Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Dt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28
In last Sunday’s gospel the evangelist, Mark, tells us the first part of Jesus’ mission: “Repent!” Jesus said. In other words, have a change of heart. A change of heart is a change in what affects us. Then he said, “Believe in the gospel.” So, the first part of his mission is to call us to put our faith in the gospel. Today he gives us the second part of his mission. It is about removing the obstacles to being affected by God’s word.
Today’s gospel tells us, “…He teaches as one having authority…he even commands unclean spirits and they obey him.” The second part of His mission is that he is to drive out demons. Evagrius of Ponticus listed the eight demons that affect us: avarice, gluttony, sadness, and so on culminating with Pride. They affect us; they taunt us with our human limitations. They plague us with fears and self-doubts that we can’t just think our way out of. Some days it seems like these demons chase you down and beat you up! Like the powerless man in the gospel, we experience the unclean spirit as foreign, as being in a holy place on a holy day where it ought not be. Driving out these demons would be an impressive proof of the authority we seek.
We seek authority when we can no longer make sense of our suffering. We look for something to put our faith in; to set our hearts on. The secular approach to suffering is to “get over it.” The Christian approach is to find something more important than it. The suffering over which Jesus has authority is that caused by the unclean spirits of a disordered sense of importance.
We came to the monastery not to avoid our demons; we came here to face them directly. (We may not have known this when we came here, but the wisdom of monastic’s through the ages—including our seniors today—affirm this truth.) When Jesus says “Repent,” he means to renounce the despair that results from our futile attempts to “get over it.” When he says “Believe in the gospel,” he is saying, “Let my gospel affect you; let it replace the despair with faith in my words and my works.” What affects us motivates us. Let his gospel be more important than our demons. He is re-ordering our sense of importance, of what is good; of what has value. When someone speaks with authority, we know they will affect our sense of what is important, of what matters most.
“Importance” is a viewpoint and a source of motivation. The first viewpoint, the one for which we don’t particularly need Jesus, is that of the personally satisfying. If someone compliments us or we eat something tasty it is agreeable and pleasant. It gets its importance from its effect on us, from the personal satisfaction it gives us.
The second viewpoint on importance is that which has value in itself, independently of its effect on us or if we are even capable of appreciating it. It has intrinsic value. It is not up to an arbitrary decision we might make or an accidental mood we might be in. Once discovered, we feel obligated to make an adequate response to it. The gospel of Jesus Christ about the Father and our relationship to Him is of such value.
To center one’s life on the merely satisfying is called a “lifestyle.” To live toward enduring value, to live toward the “important-in-itself” is a “way of life.” Jesus is calling us to a way of life.
The ability to grasp values, to affirm them, and to respond to them is the very foundation of the Christian way of life in general and of the monastic way of life in particular. St. Benedict, with his emphasis on humility, calls this “Reverence.”
Reverence is an attitude we take toward the world when its goodness-in-itself affects us in the light of the gospel. It acknowledges there is something greater than self that obliges us to make an adequate response. That response is one of submission to the thing as it is, not as it can be merely useful to us for pleasure or status. Reverence is essentially a contemplative attitude of listening and allowing the object of our attention to touch us, to move us.
Reverence is the only proper response to the mission of Jesus Christ. The despair we renounce when we answer His call to repent is replaced by reverence for one “who teaches with authority,” and drives out our demons. The demons are not driven out for our personal comfort. Indeed, given that we are here to face them, we may still feel their presence. But by His “teaching with authority” they will not dictate our conduct. They are expelled so that we may be free to revere our neighbor and “free to worship the Father all the days of our life.”
You see, what we reverence we prefer to self; what we worship we prefer to everything.
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Jer 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Cor 13:4-13; Lk 4:21-30 ]
Edgar Allan Poe begins one of his suspense stories with this foreboding line: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured on insult I vowed revenge.”1 The terrible end of Fortunato is foreshadowed in this dramatic beginning. A nobleman tells of the night he took his revenge by luring the unsuspecting Fortunato into the wine cellars under his palazzo to sample a rare and valuable wine. As they sample wine along the way through the cellars, Fortunato becomes suitably intoxicated. When they come to a narrow crypt in the wine cellars the avenger quickly chains Fortunato to the wall and begins closing up the narrow space with stones until it is tightly sealed. He ignores the poor man's cries for mercy. Sadly, the nobleman got away with murder.
It's a shocking and vengeful story of one man's inhumanity to another. We shudder at this capacity for cruelty, knowing that through the window of fiction we are looking at the terrible reality of evil in our world. It's not what we want to hear on a bright Sunday morning when we come together to pray. But today's story about Jesus at Nazareth is equally shocking. Only our familiarity with the story dulls our sense of horror at what happened right here at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. The violence of his neighbors foreshadows the terrible cruelty of Jesus' crucifixion. The last week of his life is already previewed on this first day of his preaching at Nazareth. The Palm Sunday shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David” are present here in the synagogue of his hometown. At first all speak well and wonder at the gracious words that proceed from his mouth, until he pulls aside a veil and exposes the evil within them. At once they rise up with cries of wrath and rush upon Jesus to throw him down headlong from the brow of the precipice at Nazareth. But they didn't get away with murder, not yet.
Fortunato's insults incited a terrible revenge. But in Jesus, the people of Nazareth meet a Physician who lances their sores not to insult them but to heal them, and they react with murderous intent, unable to bear the fuller's soap that would wash them clean, or the refiner's fire that would purify them like silver and gold. We shudder at this foreboding story that will end with Jesus buried in a cave. But thank goodness, the death of Jesus was not the end of his story. Unlike Fortunato who remained entombed in the narrow crypt, Jesus will leave the cave of his burial on that first Easter day, triumphant over death.And here at Nazareth, Jesus foreshadows his resurrection and ascension by passing through the midst of them, and leaving them to ponder the mystery of who he really is.
If Edgar Allan Poe had written the ending of the story about Jesus, we might expect him to devise a great act of retaliation by Jesus crushing sinners underfoot with impunity. But Jesus came to bring mercy: glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. He came not to do harm but to heal, not to destroy but to save, not to take revenge but to conquer by love, as Abraham Lincoln understood so well.
From his earliest days in politics, Lincoln had an enemy, Edwin Stanton, who continually treated him with contempt. Stanton told newspaper reporters that Lincoln was a “low cunning clown” and “the original gorilla.” He said it was ridiculous for explorers to search for gorillas “when they could easily find one in Springfield, Illinois.” Lincoln never responded to these insults; he never retaliated in the least. And when, as President, he needed a Secretary of War, he chose Edwin Stanton. His friends asked why. Lincoln replied, “Because he is the best man for the job.” Years later, when an assassin's bullet struck down the President in Ford's theater, Lincoln was carried to the Peterson house across the street. Stanton came, and looking down upon the silent, rugged face of his dead President, he said through tears, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.” Lincoln destroyed his enemy by making him his friend with patient, long-suffering, non-vengeful love.2
St. Bernard expresses it so well in his treatise On Loving God when he writes, “Love seeks no cause beyond itself… I love because I love; I love in order that I may love.”3 In Jesus our thousand injuries and insults against God are wiped away by love. He offers us the gift of that most rare and valuable wine, his own Blood, not to lure us into a trap, but to lure us into heaven. And we have come here today to receive this cup with grateful hearts, to taste how sweet and forgiving the Lord is who calls us to share in the wide expanse of his infinite divinity.