Things move at a pretty relentless pace in St. Mark’s Gospel – it’s a racy, breath-taking news commentary, rather than the carefully-crafted theological treatise that comprises St. John’s Gospel for instance. So, already, Jesus has become very popular with ordinary people. He is being followed everywhere He goes by large crowds. And already He has made bitter enemies amongst the local clergy, the Scribes and Pharisees. In our Gospel reading today the controversy is around table fellowship – who is invited to dinner. It’s still a bit of an issue for the Church today.
The Jews had very rigid rules about food – they still do, but this isn’t so much about the food as about the company. Interestingly, later on Simon Peter is hauled over the coals by Early Church members for eating with Gentiles, so the issue doesn’t go away. Paul reports a crisis in the church at Antioch when several leaders form separate tables at the fellowship dinner. Indeed, within our own recent history, it was at ‘lunch counters’ that the battles for racial equality often began. Who we eat with, who we welcome at our table, is important as Christians, so let’s look again at our Gospel story.
Jesus has recently called as a disciple a tax collector named Levi or Matthew. Jesus then goes to a dinner at Levi’s house. It’s important for us to get a sense of how tax collectors were regarded in first century Palestine. They were hated, firstly, as collaborators. They collected taxes on behalf of the occupying Roman Empire. But they were also hated because their own income came from extorting from the local population more than was required by the Romans, and keeping the difference for themselves. ‘Sinners’ was a word used to describe all of those who had been expelled from the synagogue for moral, ritual or legal reasons. These people were considered outcasts by observing Jews, but having dinner with people, table fellowship, was and still is a sign of acceptance. Why does Jesus accept these people? This question remains at the heart of the Christian Gospel. But before we answer it, let’s move on to the second area of controversy.
The issue is whether or not to fast. John’s disciples do, but Jesus’ disciples don’t. During His trials alone in the desert prior to His public ministry, Jesus fasted, but not during His work of healing and preaching the Good news of the Kingdom of God. What Jesus is saying is that there are times for fasting and times for feasting, partying and rejoicing. One doesn’t fast at a party, and during the time of Jesus’ incarnational life on earth, it is right for His disciples to rejoice at His presence with them. The coming of Jesus, and the joyful news of the Kingdom’s arrival are radically new and demanding forms of expression appropriate to a new age. Conversely, there are certain seasons of the soul and moments in the life of the Church when continuous banqueting would be inappropriate. As Jesus predicted, the days for fasting would come soon enough.
The closing part of today’s Gospel passage consists of proverbs about garments and wineskins. These proverbs refer to the arrival of something so vital and new that it cannot be contained in the old rituals and forms of piety. The Gospel writer is not attacking the old. Indeed, concern is expressed about the loss of the old garment and the old wineskin just as there is about the loss of the new. Each has its own integrity, but Christianity cannot be a compromise between old and new. No-one gains by pretending that Hanukkah is Christmas or that Christmas is Hanukkah. They are different, but each demands the respect of the other.
The key to all of this is found in the words of Jesus Himself. ‘I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.’ The Authorised version of the Bible, translating differently and perhaps even with different theological intent, adds the words ‘to repentance’. I’m confident that the shorter text is the more authentic. You see, the whole point is that Jesus didn’t put repentance before acceptance. That’s what the Scribes and Pharisees found so offensive. If Jesus had just called on sinners to repent, he’d have been on secure ground. After all, that’s what all upright and law abiding citizens want sinners to do. Jesus’ offence is that He accepted sinners, He ate with them and socialised with them, before they’d repented.
It is to some of those who were outsiders to the law-abiding Jewish community, those who habitually broke the Law of Moses that Jesus says ‘Follow me.’ His mission is to them, and the way He fulfils it is by eating with them and associating with them and accepting them. The time of the Law of Moses is over; now is the season of new wine, and it requires new wineskins. The Law is the old wineskin, and the new wine is the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
Among Christians in the first century there was a variety of answers to the question of whether the Law of Moses was still obligatory for the followers of Jesus. Paul clearly believed that it was no longer in force, certainly for Christians who had not been Jews before they had been baptised. Mark seems to have shared Paul’s radical attitude. There is no minimum standard of entry into the company of Jesus, only the invitation issued by the host, and that invitation remains open to everyone.
Jesus’ exercise of this open invitation was one of the things that religious people found most offensive about Him, and some still do. Some churches and Christian communities still persist in imposing minimum entry requirements, particularly for sacramental gifts of grace like baptism. What we need to understand first and foremost is that none of us can ever ‘deserve’ God’s love for us. We can never earn our way into the Kingdom of Heaven by being good or obeying a set of rules. But, through Jesus, we have a free invitation into God’s Kingdom.
It’s the realisation of all that that means in terms of God’s overwhelming and transforming love for us that changes what we are and how we behave. God does the transforming, not us!
Thoughts for the second Sunday before Lent