Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Moses said to the people: “God will send you a prophet like me from among yourselves. To him you must listen.” Deuteronomy 18: 15-20

The people were astonished at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. Mark 1: 21-28

History books and the Old or First Testament of the Bible have shown us how human beings have dealt with prophets down through the centuries. We know that most prophets were recognised only after they died or were done to death by those whose comfort and security they disturbed. When I ask myself if I know of any modern-day prophets, the names that come to my mind are Martin Luther King Jr and Oscar Romero, both of whom were not fully appreciated as prophets until after they were murdered.

In today’s first reading from Deuteronomy, we learn how the people of Israel were uncomfortable with God’s direct dealing with them. They had made it known to Moses that they did not want to hear God speaking directly to them or to be confronted by God’s fiery presence. God obliged them by agreeing to speak to them through intermediaries like Moses and through a succession of other prophets. Moses, however, made it clear to his people that obedience to God’s prophets was a necessary requirement. Over time, the people of Israel failed to meet that requirement.

When an intermediary didn’t live up to popular expectations, all kinds of excuses were dreamed up for ignoring his message. And isn’t that the same with us in our day and age as we deal with the messages and exhortations that come to us from our Pope and our parish pastors? When Pope Francis gave us Laudato Si, some disputed his recommendations on the grounds that he was not a qualified environmental scientist. In order to see what we human beings can do with what we hear, we don’t have to look beyond ourselves. Sometimes, we catch ourselves admitting that we hear what we want to hear. We acknowledge that when some speakers and preachers say things that discomfort us, we set about filtering, editing or putting a spin on their words. Even if we quote worn-out utterances like “Familiarity breeds contempt” or “A prophet is not welcome in his own country”, we have no guarantee that the prophet will be heard in any other country or that those not familiar with him will not treat him with contempt.

While there’s a salutary message in all that for us, we have to acknowledge that every prophet or every speaker who offers us wisdom and guidance fails to get it right all of the time. To see an illustration of that we need look no farther than Paul’s words about marriage and celibacy recorded in today’s second reading.
Paul wrote to the Christian community of Corinth: “I would like to see you free from all worry. An unmarried man can devote himself to the Lord’s affairs, all he need worry about is pleasing the Lord; but a married man has to worry about the world’s affairs and devote himself to pleasing his wife: he is torn two ways. In the same way an unmarried woman, like a young girl, can devote herself to the Lord’s affairs; all she need worry about is being holy in body and spirit. The married woman, on the other hand, has to worry about the world’s affairs and devote herself to pleasing her husband. I say this only to help you, not to put a halter round your necks…”  (1 Corinthians 7: 32-35) I can only attribute this to a lack of sensitivity on Paul’s part. This is clearly Paul’s opinion which, delivered in a burst of enthusiasm, was aimed at encouraging people to devote themselves fully to the service of God. It short-changes the sacrament of marriage and the extraordinary contribution of married people to the Christian community and to the way in which married couples enrich one another’s lives and the lives of their children. Those words of Paul were the result of something like a brain-snap. They are hardly the inspired word of God.

Did the good people of Corinth speak out in protest in an attempt to set Paul’s thinking right or did he come to his senses of his own accord? It doesn’t really matter. What mattered was that his thinking had been rectified by the time he wrote to the Christian community of Ephesus (cf Ephesians 5: 21-33). All this highlights the value of dialogue between prophets and preachers and the ordinary people they are meant to serve and encourage. Healthy dialogue can be mutually enriching.

Today’s gospel-reading underlines the truth that prophets are appreciated as such only in retrospect. Mark’s makes a carefully crafted statement about the visit of Jesus to Capernaum: “As soon as the sabbath came, Jesus went to the synagogue and began to teach. And his teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority” (Mark 1: 21-22). That is code for stating that Jesus looked like a prophet. After Moses, Israel had a succession of prophets for a period of approximately 800 years. The very last one was Malachi, who completed his work about 500 years before Jesus came on the scene. It was little wonder that the people who witnessed Jesus’ teaching and miracles did not rush to name him as a prophet, let alone to acknowledge him as the Messiah. There had not been a prophet among them for 500 years.

In today’s gospel reading there is the delicious irony that the only one to recognise Jesus as prophet and Messiah was the devil whom Jesus expelled from the possessed man who had found his way into the Capernaum synagogue: “The unclean spirit shouted: ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus said sharply:’ Be quiet! Come out of him!’ (Mark 1: 23-25). While the people were astonished at what they had just seen and heard and while they noted the authority that characterised Jesus’ words and actions, they could not bring themselves to concur with the unclean spirit. Deep down they sensed that the authority which Jesus demonstrated would be bound to upset the scribes. That meant that, if they gave their allegiance to Jesus, their customary ways of living and worshipping would be disturbed.

If we accept that the authority Jesus displays to us is born of compassion and identification with us as our brother, then we will have to change some of the aspects of our lives. We will have to let go of being afraid of God; we will have to embrace the freedom with which God means us to live; we may even have to take the risk of entering into dialogue with the teachers and preachers we listen to every Sunday. There’s surely some real challenge in that.