Sunday, January 25, 2009

Gospel Commentary: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Feb 1, 2009)

This Sunday’s reading from Mark 1:21-28 contains some puzzling elements. Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, in St. Mark’s Gospel by declaring, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” The evidence of the “in-breaking” of the reign of God in his kingdom was seen in Jesus’ ministry of proclamation which was accompanied by “signs and wonders” Act 4:30; 5:12; 14:3. Miraculous healings, raising the dead and especially the authority to cast out demons are seen as evidence that Jesus was the expected ‘end times’ messenger and was acting with divine authority. As the Catechism reminds us;

“The coming of God's kingdom means the defeat of Satan's: "If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." Jesus' exorcisms free some individuals from the domination of demons. They anticipate Jesus' great victory over "the ruler of this world". The kingdom of God will be definitively established through Christ's cross: "God reigned from the wood." (CCC 550)

St. Mark summarizes typical events in Jesus’ ministry noting that,

[He ] healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. And whenever the unclean spirits beheld him, they fell down before him and cried out, "You are the Son of God." And he strictly ordered them not to make him known (Mark 3:10-12).

This is precisely what happens in the incident in the synagogue in Capernaum recorded in this Sunday’s reading. Jesus was teaching with authority in the synagogue and a man with an unclean spirit 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” (Mark 1:24). We are puzzled by the apparent confession by a demon of Jesus’ identity as the ‘Holy One of God.’ Demons would seem to be rather unreliable witnesses.

In Mark’s Gospel we can distinguish between the views of the characters in the narrative, and the extra knowledge given to the readers of the Gospel by St. Mark. The readers have already been alerted by Mark that this is “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1) and they have heard the voice of God the Father declaring at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). We are left with no doubt that Jesus is indeed ‘Holy One of God’ who is God’s Son. Even if the people in the narrative who heard the demon declare that Jesus was ‘Holy One of God’ were initially puzzled, Mark has made sure that his readers know the truth. Yet even those who witness the exorcism in the narrative are filled with wonder and puzzlement at Jesus’ authority.

Based on Old Testament allusions, the first part of the demonized man’s response is seen as a challenge while the second part is a defiant declaration which recognizes that although the final judgment for demons has not yet taken place it most certainly will. In effect he is saying “You cannot destroy us until the appointed time, and it is not here yet, so leave us alone!” The demonized man then cries out, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). These words are either an attempt to control Jesus by exact knowledge of his name following first century magical practices, or more likely an attempt to confuse the crowd with regard to Jesus’ true identity.

The term ‘Holy One of God’ is rare in the Bible, but here in Mark’s Gospel it is surely to be connected with Jesus’ own status as the divine Son of God (Mark 1:1, 1:11) which Mark has already pointed out. There are also Old Testament parallels for this term with the prophets Elisha (2 Kings 4:9) and Samuel (Judges 13:7; 16:17). Both of these prophets are called holy and did wondrous works under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus does not engage in dialogue but rebukes the demon. The original Greek is likely a ‘commanding word’ of exorcism, “’Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him” (Mark 1:25-26).

St. Augustine reflected on this passage noting that the title ‘Holy One of God’ used here by the demon is identical to Peter’s confession in St. John’s Gospel at John 6:69. St. Augustine asks, “So what is the difference? Peter spoke in love, but the demons in fear. . . So tell us how faith is to be defined, if even devils can believe and tremble? Only the faith that works by love is faith” (Sermon 90).

The connection between faith and love leads us to consider a parallel with how the Fathers of Second Vatican Council encouraged us to participate in the Liturgy. Our active participation needs to be both internal and external (SC 19). It needs to be full, intelligent, and active (SC 14). In a word it needs to be done in love. We need to approach the Liturgy in the “the right frame of mind” and “cooperating with grace from on high” (SC 11). As St Augustine noted, “Have faith together with love, because you can’t have love without faith” (Sermon 90). Let us agree together to “lift up our hearts” to the Lord in the fullness of love.

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