SCRIPTURE READINGS: [  1 COR 4:1-5; LK 5:33-39 ]

It is important to bear in mind the context of today’s first reading.  St Paul was addressing the divisive Christians at Corinth who were becoming sectarian, championing one leader over another.  He reminded both the Christians and the leaders that they must consider themselves “as Christ’s servants, stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God.”  Indeed, as leaders, whether religious, at home or in the corporate world, we are called to be Christ’s servants and administrators of His gifts.  We are meant to be at His service, especially in the proclamation of the gospel by both words and deeds, incarnating the values of the kingdom wherever we are.  Furthermore, we are accountable to the trust that Christ has given to us as St Paul noted, “What is expected of stewards is that each one should be found worthy of his trust.”

The implication therefore is that we, as servants of Christ and His Church, have no right to do or say anything other than what the Church of Christ expects of us.  Concretely, this means that as administrators and servants, our task is to proclaim what Christ taught and what the Church celebrates.  This implies that since whatever we have are for the sake of the gospel, we cannot say or act contrary to the gospel as taught by our Lord.  As Christ’s servants and administrators of Christ’s mysteries, we cannot be proclaiming or teaching our own opinions of what is right or wrong but according to what the Lord has instructed us in the Word of God and guided by the Church.

On the other hand, the gospel speaks of openness and receptivity to the newness of the kingdom message. The Pharisees and the scribes who said to Jesus, “John’s disciples are always fasting and saying prayers, and the disciples of the Pharisees too, but yours go on eating and drinking”, were of course concerned about the orthodoxy of the Jewish Faith. Jesus’ disciples were breaking the tradition of fasting. The religious leaders’ mindset, which was so conditioned to that of Judaism, could not understand how Jesus, who claimed to be a rabbi, could allow His disciples to behave in that manner.  Just like the Jewish religious leaders, John the Baptist’s disciples perceived God as one who came to judge and punish the evil men and hence the need for repentance to earn the mercy of God.  For the Pharisees, fasting had been turned into a means of earning the merits of God.

Christ, however, broke away from such a tradition in understanding the nature of God.  In Christ’s understanding, God’s love is unconditional and unearned.  God wants to be intimate with us rather than be a judge who is ready to punish us and make our lives difficult.  Indeed, if we find that His love is not present in our lives, then certainly it is the time to fast because we should be awakened to the absence of love and joy in our lives.  But until then, it is a time of rejoicing.  This is Jesus’ understanding of the value of fasting as a means, not an end in itself.

Unfortunately, the Pharisees and Scribes had difficulty accepting this new teaching, this freshness of Jesus’ message and the surprising dimension of the kingdom message of Jesus. It contradicted the religious tradition which they had inherited.  In order to accept His message of the unconditional love of God, Jesus exhorts us to be open and to be adaptable.  The failure to adapt will result in the distortion of the message.  This is what the parables of the Patched Cloth and the Wine Skin teach us.  When we use a new cloak to put it on an old one, the new one, being still adaptable, will shrink when it comes into contact with water.  As a result, the new cloak will tear the old cloak, which can no longer be stretched further.  Similarly, it is also important for us to put new wine into new skins and not old skins.

Indeed, it is only normal, as Jesus says, that “nobody who has been drinking old wine wants new.  ‘The old is good’ he says.”  We are used to the old ways of understanding doctrines and worship so much so we fear new ventures and new ways of celebrating the liturgy and our beliefs.  We are so set in our ways of bringing the faith to young people that we have lost them as they can no longer connect with us.   Because we fail to be open to the new and surprising ways God is speaking to us, we might forfeit the Good News.  When the Good News becomes fossilized, it loses its freshness and appeal. So the message of Jesus is clear: our mindset must be sufficiently pliable to be ready to accept the novel ways that God wants to work in our lives.  This is the challenge He gave to the Pharisees and the Scribes and to all of us who are sticky about orthodoxy.

But does not the teaching of Jesus run against the institutional Church?  On one hand, St Paul and the apostles continue to remind us to be faithful to the deposit of faith which we have inherited from them.  On the other hand, the gospel invites us to accept the new that come our way. So whilst debunking the orthodoxy of Judaism, we insist our Catholics be faithful to the orthodoxy of the Church’s teachings.  This seems like we are adopting a double standard with regard to orthodoxy.  How then can we reconcile this tension of creativity and fidelity to the Church’s traditions?  What is the principle we should abide by when there seems to be an apparent opposition between fidelity to orthodoxy and the need to be open to the freshness of the kingdom of God?

The key seems to be consistency, integrity, coherency and appropriateness.  The same parables in today’s gospel speak of fidelity in precisely in these terms.  From another perspective of integrity and consistency, Jesus tells us that old wine must be stored in old wine skins; new wine in new wine skins, if not “the new wine will burst the skins and then run out, and the skins will be lost.”  And so it must also be said of that piece of cloth to be used as patch. It must match with the cloak, otherwise “not only will he have torn the new one, but the piece taken from the new will not match the old.”  The criteria of appropriateness and coherency are best brought out in the analogy of the bridegroom that Jesus gave to the scribes and Pharisees when he told them that festivity and fasting must be consistent with whether the bridegroom was around or not.  When we do things that are not appropriate to the situation or the principle of life, we become divisive within and without.

In other words, fidelity to orthodoxy does not mean traditionalism but appropriateness and integrity.  As servants and administrators of the mysteries of Christ, we must always consider whether innovations or reinterpretations of the Church teachings and the ways we reach out to Catholics and non-Catholics are faithful to the pristine faith of the Church and the intention of the doctrines and the liturgy.  Only when we are faithful to the fundamental principles of faith, can we consider ourselves to be trustworthy, that is, reliable and faithful to the orthodoxy of the Church’s proclamation of the gospel.

This fidelity to the pristine faith of the Church cannot be compromised.  We must give our total being, all our talents and will to continue to reveal the mysteries of Christ to all.  For as St Paul said, we are to be accountable to God and not simply to please man.  It was because of his consciousness of being called to serve Christ and the gospel at all cost and to keep the truth of the gospel that St Paul did not seek the approval of man.  So convicted was he of his responsibility to God that he said that it did not make “the slightest difference to me whether you, or indeed any human tribunal find me worthy or not.”  For him, being true to his conscience and to God was non-negotiable.

Nevertheless, prudence is to be exercised here.  St Paul immediately qualified that although whatever he did was always in good conscience, it did not prove that he was acquitted.  This is because the Lord alone is his judge.  “He will light up all that is hidden in the dark and reveal the secret intentions of men’s hearts.”  In other words, we must seek the truth.  St Paul urges us to give ourselves some room for error, even if we are so convinced that what we are doing is faithful to the gospel of Christ.  We may be deceived by our hidden fears, prejudices and ulterior motives in our decisions.

Consequently, even in our unflinching fidelity to the truth, we must at the same time have a mindset that is ready to discuss, ready to rethink and always to discern how the Spirit is speaking to us and inviting us anew to re-express or experience the Good News of the Kingdom in new and relevant ways. Indeed, we must use whatever talents and opportunities God has given to us for the sake of the kingdom and not for our selfish interests.  At the end of the day, we must sincerely ask ourselves whether we have been truly faithful and trustworthy servants of Christ and the gospel.  So long as what we do truly promotes a greater love for God and Christ and the full truth of the gospel, then we know that we are walking in the right direction.  This truth is concretely manifested in the fruits of our Christian living.  If what we teach truly enables our people to bear the fruits of the Spirit, namely, a deeper union with God and a life of charity, we are on surer ground that we are walking in the path of the gospel.