Yesterday at my church, one of our pastors preached on Mark 2:18-22. He illuminated the passage in a way I had never thought about before.
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to [Jesus], “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 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 in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
This pericope comes in the larger context of several conflicts Jesus had with the religious elite of the day, this particular conflict center around fasting as a form of devotion to God. Jesus’ response to the question “why don’t your disciples fast?” is to point out that his presence—as the awaited messiah—requires a re-orientation of all of life, including what devotion to God looks like. Thus the non-mandatory fasts which John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees were observing, as a sign of their devotion, is now obsolete. It had its place, but God has now replaced it with knowledge of and relationship with Jesus. This was unexpected and confusing because those who interacted with and heard about Jesus were attempting to fit him, as a rabbi and prophet, into their existing frame work. They, as it were, attempted to put new wine into old wineskins. As Jesus tells us, this just doesn’t work. We see then, meeting Jesus is a hinge point, with acceptance and faith, our entire mode of belief and our entire understanding of the cosmos swings a new direction. Our lives, as it were, pivot and go a new direction. There are many applications to this, but one particular aspect has been on my mind recently: possessions and ownership.
We live in a world that constantly tells us that we ought to grab what we can get and flaunt what we’ve got. Whether it is a wealth of material possessions, or a boat load of relational capital, or certain skill/knowledge sets, we are encouraged to hoard and display anything and everything that might have some kind of social value to it. Yet we meet Jesus and he has nothing to commend himself to the people of this world; he is not physically attractive, he has no material possessions, he lacks office or social standing, but he does have his relationship with the Father, and even that seems most deeply displayed in moments of solitude, when all else are asleep, he seeks the Father, his father, in quiet desolate places. This is his sole possession of value. Is it not odd then that Jesus does not take to the temple courtyard and proclaim as the Pharisee does “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Jesus does not flaunt his relationship with the Father, he seeks to gain no social advantage through it, rather he displays it with a simple humility, almost as if he were undeserving, though we know that he was, truly, the only one who deserved such a thing. He finds no value in the flaunting of his prized possession.
There is a second aspect to this thought, not only are we taught to garner and display possessions, but we are also taught to defend—sometimes at great cost—those possessions. It is striking to me that this happens with physical possessions, but consider intangible possessions like love or freedom, these are certainly things that we possess, and these too we draw our swords to protect. Think of the recent battle over the right of children (high school and younger) to decide what gender they are and begin to act accordingly, this includes using said genders facilities and playing on those sports teams. The argument goes, for someone to possess freedom they ought to be able to make decisions about things like gender, and no one should be able to stand in their way, moreover, these decisions ought to be accommodated, anything less is an infringement on their freedom. This argument is made with little concern about whether or not the freedoms of, say, a P.E. class of girls are infringed when a boy decides it is his freedom to use the girls locker room to change. There is much philosophically that I would love to debate, but for this mornings purposes I want to take a different route. How do you prove you possess something like freedom or love? It is not tangible, there is no proof of purchase, nor certificate of authenticity. It seems to me, I think I am borrowing this idea from Kelly Kapic, that true ownership of something like a virtue is proven only through its use, and it is only properly used when done so for someone else’s advantage—and often the users momentary detriment or danger. How is it that we prove we are free? Freely surrendering freedom for the sake of others, the freedom of one for the benefit of another. Many in our modern culture would take this to be asinine, but I think careful reflection will prove it right. I, however, in this post have time for only one example.
Take marriage. Many marriages break up for reasons dealing with freedom and love, or more precisely the “felt” lack thereof. I recently read a column by one of my favorite fantasy football analysts who discussed the dissolve of love in his first marriage that lead to separation and divorce, similarly, C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) concludes with a fairy tale for adults which finds one of its major themes to be the potential survival or destruction of a marriage on the brink. Both husband (Mark) and wife (Jane) have there own struggles they must go through, but consider these common thoughts from the mind of Jane,
One had to live one’s own life. To avoid entanglements and interference had long been one of her first principles. Even when she had discovered that she was going to marry Mark if he asked her, the thought, “but I must still keep up my own life,” had arisen at once and had never for more than a few minutes at a stretch been absent from her mind. Some resentment against love itself and therefore against Mark, for the invading her life, remained. She was at least very vividly aware how much a woman gives up and getting married. Mark seemed to her insufficiently aware of this. Though she did not formulated, this fear of being invaded and entangled was the deepest ground of her determination not to have a child – or not for a long time yet. One had one’s own life to live.
These thoughts sound very contemporary in spite of being penned around World War II. As Lewis draws it out, it is clear that for Jane’s marriage to survive, Jane will need to decide between putting down her freedom, or maybe autonomy is a better word. Her husband too will need to make changes, but this is the battle Jane must have. I think we ought to ask the question, ‘does she remain free, if she does, in fact, surrender her autonomy?’ I think she does. In a faithful marriage both husband and wife will find increasing freedom to be who they truly are. In a healthy marriage their is no fear, or at least a regularly decreasing fear, of rejection which opens up for each partner to display more of who they are. Outside of a faithful, committed marriage this is not an option. Consider dating relationships, it is often the case that we attempt to dress ourselves up when going out on a date. I am speaking both physically and virtuously here. We don our best cloths, and seek to draw focus to our strengths and away from our weaknesses, but in doing so we fail to see that our weaknesses, at least in this life, are a part of who we are. To hide them is to hide a part of ourselves, to hide a part is to neglect the whole. With the surrendering of freedom, that is the entrance into an transparent and healthy marriage, deeper freedom is gained as we become free to be who we are. In order for any of this to be possible there must be love. After all it is only perfect love that casts out fear. But to love is to be vulnerable. Thus to love is to take a chance, to walkout on a limb with only the hope that it holds. If we keep love to ourselves we never be vulnerable, and I think we will find that we never truly love, but if we give our love away, I think we will find we receive more love in the end. Most acts of love, by way of connecting the last dots, are acts of surrender, that is surrender of freedom. I buy flowers for my wife and surrender the freedom to buy a book or a latte for myself. I spend quality time with her and surrender the freedom to watch the World Series or a football game.
There is so much more that could be said, but for now it must be left at that.
Thanks for reading,