20th January. Monday in the Second Week
Saints Fabian and Sebastian, martyrs.
Fabian (c. 200-250) was bishop of Rome for 14 years to his death in the persecution by emperor Decius (250). He was noted as a peace-maker and resolved the schism caused by Pontian and Hippolytus. Sebastian (died c. 288) was a soldier from Milan, killed during the persecution under emperor Diocletian. He was tied to a post and shot with arrows.
1st Reading: 1 Samuel 15:16-23
(Because Saul disobeyed the prophet Samuel, he is deposed as king.)
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
(The joy and novelty of the Messianic age. No one puts new wine into old wine skins.)
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.”
Theology and common sense
At first reading, today’s OT text raises too many problems to be helpful in any way for today. The command to destroy the Amalekites is baffling and scandalous. By command of Samuel, Saul felt compelled to exterminate this neighbouring tribe, hostile towards Israel. We are aghast when King Saul is deposed for not destroying the Amalekites to the last man. The problem in the gospel is not as taxing to our moral sense, yet we are a bit surprised that Jesus’ disciples do not appear as devout as those of John the Baptist and the Pharisees.
Rather than trying to justify the idea of exterminating enemies, we may more profitably reflect on the Lord’s answer about fasting. Jesus does not let himself be trapped into a theological debate about the purpose of fasting but appeals to everyday imagery and asks: “What normal person calls for fasting 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 now share in the discussion. After a time when open dialogue has been repressed in our Church, it’s worth remembering that on some issues the less learned a person is, the fewer the hindrances to finding a workable, honest answer. Jesus is advising all of us: unless theology stands the test of common sense and blends with the accumulated wisdom of good, decent people, that theology is suspect. Theology and common sense must support each other — on the basis that God is one. We do not worship a remote, transcendent God, who calls for impossible things. At the heart of all good theology is the doctrine that God created the universe and saw “how good it was” (Gen 1:12). We must hope and pray that the forthcoming Synod on the Family will be enriched and kept realistic by the honestly shared views of married couples.