At first blush, today’s reading makes me want to join those who say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Poor Jesus is confronted, yet again, by the same religious leaders who confront him for not following the rules regarding forgiveness of sins, eating with sinners, observing the sabbath. This time it’s because his disciples favor feasting over fasting.
Jesus, of course, responds brilliantly and makes the rules police think. “Look,” he says in so many words, “I’m the Son of God and I have an intimate relationship with my disciples and the world. I’m not going to be on this earth forever, so there will be plenty of time for fasting. But while I’m here we are going to love and live.”
Score one for Jesus.
But Jesus being Jesus, he doesn’t want to subvert the rules or denigrate religious practice. His mission is to honor religion while helping it live and breathe.
If the letter and the spirit of the law are at odds, nobody wins. You can’t patch an old cloak with a new one, because you ruin both. And you can’t fill an old wineskin with new wine because as the new wine ferments it will make the old skin explode.
Is it possible, then, to replace the old cloak with a new one or put new wine in new wineskins without disrespecting the past? Yes! Old wine in old wineskins is delicious; “the old is good.” But remember, it was once new wine in new wineskins.
The word religion comes from two Latin roots re (again) and ligare (to tie together). The goal of religion is to “to tie together again” the events of life so that they make sense and lead to fullness. At its best, religion’s foundation in Scripture, ritual, and tradition gives us a spirituality through which we can combine all the fragments of life into a complete whole and be who God dreams us to be.
Is it possible to be spiritual and religious? What conflicts about religious practice do you wrestle with? How might you follow Jesus’ example in dealing with these tensions?
—Jeremy Langford is the director of communications for the Chicago-Detroit Province Jesuits and author of Seeds of Faith: Practices to Grow a Healthy Spiritual Life