16 Jan. 2nd Week Monday of Week Two
1 Samuel 15:16ff. Because Saul disobeyed, he is deposed as king.
Mark 2:18ff. Joy of a new age. No one puts new wine into old wine skins.
Theology and common sense
At first reading, today’s OT text raises too many problems to be helpful for prayer. The episode about the Amalekites is baffling, if not downright scandalous. By divine command spoken through Samuel, Saul felt compelled to exterminate these neighbouring people, a tribe hostile towards Israel. We are aghast when Saul’s rejection from being king over Israel is attributed to his not destroying the Amalekites to the last man. The problem in the gospel is not as taxing to our moral ingenuity, yet we are a bit surprised that Jesus’ disciples do not appear as pious and edifying as those of John the Baptist and the Pharisees.
Rather than trying to theologically justify the practice of exterminating enemies, an occasional practice of ancient Semitic people, we may more profitably reflect on the answer about fasting. Jesus does not let himself be trapped into a theological debate about the purpose of fasting and its traditions, but reaches into common sense imagery and asks: “What normal person calls for fasting and mourning, so long as the bride and bridegroom are celebrating their marriage?” Of course, he is referring to his own presence and message, as a honeymoon period for mankind.
Jesus’ appeal to common sense has a levelling effect: everyone can share in the discussion. It seems that the poorer, less learned a person is, the fewer the hindrances to 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. Theology and common sense must support each other – on the firm foundation that God is one. We do not worship an entirely transcendent God, distinct from the Creator of nature. At the heart of all good theology is the doctrine that God created the universe and saw “how good it was” (Gen 1:12).
What kind of questions would common sense put to theology? We must question the extermination warfare advised in the First Book of Samuel. Could God really have ordered it? Was it right for Saul to be rejected precisely for not exterminating the Amalekites literally? Was Samuel right in thinking that God ordered this barbarous method? Was the Biblical author seeing God’s purposes through the distorting lens of a barbarous ancient culture, which the Gospel radically repudiates? Perhaps today’s meditation will help us be humble in our theology and persistent in our common sense.
1 Samuel 15:16-23
Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” He replied, “Speak.” Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go, utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?” Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me, I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But from the spoil the people took sheep and cattle, the best of the things devoted to destruction,to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.”
And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.”
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.”