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Reflections for the IV Sunday in ordinary time

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the fourth Sunday in ordinary time. He says the main theme of the day’s readings is Divine authority as exercised in this world by the prophets of the Old Testament in their messages, by the apostles (including St. Paul), in their writings and teaching in the New Testament, and by Jesus in his teaching and healing ministry.

Dt 18:15-20; I Cor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28

Homily starter anecdote: # 1: God sends His prophets all the time: When Pope Leo XIII delivered his encyclical entitled On the Condition of the Working Man and called upon Christians to attend to unjust labor laws and practices, his was the voice of a prophet. Similarly, when Cardinal Leo-Josef Suenens of Belgium stood up at the end of the first session of Vatican II and urged the council to examine not only the mystery of the Church in itself but also the Church’s relationship to and responsibility for the world at large, his was the voice of a prophet. When Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed the freedom of all the slaves in the United States, his was the voice of a prophet. When Lincoln’s contemporary, Susan B. Anthony pioneered the suffrage movement that eventually led to the passage of the 19th Amendment (1920) and gave women the right to vote, hers was the voice of a prophet. Rachel Carson’s book entitled Silent Spring (1962) was prophetic in that it summoned the world to an awareness of the dangers of environmental pollution. When Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu drew the world’s attention to the dangers and injustices of apartheid, his was the voice of a prophet as were so many others in this century alone, e.g., Dorothy Day, St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Teilhard de Chardin, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino and the Latin American Bishops who raised their voices first at Medellin, Colombia (1968) and then at Puebla, Mexico (1979) to affirm the Church as “an instrument of liberation, an agent of social justice and a defender of the poor and the oppressed.” These prophets tried to bring the reality of the sacred into every sphere of the human experience. In today’s liturgical readings, we are called upon to allow the prophetic messages of Moses, Paul, and especially Jesus to penetrate our consciences and claim them for God. Moreover, we are challenged to continue to listen to the prophets among us, and to exercise the ministry of prophecy for our contemporaries in our words, works and manner of living. (Patricia Datchuck Sánchez).

Scripture lessons summarized: Today’s first reading tells us that a true prophet speaks with authority because it is God Who speaks through him. After the Babylonian exile, the Jewish priests began to interpret the words of Moses given in the first reading, namely, "a prophet like me," as referring to one individual, the expected Messiah. This passage is chosen for today’s first reading because it refers to Jesus, the "preacher with authority," mentioned in today's Gospel. In the second reading, St. Paul exercises his God-given authority as the Apostle to the Gentiles to teach people in Corinth that marriage is a holy state ordained by God and that it is a life-long partnership according to the teaching of the Lord. In today’s Gospel, Mark describes one sample Sabbath day of Jesus’ public life. Jesus joins in public worship in the synagogue as a practicing Jew, heals the sick, drives out evil spirits and prays privately. People immediately noticed that Jesus spoke with authority and healed with Divine power. Jesus explained the Scriptures with complete confidence, and when questioned by people, he answered with authority. Jesus used his real (authentic) Divine authority to teach, empower, liberate, and heal others. The evil spirit mentioned in today’s Gospel recognized Jesus as the Messiah and acknowledged him as such. Jesus commanded the evil spirit harshly, using strong words and tones: "Be quiet! Come out of him!" This was another reason Jesus developed a reputation for speaking with authority.

First reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20, explained. Moses was about to die. The Chosen People were terrified because they were about to lose the person who had been successfully leading them through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. They were also going to lose a prophet who had been keeping them informed of Yahweh's will. When he died, how would they find out what God wanted of them? God answered the question by promising Moses that He would heed the people’s request and “raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and … put My words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.” Jesus is the prophet foretold by Moses in today’s First Reading (Acts 3:22). He has authority over Heaven and earth (Daniel 7:14, 27; Revelation 12:10). Moses had set up a theocratic society for the Israelites as he had been instructed to do by God. This society had various officers to regulate the civil and religious life of the people, e.g., judges, kings, priests and prophets. Today’s reading tells us that a true prophet would speak with authority because it would be God Who spoke through him. The text was first seen as promising that there would be a line of prophets to interpret previous revelations by God and to add some new ones for each generation. After the return from the Babylonian exile (c. 538 B. C.), the Jewish priests began to interpret this text of Deuteronomy as referring to one individual, namely the Messiah who was to come. The New Testament followed this interpretation and saw these words of dying Moses, "a prophet like me," verified in Christ (Acts 3:22; 7:37). These verses therefore, have been chosen for today's first reading because they refer to Jesus, the "preacher with authority," mentioned in today's Gospel.

Second reading: 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, explained. St. Paul and most of the early Christians believed, or strongly hoped, that the end of this world and the second coming of Christ were imminent. For this reason, many Christians in Corinth thought they should not enter into marriage, lest marriage should interfere with their whole-hearted service of God in preparation for the second coming of Jesus. As a good Jew, Paul presumed a different set of circumstances always demanded a different prophet with a different word. Hence, St. Paul exercised his God-given authority as the Apostle to the Gentiles to teach people that marriage is a holy state ordained by God and that it is a life-long partnership according to the teaching of the Lord (see Mt. 5:32; 19:3-9). Further, Paul recommended a life of virginity to the non-married only if they felt they could live such a life. The advantage of celibacy, as Paul explained, was that celibates would have the freedom to serve God fully with the fewest earthly cares and worries.

Gospel Exegesis: Worship and teaching in the synagogues: In Jesus’ time there were synagogues in Palestine in every city and town of any importance, and, outside Palestine, wherever the Jewish community was large enough. “Synagogues were primarily houses of instruction; the synagogue service was comprised of three elements, prayer, the readings of Scripture and an exposition of it. Administered by the laity, and geared to the day-to-day catechesis of the people, the synagogues of ancient Judah may have been an even more influential factor in Jewish life than the Temple. By law, wherever there were ten Jewish families, there had to be a synagogue. Neighborhood gathering places, the synagogues were vital to the Faith life of the community. Therefore, if a person had a message to preach, the synagogue was an obvious choice of venue. There, Jesus gained a hearing; following his example, his disciples would do the same after his death and Resurrection.” (Patricia Datchuck Sanchez files). The synagogue consisted mainly of a rectangular room built in such a way that those attending were facing Jerusalem when seated. There was a rostrum or pulpit from which Sacred Scripture was read and explained. It was here that Jesus showed his authority to teach (Navarre Bible Commentary).

The authority of Jesus: Today’s Gospel passage begins and ends with comments about Jesus’ authority as a teacher (1:21-22 and 1:27-28). He spoke like Moses, telling people directly what God had to say. In between is an exorcism (1:23-26), pointing out a connection between Jesus' teachings and his supernatural authority. Moreover, this is the first miracle in Jesus’ ministry as Mark recounts it. The episode appears immediately following the call of the disciples. Jesus' authority is also the main theme in the collection of stories (2:1–-3:6), which support the authority of Jesus when he teaches people about God's compassion in forgiving their sins. In his Gospel, Mark repeatedly returns to the theme that Jesus’ teaching with authority brought him followers, and Jesus’ healing with Divine power liberated people from illness and demonic possession. The Catholic and Apostolic Church derives her teaching authority from her founder Jesus.
Teaching with authority: There was a local synagogue in every Jewish settlement of more than ten families. The synagogue was a place of instruction and Sabbath prayers. The synagogue service consisted of three parts – prayer, the reading of God's word, and the exposition of it made by anyone who wished to do so. In this chapter Mark tells us that in the local synagogue Jesus taught with authority. This means that Jesus explained the Scriptures with complete confidence, and when questioned by people he answered with authority. Jesus spoke relying on no one beyond himself; he cited no supporting human authorities or experts. Mark also records the impact Jesus had on those who heard him. We are told how amazed people were at the authority with which he preached. Jesus also showed his power and authority by curing the sick and granting forgiveness to people.

Exorcising with Divine authority: In the synagogue, there was a man who was troubled by an unclean spirit. Everyone in the ancient Biblical world feared evil spirits and believed in demonic possession. People believed that demons or “unclean spirits” living inside the people caused leprosy, lameness, paralysis, etc. Even in the twenty-first century, we still believe in the existence of unclean spirits. How else can we explain the sudden explosions of anger that occur, the suicidal impulses, the intense jealousies, wild sexual fantasies, or overwhelming feelings of depression? We, as human beings, are keenly aware of these unclean spirits. We often wonder where the “unclean thoughts” come from and why we can’t rid ourselves of them. Victory over the unclean spirit, as the devil is usually described, is a clear sign that God's salvation has come: by overcoming the Evil One, Jesus shows that He is the Messiah, the Savior, more powerful than the demons. The demoniac cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? “What does Jesus have to do with these unclean spirits that live in each one of us? The answer we find in the Gospel is equally true today: Jesus came to destroy the unclean spirits living inside of us. That is one of the reasons why Jesus came to earth in the first place and one of the reasons why he continues his presence in our lives. Jesus came to drive out those unclean spirits within us, to wash them away, to cleanse our lives of them. Let us put ourselves under his authority and he will liberate us. The evil spirit in today’s Gospel recognized Jesus as the Messiah and acknowledged him as such. Jesus commanded the evil spirit harshly, using strong words and tones: "Be quiet! Come out of him!" This was one of the reasons why Jesus developed a reputation for speaking with authority. Today, we are challenged to believe that Jesus continues to exercise the power to rout evil in all of its ugly disguises and manifestations, viz., in poverty, sickness, greed, hatred, indifference, over-indulgence, etc., using us and our ministry.

Life Messages: 1) Let us approach Jesus for liberation: Jesus did not use his authority and Divine power to rule and control people. He came to set people free. Hence, let us approach Jesus with trusting Faith so that he may free us from the evil spirits that keep us from praying and prevent us from loving and sharing our blessings with others, as well as from all the “evil spirits” of fear, compulsions, selfishness, anger, resentment and hostility. "I have come that they may have life, life in abundance" (Jn 10:10). So Jesus should be a source of liberation for us. May Jesus free us from all those spirits which make us deaf, dumb, blind, lame and paralyzed, physically and spiritually. Through Word and Sacrament, Jesus brings that power to us and says the same words to the demons in our life, "Be gone!" -- not just once but as often as we need to hear them, until finally, we are free from these demons entirely. Christ has power over any demon, so whether those demons be addictions, heartaches, secret sins --whatever our chains may be-- Christ can set us free and longs to do so.

2) We need to use our God-given authority to build up lives. No doubt we can think back to people who have made a lasting impression on our lives – either for good or bad. Perhaps it was a grandparent, an uncle, or a parent, who loved us and cared for us. Perhaps it was a Sunday school teacher who encouraged us in our faith and exerted a positive impact on our lives. Perhaps we remember the kindness as well as the firm discipline that a schoolteacher gave us. On the other hand, there may be people in our past whom we remember with pain and discomfort. Are children learning something from us as parents that will stand them in good stead for the future? We want our children to grow into strong, wise, confident, capable, mature adults. But we want more than that. We want them to grow in their Faith, to accept Jesus as their Lord and personal Savior. We want children to see in us the love of Jesus and how our Christian Faith affects our lives. A good question for parents, teachers and all of us is: "In what way am I helping the children I know grow in wonder at Jesus and his love for them?” When God's Word and God's ways are taught and spoken about with authority – with conviction – our children (and others) will see with amazement God's love for them in His Son Jesus.

3) We need teachers who know how to use their authority properly: Teachers are powerful because they change lives. They have within their grasp the power over young lives to hurt them terribly or heal them wonderfully. Most of us are deeply and forever indebted to some caring teacher in our past. Some people never get over the damage done to them by some cruel or uncaring teacher. So today, when we hear that Jesus entered the synagogue at Capernaum and began to teach, we need to take note: Jesus was a teacher. They never called him “Reverend,” or “Father,” or “Priest.” They called him “Rabbi,” which means “teacher.” Let us all become good teachers and use our authority to form young lives in the right way. (By Fr. Antony Kadavil)

25 January 2018, 15:40