Jesus tells us that we need new wineskins for new wine of his message. The old wineskins cannot contain his teaching. They will only burst and all is lost. The question put before us today is what kind of wineskin or container do we have? Are we able to hold in our minds and hearts the teaching of Jesus? The hallmark of his life was love: to live is to love and to love is to serve. Jesus came to serve and not to be served. What a wonderful world it would be if only we could all abide by this! Sadly we don’t live in this kind of world. We inhabit a world that is dominated by force, mistrust, struggle, fear and money issues. Competition, not loving service, is the main driver that tops our agenda. Loving service doesn’t fit in with our consumer world. In fact it is way down the list and, according to the first reading today, is an inconvenience that has to be got rid of. “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions.” This attitude goes right back to the murder of Abel by Cain. Cain couldn’t cope with the sheer goodness of Abel. It also goes some way to explain why Jesus, who was goodness itself, was put to death. Nor did it end with Jesus. Bad things still happen to good people.
Attending the beatification of Blessed Benedict Daswa last Sunday was a once in a lifetime privilege for me. What made it very special was the fact that I lived in Tzaneen diocese for 12 years and was there when Bishop Slattery first mooted his cause. I must confess that I was a little dubious at the beginning but when the stories began to unfold I was utterly convinced of how saintly this man was. It was a very moving experience for the 30,000 plus there last Sunday. A key moment was the retelling of his life and cruel death. Benedict suffered martyrdom because he would not pay five rand to the witch doctor. Just imagine, a simple matter of a mere five rand! But for Benedict the issue was much more serious than that. Having been converted to Christianity and living in Christ it was as clear as daylight to him that the electric storm that burnt down a number of houses was a natural phenomenon. It wasn’t caused by another human being and therefore there should be no appeal to a witch doctor to find out who is to blame. Benedict was also conscious that the witch doctor would name some very innocent person and, given that several houses were set on fire, God knows what kind of suffering this person would have to endure. So he didn’t pay the five rand and he was stoned to death.
Throughout his entire ministry Jesus tried to counter the type of thinking that put stock on fear, domination and worldly success. Contrary to popular principles he praised the awe-inspiring value of the widow’s mite and he taught that a truly strong person can turn the other cheek. This kind of teaching must have already stretched the minds and hearts of his disciples. But when Jesus now goes onto to predict his suffering, death and resurrection it was a bridge too far. The old wineskins they were living out of couldn’t cope with this. They were very happy with a successful and popular Jesus, but as yet they had no container that could entertain the way of the cross. They just couldn’t get it – not at all! Mark tells us that they were afraid to ask. They were utterly silent.
When they eventually started talking it was on a completely different subject straight out of the old wineskins. “Who is the greatest?” Jesus did’nt reproach them for discussing this. Instead he picks up their theme and tells them what real greatness is about. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then in a thorough reversal of his disciples values he takes a little child (possibly a girl – even more shocking!) and places it in the centre. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me …” Unlike today where children are doted upon, in that culture they had little or no value, much like that of a slave. So Jesus was using shock therapy to expound the most profound and scandalous aspect of his message: God comes to humanity in vulnerability. Real power resides, not in wealth and riches, but in humble service. The disciples may not really have understood it but they remembered it enough to be sure that the scene was related in three gospels.
To live is to love and to love is to serve. I kept thinking last Sunday about the courage of Blessed Benedict. Where did he get the wherewithal to stand up to his murderers and not pay that five rand? The only answer I can find is that he discovered that real power resides in service. He sought to imitate Jesus who came to serve and found his life’s meaning in that. Benedict was not afraid to do household chores like washing dishes and changing nappies – all very counter cultural for a Venda man. He loved gardening and encouraged others to do likewise. Now that he is beatified he is called servant of God and that he truly is.
If we want to learn to imitate Jesus and not the status-seekers, then we can truly rejoice in our native born Blessed Benedict. In the second reading today James tells us that the wisdom we need comes from above. Perhaps this too is where Benedict got his life’s meaning from. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” That harvest was there in abundance last Sunday.
What all this means is that we must let go of all false gods, especially the gods of bullies and cultivate faith in the God of Jesus Christ. May our wineskins become pliable and soft like that of a little child, full of joy, spontaneity, confidence and with no mental reservations so that we too can learn from Jesus that to live is to love and to love is to serve.
Sunday 20 September 2015