Commentary on the Readings
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – January 28, 2018
The Divine Power in Man’s Word
Facts and words: they seem contrary to modern man. Word was instead the materialization of thought for the ancient people. It was no wind, but a crystallization of feelings and emotions. It does not only transmit ideas and information, but communicates a creative or destructive charge of the person who utters it. The idols could not cause neither good nor bad, because—it was said—“They have mouths that cannot speak” (Ps 115:5), while the Lord, with his word creates the heavens, “for he spoke and so it was” (Ps 33:6, 9).
The word of God, which has given shape to the universe and preserves the earth and the heavens (2 P 3:5-7) has come into the world, “and was made flesh” (Jn 1:14) and gave sight to the blind, made the dumb speak, the lame on his feet, offered food to the hungry, liberty to the captives and joy to the broken-hearted. He turned the sinner into a disciple, the dishonest tax collector into an apostle, the chief tax collector into a son of Abraham and a bandit into the first of the guests at the heavenly banquet.
Priests, parents and Christian educators often say they are disappointed. They complain because their gospel-inspired exhortations seem to fall on deaf ears or have a very weak impact. The word of the Lord—they ask—has perhaps lost its efficacy? If it does not change hearts and minds, if it does not make a new world sprout, then it is not the word of God, but of people. It is easy to misunderstand: one preaches about oneself and one’s own convictions, believing of proclaiming the gospel. The good exhortations, warnings dictated by common sense, the wisdom of this world often show themselves useful, but they never worked wonders. Miracles happen only if the announced word is that of the Master.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Show me, O Lord, your ways and give me the strength to follow you.”
People have always felt an inner desire to go beyond the limits of space and time to enter the world of God, to know its mysteries and intentions, understand the past and especially to predict future events. They resorted to divination, relied on precognitive dreams, developed rituals to get oracles and to guard against the negative forces from which they felt threatened. Sorcerers, seers, magicians, wizards, astrologers, mediums are attested since the earliest times among all peoples. In the last few centuries before Christ even horoscopes appeared.
On the one hand the occult world has an attractive, fascinating and comforting look. On the other hand it arouses discomfort because it is an expression of man’s anguish. He fears what is beyond his control.
Israel is distinguished from other nations for the unconditional rejection of these practices. Its condemnation is transformed into a ferocious sarcasm against countries that tolerate them and make them their strength (Is 47:12-13). For Israel they are a nonsense because she believes that the Lord guides the history of her people and cannot stand those who doubt his love and care: “You must not have in your midst anyone who makes his child pass through the fire, or anyone who practices divination or anyone who consults the stars, who is a sorcerer, or one who practices enchantments or who consults the spirits, no diviner or one who asks questions of the dead” (Dt 18:10-11).
How then to know the will of God and his plans?
The only valid means is indicated in today’s reading: the recourse to the prophet.
Moses describes the features and functions of this character that has nothing in common with the magicians and soothsayers. He is an ordinary man, a brother. Unlike the king is chosen by the people, he is directly inspired by God. The Lord communicates his thoughts and plans to him. God entrusts him the duty to reveal him to the brothers, without adding or subtracting anything (vv. 15, 18).
Moses is an example of a “prophet.” He has acted as God’s spokesman (v. 16). Faced with the terrible majesty of the Lord, the people was scared and asked that the word of God be not communicated directly, but transmitted through a mediator. Moses went up the mountain, met the Lord and heard his voice. He then went down and told the people what he had heard.
Here is the prophet: He is one who “climbs the mountain”, assists, in a sense, to the “divine council” (Am 2:7). He lives in constant dialogue with God, assimilates his thoughts and feelings. Then he has the ability and the courage to pass them on to people, even if they are contrary to human common sense.
What is his authority?
If he faithfully transmits what God has suggested, his words have the same authority of God. If he preaches his own convictions, then what he teaches does not have a value superior to that of other men’s reasoning.
It may also happen that someone may come up to speak in the name of the Lord, but actually he may be defending the cause of other gods, that is, idols. He—the reading says—must die, that is, doomed to failure. His words will have no impact; they will be spoken in vain (v. 20).
Even today men feel the need to penetrate the mysteries of God’s world. As before, they are tempted to resort to palliatives, prophetic surrogates: the magicians, the seances …
That’s not how one meets God. One does not sneak into his world like thieves passing through secret crevices. The Lord wants to reveal himself, wants to direct his word to man and does so through the prophets.
Moses wished that all members of his people were prophets, that people are able to perceive the voice of God, as it happened to him (Num 11:29). The Acts of the Apostles ensure us that, with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, all the disciples have become “prophets” (Acts 2:17-18). Every Christian, enlightened by the Gospel, is able to discern the will of God and to communicate it to others.
In Israel, as in all ancient peoples, unmarried or childless men and women were not esteemed. They were considered abnormal or victims of some evil spells. They were looked down because they caused the interruption of life received from their fathers and weakened the family and the tribe. Be fruitful and increase in number (Gen 1:28) is the first commandment that God has imposed on man. The rabbis had recorded it and for this they argued that the duty of procreation was so important. If a couple had no children, the husband was required to divorce his wife in order to obtain an offspring by another woman.
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul has revolutionized this mentality: he praises the celibate life and does so in fervent terms as to give the impression that he devalues the institution of marriage.
He begins with an observation: it is true—he recognizes—that marriage is good and holy. However, there is a risk that married people let themselves be absorbed by the cares of this world, to such an extent as to overshadow or even undermine the union with the Lord. Who is married has a divided heart, is anxious about the things of the world, how to please his wife. The unmarried person is completely free to devote himself to the Lord (vv. 32-34).
He is not saying that the celibate is better than one who marries, nor, even less, that conjugal love and the exercise of sexuality estrange one from God. He simply says that the state of virgins is not only admirable as that of the married ones, but puts those who live it, in a mature way, in a favorable condition to remain united to the Lord. Those who do not have their own family has a free heart to devote themselves entirely to God and to all the brethren.
What’s more, the condition of the celibates is also a witness to married people of the community. It reminds everyone that marriage belongs to the realities of this world. It is not the ultimate condition but is transient, destined to go. In the future world all will be like the angels of God. They will neither marry nor be married.
Paul refers to virginity lived as a gift, as a joyful willingness to serve the kingdom of God and the brethren. “Virginity” that estranges one from people is false. Due to a misunderstood intimate relationship with God, it makes one to fall back on oneself and generates solitude and sadness. Authentic virginity does not distance one from the brethren. On the contrary, opening the heart to love without limits, pushes one to get closer to them.
After the call of the first four disciples (Mk 1:16-20) Jesus fixes his residence in Capernaum, which becomes “his city” (Mt 9:1). He is a guest of the Peter’s family who owns a house along the lake, a few steps from the synagogue. He begins to teach and to perform healings. The first that is told in the Gospel of Mark is not chosen at random. In Mark’s intention it constitutes the synthesis of the whole work of Jesus in favor of people.
It’s Saturday and people go to the synagogue to pray and to hear the reading and explanation of the word of God. There is a rabbi who organizes the meeting. Every adult Jew may attend or be invited to read and comment on the scriptures. To give a homily is quite simple: it is enough to recall the explanations given by the great rabbis to that particular biblical text. To venture one’s own interpretation is risky because one can be seen as presumptuous.
Jesus, as is customary, joins his people and is willing to do the readings. The first is taken from the book of the law, that is, the first five books of the Bible, the other is a song of the prophets. Who reads the second, if he likes, can also do the homily. Jesus, taking advantage of the climate of meditation and prayer that is created, introduces his message, with a highly appreciated speech: unlike the scribes, he speaks with authority (Mk 1:21-22). Probably the admiration of the people depends on the fact that he does not just repeat what has been said before him. He does a free and original comment of sacred text.
A dramatic episode happens after the homily. A man “possessed by an unclean spirit,” who until then has remained calm and quiet in a corner. He has not caused minimal disruption to the participants in the celebration. He has left them to pray, sing and listen. At some point, he begins to rail against Jesus. Who is this obsessed person?
In Jesus’ time, people did not have the scientific knowledge we possess today. They knew nothing of microbes, bacteria, hormonal imbalances. They attributed epilepsy, neuroses and all mental illnesses to mysterious and uncontrollable forces, to evil spirits, considered impure, because they were considered bearers of death.
All religions of antiquity knew the practice of exorcism to free a person from these unclean spirits. They resorted to rites and gestures that often bordered in magic. They pronounced detesting or cursing formulas and invoked the names of famous people, believed to be capable of communicating a positive force.
Jesus’ exorcisms differ so radically from those of the surrounding environment. However, in the way of speaking, he adapts to the current mentality and interacts with the disease by resorting to cultural categories of his time. He speaks, like everyone, of “evil spirits” and “demons”.
That said, let’s get back to the story of the man “possessed by unclean spirit.” He stayed outside the synagogue as the liturgy began. He was already there, and seemed very quiet. At some point, however, something clicked in him and he exploded in curses.
To understand what happened, the split personality of this man should be noted. He was not master of himself. There were forces of death that dominated him to the point of destroying him. They spoke in his name and reduced him to a state of complete dehumanization.
Before the arrival of Jesus, there was peace and quiet in the synagogue and that was fine to all. They were resigned to the fact that the obsessed person remained at the mercy of the forces of evil. It was enough that he did not bother and remained quiet without disturbing them.
Where Jesus arrives this balance cannot continue. The presence of Christ is irreconcilable with the “devil”, with the forces of evil. The two are rivals; they cannot stand each other and they end up attacking each other.
In fact, the “devil” opens the hostilities (it is always those who feel weaker who attack). He realized that “the strong man” has arrived (Mt 12:29) able to bring down his kingdom. Frightened, he screamed two questions: “What do you want with us? Have you come to destroy us?”
The plural pronoun, used by the “unclean spirit” is not surprising because the forces that keep man away from God and life are many. The powers that feel threatened by the presence and word of Christ are many.
Jesus does not answer him with curses or magic gestures, as the exorcists of his time used to do. He gives two strict orders: “Be silent, and come out of this man!” The “unclean spirit” obeys him and all those present are amazed. They realize that a prophet announcing a “new doctrine” is in their midst. He has word that has God’s power in it, has “authority”, that is, accomplishes what he says.
Let us now go beyond the pure matter of record.
The situation of the “possessed” person represents the condition of those who have not yet met Christ and, therefore, is still at the mercy of hostile, uncontrollable forces that destroy him. Demonic forces are impulses of hatred, selfish withdrawal, committing injustice and violence, the greed of money, the will to dominate …
They are “demons” who make themselves masters and want to be left alone. They command, speak, demanding action and, when they do not cause major damage, people are likely to leave them in peace. They do not care about the inhuman condition of those who are dominated.
Jesus, instead, is a liberator. He enters into conflict with this negative reality because he knows he can count on his “strong” and effective word.
We can reasonably assume that it was not the first time that the possessed person took part in the liturgy of the synagogue. Therefore, he had often heard the reading of the Bible and the respective homily. Yet his condition had not changed, not because the word of God is ineffective, but because, with their discussions and misinterpretations, the rabbis had sapped it. They had made the word lose her healing power. They had made her incapable to drive out “demons”.
When Jesus appears, everything changes. A miraculous transformation of the man is fulfilled, because he speaks “with authority” and the reaction of the possessed is violent. It does not passively accept the order, resists and begins to cry because it wants to perpetuate its control over his victim.
This struggle is the rebellion of the forces of evil, demons that are in a person, in society, in the ideologies, even religious and civil institutions. They dominate and when they are harassed, they rebel.
In the possessed person who stayed good up to the clash with Christ, we can grasp the ability not only of the scribes, but also of many Christians, to appease the protagonist of evil. With their daily compromises with power, yielding to the spirit of the world and hypocrisy, with religious practices observed at the expense of the substance of the Gospel. As long as they persist, in the Christian and in the church, the evil one is silent and lets things go. When a prophetic voice rises or an authentic witness of faith and charity is given, then he gets moving with all the energies that it possesses.
Preaching that does not cast out demons, leaving things as they are, that does not change the person and the world, is not the word of Jesus.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: https://youtu.be/QYL1cnyRf08