by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Moses said to the people: “Your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself…to him you must listen.” Deuteronomy 18, 15-20
The people were so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant. “Here is a teaching that is new”, they said, “and with authority behind it: he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him.” Mark 1, 21-28
In today’s first reading, Moses tells the people that they have a choice: they can get God’s message directly or through a prophet designated and appointed by God. But Moses proceeds to warn them that they will know God’s word when they hear it and will be held responsible for how they respond to it. The people had not been slow to point out to Moses that they were afraid of dealing with God directly, saying: “Don’t let us hear the voice of the Lord, our God again, or look any longer on this great fire, or we shall die” (Deuteronomy 18, 16). This was a nation whose collective perception was that God was someone to be feared, to be held in reverence and awe. The people with whom Moses was dealing had little or no concept of a God of love. It was another 600 years before Hosea described God as guiding Israel “with leading strings of love…and being like someone lifting an infant to his cheek and bending down to feed him” (Hosea 11, 1-4).
Moses’ warning came from the insights into human behaviour that he had gathered from observation and experience. He had come to realise that, when we deal with intermediaries, priests, preachers and prophets, we can easily find excuses for missing and dismissing their message. We know that we can hear what we want to hear. We can filter and distort what we hear from the pulpit, simply because listening is never neutral. If we don’t like what the preacher says, we can resort to sheltering behind our own private revelations or connecting to our own direct line to God. Besides, the fact that a prophet is not heard in her or his own country, is no guarantee that she or he will be heard in another country.
That does not mean that we should not critique what we hear from our preachers. Yet, while Father is not always right, he is also not always wrong. That raises the issue of how we might profitably engage with the prophets and preachers of our day. Maybe there should be an agreement that we engage in a dialogical way with those who preach to us. I wonder if we could ever get to the point of interaction and discussion with those appointed to present out Sunday homilies. That way, we might learn from one another. I want to suggest that today’s second reading gives us an incident that contributed eventually to Paul’s education. Can you imagine for a moment how the Corinthians might have responded to Paul’s personal opinion about celibacy and marriage? He had the gall to say that, if the Christians of Corinth took the Lord seriously, they would give up getting married. After being told that “An unmarried man concerns himself with the Lord’s work, because he is trying to please the Lord. But a married man concerns himself with worldly matters, because he wants to please his wife” (1 Corinthians 7, 32-33), the people of Corinth could be forgiven for wanting to lynch Paul. Fortunately, by the time Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he spoke of marriage as being intimately connected with God’s plans for humanity. It would seem that he had learned something from those to whom he preached and wrote. And let’s not forget that preachers and prophets don’t have a monopoly on the truth. God still continues to speak to all of us in the depth of our hearts. We all have insights into truth; God’s Spirit continues to inspire us and lead us to wisdom. So prophets and preachers, in their turn, would do well to be open to feedback and suggestion from the people who sit in the pews.
In reading today’s gospel, we might get the impression that Jesus was totally successful as a preacher and, so, didn’t need feedback from his listeners: “His teaching made a deep impression on the people because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority” (Mark 1, 22). However, this was only early in his career. In time, critics from among the ranks of recognized teachers began to analyse his words and find fault with them. We also know that he took the risk of asking for feedback. We read in Mark 8, 27-30 how he asked his disciples what the people were saying about him and who they thought he was. That’s a very risky question for any teacher to ask, for it opens him or her up to have their weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed. Moreover, as one who took on the human condition fully, Jesus exposed himself to all the potential criticism, praise and dissatisfaction that are part of the dynamic that develops between preachers and their audiences. It would be a cause for admiration if everyone who engaged in teaching did the same.
Finally, I believe that Mark’s comment about the authority of Jesus’ teaching is worthy of further comment. When we reflect on our years of growing and developing towards maturity, many of us can point to somebody who was able to call us to achieve above and beyond what we thought possible. We can identify a teacher, a coach, a boss or a friend who called out of us abilities and skills that we didn’t realise we had. We still remember with gratitude such people for the profound influence they had on our lives. Their encouragement, their affirmation or their belief in us served to inspire us. And in the process, they modelled for us how we, in our turn, can help others to grow into their best selves. They demonstrated the kind of “authority” that Mark, in today’s gospel, describes Jesus as having. His authority emanated not from his power to enforce anything on anybody, but rather from his ability to inspire others and bring out the best in them. It came from his compassion and from his ability to empathise with the people with whom he engaged.
We are further told of how Jesus drove away an “unclean spirit” that controlled the life of one of the people he encountered. Mark’s term “unclean spirit” is a metaphor or symbol for the tendency to evil that we can all sometimes allow to control our actions. The desire to get even, believing that we are better than others, allowing our anger to control us, giving in to jealousy, being afraid to speak out in the face of manifest injustice, allowing selfishness to contaminate our decision-making are all manifestations of “unclean spirits” at work in our lives. By teaching as he did, by releasing others from whatever controlled and troubled them, Jesus made real the love, compassion and mercy of God to a people who had come to experience little other than oppression and injustice. The invitation is for us to do likewise.