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Homily notes: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, 28 January 2018

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ |  21 January 2018

Lectionary reading

First reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20.

Responsorial Psalm: Ps 94(95):1-2, 6-9.

Second reading: 1 Corinthians 7:32-35.

Gospel: Mark 1:21-28.

Link to readings.

Commentary

Today’s Gospel (Mark 1:21-28) describes the first public act of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel: his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, in the course of which he dramatically frees a man possessed by an evil spirit. 

Mark’s Gospel frequently presents Jesus as a teacher—though, curiously, does not tell us much about the actual content of his instruction. The evangelist simply wants to present Jesus as one who teaches with great authority. We note how, at both the beginning and the end of this episode, the people in the synagogue are struck by the authority with which Jesus teaches—in contrast to that of the other religious authorities (the scribes). Indeed, what is surprising is that they seem just as impressed by the authority with which he teaches as by the authority with which he drives out demons, an example of which has just taken place before their eyes. 

In fact, the episode suggests that there is a very close link in Mark’s view between the liberation involved in genuine teaching and the liberation involved in expelling demons—a thought that might produce a wry smile in those who labour in the classroom today. For Jesus, to be ignorant or wrong about God is just as much a captivity as the various other captivities that the ancient worldview attributed to demonic possession—many of which we would now attribute to pathological psychological conditions. Although St. Mark doesn’t inform us about the content of Jesus’ teaching on this particular occasion, we can be pretty certain that it had to do with the true nature of the God whom Jesus addressed with intimate knowledge as “Father” and whose saving designs for the world was summed up in the phrase “the Kingdom (or “Rule”) of God”. His message and the authority with which he proclaimed it was new with the “newness” of creation. What he said communicated a sense of a fresh start at life, beginning with a renewed relationship with God, freely offered in unconditional love.

The dramatic liberation of the demon-possessed man before the eyes of all in the synagogue was not, then, unconnected with Jesus’ teaching. It simply enacted, albeit more physically, a liberation that was going on within all present as they listened to Jesus and drank in his words. “Captivities” of prejudice, fears, scruples, guilts, ignorance about God, were dragged out of them. Far beyond overt cases of possession, the demonic can refer to any condition that controls human lives, inhibiting freedom and choice, stunting personal growth, alienating persons from God and their true humanity, rendering relationships with others poisonous or destructive. Addictions of all kinds come to mind, their destructiveness symbolised in the “convulsions” inflicted on the man in this scene by the demon as it left him. Rather than being mere spectators of what is being described, the Gospel invites those who hear it to identify with Jesus’ audience in the synagogue and to consider how their own lives need to be set free through the power and teaching of Jesus. 

In the First Reading (Deut 18:15-20) Moses assures the Israelites that his own departure from the scene would not mean that they would lack a means of receiving messages and instruction from God. God would raise up a prophet like himself, to whose words they should attentively listen. The later Jewish tradition understood this promise in a messianic sense and looked for a “Moses-like” prophet who would come at the end of the age. Jesus’ appearance and teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum represents one instance of his fulfilling this role, though on a vastly higher scale than Moses. 

The Second Reading (1 Cor 7:32-35) offers one of those texts from St. Paul that earns the Apostle a bad name if the context is not taken carefully into account. At this point in the letter, Paul is attempting to steer a pastoral course between two tendencies that prevailed in the early Church because of its keen anticipation of the imminent return of its Lord. On the one hand, he has to moderate the excessive eagerness of some of the Corinthians to forbid marriage. On the other hand, he wants to uphold the view that, because of that hope, it was appropriate, for those who had the gift (and only for them!), to remain celibate and devote all their attention to waiting upon the Lord. What Paul perhaps did not sufficiently allow for — though it can perhaps be genuinely drawn from his words — is that pleasing one’s partner and attending on the Lord are not necessarily alternatives but perfectly compatible aspirations within a marriage that is sacramental not only in name but fact.

 

Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media

 

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