Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

January 29, 2012

Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati *



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


The big feasts of Jesus’ early life are now behind us. We have celebrated Christmas; the Magi; the baptism of Jesus; his temptation in the desert; and the calling of his first disciples. It’s now “Ordinary Time”—time to see how he goes about his mission from day to day.


During the coming weeks up to Lent, and then following Easter and Pentecost, our Gospel readings will tell the story in the words and style of a single evangelist; they will be ‘according to Mark.’ In order to appreciate them as one story and not as isolated snippets it can be helpful to step back and take a broader look at the Gospel of Mark. What is distinctive about his presentation? What do we need to be on the lookout for as we listen to these passages?


The first thing we need to think about is that for a couple of decades after the ascension of Jesus his story was being passed along orally, first by the actual eye-witnesses to the events and then by those who heard them. There are no writings, except for letters that Paul writes to various particular communities, and Paul shows no interest in the life of Jesus prior to his passion. For Paul it’s all about the cross and resurrection.


Apparently, new converts to the Jesus movements must have wondered: what was he like? What did he do? How did he live?


So a man known only by his name—“Mark”—pulls together stories that have circulated. He writes a ‘good news’ account, a Gospel. And he has no interest in the story of Bethlehem and Nazareth; his story begins with Jesus going forth in mission. He spills out a series of events one after another in a rush: “then he did this” ‘then this happened.’ His writing carries a sense of energy, much as people tell an exciting story. He shows no interest in connecting the events to particular seasons or times or feasts. (That will change when he comes to the Passion and crucifixion. Then he becomes very focused: “on the day before Passover. “ And as the trial and death draw near he gets down to the hour: “from the sixth hour until the ninth.” One commentary suggests a startling analogy: listening to Mark’s account of the passion is like hearing a TV reporter standing outside a prison gate and describing the minute-by-minute account of an execution: “now he’s eating his last meal;” “the gurney is wheeled into the small room;” etc.)


So in today’s account Mark begins the story of Jesus’ public ministry by presenting him as a teacher. The curious thing is that Mark doesn’t tell us what that teaching is. Later, in the gospels of Matthew and Luke there will be a lot of teaching about what we are to believe or how we are to behave as followers of the Lord. Matthew will take several chapters to relate what we call “the Sermon on the Mount”; Luke has another collection called “The Sermon on the Plain.”


None of that in Mark. Jesus is indeed a teacher, but instead of words the Jesus in Mark’s account teaches by what he does. By his actions. He reveals the One he calls “Father” by his deeds.


So don’t look for a lot of instruction in the coming weeks. We aren’t going to get a lot of lessons, we’re following a person on the move. We experience a missionary interacting with a variety of people in different settings. In Mark’s way of ‘teaching,’ of passing on the Good News, we ‘learn’ only to the extent that we enter into the story. It’s not a matter of grasping words or prescriptions; we are called to be engaged in the interplay itself. We have to be there, identifying with each of the players.


So we take our places in the synagogue in Capernaum on that day.


How did we get there? We’re good Jews and it’s the Sabbath. One like any other; nothing special.


This itinerant preacher gets up to speak. And we are electrified! This is something new. We’ve listened to a lot of speakers but we’ve never heard anyone like this! He’s certainly not like—the scribes!  (Mark writes like Agatha Christie: he throws in this sidebar comment like a clue to tip us off ahead of time to the conflict that will become more and more evident over time: the ‘scribes,’ the functionaries that keep the Temple going, will become the principal players in Jesus’ downfall.)


And then we hear a wild outcry from some fellow in the audience. It’s inappropriate, unfitting. (That’s the meaning of his ‘unclean’ spirit. It’s not about morality, much less sex. The ‘unclean’ was all that was defective or imperfect; deformed, out of place.) We might experience it as the people listening to the president’s State of the Union speech last year did when the congressman shouted out “Liar!”


Jesus doesn’t perform any ritual. He doesn’t touch the man or put spit on his finger; that will come later. Instead, he simply speaks. He tells the unclean spirit to leave. In one translation it is a rebuke; another says “he subdued him.” No matter whether he spoke out loud or quietly, the point is that the disruptive spirit obeys him!


As we sit within the story, Mark is telling us what our appropriate response should be. We are to let ourselves be amazed and awed, like the crowd. Part of our faith journey is to allow ourselves to be disturbed by the question: what is this? What’s going on here? Who is this man? Where does he get this power?


The message, the ‘teaching,’ is: this is someone with power over spirits, over what goes on in the human heart. The scribes—whether those of Jesus’ day or those in our own—haven’t a clue about that kind of power. This is ‘the strong one’ predicted by John the Baptist.


Those who are with us in the synagogue that day don’t fully understand what happened or who he really is; they know only that he speaks and the unclean spirits obey him. (They’re like the parents of the young man born blind later in the Gospel: “we don’t know whether he is of God or not; we know only one thing: that our son was blind and now he can see.”)


They know that their world has changed. And so they go to tell their neighbors. His fame spreads. And that will give rise to the envy of the scribes.


Eventually Mark does, for the first time, tell us what Jesus “teaches.” It’s in Chapter Eight, half-way through his gospel: He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. (8:31)


For now it is enough for us to sit quietly in that synagogue after he has moved on. As we move on into the Eucharist we have to ask: What is this? We are going to be fed by a Lord who has power to drive out all ‘unclean spirits’—the spirits that don’t fit in the kingdom of justice and peace. The spirits of envy and disunity and exclusion; the spirits of small-mindedness and ego; the spirits that put others down and hinder their growth.


We will receive instead the Spirit with a capital “S” who enlarges our own spirits; who empowers us to generosity and welcome and sharing—in response to a Father whose magnanimity and creativity makes us heirs of his kingdom.




* Due to a confusion of schedules the preacher for the Mass was a CPPS brother rather than me! But since I took the time to prepare it, why not inflict it on you, my faithful readers?