Monday, January 18, 2010

No One Pours New Wine Into Old Wineskins. New Wine Is Poured Into Fresh Wineskins.

Monday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Reading I              1 Samuel 15:16-23
Samuel said to Saul:
"Stop!  Let me tell you what the LORD said to me last night."
Saul replied, "Speak!"
Samuel then said: "Though little in your own esteem,
are you not leader of the tribes of Israel?
The LORD anointed you king of Israel and sent you on a mission, saying,
'Go, and put the sinful Amalekites under a ban of destruction.
Fight against them until you have exterminated them.'
Why then have you disobeyed the LORD?
You have pounced on the spoil, thus displeasing the LORD."
Saul answered Samuel: "I did indeed obey the LORd
and fulfill the mission on which the LORd sent me.
I have brought back Agag, and I have destroyed Amalek under the ban.
But from the spoil the men took sheep and oxen,
the best of what had been banned,
to sacrifice to the LORD their God in Gilgal."
But Samuel said:
"Does the LORD so delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as in obedience to the command of the LORD?
Obedience is better than sacrifice,
and submission than the fat of rams.
For a sin is like divinition is rebellion,
and presumption is the crime of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the command of the LORD,
he, too, has rejected you as ruler."

In today's First Reading, we see Saul rejected as king by the Lord.  In fact, the Lord regrets ever having made Saul king.  This is a very anthropomorphic image of God, a God who feels and acts like a human being, a God who admits to making mistakes.  The Old Testament also presents God as jealous, angry, vengeful, but these are really projections of the Israelite's own feelings, presenting God as a reflection of themselves.

Although Saul has carried out his mandate to defeat the Amalekites, enemies of Israel, he has displeased God because he and his men used the victory to plunder the land of the enemy, and gathered the spoils for themselves.  Saul tries to justify his behavior by claiming that the best of the sheep and oxen seized by his men would be offered as sacrifice to God.

But Samuel responds by enunciating the most important of principles:  obedience to God's will transcends any religious rituals. That is the central point of today's reading:

Obedience is better than sacrifice,
and submission than the fat of rams.
For a sin is like divinition is rebellion,
and presumption is the crime of idolatry.

Samuel is not condemning sacrificial practices as such, but staying that rituals which are not accompanied by appropriate behavior in our relationships with God and with others are of no value.   To act against the known will of God while doing homage to something which is not of God (in this case, personal greed), is to be guilty of a sort of idolatry (worship of Mammon).  Saul's crime is likened to "sorcery", called "the crime of teraphim" in Hebrew.  The teraphim were the household gods, which guarded houses and property. 

Submissiveness to the will of God is better than "the fat of rams".  The fat of sacrificed animals always belonged to the Lord.  Samuel sepaks of "rebellion".  He charges Saul with violating the central requirement of the covenant condition, when he became king.  Speaking earlier to the people of Israel, Samuel had said: "If you fear the Lord and worship him, if you are obedient to him and do not rebel against the Lord's command; if both you and the king who rules you follow the Lord your God,  well and good.  But if you do not obey the Lord, and rebel against his command, the Lord will deal severely with you and your king, and will destroy you" (1 Samuel 12:14-15).

Now Samuel tells Saul, "You have rejected the command of the Lord."  A king who would set his own will above the comand of the Lord ceases to be an instrument of the Lord's rule over his people, having violated the very nature of his office, as a vice-regent of the Lord.

And so, "he has rejected you as ruler".  Saul had already been told, because of a previous incident, that because he had disobeyed the will of the Lord, his dynasty would not last.  The present judgment goes beyong the earlier one.  Now Saul himself is to be set aside as king.  Although this did not happen immediately, the process had begun that would lead to his death.  In its relentless course, it included the removal of God's Spirit and favor from him, the defection of Jonathan his son and Michal his daughter to David, and the insubordination of his own officials.

In summary, this reading tells us that to try and appease or manipulate God by using sacrifices in this manner is tantamount to superstition and idolatry.  For his disobedience, God now rejects Saul as king.  The effects will not be seen immediately, but will unfold as the story goes forward.

We should keep in mind that God's will in our lives must be paramount.  Our greatest good is to conform our will to the will of God, that is, to make God's will our own.  To imagine that God would be happy by our simply piling up religious practices, is misguided and sterile piety. 

Keep in mind what Jesus said:  "When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words" (Matthew 6:7), and "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it" (Luke 11:28).  In other words, we can always be sure that God hears us.  But do we always hear him? 

+++    +++    +++    +++   
Responsorial         Psalm 50
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you,
for your burnt offerings are before me always.
I take from your house no bullock,
no goats out of your fold.”
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“Why do you recite my statutes,
and profess my covenant with your mouth,
Though you hate discipline
and cast my words behind you?”
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“When you do these things, shall I be deaf to it?
Or do you think that I am like yourself?
I will correct you by drawing them up before your eyes.
He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me;
and to him that goes the right way I will show the salvation of God.”
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
+++    +++    +++    +++   

Gospel                   Mark 2:18-22
The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast.
People came to Jesus and objected,
“Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast,
but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them,
“Can the wedding guests 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 is taken away from them,
and then they will fast on that day.
No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak.
If he does, its fullness pulls away,
the new from the old, and the tear gets worse.
Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins,
and both the wine and the skins are ruined.
Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.”
The disciples of John the Baptist and those of the Pharisees fasted.  It was a sign of a deeper commitment to the service of God.  People came to Jesus and asked, "Why don't your disciples fast?"  In their defense, Jesus speaks a type of parable. "Can the bridegroom's attendants fast while the bridegroom is with them?  ... The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and they will fast on that day."   Clearly, Jesus is the bridegroom and his disciples the attendants.  The time will come when the bridegroom will no longer be visibly with them, and then there will be times when fasting will be appropriate. 
Jesus continues with another image.  No one uses a piece of new, unshrunken cloth to patch an old cloak.  At the first sign of stress, the new patch will pull and tear the older, weaker cloth.  Likewise, no one puts new wine in old, used wineskins.  As the new wine continues to ferment it expands the old skins that have no more stretch in them, and they burst.  The skins are ruined, and the wine is lost.
By both images, Jesus is saying that he, 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 way we relate to God and to one another. The traditional ways identified with the Pharisees and with John the Baptist expressed loyalty to God through strict observation of laws and precepts, as well as external practices of commitment such as fasting.  The Way of Jesus is quite different.  It is primarily internal rather than external.  It is rooted in relationships grounded in love, a love that always seeks the good of the other.  If we judge what Jesus does by the old ways, we will have difficulties.  As Paul says, we need "to have the mind of Christ." 
This is quite relevant in the Church today.  There are still many who live their life as Catholics with the mind-set of the Pharisees.  Decades after Vatican II, there are still people who do not understand the fundamental shift in thinking which it introduced.  There are still people who "go to Mass" (note the expression), with attitudes and understanding that have never changed.  Some cling to the "days gone by",  abstaining from meat on Friday, attending Tridentine Masses, practicing old devotions, some of which border on superstition.
The individualistic attitude of "saving my soul" still persists.  There are people who see committing sin as the breaking of laws and rules rather than a breakdown in loving relationships with God, with others, with oneself.  It is possible to be perfectly "orthodox", affirming the doctrinal teaching of the Church to the last comma and semi-colon, but paying seemingly little attention to the answer Jesus gave to the Pharisee's question:  
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 
and one of them, a scholar of the law, tested him by asking, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

He answered, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
(Matthew 22:34-40)

Sad to say, Pharisaism is alive and well.  But it is like trying to force the new way of thinking of Vatican II into the old wineskins of past attitudes and behaviors.  The new wine of Jesus' teaching needs to be kept in new wineskins.  Part of the problem in the Church in some parts of the world where Christians are falling away can be traced to our reluctance to let go of our old wineskins.

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