Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
January 31, 2021 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 | Psalm 95:1-2;6-7;9
I Corinthians 7:32-35 | Mark 1:21-28
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
When I reviewed today’s Second Reading to prepare for this Sunday, I was appalled. The way I read it at first, Saint Paul tells us that you can do a better job serving God if you are not married. My instant reaction was that Saint Paul is really out to lunch on this issue. The fact is, I am a better priest because I am married.
Deacon Sharon is not a luxury for me. She is a necessity. Intellectual and artistic people like me need someone who lives in and is in touch with, the real world. Not only is she a necessity for me, but she is a necessity for Saint Cecilia’s as well. Her people skills have been instrumental in growing and maintaining the parish. That is why she is in charge of the non-musical lay ministries here. She will be a substantial factor in rebuilding our congregation once this horrible pandemic ends.
If I had followed my first instinct on the Second Reading, I would not be doing my job as a priest. I’d be making the same mistake as our conservative sisters and brothers, who read scripture literally but devoid of context. I can’t emphasize enough how context is important in reading scripture. While scripture contains eternal truths, the specifics of how those troops apply are contextual. Scripture is God’s message to particular people in a particular time and place, but its meaning is eternal.
Today’s Second Reading should be read in the context of Palestine in the First Century A-D. Back then, marriage automatically meant children. The birth control we know today did not exist. So it was entirely reasonable for Saint Paul to suggest that celibate individuals would have more time and energy to put into ministry.
Also important is Paul’s estachological perspective. “Estachological” means what happens at the end of time as we know it. The early Christians, Paul included, thought that Jesus would soon return. We can find that in First Thessalonians, believed to be the earliest book of the New Testament compiled in about fifty A-D. Our conservative evangelical sisters and brothers prattle on about how the world teaches you to put ultimate value in your earthly relationships to derive your identity, joy, and significance, but that when you know that Jesus is returning, you will look for ultimate value and significance not in your marriage but in Jesus Christ, and you will live for Him, not your spouse. It’s important to note, however, that Paul’s view of marriage changed over time.
In the Epistle to the Ephesians, which many scholars think was composed not by Paul himself but by his followers, marriage is portrayed in a positive light, and we are implored to love and honor our spouses.
However, the words of Saint Paul also raise another issue, that of authority. In a portion of Chapter Seven of First Corinthians, Saint Paul tells us that his teachings on marriage did not come from God but were his own. That statement by Paul is a precursor to what scholars call the Christocentric Hermeneutic. That’s a fancy way of saying we should filter all scripture through a Jesus lens. It means comparing all of the scripture outside the Four canonical Gospels with what Jesus said and did, and then interpreting the rest of the Bible with reference to the teachings of Jesus. What that does is establish, in no uncertain terms, the supreme authority of Jesus as a teacher. Put another way, we are Christians, not Paulians!
The theme of today’s First Reading and today’s Gospel is the teaching authority of Jesus. Moses taught the people of Israel with authority, and as part of his teaching, Moses prefigured Jesus, who was yet to come. What does it mean to “prefigure? “Prefigurement” appears quite often in the Bible. It’s also called “types” and “antitypes.” The “type” is a person, place, thing, or concept in the Old Testament that seemingly predicts a similar person, place, thing or concept appearing as a counterpart in the New Testament. The “type” prefigures the “anti-type.” Moses was the type and Jesus the antitype.
In the words of today’s First Reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses said,
“And the LORD said to me, ‘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.’”
In proclaiming those words, Moses foresaw that someone from among the Jewish people would follow in his footsteps in proclaiming God’s word. Fast forward several thousand years, and we have the Jewish man Jesus, Son of God, and Word of God Incarnate. Today’s Gospel demonstrates he was exactly that. Only one with divine powers can communicate with and cast out demons.
The calling of the demon out of the man at Capernaum was at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Mark. It was the first time, in that Gospel, that Jesus showed his audience that he was no ordinary Rabbi. Rather than argue the finer points of the Torah like the Pharisees, Jesus proved His authority by doing something. The people listening to him recognized that. According to today’s Gospel,
“The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”
And when Jesus commanded the unclean spirit came out of a man in the synagogue who was possessed by demons, and the spirit obeyed and left the man, today’s Gospel tells us,
“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.’”
Unlike the Pharisees who whiled away their days as a debating society, Jesus “taught as one having authority.” By “taught with authority” I don’t mean authoritarian teachers. Authoritarian individuals are bad people per se. By “taught with authority,” I mean a teacher with unusual talent as such. In today’s Gospel, the unclean spirit itself recognized the teaching talent of Jesus to speak understandably and motivate even the most recalcitrant beings. So effective was the authority of Jesus as a teacher that even the demon he was attempting to cast out recognized the authority and power of Jesus. Today’s Gospel has the demon responding to Jesus with,
“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!”
Whereupon Jesus commanded the demon,
“’Quiet! Come out of him!’”
And after crying loudly and convulsing, the demon left the man. That demon recognized the teaching authority of Jesus, who was born to save us by his teaching.
That Jesus was a teacher of extraordinary ability is beyond debate. His teaching is constantly read by Christians and non-Christians alike. A teacher with extraordinary ability is one who is able to communicate with unusual clarity and exemplify success in motivating their students to absorb the substance of their teaching.
My tutor for ministerial studies was Father James Farris. He assisted me in developing an understanding of scripture, theology, and liturgy. His teaching became part of who I am as a priest in preaching and presiding at liturgies.
At Western State University, where I earned my law degree, Professors Susan Keller, Leslie Dery, Glenn Koppel, and Michael Hunter Schwartz explained the law and motivated me to have the material they taught become part of the attorney I was.
The point is, teachers are born, not made. Teaching is a natural talent. It is not something one learns. Teachers did not become teachers on their own. Teachers are unique ontological beings in and of themselves. That their role as teachers is who they are as people. In other words, God created them for that exact purpose. Teachers have a distinct teleology. That means they define themselves by the purpose they serve. They define what a teacher is by teaching. They cannot do that unless they have inborn teaching talent.
That teachers are born as such and cannot be made into such either by self-will or the will of others is illustrated by the fact that even if you take a teacher out of the classroom, they remain teachers in how they relate to the rest of the world. Deacon Sharon has both an undergraduate and graduate degree in education. She taught elementary school for ten years. After that, she worked in various sales capacities in Corporate America for over thirty years. But she never stopped being a teacher. Being married to her, I receive daily lessons in human relations, domestic chores, personal habits, and last, but not least, gender equality. She’s really serious about the last one; I bought an electronic scale for the kitchen to be sure she gets the same amount of food as I do.
More important, however, teaching gives Sharon the ultimate in happiness. Whenever she is teaching something to someone, I can see happiness in her face and hear the happiness in her voice. If school systems compensated teachers as much or more than Sharon earned while working in Corporate America, she may have continued to teach.
Unfortunately, however, the average teaching salary in California for a teacher with a Master’s degree is about sixty-six thousand dollars a year, while the average salary for someone with a Masters in Business Administration is one-hundred-six thousand dollars a year. And in the United States, entertainers and professional athletes earn millions of dollars annually.
Something is clearly wrong with that picture. Teachers in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries earn much more money than they do in the United States. In teacher compensation, the U-S ranks just above Mexico, which is not known as a wealthy country. So, whenever I hear of teachers striking for higher pay, they have my support.
Why? Teachers are the most important of all professionals. Without teachers, the other professions would not exist. Every professional of every kind had one or more teachers in their lives who taught them something that enabled them to be what they are, beginning from childhood. At birth, a person is not a fully formed being; she or he only has the capacity to learn. Therefore, everyone needs teachers. Throughout the history of humanity, there have been different environments in which children and young people receive teachings from their elders: families, schools, universities, synagogues, churches, newspapers, television, and nowadays, the Internet. Without at least some level of education, you are unable to function in the secular world.
Similarly, one cannot be a Christian without a teacher. One must acquire information about Jesus in some manner in order to make the requisite commitment to be his disciple. The primary teacher for Christians is Jesus himself. Jesus, however, was a teacher in a very singular way, a teacher like no other in his day. The teaching style of Jesus was that of a prophet in the style of Moses, the prototype of the prophetic tradition in the mind of the people of Israel, the master, and maker of the Jewish people.
Jesus does not compete with secular teachers, but Jesus is a teacher whose teachings bestow a soul on all other teaching. The teaching of Jesus has affected and will continue to affect human history, but it also looks to the future. Jesus does not present himself or appear in the Gospels as a rival to the religious teachers of the Jewish people, but as a teacher fulfilling all the religious teachings of the past with the power of God to make them effective in the lives of human beings and in the service of the Kingdom of God.
The expulsion of the unclean spirit demonstrated that Jesus was more than a person of words. Jesus was a person of action. The power of God present within him fused word with action. Jesus practiced what he taught.
This week ought to be “Respect for teachers” week. Our attitudes towards teaching and learning must change. What we learn in school and from other teachers we carry with us throughout our lives. Teaching, by its very nature, is structured as a dialogue. One can accept, reject or discuss a teaching, but one has to dialogue with it before doing that. But as to Christian teaching, there can be no answer but a welcome. Since Jesus is the Son of God, it comes with a fair amount of surprise. God is a mystery operating in mysterious ways. With God, we never know what comes next.
The teachings of Jesus, both in his days and now, are new teachings, never heard from any other teacher both in his day and now. Replacing vengeance with love was controversial then, and controversial now. All we need do is tune into the nightly news and hear from crime victims and their families insisting on severe punishment for those who perpetrate crimes. That kind of reaction, though understandable, cries out for us to welcome the teachings of Jesus into our hearts with an open mind. The teachings of Jesus give us a very small glimpse into the mystery that is God, who is a mystery far beyond human understanding.
Replacing the rampant materialism that characterizes the United States with respectful listening to the teaching of Jesus gives us the seal of victory over important things, like the meaning of life, the reality beyond this world, and the love of God and neighbor as the essence of our existence. Such as radical welcome gives a place in our souls for God’s presence in our lives that we cannot conceal, but which leads us to a discipleship where we spread the teaching we have learned, because “we cannot keep quiet about what we have seen and heard.”
But why, even when the words of Jesus are full of life and are life-giving, are they not heard and welcomed? Like us, Jesus, too, faced rejection from people who found his teachings “hard”. Jesus, the Living Word of God, should be heard in freedom and set people free.
But some choose to exercise their free will by rejecting the source of freedom, which is God. That is most unfortunate. Your freedom to be who God made you comes from God alone, not from human laws or customs. Jesus will set you free by calling out the demons within you.
The teachings of Jesus are the Living Word of God. Those teachings are like a seed that sometimes falls on the ground that is hard, shallow, and full of weeds. Let us ask God to grant us grace to cleanse and cultivate the field, so that humanity, including those listening to us online, our absent parishioners and their families, will accept the Jesus as the Living Word of God Incarnate, and that through Jesus, their hearts and their works may bear abundant fruits. Jesus was, is, and always will be, a powerful teacher. AMEN.