Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Feb. 1)

Jesus began his public ministry with the proclamation, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” We recently heard these words as the Gospel reading for Mass last Sunday. In a certain sense the words set forth the theme that will resonate throughout the Gospel of Mark. The words provide us with a framework for renewal in this “ordinary time” of the liturgical year.

Immediately after Jesus makes this proclamation he calls his first disciples, and this was also seen in last week’s Gospel passage. As we follow the ministry of Jesus in our Sunday liturgies, we have the opportunity to walk along with Peter, Andrew, James and John as they encounter Jesus and begin to learn about him, his mission and his Gospel.

One of the striking features of Mark’s presentation of the call of the first disciples is the immediacy of their response. “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus says. Mark tells us “then they abandoned their nets and followed him.”

Discipleship demands following. The would-be disciples or students must be with the teacher in order to learn from him. In this case, the disciples learn from Jesus not only in his instructions but by his very life, person and activity. They have to be companions with him so that they can be disciples.

Today the Gospel account continues with Jesus beginning to “teach” in the traditional sense. The evangelist does not recount what Jesus actually said but the reaction from those who heard the teaching. In doing so, he emphasizes something about Jesus and his identity, which will be very important for understanding him and his mission. The people are astonished at his teaching, St. Mark tells us, for “he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”

The authority of Jesus is expressed in multiple ways as will become even more apparent as the Gospel progresses. In this first illustration, the people recognize that he teaches with authority. His words have authority. The people recognize an authenticity to his proclamation and interpretation of the Scriptures. They are moved by his words and recognize the call to obedience that comes naturally when one recognizes an authoritative teaching. Certainly Peter, Andrew, James and John would have had this experience. We already have seen that they responded to his call with immediacy. At the same time, however, we recognize that their understanding of Jesus’ authority and their response to his invitation will develop as they continue to follow him.

Perhaps at this point they are thinking of Jesus as a prophet. In this case they might recall the prophecy of Moses recounted in today’s first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. In that passage, Moses tells the people that the Lord will raise up a prophet after him. The Lord confirms this when he says: “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. Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.”

The teaching of the prophet demands obedience for it is the way to life and its authority comes from the author of life. While the disciples may be thinking along these lines as suggested by their “astonishment” and recognition of Jesus’ authority, there are others who might see Jesus as a false prophet. False prophets were known in Israel. In fact when the Lord speaks of his prophet in the Deuteronomy passage quoted above he follows with these words: “But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.”

Thus the question of Jesus’ identity is being raised from the very beginning of his ministry. Who is Jesus? For the disciples the answer will unfold as they continue to follow him as disciples.

Jesus’ authority is further elaborated while still in the synagogue. There a man with an unclean spirit calls 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.” Jesus responds by rebuking him and says: “Quiet! Come out of him!” As soon as Jesus speaks, the unclean spirit “convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.”

The people in the synagogue respond to Jesus’ actions with the same astonishment and wonder saying: “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” Jesus’ authority is now manifest in both word and deed.

Many people pondering this encounter wonder at Jesus’ command of silence to the unclean spirit. The demon recognizes that Jesus is the “holy One of God.” Prior to this identification the unclean spirit says: “I know who you are.” The statement is true. While at this point the disciples may be able to affirm this, they are certainly unaware of the depth of meaning in this identification.

Jesus demands silence from the unclean spirit, saying, “Quiet.” Most scholars suggest the reason for this is that Jesus does not want to be identified by the common expectations of the messiah. Israel was under Roman rule and occupation. The hopes for a messiah were very much tied with one who might deliver them from foreign dominion. While Jesus is the messiah, his identity cannot be limited by the expectations of that time.

In other words, his messiahship is defined by his Father not by the populace. This is slowly being revealed as the people encounter Jesus and come to know him. In this passage they begin to recognize his authority to teach and the same authority over unclean spirits. There is more to learn but this will only happen as they continue to watch and listen.

Our lives as disciples of Christ are in regular need of renewal. The “repentance” of which Jesus speaks at the opening of the public ministry is an ongoing affair as we seek to follow him in all aspects of our lives. As the Gospel of Mark unfolds in our Sunday liturgies, we have the opportunity to be renewed as we walk with those first disciples of Jesus and come to know him, his mission and the life he offers for and to us.

Taking this opportunity, we might regularly re-read the Markan passages as we approach each Sunday liturgy seeking to know Jesus better so that we can follow Him where He leads.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.