A few of us were gathered in the pub the other week when, for reasons that now escape me, the subject of humour came to the fore. One friend said, ‘Humour today isn’t the same as it used to be.’ and various examples were exchanged of things the company found funny and things they didn’t. In summary, the views expressed would suggest that, while modern comedy can certainly be enjoyed, there is an enduring quality to some tales told decades ago that means we can return to them again and again, laughing throughout their telling as if hearing them for the first time. But have they something more fundamental to offer too?
Take for instance the one-liner about the drunk and the lamp post, and his use of it more for support than illumination. I fear that, from time to time, this describes precisely my approach to the scriptures, searching diligently for the right verse to support my point of view. I suspect that many a media office has a Bible – and perhaps a concordance, too – as well-fingered as that of the most fervent worshipper, but there for use in exactly the same way as that lamp post.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the writer tells of events immediately after Jesus’ call to him, “Follow me!” (Matthew 9:9). Jesus was clearly the guest of honour at the meal described in the following verses. The Pharisees were critical of his association with people whom they considered unworthy company for a rabbi; John [the Baptist]’s disciples posed a straightforward question about fasting, in answer to which Jesus spoke of a wedding, an occasion that would mark the beginning of a new life for the happy couple. He then gave a couple of illustrations (vv. 16-17) that indicate how the new life that He offered should be received.
These illustrations may belong to another culture – in the twenty-first century it seems we no longer patch clothes, and we certainly don’t use animal skins to store wine – but the meaning is eternal, and one that we must learn. The life that Jesus offered to those around Him, and that He offers to us, is a New Life. St. Paul writes in many places about this new life and what it means for those who accept it. He encourages his readers to leave behind the lives they were following, along with what he describes as ‘their minds set on what the flesh desires’ (Romans 8:5). Instead, they should take up completely this new life based on Jesus’ teaching, a life so filled with good things – such as those that Paul lists very helpfully in his letter to the believers in Galatia (Gal. 5:22) – that there is no room for their old ways.
The word of God is both powerful and precious. If we try to fit it into the gaps in our existing life (the ‘old wine-skins’ of Jesus’ teaching), inevitably we will distort it, accepting bits here and rejecting bits there that don’t fit so easily. The result is a mish-mash, a life that suffers from the tension between two cultures, and is neither one thing nor the other, and certainly not the New Life that Jesus offers to all who believe in Him.
Rather, we should come to God, and His word, with great openness of heart and mind, and a readiness to understand the real meaning and purpose of the words we read. Only then can His message truly enlighten and transform our lives.