“New wine is poured into fresh wineskins” (Mark 2:22).
1 Sam 15:16-23; Mr 2:18-22
There are some truly horrible stories in the Bible. One is in Judges 11:34-40, Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter to keep a vow. Another is verse 9 of Psalm 137, about beating babies against rocks, and the cringe-worthy story of Abraham’s near-murder of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-18, although this story is resolved when God intervenes and is seen as a rejection of pagan child sacrifice. Even the Exodus story, so fundamental to Judaism and Christianity, involves divine vengeance, the murder of the Egyptian firstborn for Pharaoh’s attempted genocide of the Hebrew boys.
Today’s First Reading from the Book of Samuel is another example of what appears to be a primitive image of God, rejecting King Saul for not obeying his command that his army exterminate everyone and everything. after a battle with one of his enemies. This “ban” on seizing booty, livestock and people as slaves was, and is, one of the bitter results of war, when innocent victims are killed to eliminate witnesses or in a vengeance rampage. For his failure to obey God’s prohibition, Saul, the first king of Israel, is removed from office.
Yet these ancient texts affirm an important idea for understanding the Bible, namely that the concept of God seems to be evolving. One could say that this evolution culminated in the Gospels, when Jesus shocks even his own disciples when he says: “Love your enemies, do good to those who do you harm”, because that is what God does. God’s unconditional mercy and unlimited forgiveness were a scandal to many of his contemporaries, and Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence is still considered too radical by many in current debates on capital punishment and the theory of just war.
Today’s Gospel highlights the need for a continuous evolution of our ideas, especially about God and religion. Jesus’ two short parables of new wineskins for new wine and the patching of an old garment illustrate the need to adapt to change, to broaden our views, to renew traditions that have lost their relevance or become rigid, harmful or absurd. When our minds lose their flexibility, we become rigid and defensive to our own detriment. Ideology rejects facts, beliefs cannot sustain questions, and we stop learning and growing.
The great scholar Thomas Aquinas became an icon of unchanging truth, though he constantly explored new ideas. He protected the mystery of God as unknowable with the via negative, a path of questions instead of answers, for once we think we know, we don’t. Wisdom is knowing that we don’t know. Yet to say that God is Love is the greatest mystery of all, for love is infinite, never complete, measured or controlled.
This mystery is the antidote to complacency and the invitation to humility. It frees us to surrender to the love of God, which reveals the divine Self to those who are constantly evolving, seeking, asking and loving.