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.”
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and asked Jesus, “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.”
Today's OT text raises more problems than insights. The command to destroy the Amalekites is both baffling and scandalous. Frist, Samuel commands Saul to exterminate a neighbouring tribe that was hostile towards Israel... and then Saul is deposed as king for not destroying every last one of the Amalekites. By contrast, the problem in the gospel is not so large, yet we are rather 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 crushing our enemies, we may learn something from 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.
Our Lord's appeal to common sense seems to be paralleled in pope Francis' attitude to resolving moral issues of today. It has has a healthy, levelling effect, for are invited to share in the discussion. After a time when open dialogue was fiercely repressed in the Catholic Church, it seems clear that the less bound by tradition a person is, the fewer the barriers to finding a workable, honest answer, in line with the mercy of Christ. Following the lead of Jesus, pope Francis suggests that unless theology can reflect 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 and God's wisdom is lifegiving. We do not worship a remote God, who calls for impossible things. Good theology bears in mind that God created the universe and saw "how good it was" (Gen 1:12). We must hope and pray that into the future the Church's teaching will be enriched and kept realistic by the honestly shared views of married couples.
When Jesus refers to himself as the "bridegroom," we wonder what he has in mind. Yet the prophets in the Old Testament often called God the bridegroom and portrayed God's people, Israel, as the bride. It is as if God had married this particular people, for the sake of all the other nations. In using this bridegroom image, Jesus is saying that he is the the divine bridegroom who comes to join himself not just to the people of Israel, but to people of every nation who hear the gospel and respond to it. St Paul also uses marital language in this way. He writes that even when we are faithless, God remains faithful. The Lord is our faithful spouse, who keeps faith with us even when we are unfaithful to him. That is not meant to make us complacent, but it does give us confidence in his love and mercy whenever we fail. It also challenges us to be as faithful to Christ as he is to us. The new wine of his love is always looking for new wine-skins; we need to keep on renewing our relationship with him, in response to his loving presence and call.
Wine is nearly always associated with a wedding feast, as is clear from the marriage feast of Cana. Having spoken of himself as the bridegroom, Jesus goes on to liken his presence to that of new wine. The new wine of the Lord's loving presence and life-giving activity calls for new wine-skins. The Lord's love is a grace but it also makes demands on us, calling on us to keep renewing our lives so that they are worthy receptacles for his love. New wine, fresh skins. We have to keep shedding our old skin and grow new skin. We can never fully settle for where we are.