Sunday, January 29, 2012

Year B Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Deut. 18:15-20; Ps 95:1-2.6-9; 1 Cor. 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28

Who is Jesus? I mean you hear about Him all the time, you may even speak about Him yourself once in a while, but do you hear Him in order to know what He is saying to you? Our readings today are about three things: Jesus’ identity, the necessity of hearing Him, culminating with what the implications of hearing Jesus are.

In our first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites that God “will raise up for them a prophet like [Moses] from among their kin, and [God] will put [His] words into [the prophet’s] mouth; [the prophet] shall tell them all that [God] command[s] him” (Deut. 18:18). Moreover, anyone who hears but does not “listen” to this “prophet” will be held to account by God. As we all know, there is a huge difference between hearing and listening.

It is useful to look at an example from Jesus’ ministry in order to clearly see Jesus as the fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy. So, let’s flip ahead several chapters in Mark’s Gospel, to chapter ten, where we read about Jesus engaging in a disputation about marriage with some Pharisees. In order to test Him the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife” (Mark 10:2)? Jesus answered their question in true rabbinical fashion by asking them a question: “What did Moses command you” (Mark 10:3)? Of course, knowing the Law and knowing that Jesus knew the Law, they answer, “Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her” (Mark 10:4). Now notice that there was no question about whether a woman could divorce her husband, such a question would have been unthinkable to observant first century Jews. Nonetheless, Jesus does level the playing field, but does it, as He often did, in an unexpected and surprising way.

Citing Genesis 2:24, the foundational verse of Scripture on marriage, Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Because of the hardness of your hearts [Moses] wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh.’” (Mark 10:5b-8a). He concludes His teaching emphatically, thereby demonstrating that He is the prophet about whom Moses spoke and giving us an example of what we read about Him in our Gospel today- “for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22b) - by saying, “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mark 10:9).

This encounter, along with many others in the Gospels, shows us who Jesus is. He is no mere interpreter of the Law. While He is like Moses insofar as He teaches what God commands, He is greater because He teaches everything God commands without compromise. In other words, Jesus is the Law-giver and the One who not only teaches us, but shows us how to fulfill the Law. Looking ahead to the twelfth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that you fulfill God’s law by loving God “with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and [by loving] your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:33). He says that doing this is “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33).

If nothing else I have said this far helps you know who Jesus is, consider the words of the unclean spirit in the synagogue: “I know who you are - the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). His casting out of the unclean spirit coupled with His teaching that day caused those who witnessed it to ask, “What is this?” Only to answer their own question: “A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him” (Mark 1:27). The implication is clear: if even the unclean spirits recognize and obey Him, we should too.

It is necessary to mention here the role of the Church’s teaching authority, what we call the magisterium, as it relates to hearing and obeying Jesus. Since this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, let’s turn to what the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum:
[T]he task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit… (par. 10).
This might sound pretty scary, even somewhat self-defeating because of the challenge it presents to us, which is why the second thing our readings for today teach us (i.e., the necessity of listening to Jesus) is so important. Like the man with the unclean spirit and, looking forward a little farther in the first chapter of Mark, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and the leper, in our weakness the Lord meets our needs. He meets our needs as we acknowledge our weaknesses, our inability, even our lack of desire to love God and our neighbor. Jesus us wants us not so much to need Him as to want Him, to desire Him.

Passionate desire for the Lord is assumed by St. Paul in the passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians that is our second reading. In this passage Paul writes about obediently serving the Lord without distraction or anxiety. Without a doubt, those who choose celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God, that is, to serve the Lord with an undivided heart, choose an excellent thing indeed. However, Paul’s primary point is not, “Don’t get married,” a bit of advice likely given in the expectation of the Lord’s imminent return, which he does not offer in order “to impose a restraint” (1 Cor. 7:35), but as an exhortation for all to live in obedience to Jesus Christ.

The implications of listening to Jesus, as opposed to only hearing Him, are to love Him and to place your trust in Him, meaning to obediently follow Him. So, my dear friends, despite how you feel, you can be certain that in the proclamation of the Scriptures during this liturgy you have heard God’s voice. The question is are you listening? If you are, I urge you “harden not your hearts.”