Virtue lies in the middle – Saturday, 13th week in ordinary time – Matthew 9:14-17
What really is the purpose of fasting? Jesus never explicitly gave specific instructions on fasting or on the days one ought to fast. He did though give a teaching on how we ought not to fast. In Matthew 5:16 he did tell us that fasting is not a matter of IF you fast but a matter of ‘whenever’ you fast. The ‘whenever’ may knock off the feeling of an obligation but that is not the case. Jesus is taking to a Jewish audience and for them fasting was part of their religious DNA. He does however, correct the intention of their fasts; gloomy looks on days of fasting does not please God, especially if the fasting is done to win men’s favour.
Yet the impression that one would get from today’s text on reading what apparently sounds like an admonishment from John the Baptists’ disciples to our Lord himself, would seem to indicated that fasting was a necessary and integral requirement of the Jewish law. While today, pious Jews are mandated to fast six times a year; the only fast that was stipulated in the Old Testament was the Day of Atonement. The fasting, practiced by the Jews at the time of Jesus, was merely a traditional religious practice. The Pharisees however observed additional fasts on the second and fifth day of the week and imposed the same on everyone else.
But the apparent public rap on the knuckles for Jesus was clearly an attempt to name and shame Our Lord in order to get him to fall in line with main stream religious leadership. First it was the scribes, (9:3) then it was the Pharisees, (9:11) and now the disciples of his own cousin. Jesus is forced to take them on in response to their hostility. He does this with two illustrations; old wine in new wineskins and a new piece of cloth sown to an old one.
The point of the illustrations, is to bring about a change in the approach to faith and religion in the minds of the religious establishment. This was not some novelty that Jesus was introducing for the sake of attracting people to his ministry. This was good practical advice to his peers who were misguided by their own religious thinking and expressions of piety. His examples were common sense insights taken from daily life.
One should not assume that Jesus is merely some itinerant preacher running around trying to subvert ritual boundaries by destroying the traditional practices by introducing something completely new. He is here to align the real practice of the faith with what God wants for His people. These human religious traditions often have little to do with God and much to do with pandering to human need.
Jesus’ teachings are new and bold and aligned with the will of God. They are not some patchwork of thought to be attached to the traditional practices of the Jewish establishment. They demand a newness of both wine and wineskins. As the teachings are ‘new,’ the receivers of this good news must also put on a ‘new mind’. The old boundaries cannot contain the new reality of God’s reign coming near in Jesus.
Reflecting on this, we need to find a balance in the way the Church grows. There is much in the rich tradition of the Catholic liturgy that is beautiful and very meaningful. Change for the sake of novelty is a danger. Yet to simply cling on to celebrating a mass at right angles can be the reason that hinders people from connecting to this community celebration. Virtue lies in the middle.