Sunday, February 1, 2015

Christ the Teacher

Each year the Scripture passages selected for the brief span of Ordinary Time that begins after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord focus on the theme of discipleship. It's as if the Church is saying, "We've celebrated the Incarnation and everything has changed. Now, let's spend time really understanding Who it is that has come among us." And so, we heard stories about disciples being called, wonders and signs being performed, and accounts of healings and exorcisms, all aimed at helping us understand who Jesus really is.

In the Gospel proclaimed on the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear Mark's very brief account of Jesus casting an unclean spirit out of a man. But if we really pay attention to the way the story is told, we see that the point isn't the exorcism, but more about Jesus the teacher and especially about the source of his authority.

In his book, Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology Father Michael Casey, O.C.S.O., writes:
Mark's first account of a miracle shows the effect of Jesus' struggle with Satan in the wilderness. From this solitary contest, Jesus emerges as one with power to expel demons and restore those troubled by them to the "cleanness" of full humanity. The demons, for their part, recognize in Jesus "the holy one of God" whose power they could not withstand. This title should astonish us. In the Old Testament, holiness is the prerogative of God... Because Jesus belongs to the sphere of God, his mission is not dependent on human reception... Thus the words of the demon turn this encounter into more than a routine exorcism. It becomes the raw confrontation of holiness and uncleanness, in which the will of "the holy one of God" prevails.

In other words, when the onlookers are astounded at Jesus "new" teachings, they aren't awed by the novelty of his words. Instead, it is his authority that they find overwhelming: "What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him" (Mark 1:27, emphasis added).

In the Readings for this Sunday, the Church pairs this Gospel passage with a brief selection from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy (18:15-20). In that reading, the People of Israel have prayed to receive a prophet like Moses and God promises to raise up another such leader. As Barbara Reid, O.P., observes, "They want one from among their midst who is deeply prayerful and close to God, who will know and convey God's desires and who can lead the people out of their enslavement and their desert desolation. Moses assures them that their prayer will be heard" (from Abiding Word, Year B).

Although those early listeners of Jesus were quick to respond with amazement and enthusiasm, perhaps seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of that Deuteronomy-promise, many quickly turned against him as he began to upset the status quo. Bu, by calling for conversion and change, Jesus was fulfilling his prophetic mission and giving the people exactly what their prayer had asked: "To ask for such a prophet is not only to ask for a leader who will confront unjust forces external to the faith community but also that we ourselves be confronted by the prophet's searing ability to see the truth. It is to expose ourselves to the invitation to be purified and transformed, to have any 'demons' within us to be tamed and cast out" (Reid).

As I was reflecting on these passages, I thought of many friends--all Christians--for whom Jesus is little more than a righteous teacher who offered some vague moral teachings and who was kind to those in need... or, a nice guy. And yet, when we read the Gospels we are confronted with a Jesus who was, in many ways, continuing the work of John the Baptist, the fiery desert preacher who called the people to conversion, denouncing sin and hypocrisy.

One of the most challenging tasks Christians face today is allowing Jesus to truly be "the holy one of God," capable of transforming hearts and forgiving sins, and who also demands that those who would call themselves his followers live like him. To be a student of Jesus "the Teacher" isn't simply a matter of remembering verses from Scripture or Sunday school Bible stories. It means to live as a disciple, engaging the world as Jesus did and seeing everything around us through his eyes. This includes confronting our inner demons. Being a disciple isn't a matter of instruction, it is about salvation--our own and that of the world: "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts" (Responsorial Psalm-Psalm 95).

A Prayer for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time +
Almighty God, Light from light,
who commands the universe and all that is made,
your Word is the power that makes whole what is broken,
the force of good, and the food of peace.
Teach us now as you taught in the synagogue.
Heal us now so that in all that we say and do,
the freedom we have in you may be for others, too;
in Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
(from Feasting on the Word Worship Companion:
Liturgies for Year B, Volume 1)

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