Sunday of Week 4 of Ordinary Time (Year B)

Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28

On the past two Sundays we have seen Jesus baptised, he has announced the meaning and purpose of his work, and he has called his first disciples. In today’s Mass we see him beginning that work.

The words of Deuteronomy (First Reading) are being fulfilled:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet…from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

Jesus has appeared, a Jew of Palestine like all those around him. And he is a prophet. Not in the current sense of someone who can foretell the future but rather as one who speaks the word of God. For that reason, he should be listened to.

A day in the life…
Today’s passage from Mark is really the beginning of a busy day (and night) for Jesus in which are contained, one might say, all the main characteristics of his public life. He joins in public worship, he teaches, he heals, he drives out evil spirits – and he prays privately. There is also the astounded reaction of the ordinary people. In Mark’s Gospel we find three kinds of people, all of whom react differently to Jesus – his own disciples, the religious leaders, and the ordinary people. Usually, it is only the ordinary people who come off with any credit and insight.

This first reported day in Jesus’ public life is a Sabbath day. And we find Jesus with his fellow townsmen in the synagogue. It is important for us to realise that Jesus was a practising Jew and he normally observed the requirements of the Jewish faith, as did his disciples, even after the resurrection. He never criticised that faith. What he did criticise were what he saw as distortions, hypocrisies and other corrupting elements. Jesus’ message is, as he says himself in Matthew, not an abrogation of the Jewish faith, but carrying it to its logical fulfilment:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
(Matt 5:17)

In the synagogue
The synagogue service was basically a Scripture and prayer service. There was no sacrifice; that was confined to one place, the Temple in Jerusalem. Most Jews very seldom went to the Temple for the simple reason that, for most of them, it was too far away. We see Jesus apparently going there about once a year like his compatriots, for some of the major feasts.

However, on every Sabbath (Saturday to us) they went to their local synagogue for common worship and prayer. The service was simple: some prayers, reading from the Scripture (the Hebrew or Old Testament, of course) and someone preached. There were no formal clergy or priests in the synagogue. Again, these were confined to the Temple in Jerusalem; John the Baptist’s father was one of them. It is only when Jesus goes to Jerusalem that he comes in confrontation with Temple priests (and they are not to be confused with either the Pharisees or the Scribes).

In the synagogue, then, anyone could be invited to get up and preach. On this particular Sabbath day, Jesus was invited. Perhaps he already had a name as a speaker. In any case, as soon as he opens his mouth the people feel immediately that here is someone who is different.

When the scribes, the experts in the Law, preached, they were primarily explaining the given meaning of the Jewish Law in the sacred books. But when Jesus spoke it was with ‘authority.’ Somehow the people realised that he was not giving out someone else’s teaching. He was giving out his own. As we hear it in Matthew’s Gospel:

You have heard that it was said…But I say to you…
(Matt 5:43)

A man possessed
But Jesus not only spoke with authority. He also acted with authority. Right there as he spoke there was a man with an ‘evil spirit.’ What exactly does that mean? Have you ever encountered a person with an “unclean spirit”? Have you ever met a so-called ‘possessed’ person? We need to remember that in the time of Jesus, people believed that the world was full of spirits – some good, some bad. They were everywhere and could attack people in all kinds of ways. You could even ask that evil spirits attack other people, for instance, people you wanted to take revenge on.

This is by no means a thing of the past. Such beliefs are still very much alive in many parts of the world. Even in sophisticated ‘developed’ societies it is often difficult to find someone who will walk calmly through a cemetery in the dark. Amid the glass and steel skyscrapers of many modern cities, people are still careful about choosing a wedding date or anxious about feng shui, the propitious orientation of their house or office.

In the time of Jesus, if any person was sick, or acted in an ‘abnormal’ way, they were said to have an evil spirit. It was natural to think that people with epilepsy, a palsy, or mental illness were the victims of some force that had invaded their bodies. Because of the “unclean” or evil spirit, people seemed to lose control of their speech and movements. The spirit had taken over. Were these evil spirits real? It is difficult to say. Obviously, some would have a simple medical diagnosis today. But one does meet people in some parts of the world who are convinced that there are forms of possession. The point is that they were healed, made whole again, by Jesus and liberated from their affliction.

The evil spirits of our own day
That there are evil forces in our world today is difficult to deny. Some of the appalling sufferings that people are made to endure by the heinous inhuman behaviour of individuals and groups are hard to explain otherwise. And, while we often look on helplessly, somehow we are part of it ourselves.

What is important is that, in the time of Jesus, people really believed in the existence of all kinds of forces. These forces were the source of great and even paralysing fears. What Jesus does is to liberate people from their fears. It was not the evil spirit that was the problem so much as the victim’s fear of that spirit. It is not objective reality that limits our freedom and effectiveness, but the way it is seen by us.

Jesus shows no fear in the face of the spirit in the synagogue:

Be quiet and come out of him!

The man is thrown into convulsions, but he is free. And what is really important is that he feels free.

What are our fears? What spirits are we afraid of? What are the things, the persons, the places which prevent us from doing what we really want to do, from being the person we really want to be? It is important that we identify our fears and that we see them within ourselves and not simply blame others for them. Once we recognise them within ourselves, we can ask Jesus to help us drop them. Let us put ourselves under his authority and he will liberate us.

The people in the synagogue are simply astounded:

What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.

No wonder his name rapidly becomes known all over the countryside (the rural grapevine works faster than any fax or text message!).

Jesus, a man of authority
We can see here how powerfully Mark presents the impact that Jesus makes. His work of salvation has begun. The Kingdom of God is near when he acts like this. People experience the power. But what kind of power is it?

It is the power of authority. The word authority comes from a Latin verb augere, which means to make something increase. Its root can be found in words like ‘authority,’ or ‘author’. Real authority is not just, as we often interpret it, having power over people so that we can make them do what we want them to do. Genuine authority is the ability to ‘en-able’ people, to ’em-power’ them. To enable them to transcend themselves, to grow as persons, to be more effective in the development and use of their innate gifts.

Authority as service
This is the kind of authority which Jesus wields. Jesus did not come to rule and control people. He came, he said:

…not to be served but to serve… (Matt 20:28)

He came, above all, to make people free. So that in their freedom, they could generate all the productive and growth energies within them and be alive with the life of God within them. He freed them from all the ‘evil spirits’ of fear, compulsions, narrow self-centredness, anger, resentment, hostility and violence which prevent people from truly enjoying the experience of being alive:

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
(John 10:10)

How sad it is then that so many people see being faithful to the Christian faith as a burden to be sloughed off so that they can be “free” of oppression and limitation. To what extent is the Church responsible for giving this image which is such a contradiction of the Gospel message?

So, let us all pray today that Jesus, with his growth-inducing authority will be a real source of liberation for us. May he free us from all those spirits which make us deaf, mute, blind and lame in life – and paralysed by fear.

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