Jan 31, 2021: 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.’”

The book of Deuteronomy presents itself as a testament of Moses to his people on the eve of his death. The forty years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt are over. Moses is preparing the people to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land without him.

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.

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.

The word prophet means “one who speaks for another.” In the context of scripture, the “other” is God. So a prophet is one who speaks for God. At its essence, prophecy is a form of divine communication.

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 of 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 have been this promised prophet. Ultimately it became an important dimension of Israel’s eschatological expectation, often combined with the 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 3:22-23; 7:37).

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

The message proclaimed will not be the message of the prophet, but the message of God.

The most common form through which a prophet addresses the people is called an oracle, which begins, “Yahweh says this…” These words are not a claim that the prophet heard a voice, but that the prophet, as one called by God, is speaking in God’s name.

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 reading from 1 Corinthians resumes from where we left off last week. 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. 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 is 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. 400 AD), 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 a rule that would impose restraints on the community. This is non-binding advice. However, Paul is convinced of the benefit of this guidance, especially in light of the impending return of Christ — a point which must be remembered, as it colors this entire passage.

Believing that the end time would arrive within his own lifetime, Paul wants the Corinthians to be free of distractions so that they will be able to hear the voice of the Lord.

“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 is attained the inheritance of a heavenly kingdom and a continuity of heavenly rewards.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (ca. 389 AD), 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.

Saint Mark’s gospel is the most compact of all the gospels, concentrating less on Jesus’ specific teachings and more on the mystery of his person. The paradox is that Jesus is acknowledged as Son of God by the Father and by evil spirits, yet he is rejected by the leaders of the Jews and is even misunderstood by his own disciples.

Today’s gospel reading picks up immediately after the call stories that we read last week. Jesus’ 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.

“Synagogue” means meeting, assembly, community. It was (and is) used by the Jews to describe the place where they met to hear the Scriptures read and to pray. This practice seems to have originated in the social gatherings of the Jews during their exile in Babylon.

In Jesus’ time, there were synagogues in every Palestinian city and town of any importance, and outside of Palestine, wherever the Jewish community was large enough.

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.

To appreciate fully why Jesus’ words would astound his audience, it would be helpful to recall how Jesus’ predecessors, the prophets and scribes, taught.

Israel had prophets for hundreds of years, but this period ended shortly after their return from Babylonian exile in 537 BC, when the Israelites no longer had a kingdom. After prophecy died out, the people still wanted to hear God’s voice. Who had the authority to speak for God when there were no prophets?

In the few hundred years after the Babylonian exile and before Jesus, the scribes took over the teaching role of the prophets. They did not claim to speak for God; rather, they turned to the words of the law and the prophets and applied these words to their contemporary situations. The scribes did not teach with the authority of a prophet.

Jesus, however, teaches neither as a prophet (“Yahweh says this…”) nor as a scribe (quoting his predecessors), but as one claiming authority himself (“Amen, I say to you…”)

Who is Jesus to claim such authority? No wonder those in the synagogue were astonished.

In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit;

The story now shifts to an account of an exorcism, which may be intended to further demonstrate Jesus’ unique authority that was just described.

If a person afflicted with an evil 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 (Numbers 6:2-21).

Have you come to destroy us?

An acknowledgment 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 (416 AD), Homilies on the Gospel of John 6,21).

Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!”

Jesus neither affirms nor denies the identity proclaimed by the unclean spirit. Instead, he performs an exorcism.

Many people performed exorcisms in Jesus’ day, often with elaborate rituals and incantations. In contrast, Jesus has no need of long prayers. He speaks simply: “Quiet! Come out of him!”

The same authority that Jesus showed in his teaching is now seen in his actions.

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.

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.

Throughout Mark’s gospel, we will notice that Jesus teaches with authority and that his mighty acts, rather than being an end in themselves, are in service to his teaching and preaching.

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.