The Bible (opened)
Sermon - Year B

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“You will be condemned and go straight to hell!” was essentially the message directed at my good friend and fellow priest years ago at a Pentecostal-style prayer meeting in the USA, to which he’d been invited. I’d say it was a bit harsh, considering he was a man of great personal integrity and a highly regarded leader whose contribution to pastoral ministry earned him well-deserved recognition and respect. A few minutes later, at the very same prayer meeting, someone else approached him and told him that he was “God’s beloved son and chosen vessel to carry his word to the ends of the world” or something to that effect. If I were him, I’d be quite confused to hear two mutually contradictory messages in such a short space of time, even more so as both messengers claimed to speak in the name of God as his prophets, moved by the Holy Spirit.

“I will raise up a prophet like yourself for them from their own brothers; I will put my words into his mouth, and he shall tell them all I command him. The man who does not listen to my words that he speaks in my name shall be held answerable to me for it.” This pledge, made to Moses by God (as we heard in the first reading), puts a lot of pressure on us if we take it seriously – as we should. As illustrated by the opening story of my friend, self-declared or self-appointed prophets of God might cause a great deal of confusion or damage. Over the years, I’ve come across a good number of individuals who claimed to have had divine revelations and, consequently, God-given authority. They often stirred up some trouble in their local communities. These days, quite frequently, we can read, or hear, or see on secular media platforms reports about various religious figures opposing the pope, or specific religious or liturgical practices, or elements of teaching, and so on. I know firsthand that it can cause a lot of confusion among the faithful. Whether a figure of authority or a relatively insignificant person in a local community, such self-declared prophets usually employ harsh and apocalyptic language of condemnation, end-of-civilization and the like.

It’s nothing new, really. “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Before we look a bit closer at today’s gospel reading, we must clarify a couple of things. Until relatively recent developments in psychology and psychiatry, most mental conditions, as we call them now, were often treated as demonic possessions of various degrees. So, when we hear in today’s gospel that “there was a man possessed by an unclean spirit and it shouted,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that in the literal sense; quite likely, the individual in question could have had some mental condition, showing up as a religious obsession. Another important aspect in the context of this story is that St Mark, in his gospel, portrayed Jesus as a powerful messenger from God. Dealing easily with demons perfectly suited such a narrative. Now, with those two things clarified, let’s look more closely at the incident in the synagogue.

It was Jesus’ very first teaching recorded by St Mark – this is important as it set the scene. We don’t know what triggered the man in question’s angry reaction as the evangelist didn’t give us any specific content of Jesus’ speech or sermon, except a couple of hints that can be summarised: Jesus’ teaching was different from that of the scribes, with authority and new. Let’s briefly look at each element. The scribes most likely focused on the academic aspect of the Holy Scriptures in their sermons, which resembled lectures. It is an important part of reading the Bible, but it often leaves most listeners cold as it hardly offers any practical application of such knowledge. Here’s where Jesus’ “teaching with authority” comes to the fore: the Word of God must be heard and acted upon. In St Matthew’s gospel, Jesus used this image to illustrate it: “Everyone who hears and acts on my words will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” (7:24-25) That speech of his was summed up in familiar sounding words: “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” (7:28-29) The last aspect of Jesus’ teaching we have to consider was described as “new”.

It’s a common assumption that Jesus’ teaching totally opposed the Judaism of his time. Yet even a relatively superficial reading of the gospels shows that there wasn’t much difference between him and the Pharisees, the dominant religious force in Jewish society of the time, regarding religious dogma or morality. One aspect that set them apart and often led to verbal clashes was Jesus’ pastoral approach. That was the “new” bit in his teaching. The Pharisees’ collective name meant “set apart” or “separated” from the sinful, immoral world around them. Consequently, they avoided any contact with those considered impure or with public sinners – in their minds, that was the right attitude. So, they were scandalised and outraged to learn that Jesus not only talked to such lowlife but accepted their invitations into their homes and shared meals with them. As illustrated by too many examples to recall here, such a pastoral approach dragged many out of their sinful or immoral lives and back to the fold. Instead of the ever narrower and smaller community of the perfect, as envisaged by the Pharisees, Jesus built a community of imperfect but repentant sinners. This different pastoral approach was beautifully described in the First Letter of St John as a rule for the newly formed Christian communities: “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in such a person. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go because the darkness has brought on blindness.” (2:7-11) This is the way to know whether someone is from God or only claims to be so.