Ordinary Time – Cycle B
2 Cor 3,1b-6
Authentic religious experience is not based on law, it does not come from exterior imposition nor is it’s expression exhausted in sacred gestures, but it is fundamentally a relation of love between God and man or woman. A totally relational experience, that includes all of life and places it in a new horizon of values in the midst of the world. It is what the Bible calls “covenant” and that having as a starting point the prophet Hosea, is expressed with the symbol of matrimonial love, that evokes fidelity, reciprocal love and shared joy. The life of the Christian disciple is also an experience of covenant, founded on Messianic joy, that the presence of the Messiah brings about in the “the friends of the spouse”. That is to say, in those that are invited to the definitive wedding between God and humanity, those that are believers.
The first reading (Hos 2,16.17b.21-22) belongs to the splendid theological poem of the 2nd chapter of Hosea, that reflects a bitter experience of loving infidelity suffered by the prophet betrayed by his spouse. This is a type of monologue in which the prophet manifests his pain of the woman’s infidelity that he still loves but that has abandoned him going off with another. The autobiographical level of the text is covered over by the theological symbolic level that reflects the experience of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. The lived experience of Hosea, in effect, helps us to understand another faithful love: the love of God for Israel; the love of the prophet for the unfaithful spouse reflects the unbreakable love of Yahweh for his unfaithful and idolatrous people. The 2nd chapter of Hosea describes the diverse attempts made by the prophet to make his unfaithful spouse turn back: violence, hard words, public denunciation, juridical act of repudiation, etc. However, all is useless. Only gratuitous love and unconditional pardon make the dream turn into reality and the spouse turns back to her first husband. Finally, Hosea abandons the hard attitude of punishment and revenge and decides to welcome the unfaithful woman and to begin again: “I am going to lure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart” (v. 16). In the desert, that is to say, in the experience of plunder and insecurity when all supports fall away, the lover makes a commitment to renew love and turns to begin again. The expression, “speak to her heart” appears few times in the Bible (Gn 34,4; 50,21; 2 Sam 19,8; Josh 19,3; Rt 2,13; Is 40,1) and can have the meaning of encouraging someone that suffers or is afraid, to convince someone to do something, or falling in love with a woman. All of these meanings in some way become presence in the text of Hosea.
As Hosea did with his spouse, God does with Israel. After the infidelity, it is possible to restore the covenant of love broken by sin. The verses 21-22 describe precisely the new beginning in which resume the relationships between God and his people: “I will betroth you to myself for ever, betroth you with integrity and justice, with tenderness and love; I will betroth you to myself with faithfulness, and you will come to know the Lord”. The verb “betroth”, used three times in two verses, is a verb that is used in the Bible only for matrimony with a young virgin (Dt 20,7; 28,30). God, however, does not only pardon Israel for her infidelities, but re-establishes her again as a spouse-virgin, without keeping in mind absolutely the past. In matrimony, the groom paid a price for the spouse to her father (2 Sam 3,14). The price that the Lord pays for his people is the grace of fidelity, justice, love, mercy and the knowledge of the Lord. It is exactly the characteristics that God will ask Israel in this renewed matrimony, but due to the radical incapacity of the people to respond in this way, the same Lord will give the capacity to respond to His love.
The second reading (2 Cor 3,1-6) is taken from the second letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul defends himself from “evangelizers” that had arrived at Corinth after his departure and that spread rumors against him to discredit him with the community that he had founded. This new “evangelizers” were probably judiaizers, that is to say, Hebrew Christians that were convinced that it was necessary to impose all of the Law of Moses’ prescriptions on the pagans that converted to Christianity. The brief text of today’s reading opens the section in which Paul speaks of the superiority of the New Testament in front of the first covenant of God with Israel. The Apostle defends himself saying that he does not need letters of recommendation because his letter of recommendation is the same community of Corinth: “you are a letter from Christ, drawn up by us, and written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God; not on stone tablets but on the tablets of your living hearts” (v. 3). His apostolic ministry has its greatest guarantee in the same Christians. A ministry that has been entrusted to him by Christ: that of the new covenant, not founded on the letter of an exterior law but in the power of the Spirit of God. Different from the old covenant, founded on tables of stone, this is a new and transforming covenant, “the written letters bring death, but the Spirit gives life” (v. 6).
Today’s Gospel (Mk 2,18-22) follows immediately after the account of the banquet of Jesus and his disciples with many publicans and sinners in the house of Levi (Mk 2,13-17). It is the festive celebration of gratuitous and abundant pardon given on the part of him that “has not come to call the just, but sinners” (Mk 2,17). Jesus and his disciples, together with a group of sinners, eat and drink, celebrating the newness of the Kingdom that brings salvation and pardon to the alienated and lost. The Evangelist creates a strong contrast saying almost simultaneously that John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting (Mk 2,18). For both groups, mortification makes up an essential element of the religious process. Fasting, together with prayer and almsgiving, is one of the three pillars of Jewish piety. The Law prescribes fasting once a year on the Day of Expiation (Lv 16,1-34; 23,26-32; Num 29,7-11), but in the times of Jesus many religious Hebrews, particularly the Pharisees, fasted twice weekly (Lk 18,12). The objective of fasting was essentially penitential, as expiation for committed sins. This has connotations of sadness and humiliation. John the Baptist’s disciples, for their part, had a conception of religion founded on ascetics and privation, as an authentic offering of themselves to God. In both cases, that which mattered was the law interpreted as active duty. Union with God was preserved thanks to sacrifice and fasting.
In the presence of Jesus, the groom of the messianic wedding, there is not a place for fasting. In Jesus, God has become present fully in the midst of men and women, offering freely and abundantly pardon, mercy and love. In the presence of Jesus, rejoicing and joy only are possible, because his message and work are gratitude and salvation without limits and without condition. The Gospel is not founded on fasting or any type of mortification, but the creation of a spousal relations of faithful and committed love. The disciples are called to participate in the wedding, the wedding with Jesus, that is to say the Kingdom of God. With Jesus, the Kingdom breaks in with power. This is the meaning of the two images that come afterwards. The old cloak was broken if it was simply patched with a piece of new cloth, the wineskins of old wine cannot keep the expansion of the new wine. All of the prescriptions of the law and all of the traditions of piety are not sufficient to transform man and woman, nor can they stop the new immensity of Jesus that has made present the Kingdom announced by the prophets and he has established a new and eternal covenant between God and humanity.