Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hearing the Voice of the Ultimate Prophet: The Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the Readings for this Sunday, we are following 1 Corinthians and the Gospel of Mark ad seriatim, so there is less cohesion between the Second Reading and the Gospel than on a high feast day.
Nonetheless, the Readings this week can be linked by the theme of “hearing the voice of the prophet.”

1. The First Reading is a very famous passage from the Book of Deuteronomy that should be familiar to every Catholic student of biblical theology. The context: at the end of his life, Moses is giving his valedictory speech to the people of Israel (which is basically the whole Book of Deuteronomy), and amongst his various warnings and promises, he prophesies that God will one day send the people of Israel a prophet like himself, to whom they will need to listen in order to be saved.

On the basis of this prophecy in Deuteronomy 18, the “Prophet like Moses” became one of the standard anticipated eschatological figures in Judaism, along with the prophet Elijah (based on Malachi 4:5) and the Son of David (based on Ezek 37:24-25 and many other texts). This is necessary background information for understanding what the priests and Levites mean when they ask John the Baptist, “Are you the Prophet?” in John 1:21.  They mean, "Are you the Prophet like Moses of Deuteronomy 18?"  Also, the Samaritans, since they did not accept as canonical anything but the Pentateuch, had no other Messianic expectation than for the “Prophet like Moses.” So when the Samaritan woman at the well says, “I know that the Messiah is coming” (John 4:25), her understanding of the Messiah would have been shaped almost solely in Mosaic terms.

The one catch was, when the “Prophet like Moses” did come, everyone had to listen to him, or else face the judgment of God.
Reading 1: Dt 18:15-20
Moses spoke to all the people, saying:
"A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you
from among your own kin;
to him you shall listen.
This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God, at Horeb
on the day of the assembly, when you said,
'Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.'
And the LORD said to me, 'This was well said.
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin,
and will put my words into his mouth;
he shall tell them all that I command him.
Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name,
I myself will make him answer for it.
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name
an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak,
or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.'"
2. The Psalm ties closely to the First Reading. It urges us to listen to the voice of God—something that the Israelite tribes didn’t want to do. Not only did they not want to hear God’s voice directly (see the First Reading) but time and again they rebelled against God’s Word given to them through Moses (there are nine rebellions recorded in the Book of Numbers). With the coming of Jesus, we have a new chance, a new start, a New Covenant. Let’s listen to the new Prophet like Moses and obey his words while we have the opportunity:
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9
R. (8) If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD;
let us acclaim the rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us bow down in worship;
let us kneel before the LORD who made us.
For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
"Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works."
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
3. I once lived in a Christian community that had many positive features, but unfortunately almost no theology of singleness or celibacy, no use for the religious life, and in fact a contempt for the practice of religious celibacy in the Catholic tradition. One of the results of this attitude was a strong pressure in my former community for everyone to marry, and a feeling of pity for anyone who made it out of the college years without finding a spouse: a kind of sense that the single person could not be happy or was incomplete.

In hindsight I’m surprised that I and my community did not reflect more on Paul’s teaching given to us in the Second Reading, especially since we were so focused on Scripture and especially the writings of Paul. In this passage, Paul points out that singleness is to be encouraged, because it means freedom: a freedom to be fully focused on the Lord. The celibate life should not be construed in terms of restriction (what he can’t do) but in terms of freedom (what he can do because he is available for the Lord). The single Christian is not “incomplete” and doesn’t deserve “pity,” but ought to use his or her freedom from encumbrance to focus more deeply on a life of prayer and service. Such a person is able to hear and respond more quickly and fully to the voice of God, as the previous Psalm urged us:
Reading 2: 1 Cor 7:32-35
Brothers and sisters:
I should like you to be free of anxieties.
An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord,
how he may please the Lord.
But a married man is anxious about the things of the world,
how he may please his wife, and he is divided.
An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord,
so that she may be holy in both body and spirit.
A married woman, on the other hand,
is anxious about the things of the world,
how she may please her husband.
I am telling you this for your own benefit,
not to impose a restraint upon you,
but for the sake of propriety
and adherence to the Lord without distraction.
4. The Gospel continues our journey through Mark. We find that Jesus, viral You Tube videos notwithstanding, does not disdain the practices of “religion,” but participates in the study, prayer, and worship of the local synagogue along with his fellow Jews. His manner of teaching shocks people: he teaches “with authority” unlike the scribes. The scribes were religious scholars (like me, Brant, and Michael : ) who were taught to argue based on detailed arguments and careful citation of texts and older, authoritative teachers. Jesus, on the other hand, taught on the basis of his personal authority, as Prophet and as God.

That Jesus actually did have this authority is demonstrated dramatically when the “unclean spirit” heeds his voice and departs from the possessed man.

First, it is interested that the possessed man was present in the synagogue. It shows us that those under the influence of spirits of evil may be found even in places of worship. Even today, the Church is not free from the activity of persons who are diametrically opposed to her mission, and need to be liberated from the bondage to evil that afflicts them.

Second, we note that the power over the spirits of evil is still exercised by the Church, most dramatically in formal exorcism, but also in the other sacraments, particularly Confession. I have spoken on this on many occasions, but the sacrament of confession has great power for spiritual warfare, and those in spiritual bondage should make frequent recourse to it. The Church’s power over the spirits of evil derives from her bond with her Lord: she is the body of Christ, and she speaks with Christ’s authority. And Christ is the new Prophet like Moses, the definitive spokesman of God, to whom all must listen or else stand before God to give account. 
Gospel: Mk 1:21-28
Then they came to Capernaum,
and on the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.
The people were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.
In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit;
he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are? the Holy One of God!"
Jesus rebuked him and said,
"Quiet! Come out of him!"
The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.
All were amazed and asked one another,
"What is this?
A new teaching with authority.
He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him."
His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.


Nick said...

It ties in with Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man, where the rich man is told that if his brethern won't listen to Moses they won't listen to him either.

phatcatholic said...

So, the teaching of the scribes was based on appeal to authoritative sources instead of being based on their own authority. But isn't that a perfectly good way to teach someone? I ask because I get the impression from the Gospel reading that there was something very underwhelming about how the scribes taught, that their teaching was inadequate to address the needs of the people. This makes me wonder if there was perhaps more to the teaching of the scribes than their appeal to authoritative sources that made Jesus' method of teaching so astonishing. This could be grossly erroneous, but perhaps the culture, being as Hellenized as it was, produced scribes who asked more questions than they actually gave answers ... and when they gave answers, it served only to further enslave the people or lay heavier burdens upon them.

I don't know, I just feel like there has to be something more to explain the people's astonishment at Jesus' way of teaching. In my mind, the fact that the scribes appealed to authoritative sources does not adequately account for that.

Nick said...

The scribes' authority wasn't underwhelming, per se, it was just that they were hypocritical and that Jesus taught the people as if He was God. (Because He is God Himself).

John Bergsma said...

If the Mishnah and other later rabbinic literature is any indication, it was typical of the scribes and rabbis to teach in the name of some older authority: "Rabbi So-and-so said ..." Jesus never does that in his recorded teachings. That was very unusual. The ancient audience would have naturally thought, "Who the heck does this guy think he is? He doesn't quote anyone, he just asserts everything by his own authority. 'You have heard that it was said ... but I say to you' Who the heck does he thing he his? GOD?"

phatcatholic said...

I see. That does help it to make more sense.

JCA said...

very good! Thanks a lot. I learn new things and get inspired whenever I read your blog. Keep the good work up and God bless.

John Bergsma said...

Thanks, JCA!