Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.

Sunday Scripture

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Response: Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Gospel: Mark 1:21-28

The Book of Deuteronomy depicts a specific occasion: the people of Israel were finally ready to enter into the land that God had promised them through Abraham their father. The Israelites had been wandering in the desert for forty years after their exodus from slavery in Egypt – freed by God’s powerful hand. God determined that the Israelites needed forty years of purification in the desert, because the Israelites had rebelled against him – even after they had seen God’s powerful deeds which freed them from Egypt and its Pharaoh (Numbers 14:21-39).

Even Moses had been forbidden by God from entering the promised land (Num 20:12) – because Moses had not trusted God’s instruction that he should “command the rock before their eyes to yield its water” (Num 20:8). Instead, Moses had disobeyed God’s command by striking the rock twice with his staff – after which the water flowed out from the rock for the thirsty Israelites to drink (Num 20:11).

In our reading today (Deut 18), Moses has led the Israelites to the very border of the land which God had promised them. This border was the Jordan River. Moses knew that his mission was ending since he could not enter the promised land with them. But before the Israelites entered the promised land without him, Moses reminded them of God’s mighty deeds in freeing them from slavery in Egypt, and Moses reminded them of the covenant that they had made with God on Mount Sinai. By reminding the Israelites in this way, Moses implored them to keep God’s covenant law.

The large majority of the Book of Deuteronomy consists of a speech by Moses – in which Moses presents God’s covenant law to the Israelites a second time. The first time was when they had received the law on Mount Sinai forty years before. Moses is thus renewing the Israelites’ commitment to living the covenant law. All of this is a preparation for them entering the promised land. They must be worthy of the land that God is about to finally give them.

In our reading today, Moses tells the people: “A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen” (Deut 18:15). This is an acknowledgement by Moses that he will soon die and that his prophetic leadership is ending. Moses’ words here became a source of hopeful anticipation for later generations of Israelites. They awaited God’s fulfillment of this prophecy of Moses. They deeply longed for God to give them a new prophet like Moses. The first Christians recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy, as asserted in Acts 3:18-26.

Moses’ speech mentions “Horeb” in today’s reading. Most biblical scholars consider “Horeb” to be another name for Mount Sinai – where God had established the covenant with his people. The name “Horeb” appears in several Old Testament books. It is repeatedly described in a way consistent with the conclusion that Horeb and Mount Sinai are the same place.

In our second reading, St. Paul states his goal clearly: “I should like you to be free of anxieties.” At the end of our reading, Paul restates the same goal in similar words: “adherence to the Lord without distraction.” Paul wants the Corinthians to live the Gospel of Christ without anxiety or distraction. For this purpose, Paul suggests that unmarried men and unmarried women can be “anxious about the things of the Lord, how [they] may please the Lord.” 

Paul describes both married men and married women as being “anxious about the things of the world.” Paul sees “the things of the world” as a distraction from devotion to the Lord Jesus. Despite his advice, Paul insists that he does not say this “to impose a restraint upon you.” Indeed, in the verses following today’s section, Paul describes how someone faithful to the Lord might determine that marriage is a good life choice for themselves (1 Cor 7:36-40). This whole section needs to be understood with the context of Paul’s words in 7:29: “I tell you … the time is running out.” Paul’s advice in today’s reading is motivated by an ardent desire that both he and the Corinthians urgently prepare for Christ’s second coming. Paul is trying to help the Corinthians eliminate distractions from living the Gospel.

In today’s gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry – he enters the Capernaum synagogue and he begins to teach. “The people were astonished at his teaching” because “he taught them as one having authority.” Next, Jesus makes a powerful demonstration of God’s power over evil by forcing an unclean spirit to leave a man who had been oppressed by it. Notice that – like with Jesus’ teaching – when Jesus casts out the spirit, the people recognize that Jesus is giving “a new teaching with authority.” They recognize that Jesus has demonstrated that he has authority over unclean spirits – because “they obey him.”

Therefore in both his teaching and his power over unclean spirits, Jesus is demonstrating his authority as “the Holy One of God.” Jesus’ actions demonstrate the truth of what he said in Mark 1:15: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” God’s kingdom requires the defeat of evil so that God might rule completely over all creation – heaven and earth. In Jesus’ dialogue with the unclean spirit, Jesus demonstrates his authority over evil by rebuking the unclean spirit and making it be silent. 

It is remarkable that the unclean spirit declares Jesus to be “the Holy One of God” because Jesus’ new closest followers will need much more time to come to that spiritual insight. Note that Jesus confronts the unclean spirit only after the man with the unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God!” Until the unclean spirit creates this conflict, Jesus was focused on teaching the people in the synagogue – but with authority.