Feb 1, 2015: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

1st Reading – Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Moses spoke to all the people, saying:
“A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you
from among your own kin;
to him you shall listen.
This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God, at Horeb
on the day of the assembly, when you said,
‘Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’
And the LORD said to me, ‘This was well said.
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin,
and will put my words into his mouth;
he shall tell them all that I command him.
Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name,
I myself will make him answer for it.
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name
an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak,
or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.’”

Today’s first reading is a key text regarding the office of prophet in Israel. Together with the king and the priest, the prophet is one of the great institutions of Israel; the office of prophet had a very important religious position and special moral authority.

At is essence, prophecy is a form of divine communication.  Throughout the ages people have devised various ways of establishing some form of communication with divine beings.  The laws of Israel condemned all such forms of divination, maintaining that only God could initiate the communication.  While Israel did believe that some form of revelation often occurred in dreams and visions, they considered prophecy to be the primary means of divine communication.

Moses spoke to all the people, saying: “A prophet like me will the LORD,
your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen.

In the history of the Jewish people, Moses is seen not only as the one who delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and the one who gave them God’s laws, but also as the first prophet and the model for all future prophets.

The book of Deuteronomy presents itself as a testament of Moses to his people on the eve of his death.  Here, Moses is promising the people that his death will not mean that they will no longer have a mediator with God.  Just as God chose Moses to be a prophet (Exodus 4:12), so another would be raised up.

This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God, at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’

See Deuteronomy 5:23-27.  At the foot of Horeb, in fear, the people realized that they could not approach God directly but would need a mediator.

And the LORD said to me, ‘This was well said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you

This passage underscores several important characteristics of the prophetic individual.  First, a true prophet will not independently assume the role spokesperson, but will be raised up by God.

from among their kinsmen, 

The promised prophet will not be an outsider but will be called from among the people.

This promise of a future prophet developed within the religion of Israel, leading people through the centuries to wonder whether or not particular individuals may in fact be this promised prophet.  Ultimately it became an important dimension of Israel’s eschatological expectation, often combined with return of the figure of the mysterious Elijah, who would inaugurate the messianic age.

Since Jesus is the great prophet in whom the prophetic office of the Old Testament finds its fulfillment, this passage was understood in a special messianic sense by the Jews (John 1:21; 6:14; 7:40) and by the Apostles (Acts 3:22; 7:37).

and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him. 

The Lord will put the words in the mouth of the prophet.  The message proclaimed will not be the message of the prophet, but the message of God.

If any man will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it. But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.’

Finally, because this prophet speaks God’s words, in God’s name, with God’s authority, anyone who disregards the message or who speaks in the name of any other God is liable to divine punishment.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 7:32-35

Brothers and sisters:
I should like you to be free of anxieties.
An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord,
how he may please the Lord.
But a married man is anxious about the things of the world,
how he may please his wife, and he is divided.
An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord,
so that she may be holy in both body and spirit.
A married woman, on the other hand,
is anxious about the things of the world,
how she may please her husband.
I am telling you this for your own benefit,
not to impose a restraint upon you,
but for the sake of propriety
and adherence to the Lord without distraction.

Today’s second reading picks up where we left off last week.  In it, Paul expresses his concern that those who are married are more likely to face the distractions of earthly life than those who are celibate.

This passage has led some interpreters to conclude that, while not outrightly opposing marriage, Paul believes that the unmarried state is to be preferred.  While such an interpretation is quite accurate, it is important to understand Paul’s bias.  It is true that he contrasts the commitments of the two states of life, but he does so because he firmly believes that the end is near.

Brothers and sisters: I should like you to be free of anxieties.

That is, he wants the Corinthian Christians to be anxious about the right things.

An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided.

Paul contrasts anxiety about things of the Lord with anxiety about the things of the world.  The first are to be preferred over the second.

The real contrast being drawn here is between commitment to the Lord and involvement in the things of this world.  Paul knew, as we know, that those involved in the things of the world can be very committed to the Lord, and those committed to the Lord can possess a very shallow spirituality.  He is more concerned with the quality of commitment than with the particular state of life.

One cannot deny that those who are married have responsibilities that the unmarried do not have.  Pledged to another, they are accountable both to and for that person.  In the most immediate way, they have assumed responsibility for the survival of the race, and they must be concerned with the things of this world so that the next generation can enjoy a prosperous future.

While those who are not married certainly have obligations to the next generation, they are not as immediate or as intimate as are those who are married.

Paul is concerned about the demands the world makes upon those who are involved in it, and that means everyone.  However, he knows that those whose primary responsibilities are grounded in the world can have divided loyalties and can truly be torn by this.  This is especially true in light of what Paul has just written in the verses prior, which we covered in last week’s readings, that the form of this world is passing away.  In that case, it is better to be free of the responsibilities of marriage and to be totally dedicated to the things of the Lord.

An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.

Note that Paul does not limit his exhortation to men, revealing something of Paul’s understanding of the mutuality of marriage.  Both sexes are characterized in the same way: the married man wants to please his wife as much as the married woman wants to please her husband.

“Here Paul explains why virginity is preferable to marriage. It has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of sex. Rather it is a question of anxieties which prevent the mind from concentrating on the worship of God.” [Severian of Gabala (ca. A.D. 400), Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church]

I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction.

Paul is careful to admit that he is giving an opinion and not an injunction that would impose restraints on the community.  This is non-binding counsel.  However, Paul is convinced of the benefit of this counsel, especially in light of the impending return of Christ — a point which must be remembered, as it colors this entire passage.

“The one is bound by marriage bonds, the other is free. One is under the law, the other under grace. Marriage is good because through it the means of human continuity are found. But virginity is better, because through it are attained the inheritance of a heavenly kingdom and a continuity of heavenly rewards.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (ca. A.D. 389), Synodal Letters 44]

Gospel – Mark 1:21-28

Then they came to Capernaum,
and on the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.
The people were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.
In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit;
he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
Jesus rebuked him and said,
“Quiet! Come out of him!”
The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.
All were amazed and asked one another,
“What is this?
A new teaching with authority.
He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

The gospel readings for the past two weeks have consisted of Jesus’ gathering of disciples. Now, his public ministry commences and he begins to teach.

The majority of this passage is an account of an exorcism that Jesus performs in the Galilean village of Capernaum.  However, the underlying theme of the reading is the authenticity of Jesus’ teaching.

Then they came to Capernaum,

Capernaum is located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Gennesaret).  This town was to become Jesus’ home base while in Galilee.

and on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.

Following the custom of the time, Jesus, an adult male member of the community, took his turn at teaching those gathered in the synagogue.

The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.

The people were accustomed to the manner of teaching of the scribes: official teachers or interpreters who were students of the law.  Scribes relied for their authority on the precedents already set by the teaching of others.

Jesus, on the other hand, taught as one having authority in his own right.  The people in the synagogue recognized this and marveled at it.  The exorcism that follows may have been primarily an outward manifestation of this unusual authority.

In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit;

People of the time believed that evil spirits who roamed the world caused havoc whenever and wherever they could.  What appeared to be contrary to a set pattern was believed to have been caused by such spirits and was considered unclean.

If a person afflicted with such a spirit was found in a holy place like the synagogue, he certainly would have to be removed. However, Jesus does not have the man leave.

he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? 

The evil spirit invokes Jesus’ name as an attempt to ward off his power.  The notion was that using the precise name of an opposing spirit would guarantee mastery over him.

“Jesus of Nazareth” might identify Jesus by his place of origin, or it might associate him with the Nazirites, or consecrated ones (Numbers 6:2-21).

Have you come to destroy us?

An acknowledgement of Jesus’ superiority.  The evil spirit speaks in the name of a multitude of spirits, perhaps in an effort to seem stronger in numbers.

The spirit clearly understands this to be a confrontation and that Jesus has the edge.

I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”

“Holy One of God” is a rare title and probably refers to Jesus’ distinctive relationship with God.  However we understand the names, they are certainly references to Jesus’ unique status.  The demon has named Jesus twice — “Jesus of Nazareth” and “the Holy One of God” — but has no power over Him.

“While Peter’s confession sounded almost the same (Matthew 16:16), the crucial difference is that Peter confessed out of love, while the demon confessed out of fear.” (Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 416), Homilies on the Gospel of John 6,21).

Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet!

The Greek is phimotheti, “be muzzled!” 

Does Jesus not want others to know who he is?  Within the context of a narrative that makes a point of authoritative teaching and power over evil spirits, this seems rather strange.  However, one must remember that the primary focus of the story is the authority of Jesus, not his identity.  That will be revealed later.

“He put a bridle in the mouths of the demons that cried after Him from the tombs. For although what they said was true, and they did not lie when they said, ‘You are the Son of God’ and ‘the Holy One of God,’ yet He did not wish that the truth should proceed from an unclean mouth, and especially from such as those who under pretense of truth might mingle with it their own malicious devices.” [Saint Bede the Venerable (A.D. 673-735), To the Bishops of Egypt 3]

Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.

Instead of having the afflicted man leave the synagogue, Jesus casts out the evil spirit.  In so doing, establishes the reign of God in a previously disordered situation.

All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.  He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” 

Just as the people were astonished by the teaching of Jesus, so they are amazed at his power over the evil spirit.  They have heard the content of his teaching and its authoritative style, and now, by way of this exorcism, they have evidence that this teaching is from God.

His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee. 

Jesus may have been able to silence the spirit, but his fame as a teacher and an exorcist spread throughout Galilee.

Connections and Themes

Continuing our reflection on discipleship, this week we address three pressing questions: Why would we be willing to accept the demands of discipleship and change our way of living?  Where do we turn for direction in this radical transformation?  How does this transformation change us?

Why are we willing to change? The answer to this question is apparent to anyone who has seriously reflected on life.  We want to change because in so many ways we are being strangled to death by demons.  We are caught in dysfunction and sin, and try as we may, we do not seem able to rid ourselves of their shackles.  We live in the midst of the battle between good and evil, the struggle of human finitude and failure.  We may begin with good intentions, but we are so often sidetracked or derailed along the way.  We are plunged into the throes of human suffering and pain, and there seems to be no escape from it.  And what is perhaps the most difficult to accept is that evil appears to have the upper hand in this conflict.

The demonic seduces us in more ways than we can count, and we are often caught in its web before we recognize what has happened.  It is only when we are in its grip that we realize that the pleasures it holds out to us cannot really satisfy the desires of the human heart.  It is only then that we reach out for salvation, that we heed the invitation of the reign of God.

To whom do we turn?  There have always been many and varied voices that claim to have the remedy for our ills.  Preachers and politicians have stirred up crowds and ignited their emotions.  Promises have been made and predictions advanced, yet the conflict goes on; the demons continue to hold sway.  And then a voice is heard in the midst of the chaos of our lives.  This voice rings with authority: Be quiet! Come out!

The demons recognize the authority in the voice of Jesus.  They know who he is, but the people around him do not.  They acknowledge his power over them, but again and again Jesus finds himself in conflict with the crowds and with their leaders over the question of his authority.  How can this be, since he has the credentials of the true prophet as described by Moses?  In fact, he exercises the very authority of God.  Failure to comprehend Jesus’ true identity probably stems from mistaken expectations.  We may be able to admit that we want and need a savior, but we may not always grasp the implications of this desire.  Little by little light will be thrown on the person of Jesus during the coming weeks.

How will we be changed?  When we are released by Jesus from the demons that possess us, we are freed from the stranglehold of evil and liberated to live far less encumbered and divided lives.  We will then see that we can be so liberated in any lifestyle, within any commitment.  No earthly reality will possess us, neither relationships nor obligations nor even religious practices.  Rather, we will be possessed by Christ, who liberates us for the reign of God.  Therefore, whether married or unmarried, whether in the midst of the community or at its margins, we will be able to heed the voice of God in our hearts and to recognize Jesus in our midst.

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