Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Zeph 2:3, 3:12-13; 1 Cor 1:26-31; Mt 5:1-12a
A successful, nationally acclaimed comedian being interviewed recently talked about his early career as a comic: At first, he said, I thought I wanted to be Danny Kaye, you know, a traditional sort of comedian, loved by everybody as a guy who just enjoys being silly. But what I really was inside was an outlaw and a rebel. As a kid I got kicked out of three different schools; I got kicked out of the church choir, I got kicked out of summer camp, the boy scouts, and later the air force. I was smoking pot at age thirteen, I broke into cars and into stores. I found myself again and again swimming against the tide of what was expected of me but I wasn’t really in touch with why I was doing that. I didn’t know who I was, and was trying to live someone else’s life. It was the freedom movement of the sixties that allowed me at last to be myself. For me it was liberation.
This story follows a familiar pattern: A sincere, individual, full of vital and creative energy feels constrained by society’s expectations—especially certain moral prescriptions which he feels prevent him from being who he really is—until one day, he is able to free himself from that rigid morality, and starts making choices many of us would consider questionable or clearly immoral, but which he experiences as “liberating”. The “bind” such a person experiences is actually quite understandable. If right living, if to be a moral person, means dutifully fulfilling a list of moral obligations imposed by external authority, then it seems a person has one of two choices in life: either you conform yourself to the burden of those moral obligations placed upon you by others, and give up happiness, (the first part of the comedian’s life), or you pursue happiness and abandon morality, (the second part of his life).
But, we must ask ourselves, “Where did this man get the idea that being a moral person, and a happy person, consists in fulfilling a set of moral obligations imposed on you from the outside?” Is that what Jesus taught? The Sermon on the Mount we just heard proclaimed has, since the earliest days of the church, been commended to the faithful as a complete program for the moral life of a Christian, as the key to understanding the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, the key to understanding all the moral prescriptions Jesus ever uttered, and the key to understanding every moral affirmation or prohibition in Catholic teaching, and yet, in the sermon he just delivered, you did not hear Jesus impose on anyone a single moral obligation.
Now, some people say that he did. Actually, these teachings of Jesus are often ignored on the mistaken pretext that they impose on us moral obligations, obligations which, in fact, most of us find quite impossible to fulfill. But then, (it is said), they must represent some sort of “ideal” and, as such, are not really binding. But the sermon you just heard, does not impose a single moral obligation on anyone. Jesus’ sermon, is not comprised of moral prescriptions but of eight “Beatitudes”. What does “beatitudes” mean? A “beatitude” brothers and sisters, is a blessing. Jesus offers here: eight blessings. To be “blessed” simply means to be happy: truly, deeply, and lastingly happy. Jesus is saying, do you want to be happy? Let me tell you how you may come to the fullness of happiness in this life and the next. “Happy is the person who is poor in spirit. Happy is the meek person. Happy is the person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Happy is the peacemaker.” Is there here a single moral obligation imposed on anyone? What is Jesus doing? He is making a direct appeal to your desire to be happy. Do you want to be happy? Of course you do. We all want to be happy. That is because you and I were created by God who is THE Good, you are created in His image, which means there is in you a natural, deep, abiding, and compelling attraction to the Good. Jesus is saying: “Do you desire the good? Blessed are you! Blessed are you! Now, imagine the fullness of joy in attaining to that Perfect Good which is the fulfillment of your deepest desires! Here’s how you do that.”
Brothers and sisters, sin and its influence in our lives, is something each of us struggles with every day. But, on this day of the Lord when the church celebrates Christ’s resurrection and triumph over sin, let us give thanks to God that we are wonderfully, fearfully made in his own image, that, coming from God who is THE Good, we are naturally drawn to all that is good, and by God’s grace, we can attain to the fullness of happiness. By God’s grace, we can return to where we came from and be what God made us in the beginning, when looking at what He had made He saw that we were good and pronounced us “very good.”
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Jer 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Cor 13:4-13; Lk 4:21-30]
When Flannery O'Connor was asked why she wrote novels about bizarre people and events. she replied, “In a deaf world you have to shout.” Sometimes grace has to break through our defenses by attacking us, like the people of Nazareth who wanted to see miracles, but instead heard revelation about the hardness of their hearts.
Jesus was giving them the best of his graces, not miracles to heal their bodies, but divine revelation to heal their souls. He tries to shock his neighbors and the friends he grew up with by proclaiming that a pagan widow from Sidon and a leprous general from Syria were better prepared to receive God's healing power than they were.
St. Bernard writes that, “Our heavenly Physician does not always treat our moral sores with [soothing] ointment. They may be too infected for that. He may need to cauterize or lance them.” Soren Kierkegaard, the wise Danish Lutheran religious philosopher, noted that many great minds of his century devoted themselves to making people's lives easier by inventing labor-saving machines and electronic devices. But he would dedicate himself to making peoples lives more difficult, he would be a preacher. And Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred for his opposition to Hitler, writes that, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, communion without confession, and absolution without personal conversion, [that is] grace without the cross.”
So, sometimes Jesus not only knocks on our door, he knocks us down, not out of meanness but out of love, revealing our sinfulness to prepare the way for his mercy. The people of Nazareth reacted with pride, rejection and anger. The saints react with humility, gratitude and love.
The closer God came to St. Joan of Arc the more humble she became. When the Court that condemned her to death as a heretic asked if she was in the state of grace, she replied: “If I am not, may God put me there; if I am, may God keep me there.” Responding to grace did not come cheaply to this girl who was tied to a stake and burned to death at the age of nineteen. But she knew that the greatest gift of Jesus would not be a miracle to save her body from death, but the revelation of Christ's love, his death on the cross, that gave her the courage to die as a martyr.
We also have the grace of revelation at our fingertips in the Bible. Let us take up the Scriptures so they may take hold of us. Let us fill the treasure chests of our hearts by memorizing the Word of God, to become a Bible. Then the Word of God will bubble up within our hearts and chase away our afflicting thoughts and depressions. When we come to know ourselves and embrace God's mercy, we will begin to experience the sweetness of God's love for us.
Memory is a gift. Memorization is the hard work of using that gift. And remembrance is the grace filled presence of the Word of God in our hearts drawing us to himself, giving us his love forever. That's what Jesus wanted the people of Nazareth to hear, and that's what they missed.
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Deut 18:15-20; I Cor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28.]
Several years ago, the child psychologist, Bruno Bettleheim, wrote a book called The Uses of Enchantment, claiming that fairy tales are a good way to introduce children to the struggles of real life. The Harry Potter stories show that there is a great market for magic and enchantment. Walt Disney has an “Enchanted Kingdom.” New Mexico calls itself the “Land of Enchantment.” We will take our enchantment in small doses, but it gets in the way of a practical and pragmatic life. No one wants to stand before a judge and say he was speeding because he was under a spell or had been enchanted. This would be stretching the meaning of DUI.
In fact, the whole course of culture and history since the 1500's has become more and more secularized, defined by the domination of analytic rationalism and the scientific method. This whole movement has been described as the “disenchantment of the world.” The gods have been evicted. Objectivity, science, and technology have displaced the former reliance on spiritualism, superstition, placating hidden forces or deities. Nature, life, the world are out there for our exploration and control. What you see is what you get — if you can get there first.
It can seem a little hard to integrate today's gospel of exorcism and talking spirits into our contemporary world view. We pass over miracles and exorcisms as reports of the gullible who were unaware of the power of autosuggestion. We focus on the “meat” of the story and leave the rest.
But then we miss Mark's message (the real gospel). His overture gives the key to his whole gospel: the coming of Jesus Christ is a direct confrontation with the powers of destruction, hostility, madness that have put the whole of the world on a path to futility. This is the confrontation that is replayed and replayed throughout Gospel—culminating in his crucifixion which was paradoxically the final defeat of sin and death. Paper over this moment, smother it with rationalization, and you will find yourself rooting for the wrong side in this conflict. The very first line of the Gospel is that this is the “beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Clear enough?
The coming of the Holy One into the world deconstructs, displaces, replaces the systems of control that bound the children of God and the world—to which they belong—to cycles of frustration and disintegration. The world was under a spell and didn't realize it. For the world order that was in place (and still dominates in many ways), the coming of the Holy One is an intrusion. A discontinuity has been inserted in the taken for granted patterns. Things are now off balance, uncanny, unsettled.
There are several marks of the intrusion of the holy into the established patterns. First, Jesus breaks the rules, he crosses over the boundaries. The unclean spirit is shocked that the Holy One would enter into its domain. “What have you to do with us?” There are clear legal demarcations between the clean and the unclean. Jesus repeatedly breaks these rules in his ministry. What happens to those boundaries which protect us from defilement, from contagion of the unclean and profane.? What if you can't infallibly locate the sacred? What if it is mobile? How can you be sure? You can't read this gospel without moving from inside to outside, sacred to profane, from us to them.
The second mark of this intrusion of the Holy is the defensiveness it immediately arouses. “What have you to do with us? What are you doing here? This is our territory! Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are.” It is safer to dismiss this contact with the holy. This holiness stuff is none of my business. That's for somebody else. Not my job. Who knows where it will lead? The evil spirit “knows.” Knowing the name of the exorcist gives the demon power over him. It maintains distance and control. It is used as power and possession. It is not a path into relationship, into acceptance, reverence or submission. It becomes knowledge of no use. It refuses to step out of mental clarity and security into the darkness where spiritual energies work.
The evil spirit is remarkably articulate. But it uses words to shield and defend its position. Words are like arrows, tongues a sharpened sword, the poison of vipers is on its lips. This is not communication intended to lower barriers, but to raise them. It is dialogue without the willingness to change. It reflects the anxiety of trying to defend an impossible position. Paul says, “I should like you to be free from all anxieties.” But anxiety rises from dividedness (the work of the “splitter”, the diabolos). The particular anxiety of our age rises from the experience of competitive individualism which seeks to justify itself by what it knows, has, and can do in competition and superiority to all others. It plays only on its “strengths” and this simply intensifies the anxiety. It is a form of being bewitched, under a spell, enchanted.
Why then does Jesus command this spirit to be silent? Silence is the space that the unclean spirit fears . There it loses the lust to dominate and control, to be the center of attention and superiority. It loses that false identity and importance that all our anxieties promise to give us. In silence, we know who we are. All those senses taken up with serving the satisfaction of our anxieties are are attuned to the presence of the Holy One. It is being at one with ourselves, undivided.
Each of us has experienced an exorcism. The rite of Christian baptism includes a prayer of exorcism and a call to renounce the allures of the unclean spirit. Each Christian is anointed with the chrism of salvation “as Christ was anointed priest, prophet and king, so may you live as a member of his body.” Then can follow the prayer of Ephphetha, be thou opened: “I sign your ears with the sign of the cross: may you hear the words of Christ. I sign your eyes with the sign of the cross: may you see the works of Christ. I sign your lips with the sign of the cross: may you speak as Christ would speak.”
Maybe this prayer of our baptism has yet to find its full realization in our lives. Maybe we are still under a spell.
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Zeph 2:3, 3:12-13; 1 Cor 1:26-31; Mt 5:1-12a ]
“Is there anyone who is truly happy?” In a Peanuts comic strip Lucy asks Charlie Brown if he has ever known someone who was truly happy. Before she could finish speaking, Snoopy comes dancing across the scene, his nose high in the air and his face radiant with inner joy. After he dances and bounces his way through two more frames, Lucy, the skeptic, rephrases her question: “Have you ever known anyone who was truly happy and still in their right mind?”
In 1759 Samuel Johnson, one of England’s most memorable authors and moralists, wrote a short story about a wealthy Prince of Abyssinia. He becomes so dissatisfied with his luxurious, but unhappy existence, that he ventures out into the world in search of people who are altogether completely happy. His search goes unrewarded, for he can’t find even one, and he returns home saddened and disillusioned.
A search for people who are truly unhappy, would be easier. For every year nearly one million people around the world commit suicide, many of them teenagers and young adults. And about ten times that many attempt it. Is happiness impossible? Is it an illusion?
Jesus begins his first great discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, his own “inaugural address,” with a solemn declaration affirming that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for his sake, are truly, divinely happy, blessed in this life and completely happy in the life to come, for they are children of God, heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Later, the skeptics of his day will say of Jesus, “He is out of his mind!”. And for a while they seem to be right, for if the happiness of the Beatitudes belongs to anyone, wouldn’t it be Jesus? But he did not look happy or blessed hanging on the cross. If that is happiness, no wonder the Prince of Abyssinia couldn’t find even one happy person. He didn’t know what to look for.
So Jesus tells us. Just as the president’s state-of-the-union address is presented with much pomp and ceremony, so also this foundational, inaugural address of Jesus is presented with great solemnity. St. Matthew writes, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, he opened his mouth and began to teach.” A mountain is the traditional meeting place with God. But this is not a lofty Himalayan mountain, nor a tall Rocky Mountain peak, nor even a modest Appalachian highland. This lowly mountain in Galilee is just a grassy hillside sloping upward from the shoreline of the lake which is 600 feet below sea level. Do not be deceived by the humility of this mountain, which is the lowest and smallest of all the mountains on earth, for it is not the landscape that makes it great, but the Word of God proclaimed on it today.
When Jesus sits down, he takes the posture of teachers in his times as a sign to his disciples that he is about to speak. They fall silent to hear his every word. Then the Greek text says, “[Jesus] opened his mouth and taught them.” Of course! How else could he speak if his mouth was closed? But this expression has a deeper meaning. It is an idiom for opening his heart. In previous times God spoke to us through the prophets. Now, today, he speaks to us through his Son; he opens his heart to invite us in, for there is true happiness.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed, fortunate, happy! This is not a quiet affirmation, a simple declaration. It is an exclamation, a proclamation of extreme importance for the whole world, for every generation, that those who are poor in spirit possess happiness, the divine happiness that belongs to God, that is in the heart of Jesus. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, now Br. Simeon of St. Joseph’s Abbey, reminds us that the word spirit literally means breath.1 He writes that poverty of spirit is Jesus’ way of saying when you so desire God that you are out of breath, out of spirit, panting for the one who alone can satisfy your heart, then you are truly happy! William Barclay rephrases it this way, “O the sheer happiness of knowing Jesus Christ; O the bliss of being a Christian!”2 As the Psalmist prays: “O Lord, you are my God, for you I long! My body pines for you like a dry weary land without water”. And as King Solomon writes, “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” . Or, St. Augustine teaches, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The restless hearts of those who seek God are already happy hearts, blessed hearts, because Jesus has opened his heart to receive them. The kingdom of heaven is there in his heart that was pierced and opened on the Cross. With him we can patiently bear every affliction, every adversity, with a peaceful and happy heart, as we enter more deeper into the heart of Jesus and the mystery of his intercessory suffering. “For those who love God all things work together for good” .
John Cassian, that great teacher of early Egyptian monastic spirituality, writes3 that our ultimate goal is the kingdom of heaven, and our proximate goal is purity of heart: that is, to desire one thing, to long for it, to hunger and thirst for it every day, to pant for it with every breath the way we need air to breath.
But after two thousand years of Christianity, illusions about happiness still abound. One author writes, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” And a billionaire tells us, “Money can’t buy happiness, but it helps.” Voltaire, the French philosopher of the Enlightenment, teaches that, “Pleasure is the object, duty and goal of all rational creatures.” And someone else writes, “All I want is a warm bed, a kind word and unlimited power.” Are they out of their minds?
Jesus opened his heart and said, “Blessed, truly happy, completely happy are the poor in spirit, who hunger, thirst, and want God like the air they breathe, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We are not out of our minds, we are just in love with God.
1. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1996, 188.
2. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of St. Matthew, commentary on ch. 5:3.
3. John Cassian, The Conferences, First Conference: On the goal and the end of the monk, Paulist Press, NY, 1997, 43.
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Jer 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Cor 13:4-13; Lk 4:21-30]
This morning at Lauds, we chanted the verse that is at the very center of the bible. It is from Psalm 117: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord, than to trust in men.” Today, Jesus shows us why that is. He says, “Amen I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place.” Why is that so? The Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes, tells us that Jesus Christ came to reveal humanity to itself and to show us our exalted vocation. Luke’s gospel gets straight to this point with today’s story.
The first reading from Jeremiah gives us the background. A prophet is distinguished not by his message, but by his being an exception, being isolated apart from his community. In the bible, one is qualified for the title of Prophet only if he is rejected. The social rejection, although painful, is important because it gives the prophet the victims privileged way of knowing. He knows things that others cannot know because he stands outside of the “in-group.” He’s there not out of aloofness, but because that’s where they want him. “In-groups” operate by exclusion. His “way” of knowing is that, by not “following the crowd,” he can see the fear that is calmed by “safety in numbers.” This is the Jesus that Luke is showing us today. Like the prophets he is rejected because of his message and he has a message because he is rejected. His ministry is beginning with rejection; it will end with rejection.
Jesus introduces himself by showing his victim’s privileged way of knowing. He reminds his fellow Nazarene’s that both the widow of Sidon and the Syrian leper were non-Israelite outsiders, yet two of Israel’s greatest prophets favored them in ways they never favored Israelites…perhaps because the Israelites of the time didn’t think they needed any favors. Jesus, too, has come to favor the outsiders: the blind, the poor, the captives, because they will listen. They will listen because they know their neediness and they identify with another who understands the victim’s privileged way of knowing.
When Jesus reminds them that outsiders listen better something very significant happens. The people form a crowd, a mob, and try to kill him. This will begin his formation as a scapegoat and it will reveal us to ourselves. Jesus is revealing humanity’s longstanding custom that someone must pay for their unrest, for their pride by which they cannot bring themselves to ask for help. There must be a victim whose exclusion or destruction would restore their well-being. This is what the mob was doing when they rushed him to the brow of the hill. Unlike the crowd, Jesus the Victim knew exactly what was going on, where he was going, what was going to happen to him and why. Eventually he would be crucified. From our perspective it would be to fulfill this requirement of men; from God’s perspective, to expose it and overcome it. It would be overcome by Divine Love in the midst of innocent suffering.
Twice in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he tells us that if one has the gift of prophecy, of the victim’s privileged way of knowing, and has not love, he has nothing. So rejected and broken-hearted, his love already refused, he is called to love those who refuse it. This would seem to be grounds for despair.
Human love cannot do this; it cannot give refused love. The human heart needs reciprocity. Apart from this it tends to bitterness, resentment, and revenge. Under those circumstances one can only love with Divine Love. The gift of Divine Love converts despair to dread. Because culture forms us in rivalry and exclusion, the conversion is never complete; we wander awkwardly between dread and despair.
Recall Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The difference between dread and despair is that dread is willing to remain open to further defeat. This is because the dread-filled heart is also open to being amazed by the unexpected. In its depths it still admires something greater than self. St. Paul tells us what this love looks like.
Love is patient. Real patience is not simply the power to endure the unpleasant. It is the power to remain open-minded inside anguish, the power to postpone indefinitely a judgment about where one is headed even if one seems headed into an abyss.
Love is not self-important. Being pompous is despair’s effort at avoiding shame. Dread entails humility and allows one to be the vulnerable self he is instead of avoiding it. Humility is not a virtue one possesses because of an accomplishment, but because of a fall. Far from seeing humility as an achievement, the dread-filled heart knows it has done the best it can to avoid it!
Love endures and rejoices in the truth. Ordinary life is run by the will to control with the aim of avoiding the upsetting. Failure to do this successfully results in despair. Love renounces this will to control in favor of receptivity. The one who has been rejected has the privileged knowledge that love must be waited upon. The dread-filled heart is always surprised when it shows up! It receives gratefully and passes it on. The victim’s privileged knowledge is the truth that despite all our efforts, we are not in control of our lives. We need help.
So Christ has revealed us to ourselves. Now he shows us our exalted vocation: it is to accept the mind of the victim and to live from it. Along with St. Paul, the gospel of Luke this year will show us what this is. It is first of all empathy. In empathy we take our own hurtful experiences and use them to seek the good of others rather than exclude them. When Jesus heals the paralytic, the lame, and the blind we will learn the attitudes of the Sermon on the Plain. We will empathize, too, with Levi and Zechariah, the tax collectors. We will learn that the answer is not to victimize the victimizers.
The most important element of the Mind of the Victim to which we are called is shown us at the Triduum: it is complete self-donation. This is what Jesus did at his passion. He gave himself entirely to humanity’s self-made plan for restoring a sense of well-being. And when they carried it out everything he did and taught from today’s gospel to his death was brought to nothing…unless… it is all viewed from the point of his resurrection. It is because of the resurrection and the sending of the Spirit of the Victim that the victim’s way of knowing, the Truth, is accessible to us.
The gospel is the first story to be told from the perspective of the victim rather than the persecutors. And it was after the resurrection that we were commanded to take this privileged way of knowing and share it with the crowd. For the crowd to face its illusion it must be assured that forgiveness is possible. We must show them that God is a forgiving victim.
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Deut 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. Have a change of heart. That means set your heart on something that lasts. 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 placing our faith in God’s word.
In today’s gospel two verses are very important to Mark’s acquainting us with Jesus’ mission. In verse Mark writes, “…He teaches as one having authority, not like the scribes…” To the people of his time this meant that he didn’t say, “Thus says the Lord…” as the prophets did, or “This is the teaching of…” and name a respected teacher as the scribes did. Today we might say that if someone spoke or wrote on his own authority that he didn’t use footnotes. He would not use phrases like “research shows…”, “scientists have discovered…”, or “experts say…” He would speak on his own authority and we would look for some evidence that he knew what he was talking about. We have to decide whether to place our faith in him.
Mark establishes Jesus’ authority for us when he describes his baptism as a seal of approval and an equipping with the Holy Spirit. His testing in the wilderness showed that when it comes to suffering he walked what he talked.
Then verse 27 gets more to the point. It gives us the second part of his mission: “This is a new teaching with authority; he even commands unclean spirits and they obey him.” The second part is that he is to drive out demons. They taunt us with our human limitations. This is the proof we seek. This is a man who knows how to deal with demons ( 1:12-13).
We look for 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 suffering over which Jesus has authority is that caused by our unclean spirits.
A spirit is a mood, temperament, or attitude. It is a power by which we know, desire, decide and act. In Jesus’ time the idea of unclean spirits helped explain the will in us that resists obeying God. It morally paralyzes us. Its faith is in something else. It was identifiable by the person’s resistance to obeying the law. An unclean spirit can know, decide, and act, but it cannot love. When Jesus drives out unclean spirits or demons he is driving out what is in us that is opposed to God. Thus, when he drives out that spirit the person is made righteous.
Here is where two important points are to be noticed:
1) We, who we think ought to be superior to these spirits, are nothing more than sufferers of them. The righteousness is given by Jesus and received by us. It is not self-achieved by therapy or “thinking straight.” Nor is it achieved by intimidating others into accepting one’s life style. Jesus does not make us righteous by changing reality to suit desire; he changes desire to suit the reality of participating in God’s creation.
2) The troublesome, paralyzing mood is driven out by Jesus’ holiness. Mark contrasts the unclean spirit with the Holy Spirit Jesus received at his baptism.
His holiness was given at baptism, tested in the wilderness. It was during the temptations in the wilderness that Jesus wrestled with his own demons; his faith was tried. He met the test with wisdom. This is important for us. Without wisdom we may inadequately perceive our trials which will cause us to fail the test of faith. A tested faith is one that learns patience and endures. And what was that wisdom? It was that in the time of trial Jesus showed that his life was about the Father, not himself. That is wisdom; that is holiness.
So this leaves us faced with the key question of today’s gospel: who or what is our authority? In what do we place our faith, particularly when facing our demons or unclean spirits? Faith is taking a position, taking a stand trustfully on the ground of someone’s word.
Before a decision we must make a judgment. The whole question of authority puts us in a position of discerning whether there is anything greater than self. In a tough situation that calls for practical action that is not too hard to determine: for a health problem a doctor is greater; for a stopped up sink a plumber is greater. But they’re only greater in that problematic situation. We can muster up sufficient humility to admit that. Our ego is spared.
But what about an authority for living? On this question we must judge between living a life based on the practical or one based on the meaningful. Is it better to be smart or to be good?
We look to authority when we can no longer make sense of our suffering. We can no longer make sense of our suffering when the consequences of our actions come at us faster than we can lower our standards. Lowering our standards is the way of secular culture. It is settling for less in the name of being practical. It is thought to be smart. Indeed we proudly claim to be “thinking outside the box.” However, in basing our lives on “smart” we become keenly aware that we are smarter than some and not as smart as others.
Jesus came to liberate us from the secular cultures unclean spirit of comparison. Comparison is the mother of Pride. As a result of comparing ourselves to others we let in the demon of sadness or anxiety if we are less, or that of arrogance if we are more. With either of these we cannot love. We put our faith in possessions, appearance and exciting experiences. Jesus calls us not to renounce the practical, but to move beyond it to the noble. We do this by putting on the mind of Christ. What is the “mind of Christ?”
It is the union of mind and heart around One Thing. It is taking a stand on what matter most. It is whole-hearted preference for the Father shown through trust and obedience. That decision identifies us with others who have taken the same stand. Those are the Apostle’s. It gives us a sense of belonging. That is the Church.
The Church is the authority that can make sense of our suffering. It does this because it teaches us a story that is the truth and the story is lived out in a community of faith. Its sacraments strengthen us to live a way of life that is noble.
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Jer 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Cor 13:4-13; Lk 4:21-30 ]
“Love is patient and kind, … not arrogant or rude, … it bears all things, endures all things”. Before St. Paul learned this kind of love he persecuted Christians, striking fear wherever he went. Then one day on his way to Damascus, like the proud, unsinkable Titanic heading full speed toward a giant iceberg, Saul crashed against a rock in the middle of the road that flattened him to the ground. The rock was Christ. When St. Paul describes his experience he does not call it a conversion. He calls it an apocalypse , a revelation. He already loved God dearly. But he needed a revelation that it is Jesus he is persecuting, that Jesus is God, and that he needs grace to know himself, to be forgiven and saved.
In a short story titled “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor writes about a self-righteous woman named Ruby. She is the bossy wife of a hog farmer, her enormous ego matching her wide girth. Ruby is sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. From the lofty vantage point of her superiority she sizes up everyone’s social standing. There’s the scowling college girl sitting across from her reading a thick blue book titled Human Development, and there’s a gum chewing mother, who is clearly white-trash, with her dirty six year old child in a soiled blue romper sprawled across the sofa, and there’s a stylish lady next to her who looks quite pleasant. Looking at the dirty little kid, Ruby huffs haughtily and says to the stylish lady, “My hogs are cleaner than some children around here.” After she judges everyone by the quality of their shoes, the face of Mary Grace, the college student, turns red from internal rage over the drift of Ruby’s derogatory remarks. Feeling good about herself, Ruby says out loud, “Thank you, Jesus, for everything…” She saw the big blue book coming at her just before it struck above her left eye, followed by the raw, howling voice of Mary Grace shouting, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.” That “revelation” shattered Ruby’s self-complacency and threw her into angry confusion about her state of grace. It became the catalyst for a remarkable change of heart. Later, back on the farm, in the red glow of a sunset, Ruby has a vision of a reversed social order. She sees the white-trash, the crazy people, and the unclean rumbling toward heaven ahead of respectable people like herself. Her shocked face reveals Ruby’s realization that she needs grace to be forgiven and saved even more than all the others.
When Flannery O’Connor was asked why she wrote novels about such bizarre people and events she replied, “In a deaf world you have to shout,” and maybe throw things. Sometimes grace has to break through our strong defenses by attacking us, like Saul the persecutor being knocked to the ground on his journey to arrest Christians, and like the people of Nazareth who were self-righteous and self-centered. They wanted miracles, not revelation about their hardness of heart and the reversed social order of those who are the people of God.
After Jesus fasted forty days in the desert he began to work great miracles, changing water into wine at Cana, healing Simon’s mother-in-law and many others at Capernaum, casting out demons wherever he went. His fame spread throughout the land and he was praised far and wide. The kids who played with Jesus during childhood, the women who admired the craftsmanship of Joseph’s son, the men who prayed with Jesus in Nazareth’s synagogue were amazed that a local boy was making a name for himself by miracles and signs. “Welcome home, kid! Nice going. Do it here in your hometown. Imagine Jesus, Joseph’s boy, doing all those mighty works. Let’s see what he can do here.”
In St. Luke’s gospel and in the Book of Acts Jesus gives the best grace to his own hometown and to Saul the persecutor, not miracles that come and go, but divine revelation with the gift of love that endures forever. At Nazareth he said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,”. It was his inaugural address, and they were the first to hear the good news that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophecies, just as Saul was the last apostle to get hit over the head with that same revelation. It was amazing and shocking. The people of Nazareth wanted miracles not this revelation. They were motivated by the first step of pride, self-righteousness and curiosity, not by the first step of humility, repentance and a change of heart. So Jesus throws the book at them, proclaiming that a pagan widow at Sidon and a leprous Syrian general were better prepared to receive God’s healing grace than the people of Israel. The psalmist writes, “If a good man strikes or reproves me it is kindness, but let the oil of the wicked not anoint my head,” . Revelation of the bad news about ourselves, warthogs from hell, prepares us to receive the good news of Jesus, who comes with love to save us. Like Saul of Tarsus, the people of Nazareth had to be knocked down before they could see straight.
St. Bernard teaches that, “Our heavenly Physician does not always treat our moral sores with [soothing] ointment. They may be too infected for that. He may need to cauterize or lance them.“1 Soren Kierkegaard, the wise Danish Lutheran religious philosopher, noted that many great minds of his century devoted themselves to making people’s lives easier by inventing labor-saving machines and electronic devices. But he would dedicate himself to making peoples lives more difficult, he would become a preacher. And Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred for his opposition to Hitler, writes that, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, communion without confession, and absolution without personal confession, … grace without the cross.“2
So Jesus picks a fight, he gives offense, he not only knocks on our door, sometimes he knocks us down, not out of meanness like the misguided teenage college student who tells Ruby to go to hell, but out of love, exposing our sinfulness to prepare the way for repentance and mercy. Costly discipleship begins with revelation about ourselves and the sins we hold so dear and are so quick to deny or excuse.
Another teenage girl, St. Joan of Arc, knew that her visions and voices from heaven were no guarantee of holiness. She was inspired to unite France to fight against the English forces of occupation. But the closer God came to her, the more she was conscious of her own failings and the harder she fought against them. When the Court that condemned her to death as a heretic asked if she was in the state of grace, the Maid of Orleans replied: “If I am not, God put me there; if I am, God keep me there.“3 Revelation taught her humility. Grace did not come cheaply to this girl who was tied to a stake and burned to death at the age of nineteen. Ruby, Saul, the people of Nazareth, and Joan of Arc all have something in common: a revelation that was costly, leading them to pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
But why wait to be hit over the head? Take up the Scriptures so they may take hold of you. Fill the treasure chest of your heart by memorizing the Word of God. Become a bible. Then the Word of God will bubble up within your heart and lift you up. You will come to know yourself and God’s mercy. Your love will grow strong and you will see God face to face.
Memory is a gift, a talent. Memorization is the hard work of using that gift. And remembrance is the grace filled presence of the Word of God, revelation, in your heart, drawing you to himself, giving you love.
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Deut 18:15-20; 1 Cor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28]
The story is told of a group of children arriving one morning for school and being unable to enter the building because of a heavy snowfall the night before. As students began to arrive, the school custodian was hard at work shoveling snow off the front steps and as one bus after another pulled up and unloaded, the crowd of children waiting to get in was getting bigger and bigger, and they were getting cold. One of the children was in a wheelchair. This young boy, inching his wheelchair through the snow, toward the custodian, reached him at last and said, “Excuse me sircould I ask you to please shovel the snow off the wheelchair ramp beside the steps?” The custodian replied a little testily: “I intend to shovel the ramp, kid. Let me finish the steps and I’ll be right with you.” “But sir,” the boy persisted, “if you would just shovel off the rampthen, we could all go in!”
The two voices heard speaking in this story have been in conversation with one another for centuries. The custodian spoke like the scribes; those official guardians of the social order in every age. The boy in the wheelchair spoke with authority and not like the scribes. What the little boy pointed out to the older man was, in itself, rather obviousso why do we find his words so evocative?
Everybody knows ramps are made for people who are handicapped. What the custodian and many of us forget and have to be reminded of from time to time, is that we are all handicapped. “But sir, if you would just shovel off the ramp, then we could all go in.” When a person speaks from a heartfelt love and concern for the handicapped, that person speaks for everyone, and becomes in that moment, prophet and father to us all, even if he happens to be only twelve years old.
I wonder what your reaction might be if at this moment, right in the middle of my homily, a man arrived in the back of the church and, addressing the homilist, began shouting at the top of his voice: “What do you want with me father? Have you come to destroy me?” I suspect most of you would act immediately to protect yourself and your children from this crazy man. One or two of you might even call the police and have the obnoxious person taken away to jail.
Jesus, one day, was teaching in the synagogue and was interrupted suddenly by a man, evidently a lunatic, who began shouting at him: “What do you want with me Jesushave you come to destroy me? You are the Holy one of God!” Jesus answers him, but, and this is interesting, he seems to be speaking to someone else: “Be quiet,” he says, “and come out of that man.” Jesus recognizes instantly the presence of evil and in the same instant distinguishes between the presence of eviland a man; a poor man suffering a humiliating mental illness. Loving the man; stirred by a tender compassion for him, Jesus rebukes the demon in the man, and tells the demon: “Come out of there, and leave him alone.”
The synagogue where this incident took place was full of seemingly healthy devout Jews and their families. With the appearance of the lunatic, Jesus could have decided that the welfare and security of these healthy people was his number one priority. He could have said: “First, I will take measures to insure the safety, comfort and happiness of the more fortunate healthy people in the room, and when they have been provided for, turn my attention to that crazy guy. He does just the opposite. Jesus instinctively directs all his attention, energy, and solicitude toward the most wretched, most afflicted person in the room. But all the people in the synagogue that day are weak and afflicted; all are beset by demons and in bondage to sin. Most of them have forgotten this, so that, when a quite visibly afflicted man appears in their midst, he seems alien and frightening. By loving, standing with, cultivating solidarity and friendship with this madman, Jesus is actually befriending everyone present, and the entire human race. It is precisely as friend of the whole human race that Jesus is able to speak as teacher, prophet and King, with the voice of authority; an authority confirmed at once by the spectacle of demons fleeing in terror before him.
Today, we fortunate citizens of the United States of America, hear the voices of the poor and afflicted addressing us from many directions: “Excuse mewe are hungry; we are homeless; without health care, or education or even acknowledgement of our human dignity . . .” In response to which, our leaders are often heard to reply: “We intend to assist you. Let us first take measures to protect ourselves: our borders, our economy, our lifestyle, our cherished freedoms . . . and when the most fortunate people in the world have been thus provided for, then, with the time and energy and resources left overwe will attend to the misery of you poor.
When leadership speaks with this voice, it requires a lot of stagecraft, image handling, and manipulation of media, to make the speaker sound convincing and authoritative. It is because he does not speak with authority. There is another voice sounding in the world today that speaks with authority and not like the scribes. This voice is saying very simply: “Sir, if you would only give first consideration to those who are most wretched in the world and attend to them first; if you would only clear a way for the poor, the very gates of Paradise would be thrown open to usand we could all go in.”
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Zeph 2:3, 3:12-13; 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Mt. 5:1-12a]
In Francois Mauriac’s novel “Woman of the Pharisees,”1 the title character, Brigitte Pian, is scorned, hated, and reviled. She loves to think of herself as living the beatitude of the persecuted: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” She thinks, “I am hated because I stand against the ways of the world.” But in actuality, she is hated because she is hateable. She meddles in the affairs of others. She is selfish with her goods. Her outside is very pious, but inside she is full of envy, jealousy, greed and hurt feelings. She is la pharisienne, the woman Pharisee , a master in the art of self-deception.
When she tries to prevent the marriage of her housemaid, Octavia, to Monsieur Puybaraud, the tutor of her stepson, she is told very bluntly that it is no business of hers. Francois Mauriac describes her reaction: “Madame Brigitte forgave the hand that held the weapon. She always behaved like this when people told her she had committed some injustice. Instead of admitting her fault … she turned the other cheek, protesting that it was well she should be so misunderstood and vilified. In this way she added another link to the armor of perfection in which she went clad from head to foot. If on such occasions her interlocutor was driven to speak angry words, this gave her a feeling of still greater excellence at the bar of her own conscience,”.
Secure in one of the beatitudes, she sought evidence for others, like poverty of spirit. Mauriac writes, “There had been a time when she was worried by the spiritual aridity that marked her relations with God; but she had read somewhere that it is the beginners on whom the tangible marks of graces [of consolation] are showered to set them upon the right path. The kind of sensitiveness that afflicted her was … a sign that she had long ago emerged from those lower regions of the spiritual life where fervor is usually suspect. In this way her frigid soul was led on to glory in its own lack of warmth,”.
Her conscience, however, gave her no peace. Brigitte identifies the torments of her conscience as a case of scruples until her stepson, speaking frankly, tells her that the source of her suffering might not be from scruples but from remorse for real sins. Stealing some of her craftiness he urges her to seek absolution in confession. He says, “It will be hard, of course, but by so much the more will you acquire merit.” At the word merit she lifted her head. He continues, “It would be beyond the strength of most people, but [not] you…” She straightened up still more.
Brigitte thinks that by confessing she might acquire even more beatitudes: like the blessedness of those who mourn for their sins, and of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for purity of heart. She reflects that it is God’s way to turn even our sins to His own purposes for our good. So, she attached great importance to her faults when she made her confession. The priest, who knew her well, tells her not to substitute the illusion that she is a person well advanced along the way of perfection, for another no less [conceited] illusion, that she is a most notable sinner,.
We also probably need to worry less about whether the world hates us for embracing Christ than to ask whether perhaps we are a bit too much like the Woman of the Pharisees who suffered more from the capital sins than from the eight beatitudes.
The Eucharist is meant to make our inside and outside more truly Christian, more in harmony with each other, so that one day before our death and rising, we shall like Jesus, become worthy of the world’s rejection and experience what it really means to live in both the suffering and happiness of the beatitudes.