Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B



Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark1:21-28

The title of the Book of Deuteronomy is derived from Greek and means ‘second law.’ At times it is a revision of laws found previously in the Book of Exodus. For example, it revises in Deut. 5 the Ten Commandments found first in Exodus 20. Deut. is the fifth and last book of the five scrolls of the Torah (Pentateuch). The authors were probably Levites, men of priestly stock, but of a lower rank than the priests officiating in the temple. Their purpose in composing their book was to bring unity into the laws and customs of Israel, to form a holy people of God. In summary, they especially promote unity in the worship of the one, true God, and the expression of their faith in one God. One finds their great creed in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with all your strength.” The collection of laws that follow in the book instructs how to accomplish that one commandment. One form adopted by the authors of Deut. is a homily of Moses speaking to the Israelites during their time in the wilderness. How much of it goes back to Moses himself is not certain. The material was handed down and interpreted for many centuries before it was assembled in Deut.

In today’s first reading, Moses deals with the problem of a successor: “A prophet like me will the Lord God raise up for you from among yourselves.” Why a prophet? The Lord God’s communication with them at Mt. Sinai was so frightening that the people asked Moses to arrange with God to have a prophetic voice speak to them instead of God. The second part of our reading deals with true and false prophets. A threat: “Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.” This is how the Levites legitimize Moses and his successor as representatives of God among them. What if others claim to be God’s spokespersons? “If a prophet presumes to speak a word in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.” The connection between this reading and today’s gospel is authority. Just as the prophet like Moses taught with authority, so it was said of Jesus, “He taught them as one having authority.”

Psalm 95 picks up from the first reading a theme of warning for those who do not listen to the voice of God through an authentic prophet. It is in the people’s response, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The Psalmist gives an example of Israelites hardening their hearts to the voice of God at Masssah and Meribah, a reference to Exodus 17:1-7. There, the Israelites lost their trust that the Lord would take care of their needs. The Psalm chants, “. . . where your ancestors tempted (tried) me, even though they had seen all my works.” To those who will heed the voice of the Lord, “Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord . . . for he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds.”

In the second reading, Paul praises celibacy. He notes that an unmarried man is anxious to please the Lord, while a married man is more anxious to please his wife, “and he is divided.” Next, the women. An unmarried woman or virgin is anxious to please the Lord, while the married woman is anxious to please her husband. Strange indeed, we could say, since a married couple can and do please the Lord together through pleasing each other. And they perhaps can please the Lord just as unstintingly as singles do. Paul does not make his statements a rule, but only “for the sake of adherence to the Lord without distraction.” Singles are not distracted from the Lord???

The setting for today’s gospel is in Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. This town was the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry of preaching and healing. It was the Sabbath. Faithful Jews like Jesus went to synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus’ headquarters were in the home of Simon and Andrew, next door to the synagogue. He was well known by this time, so the leaders of the synagogue asked him to comment on the readings of the day. His comments were so impressive that the people present said, “This man speaks as a man having authority, and not like our scribes.” The scribes were the interpreters and teachers of the Scriptures which we call the Old Testament. When they taught or gave homilies, much of the material was quotations from former well-known scribes. Jesus did not need to do much quoting, and when he did, it was from the Scriptures. On Scriptures he was the authority, or as Luke describes him in Acts 3:22-23, ‘the Prophet like Moses,’ a term with which we became acquainted in today’s first reading. To validate Jesus’ teaching, Mark adds a miracle of Jesus. This is the first of many miracles of Jesus healing sickness at Capernaum.

The visit to the synagogue did not end peacefully. Present in the synagogue was “a man with an unclean spirit,” demonic possession. Exorcism was well known among the Jews of Jesus’ time. After Christianity became wider known, there were even exorcism contests between Christian and Jewish exorcists, at least in legend. See for example Acts 19:11-20. Some methods and tools used by exorcists in those days are found in detail in the writings of a first century historian, Flavius Josephus. In our gospel reading the demon presumes to know the identity of Jesus. “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus does not want the kind of publicity for which modern politicians pay a great price, at least not from a demonic source. He responds, “Put a muzzle on yourself, (thus the Greek expression), and come out of him.” Convulsing the man, the demon exited with a scream. Flavius Josephus, mentioned above, tells us how complicated the process of an exorcism was. Not so with Jesus. One command was sufficient to expel the demon. The people were no doubt acquainted with other exorcists, and in amazement they compare, “A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”