Enlarge my heart to know
You and speak so that Your love and greatness may be heard through my
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
“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
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
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
And, in His final hours, it
would be sour wine that would be shoved in His face in answer to his plea
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.
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
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
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
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.