Monday 17th January
Hebrews 5:1ff. Jesus shares our human weakness yet shows deep obedience to the will of God, and so he became perfect, and the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Mark 2:18ff. Jesus’ disciples do not fast as long as the bridegroom is with them. No one puts new wine into old wine skins.
Theology and Common Sense
At first reading, today’s texts raise too many problems to be helpful in our prayer, and so we are tempted to look elsewhere for inspiration. Hebrews begins with a strong confession of faith in the divinity of Jesus, but in today’s reading he is compared to all other high priests who must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people. In last Saturday’s reading from the same epistle it says that Jesus can sympathize with our weakness as he was “tempted in every way that we are, yet without sinning.”
Rather than trying to wrestle theologically with the problem of the interaction between Jesus’ humanity and his divinity, it may be more profitable to reflect on the answer given in the gospel and from this vantage point return to that issue. Jesus does not let himself be trapped into a theological debate about the purpose of fasting and its tradition in the Scriptures, but reaches beneath theology to common sense and asks: “What normal person calls for fasting and mourning, so long as the bride and bridegroom are celebrating their marriage?” Long experience has taught the winemaker never to put unfermented wine into an old wineskin, or the old, shrunken skin will explode. No one who makes clothing and cares for the family garments sews a new piece of leather on an older, shrunken piece, for the new patch will naturally shrink and as it pulls away produce a larger hole. This appeal to common sense has a levelling effect: everyone can share in the discussion. Sometimes the poorer, less learned a person may be, the fewer hindrances there are to block a clear, honest answer. Jesus is advising all of us: unless theology can stand the test of common sense and blend fittingly with the accumulated wisdom of good people over the ages, that theology is suspect. Is it true theology, meaning by that, is it truly theou-logos, God’s word?
Theology and common sense must blend and support each other – on the firm foundation that God is one. We do not worship an entirely transcendent God, distinct from the God of nature. Neither are there two separate gods, one for the learned theologian and another for the unschooled lay person. At the heart of all theology is the doctrine that God created the universe and saw “how good it was”, Gen 1:12. Moreover, when God created the human family, the Book of Genesis emphasises God’s pleasure all the more, “God saw that it was very good”, Gen 1:32. Our God is immanent – he indwells all of his creation. In the harmonizing of theology and common sense, theology may clarify the vague, instinctive impressions and feelings of common sense, but at the same time common sense challenges theology to come down from its ivory tower, mingle with the sweat and tension of daily work and, like Jesus the high priest, admit to being “beset by weakness” and even by temptation.
Common sense is consoled to find Jesus “learning obedience” from what he suffered. It is helpful and redeeming to experience the close presence of Jesus within our weakness and temptation. “People who are healthy do not need a doctor; but sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not the self-righteous”, Mark 2:17. Perhaps today’s meditation will help us be humble in our theology and persistent in our common sense.
First Reading: Hebrews 5:1-10
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you;” as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Gospel: Mark 2:18-22
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 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 unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”