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Homilies from Nola Crewe
26th February 2006


Enlarge my heart to know You and speak so that Your love and greatness may be heard through my lips.                                                                                         AMEN.

As Lent approaches, and we begin our obligatory examination of our lives and our souls, as we consider our lives, how we are living them and how we have failed ourself and God, we take comfort in today’s Gospel as we hear from Mark the story of how Christ defined his role when called to explain his actions by the Pharisees:

“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”   

Now the Pharisees were the elite group of Jewish scholars who were the keepers of the Torah.  They taught that the Babylonian Exile had been the result of faithlessness to the Torah’s teachings and they strongly believed that both the Jewish individual and the Jewish state must strictly adhere to the Laws of Moses and all the oral and written laws.  These men were the equivalent of judges and scholars:  much as the Supreme Court interprets what exactly the legislators had enacted when the law was written.  People worry about so-called “Judge-made” law.  But someone has to determine the meaning and we have judges to do that.  In Christ’s time, it was the Pharisees who determined exactly what was meant by the laws that had been written down or preserved orally, first by Moses and the prophets, and then by those who had interpreted the laws and practices.

Jesus, though a Jew, was forever breaking the laws, as the Pharisees saw them.  And they worried, “How could this man who was being acclaimed as the long-expected Messiah ignore the strict observance of the law?”

The Messiah the Pharisees were awaiting was to be mortal, not divine; the rewards they anticipated were of this world, not the next.  Their King, of the line of David, who was to rule over them and all their foes would be a great warrior. 

Jesus did not meet any of their expectations.  He defiled himself eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors.  He broke the Sabbath laws gathering and eating corn on the day of rest and he healed the sick without any concern for what day of the week it might be.  And, above all, he forgave sin:  which they believed to be heresy:  God alone could do that.

Christ did not meet their expectations.  He had no hunger for earthly thrones or the domination of nations . . .  He had already rejected those  temptations when the devil had tested him – yet those were the very things which the Pharisees desired for their Messiah.   

And so they challenged Him – as He challenged them and their beliefs – demanding answers to His lack of orthodoxy.   

Why did he associate with tax collectors and sinners?  Christ’s answer was clear.  His reason for being amongst them, the reason He had been sent, was to save the sinful and the fallen.  Those who were righteous and without sin would not need Him:  but, of course, no one was without sin . . . everyone needed Him. 

But the Pharisees were blind to the meaning of His words.  They were so taken up with the rightness of their beliefs and their attempts to entrap Him and prove Him a heretic:  NOT the Messiah. 

“Why do Your disciples not fast, when the law required that they fast?” they asked. 

And Christ answered with a picture of a wedding feast and the joyous celebration in which all would partake, the party continuing as long as the groom remains at the party.   But when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then there is the time to fast.

What Christ was doing was giving them a clear warning that this is a new face for the religion they knew, a new understanding, a new faith.    These were educated men, well-versed in the mode of debate in which Christ had engaged them since he was a mere child.  They knew he was speaking of far more than a wedding – they heard in His words a threat to their world centered on the interpretation and the study, the pouring over of each word in the Torah, the careful observance of fast days. 

But the words He chooses convey practical images that everyone can understand.  No Pharisee is needed to translate or define. 

“No one,” he says, “uses new cloth to mend a hole in a garment”:  when washed the new cloth would shrink and the patch would tear apart from the sewing and tear more of the garment with it and the hole would be worse than it was before the sewing.  All the women assembled would have been nodding their head in agreement, readily identifying with that story. 

And then he returned to one of His favourite themes:  wine in its many forms. 

Christ had many associations with it, since the time of His first miracle when He changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana.   He had compared a vineyard to the Kingdom of God and His parables included the son who refused to work in his father’s vineyard.  Each Sunday, it is with wine and bread that our remembrance of His sacrifice is celebrated:   as He commanded at the Last Supper. 

And, in His final hours, it would be sour wine that would be shoved in His face in answer to his plea for water. 

So when He spoke about wineskins He was following a familiar path that His followers were accustomed to traversing with Him. 

Wine was a common drink.  Wine skins were used to hold wine while it fermented.  They were made from goat pelts, which were worked into leather bags and hung up during the wine making process and also used for the transportation of wine.  They were a familiar fixture in every home. 

All those about Him would have known how foolish it would be to re-use a wine skin.  The fermentation process which expands the volume of the wine, bursts old bags – they explode from the pressure on their rotted seams, weakened from the previous fermentations which also left them far less flexible. 

So when Christ told this story His listeners would have nodded wisely, confident that they would not be so foolish as to waste their new wine by risking its destruction by using a wasted old skin. 

No! 

Sensible people knew that was just not done.  And those about Him heard reproach of the Pharisees in Christ’s words.   Old clothes, old wineskins . . . the new was not to be used and wasted.  The Word of Christ was supplanting the Pharisees interpretation.  Christ had fulfilled all the Prophesies of the Old Testament.  He had told them that the Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until the coming of John the Baptist.  But after that, all is new and different . . . the world of the Pharisees has changed and they have been so hide bound, so lost in their debates over the meaning of every nuance and injunction that they have lost their way.

The Pharisees were committed to the interpretations they had placed on the laws of Moses, their strictures and their disciplines.  When faced with the Word and actions of the Messiah they could not accept Him because He did not fit into their old, mistaken expectations.  They could not fit the new Messiah into their now discredited version:  their old wineskins incapable of encompassing the new. 

And Christ’s call was clear:  drink from the living water, the new wine, calling them to new life. 

Christ was calling everyone.   Christ was calling the sinner and the tax collector.  Christ was calling to fishermen in their boats and Levi in the tax office to come and follow Him.  Christ was healing and teaching anyone who would listen and believe. 

Christ had spurned the strict, legalistic approach that the Pharisees had applied to the Scriptures and the Prophets.  Christ even turned to the days of David, the great King, whom the Pharisees held up as the ideal for the coming Messiah – a King who would reign over all, would make the people of Israel great, and would lead them in battle to victory over their enemies.  But, Christ reminded them, David had eaten of the Bread of the Presence that only the priests were permitted to eat . . . and had shared it with his followers in defiance of the Law. 

How could the Pharisees answer that? 

They stood silent as Christ pronounced, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the Sabbath”.   

The Pharisees could not hear the truth of Christ’s words.  They were so wrapped up in the details of the law that dominated their lives that they had lost track of its purpose and meaning.  They were so convinced of the rightness of their conclusions that they could not engage any other possibility.  They were confident that their messiah, their king, would come to the temple leaders, to the holy men of their community, that he would be garbed in royal robes, a victor and a king, who would observe the law of the Pharisees.   They were so certain of their own opinions that they could not believe the reality that stood before them.   They could not accept the real Messiah if it meant abandoning their expectations.

They chose to remain encased in their dead beliefs, clutching firmly to their old wine skins, blind to the salvation they rejected. 

Long after cobwebs encased them and their dimly remembered promises had faded away into obscurity and oblivion, the Messiah they had rejected would be known and served and loved throughout the world.   Still saving the sinners He came to save.  Still there for you and me.        AMEN.


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