interesting to note about today's reading is the emphasis on experience in Christ's teaching.  One may often note (as we did in yesterday's commentary) that Christ's healings and their effectiveness are often attributed -- by Christ Himself -- to the faith of those who  are healed or those who help.   There are times when Christ exclaims at the lack of faith, which renders holy power ineffective, such as in this passage, in which Jesus' exclamation, "faithless and perverse generation" is leveled at all present.  There must be a connection made between the holy power of God and the faith of human beings for its free action.   As noted in yesterday's reading, regarding what human beings may grasp in the parables and what they don't, God respects human free will.  In today's reading, we see the action of the Kingdom represented in these parables.  Even to grasp the meaning of the parables requires a certain level of faith, a sense in which one's heart is open to receive this word (and the Word).  With experience, the parables and Christ's words teach us, this depth of meaning grows.  In some sense, the full emphasis on experience is complete, as faith itself is a type of experience that helps us to grasp the images and examples in the parables that illustrate how faith works in us and among us.  This emphasis on experience means, as my study bible has noted above, that the knowledge here isn't of an esoteric type which is available only to those with formal learning and knowledge.  Rather, it is open to those whose hearts are open to Christ, who have an experience of faith, however little or great.  It is open to the heart which has "spiritual ears" open and listening.  That is why our faith isn't merely a moral code we may follow, or particular "principles" of behavior, or as simple as following a political party or not.   Jesus says, "With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.  For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him."  This may seem incredibly "unfair" by standards of common demands for equality.    How is it that some people, just by virtue of an internal disposition, receive the benefits of this Kingdom, and others do not?  But we can ask ourselves the same question about all kinds of things for which we must pay attention, or be disposed toward receiving or grasping.   Moreover, as each is a child of God, we are led to understand that the choice is made through the free will of each person -- at a depth within ourselves I find utterly mysterious.  This is why Jesus' explanations to His disciples are not at odds with which characterization of those who fail to grasp meaning.  What drives one person to seek this Kingdom and sell everything else in order to find it, while so many others would ignore its value?  This is a deeply mysterious question, and the parables -- and Jesus' use of them -- give us a hint that this phenomenon and how it works is known, understood, and accepted, and is "as old as the hills," as the expression goes.  Some will love God, and love Christ -- but the world will do as it does, and may be entirely blind to this Kingdom and its works.  All of this is freely acknowledged in our reading of the text and Jesus' words.  Neither should we be dismayed or shocked when we find the world so.  Rather, we pay deeper attention to the promptings of faith, to that mysterious silent language in the heart that keeps us urgently seeking the reality of this Kingdom, the "burning" in the heart that quickens as we hear spiritual truth and find it in Scripture.   If we may seem to be alone at times in doing so, let us understand these parables were given specifically to separate those who will passionately care from those for whom they mean little or nothing.  Let us be truly attentive to His word, as we are able.




Monday, July 24, 2017

Seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them


 And again He began to teach by the sea.  And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea.  Then He taught them many things by parables, and said to them in His teaching:  "Listen!  Behold, a sower went out to sow.  And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it.  Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth.  But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away.  And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.  But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced:  some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."  And He said to them, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"

But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable.  And he said to them, "To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that
'Seeing they may see and not perceive,
And hearing they may hear and not understand;
Lest they should turn,
And their sins be forgiven them.'"
fAnd He said to them, "Do you not understand this parable?  How then will you understand all the parables?  The sower sows the word.  And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown.  When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts.  These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time.  Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word's sake, immediately they stumble.  Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.  But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit; some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."

- Mark 4:1-20

On Saturday, we read that after Jesus had chosen the twelve disciples (who would become His first apostles) they went into a house.  Then the multitude came together again, so much that they could not so much as eat bread.  But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, "He is out of His mind."  And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebub," and, "By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons."   So He called them to Himself and said to them in parables:  "How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.  No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man.  And then he will plunder his house.   Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" -- because they said, "He has an unclean spirit."  Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him.  And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You."  But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?"  And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother."

 And again He began to teach by the sea.  And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea.  Then He taught them many things by parables, and said to them in His teaching:  "Listen!  Behold, a sower went out to sow.  And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it.  Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth.  But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away.  And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.  But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced:  some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."  And He said to them, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"  If we review the recent events in the growth of Jesus' ministry, our main understanding is of its enormous and seemingly explosive growth.  Great crowds come to hear Him speak (so much so that He's afraid of being crushed by those who crowd in to simply touch Him), and the people come from Jewish communities from every region -- from Jerusalem and Judea, to Galilee, to Tyre and Sidon, and also from east of the Jordan.   He has also chosen the twelve disciples with whom He begins to share and invest His power.  It is at this point that He begins preaching in parables.  Parables were widely used and well-known before Jesus' use of them, but as the Word Himself, He is paramount in His use of the universal language of these simple stories that convey so much on so many levels, and continue to do so as one recalls them throughout a journey of faith.  They are images that are drawn from daily life in the world to "represent and communicate the deep things of God," my study bible says.  "Parables give us glimpses of Him whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9)."  But parables are not obvious to everybody who hears them; they require discernment, a kind of listening with spiritual "ears to hear" (as Jesus will repeatedly emphasize with this phrase).  And, as my study bible notes, even then, not all will have the same degree of understanding.

But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable.  And he said to them, "To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that  'Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them.'"  Jesus quotes from Isaiah (see Isaiah 6:9-10).  He makes it clear that parables are meant to draw those who want the things of the Kingdom, who wish to enter into its mysteries, and to leave the disinterested to their own devices, so to speak (see also Romans 1:24, 26).  It doesn't mean that God causes spiritual blindness in those who would otherwise be faithful.   God permits a self-chosen blindness.  My study bible says, "They did not become blind because God spoke through Isaiah, but rather Isaiah spoke because he foresaw their blindness."

And He said to them, "Do you not understand this parable?  How then will you understand all the parables?  The sower sows the word.  And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown.  When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts.  These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time.  Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word's sake, immediately they stumble.  Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.  But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit; some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."  It's interesting that Jesus first asks the disciples, "Do you not understand this parable?"  It is a question that teaches us that even among those destined to receive the greatest faith, it comes gradually or in fits and starts -- and also relies on the Holy Spirit, from whom more understanding will come after Pentecost.  In the powerful and mysterious ways in which parables are designed to work, we can also reflect that these men who as yet do not understand completely will be the ones who will bear the fruit Jesus speaks of here.   In the parable, Jesus reveals Himself as the promised Messiah, the sower, foretold in Isaiah 55:10-13.  We note the gradual picture of faith given by Christ, and the possibilities of falling away; faith is a lifetime journey, that always holds new challenges, new beginnings, and new opportunities, and struggles.

In another irony, and reflection of the text itself, we can see that although Jesus is speaking of Himself and revealing Himself as the Sower, or the Messiah, He is also speaking of these men to whom He reveals the contents of the parable.  They are those who will struggle through all things for their faith.  One will betray Him.  Many will bear tremendous fruits, and to varying degrees, as indicated in His explanation of the parable.  As is always the case with Christ, whatever He teaches, even if it is nominally about Himself -- as God, as Messiah, as Son of Man -- it also teaches His followers about themselves.  We could say that He, and the whole of Scripture, teaches us about ourselves.  He depicts our struggles, the life of faith, and the constant road that discipleship calls upon us to negotiate and to take.  All of these things in the parable:  the word snatched away by Satan, the stony ground that will hold no root, the thorns -- that represent the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in:  all of these things may be pitfalls on our own journey of faith, and a part of our own experience.  And there's another deep and reflective irony here as well:  it is faith that helps spur our understanding, something deep within us that makes a kind of connection to the life of Christ and the life of the Holy Spirit.  Just as Jesus attributes so many healings to the faith of the healed, so here healing and understanding, entering deeper into the mysteries of faith, are also clearly connected.  In fact, the translations of the quotation Jesus uses from Isaiah read alternatively, "Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them," and "Lest they should turn, And I should heal them."   The tie between understanding and the reception of the Kingdom is not one that is purely intellectual or obscure, but it's a reflection of the presence of the Kingdom.  There is a kind of synergy, a human-divine connection, that is responsible for this understanding, this faith, and the reality of the life of the Kingdom.  God may do the work, but it cannot happen without something deeply inside of ourselves which accepts and desires this presence and participation in the Kingdom.  This is a great mystery, but one the parables are designed to open up within us.  Let us take it to heart that Christ speaks of the spiritual life as a struggle, and remember that the journey of faith isn't a one-time simple answer, but one that sees us and makes a kind of dividing line through all things, whose center is in the heart.  Our free will means God will accept our choice for blindness and deafness, but faith and hope mean God's offer is always there.  He who has ears to hear, let Him hear the word.






Saturday, July 22, 2017

Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother


 And they went into a house.  Then the multitude came together again, so much that they could not so much as eat bread.  But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, "He is out of His mind."  And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebub," and, "By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons."   So He called them to Himself and said to them in parables:  "How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.  No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man.  And then he will plunder his house. 

"Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" -- because they said, "He has an unclean spirit."

Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him.  And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You."  But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?"  And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother."

- Mark 3:19b-35

Yesterday we read that after the Pharisees began to plot with the Herodians against Him,  Jesus withdrew with His disciples to the sea.  And a great multitude from Galilee followed Him, and from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and beyond the Jordan; and those from Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, when they heard how many things He was doing, came to Him.  So He told His disciples that a small boat should be kept ready for Him because of the multitude, lest they should crush Him.  For He healed many, so that as many as had afflictions pressed about Him to touch Him.  And the unclean spirits, whenever they saw Him, fell down before Him and cried out, saying, "You are the Son of God."  But He sternly warned them that they should not make Him known.  And He went up on the mountain and called to Him those He Himself wanted.  And they came to Him.  Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons:  Simon, to whom He gave the name Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, to whom He gave the name Boanerges, that is, "Sons of Thunder"; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananite; and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him.

And they went into a house.  Then the multitude came together again, so much that they could not so much as eat bread.  But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, "He is out of His mind."   Here is a response to Jesus' fame; it is unseemly, in some sense, to His extended family.  And there is also the hostility of the rulers in Galilee which must alarm them -- and now His ministry is far beyond Galilee, across all communities of the Jews.  For the most part, they cannot understand Him or His ministry (see also John 7:1-9).

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebub," and, "By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons."   So He called them to Himself and said to them in parables:  "How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.  No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man.  And then he will plunder his house."  Beelzebub, or Baal, was the prince of "the dung heap" or lord of "the flies," a scathing term used by the Jews for a god worshiped by the Philistines (2 Kings 1:2-16).   Here the scribes call this god the ruler of the demons.  Jesus speaks of individuals and factions fighting one another in a kingdom.  My study bible says that the impossibility of demons fighting against themselves illustrates the irrational pride and envy of the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus.  We note that until now they Pharisees were plotting with the Herodians (those who support Herod, ruler of Galilee) against Him; now the scribes come from Jerusalem to attack Him.   Christ, as liberator, can bind Satan the "strong man." 

"Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" -- because they said, "He has an unclean spirit."   Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, my study bible says, is blasphemy against the divine activity of the Spirit.  That is, blasphemy against pure goodness.  To sin against the Son of Man is more easily forgiven because the Jews did not know much about Christ.  But they know the divine activity of the Holy Spirit from the Scriptures.  This will not be forgiven because it comes from a willful hardness of heart, and a refusal to accept God's mercy.    My study bible goes on to say that the Fathers of the Church state clearly that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not an "unforgivable sin," nor does Jesus ever call it "unforgivable."  According to St. John Chrysostom, such blasphemy would be forgiven if a person repented of it.  Jesus makes such a declaration knowing that those who are blaspheming the Spirit are calling pure, divine goodness "evil," and that they are beyond repentance by their own choice.

Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him.  And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You."  But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?"  And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother."  Jesus' relatives haven't yet understood His identity and mission, according to my study bible.  But more importantly, Christ -- as His ministry is expanding -- is pointing to another type of family, that based on a spiritual unity in obedience to the will of God.  He doesn't condemn His family nor is He putting them down in some sense; rather He is affirming the communion of those who love God.  Here it should be noted also that brother in the traditional usage in the Middle East (and indeed, in Scripture) can refer to a number of extended relations.  Abram called his nephew Lot "brother" (Genesis 14:14); Boaz spoke of Elimelech, his cousin, as his "brother" (Ruth 4:3); and Joab called his cousin Amasa "brother" (1 Kings 20:9).   Since Mary had one child, Jesus, it is assumed here that these brothers are either step-brothers (sons of Joseph from an earlier marriage, as he was an older man when Mary was betrothed to him); or they are cousins.  At the Cross, Jesus commits His mother to the care of John His disciple (John 19:25-27).  This would be unthinkable in their culture if Mary had other children to care for her.   And indeed, such an act itself affirms Jesus' discussion of family as union in spiritual reality.

As Jesus' ministry and fame expands, so does the understanding He gives of what the Kingdom entails.  There are those outside of it, and those inside of it.  Every unity is based upon the will of God, and those who seek to do and live this will.  The active will of God in the world is the Holy Spirit -- the pure, active living mercy of God at work in the Person of the Spirit.  To love the Spirit is to embrace the family that Christ calls us to.  To call the Spirit's work somehow evil is to truly blaspheme against God, to commit a type of sin that is the most serious Jesus will ever name.   His teachings in this regard speak to us of a type of perception it is important to honor, to cultivate, and to understand.  How can we know the active love and mercy of God at work?  It is this to which He calls our attention and asks our focus.  This is the goal for which all of our worship practices orient us.  It is the purpose of constant prayer; indeed, even of studying the Scriptures.  And if we but think about it in the context of today's passage, this is the true goal for which the scribes and Pharisees endlessly study Scripture, and somehow they have missed it.  They call Jesus' work in the world the work of demons.  They claim He heals and casts out demons by the power of Satan, of Beelzebub, the "ruler of the demons."  In their jealousy and envy, their rivalry to Christ, it is they who resemble the world of demons -- their irrationality gives us a clue to that.  There is no logic and no sense to what they say and the accusations they make against Him.  Somehow it is among them that the center cannot hold, so to speak, and truth is nowhere to be found.  They are blind even to the good He is doing.  We go back to His question to them in Thursday's reading, which they refused to answer, but met in stony silence:  "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?"   Where is the love of God, the embrace of the work of the Holy Spirit?  It is this question we must constantly ask ourselves in today's world, in which we are bombarded with messages about what is "correct" and what is not.  We can look around ourselves, and in our world, and see what does good and what does evil, what saves life and what kills -- what needlessly divides and makes false accusation only to serve material power.  We must constantly be on our guard about the same deceptions, perhaps magnified in greater strength by the destructive power modern methods of rule allow, such as weapons and telecommunications and the spread of falsehoods upon which people are encouraged to act.  Oh yes, we live in a modern world with the same temptations, perhaps even magnified, but Christ still stands in the middle of it.  He still calls us to the unity of family in the Holy Spirit, in the love of God and seeking to do God's will above all else.  Beyond that, He still calls us, as good servants, to discernment, and to understand of every would-be prophet, any wolf in sheep's clothing, that by their fruits you shall know them.  We are called to be His ever-watchful and alert servants -- and to truly know Whom it is we serve.



Friday, July 21, 2017

The unclean spirits, whenever they saw Him, fell down before Him and cried out, saying, "You are the Son of God." But He sternly warned them that they should not make Him known


 But Jesus withdrew with His disciples to the sea.  And a great multitude from Galilee followed Him, and from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and beyond the Jordan; and those from Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, when they heard how many things He was doing, came to Him.  So He told His disciples that a small boat should be kept ready for Him because of the multitude, lest they should crush Him.  For He healed many, so that as many as had afflictions pressed about Him to touch Him.  And the unclean spirits, whenever they saw Him, fell down before Him and cried out, saying, "You are the Son of God."  But He sternly warned them that they should not make Him known.

And He went up on the mountain and called to Him those He Himself wanted.  And they came to Him.  Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons:  Simon, to whom He gave the name Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, to whom He gave the name Boanerges, that is, "Sons of Thunder"; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananite; and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him. 

- Mark 3:7-19a

Yesterday we read that it happened that Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain.  And the Pharisees said to Him, "Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?"  But He said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him:  how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?"  And He said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.  Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath."  And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him.  And He said to the man who had the withered hand, "Step forward."  Then He said to them, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?"  But they kept silent.  And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand."  And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other.  Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him. 

But Jesus withdrew with His disciples to the sea.  And a great multitude from Galilee followed Him, and from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and beyond the Jordan; and those from Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, when they heard how many things He was doing, came to Him.  So He told His disciples that a small boat should be kept ready for Him because of the multitude, lest they should crush Him.  For He healed many, so that as many as had afflictions pressed about Him to touch Him.  And the unclean spirits, whenever they saw Him, fell down before Him and cried out, saying, "You are the Son of God."  But He sternly warned them that they should not make Him known.  Jesus withdrew because the Pharisees and Herodians (of Galilee) are plotting against Him.  We get a taste of His fame, which is now also in Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and beyond the Jordan, all to the south of Galilee.  But also those from Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile region north of Galilee, come to Him.  There are so many people crowding round that Jesus must have a boat ready in case He should be crushed by the crowd, as simply touching Him is seen as healing.  Once again, although the authorities are plotting against Him, and He continues to spread His ministry to obviously great public acclaim, it is not the time to reveal His messianic identity; thus He forbids the spirits to speak.

And He went up on the mountain and called to Him those He Himself wanted.  And they came to Him.  Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons:  Simon, to whom He gave the name Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, to whom He gave the name Boanerges, that is, "Sons of Thunder"; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananite; and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him.   We get a sense of the unfolding of Jesus' ministry.  There are so many coming to Him, and His fame has spread throughout the regions of Jewish communities.  He appoints twelve in order to distribute and share His power -- to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons.  The names of the disciples aren't the same on all lists in the Gospels, as many people had more than one name.  Judas is always referred to as the one who betrayed Him, reminding us that the Gospels are written with the perspective given after Pentecost. 

Mark's gospel moves very quickly.  It is the shortest of the Gospels.  But it gives us a sense of the important "scenes" of Jesus' ministry, giving us a perspective on its significant events and how it unfolds.  Jesus' fame spreads very quickly.  As hostility to His ministry begins among the authorities, so grows His greater fame, and so spreads the word about Him to all regions of Jewish communities.   It's at this turning point that the twelve are appointed.  It's very significant that Jesus' power is shared, because it gives us a sense of His authority, His central place and divine identity.  It's important to note how Jesus goes about His ministry.  He doesn't wait for others to approve, He doesn't explain His identity as Messiah.  He preaches the Kingdom, as He's been sent to do.  He goes where God the Father has sent Him to go.  He heals and He casts out demons.  He uses His divine power.  But He never explains His messianic identity, and in fact He forbids the unclean spirits from identifying Him.  We've repeatedly discussed, in this blog, the reasons for such secrecy and lack of fanfare about His identity:  the hostility of the leadership, the people's misunderstanding and false expectations of the Messiah as political leader, and the importance of genuine faith that is not coerced in any way.  But Jesus is also teaching us clearly about living the Kingdom, the life of the holy.  He just does it.  He lives it.  He doesn't wait for the world to accept Him first.  He doesn't try to convince everyone He's "right."  He doesn't even explain His actions.  And, at least until the end of His ministry, when the authorities grow hostile in one place, He simply moves forward to the other places He must go.   Understanding will come via faith to those who can accept His ministry.  When accused, He will loyally defend His followers, His disciples and John the Baptist.  And He will stand up for Himself when it comes time to spar with the leadership.  But He makes no prior justification of why His ministry will unfold as it does, and no excuses.  It teaches us a lesson about the life of the Kingdom.  Is there something that needs doing?  Are you called to study Scripture?  Is there an impulse for prayer?  Does God ask you to live a certain way?  Christ is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, but He calls each one of us to also be good servants, to respond as His servants to what is necessary.  He doesn't ask us to wait for the world to accept our beliefs, or to convince everyone else we're "right," nor to expect that everybody will approve.  He calls us to live the life of the Kingdom, as His servants, as His friends, alert for where and how we can simply do so.  There is no great ideological struggle we need to engage in -- but there is a truth at work, the truth of the mercy and love of God, which we seek to serve, for He is the Person who is Truth.  If we are to be like Him, we live like Him, and we serve His truth.  In this way we express His life in the world, and participate in His life as He asks us to.  This is what is truly necessary -- not useless debate and fruitless argument.  Let us be alert and ready and wakeful servants, responding quickly to His call -- and learn from Him.




Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath


 Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain.  And the Pharisees said to Him, "Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?"  But He said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him:  how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?"  And He said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.  Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath."

And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him.  And He said to the man who had the withered hand, "Step forward."  Then He said to them, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?"  But they kept silent.  And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand."  And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other.  Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.

- Mark 2:23-3:6

Yesterday we read that Jesus went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them.  As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office.  And He said to him, "Follow Me."  So he arose and followed Him.  Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi's house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him.  And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, "How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?"  When Jesus heard it, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."  The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting.  Then they came and said to Him, "Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?"  And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them?  As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.  But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.  No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined.  But new wine must be put into new wineskins."

 Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain.  And the Pharisees said to Him, "Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?"  But He said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him:  how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?"  And He said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.  Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath."    In Luke's Gospel this is called the second Sabbath after the first, indicating a feast day immediately following the normal Sabbath.  As work is forbidden on the Sabbath, the Pharisees accuse Jesus' disciples of violating the Sabbath.  But Jesus has just spoken (in our previous reading, above) about the new wine that needs new wineskins.  He reminds the Pharisees of David, who ate the showbread and gave some to those who were with him.  In this time of the new covenant, the food which was at one time not lawful for anyone but the priests to eat is now freely given to all by the Lord of the Sabbath

And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him.  And He said to the man who had the withered hand, "Step forward."  Then He said to them, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?"  But they kept silent.  And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand."  And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other.  Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.  The scribes and Pharisees hold to certain traditions that they had built up around the Law.   Among these traditions, healing was considered work -- and so therefore is not permissible on the Sabbath.  My study bible says that they believed they served God by zealously keeping these peripheral traditions, but their legalism makes them insensitive to God's mercy.  The Herodians are those allied with Herod, ruler of Galilee who serves the Romans.

In yesterday's reading, we observed how Jesus is in some sense more strict than the Law (such as in the Sermon on the Mount, when He spoke elaborating on the statutes against murder, adultery, regarding divorce and also the swearing of oaths, in Matthew ch. 5).  But what is always at work with Christ is love, God's mercy.  When Jesus says that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, He is iterating just this very thing -- that it is mercy that is the law of God.  Jesus addresses what human beings need:  healing, food, and the kingdom of God.   The implication here is that man also needs the Sabbath, the nurturing from God and the rest in God the Sabbath entails.  The Law is meant to point to God, to a community at whose center is the worship of a loving God.  But if "legalisms" get in the way of the relationships a loving God mediates, then it is obstructing the establishment of such a community.  As Messiah, Jesus comes as Mediator for all us, teaching us what must be in our hearts, a deeper focus than the externals of the traditions built up around the Law.  Is someone hungry who is right before us?  Does someone need help in our midst?  This is not about focusing on fixing all the problems of the world, but developing a heart that responds to the loving power of God -- and that teaches us we are to be like Christ, God who has manifest as one of us.  We are to find the Holy Spirit and our connection to God's active mercy that is within us, and make an active effort to find where we are too hard-hearted to hear that Spirit and respond.  This is the true work of God we are meant to be doing.  This calls for a kind of alertness, a wakefulness to God that isn't about following a rule (whether that be a particular tradition or a social or politically correct rule), but is rather about responding to living love and mercy, right here and right now.  If, for example, solving problems of world hunger is important to you, don't snub the person who may be sitting in front of you at your own table.  Learn what hospitality is and truly means and demands of you.  The faith traditions we have are those meant to draw us closer to this kind of love, to an active worship through all things.   Christ draws us to be fully alive to all that is within and around us, a living love in action.  It is this law that is supreme above all else, that knows no boundaries and reaches deeply within us.  But are we prepared for its challenges to our assumptions and rules -- and even to our view of ourselves and others?




Wednesday, July 19, 2017

New wine must be put into new wineskins


 Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them.  As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office.  And He said to him, "Follow Me."  So he arose and followed Him.  Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi's house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him.  And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, "How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?"  When Jesus heard it, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."

The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting.  Then they came and said to Him, "Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?"  And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them?  As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.  But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.  No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined.  But new wine must be put into new wineskins."

- Mark 2:13-22

Yesterday we read that, once again, Jesus entered Capernaum after some days, and it was heard that He was in the house.  Immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door.  And He preached the word to them.  Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men.  And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was.  So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying.  When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven you."  And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, "Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?"  But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, "Why do you reason about these things in your hearts?  Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Arise, take up your bed and walk'?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has power of earth to forgive sins" -- He said to the paralytic, "I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house."  Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, "We never saw anything like this!"

 Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them.  As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office.  And He said to him, "Follow Me."  So he arose and followed Him.  Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi's house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him.  And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, "How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?"  When Jesus heard it, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."   Levi is also called Matthew, and is the author of the Gospel of Matthew.   Jewish tax collectors were assigned to specific areas by Roman overlords.  The tax collectors were free to collect extra revenues for their own profit, backed by Roman power and the soldiers who would do their bidding since they represented the state.  They were collaborators with the occupying Romans, committing extortion and fraud against their own people.  All of this, plus their corruption, caused fellow Jews to hate them and to consider them unclean.  That Jesus would be dining with such people and accept a tax collector as a disciple offends the Pharisees.  But Christ's defense is simple.  He goes where the need of the physician is greatest. 

 The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting.  Then they came and said to Him, "Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?"  And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them?  As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.  But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days."   Fasting practices of the Jews typically included fasting twice a week, on Monday and on Thursday.  (In the early Church, the practice changed to Wednesdays and Fridays, marking the day of Christ's betrayal and the day of Crucifixion.)   There were also public fasts among the Jews which were regularly observed, as well as those which were occasionally proclaimed (2 Chronicles 20:3; Ezra 8:21-23; Esther 4:16; Joel 2:15).  Such public fasting was particularly important for the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:31-34)  and in times of mourning (Zechariah 7:5; 8:19).  However, the day of the Messiah is a time for a wedding feast of God with God's people, a time of joy and gladness.  Jesus is proclaiming that this day is here, in effect declaring Himself to be the Messiah/Bridegroom, the Christ.  My study bible says that for Christians, fasting is not gloomy but desirable, a bright sadness, for by fasting one gains self-control, and prepares oneself for the Wedding Feast to come.

"No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined.  But new wine must be put into new wineskins."  My study bible says that the old garment and the old wineskins stand for the Old Covenant and the Law, seen as imperfect and temporary.  The new wineskins are the New Covenant and those in Christ.  And in this light, the new wine is the Holy Spirit dwelling in renewed people, who cannot be constrained by the old precepts of the Law.

Sinfulness such as that which is portrayed in today's reading might be a little difficult to understand in a modern perspective.  These tax collectors are those who in some sense have betrayed community.  They do things that the whole community find opprobrious and worthy of scorn. They do things which are seen as betraying of community, and helpful to an occupying enemy.  More than that, they cheat, they extort -- all of which is unrighteous behavior.  Even today, considered in this blunt reality, we may find it hard to imagine how Christ calls these particular sinners to discipleship, and sits at table with them.  We don't read in the text how Matthew (Levi) repents, but repent we know he does, as he becomes a disciple and leaves the tax office behind.  There's another story of a tax collector in the Gospels, that of Zacchaeus, who wasn't just an ordinary tax collector, but rather a chief tax collector.  Christ calls to him and tells him that He must stay in his house that day.  In the story of Zacchaeus, found in Luke's Gospel, we do read of his repentance:  He tells Jesus (when the people complain about him), "Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold."  This restoration is in keeping with the Law; indeed, Zacchaeus goes further than the Law demands.  But if we are to understand today's reading, we take it in context with that of Zacchaeus, and we remember Jesus' words that He came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them.  In Matthew's (Levi's) Gospel (chapter 5), Jesus takes the Law one step further, when in the Sermon on the Mount, He elaborates upon and expands the understanding of the statutes against murder, adultery, and those concerning divorce and the swearing of oaths.  But this is part of an overall deepening of our understanding of justice, which the entire chapter seeks to address.  His view may be at once seen as tougher on sin than even the Law allowed, and at the same time more merciful, proclaiming that we must love our enemies.  Perhaps it took a former tax collector to record all of this for us, because the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are here contained in today's reading.  Repentance is a central key, as we are to understand that in the restoration of relationship, in the practice of mercy, there is the opening to change, to an about-face.  This combination of mercy and repentance is the key to the new wine and the new wineskins.  It allows in so many more to the banquet of the Bridegroom and the feast of the reconciliation of the Kingdom:  God with His People.  The key here is the power of God which is present to us in this new wine that needs new wineskins, as my study bible says of the Holy Spirit.  God supersedes the Law, is the purpose of the Law.  If we are to understand the place of these tax collectors in a modern setting, we may think of those who seem to gain the world through actions which are not socially nor politically correct.  Whatever laws we want to erect, whatever concerns of justice we deem appropriate, there is a deeper, stronger, more strict and at once more merciful system that allows in possibilities we otherwise don't consider -- and that is the power of God who is with us, within us, and among us.  That is the strength of the new wine that needs new wineskins to expand with it.  As human beings, we commit sin -- but who we truly are is so much more than our sin, and for this Christ has come into the world as human being, bringing God not just into our midst but even as one of us, so that we may be with Him and become like Him.  How many people understand this great and tremendous gift, and enter into its mystery?  His table is ready for all.