Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jan. 31)

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” is the refrain for the responsorial psalm in today’s liturgy. The voice of the Lord speaks to us in many ways. Ultimately, the word of God was spoken through the Word of God, Jesus Christ. He is the means by which the Father calls us to himself.

The past two Sundays the gospel accounts have recalled the call of the first disciples. Jesus invites them to “follow me” in these or similar words. The disciples accept the invitation. As they enter into the relationship with Jesus, as His disciples, they enter into the mystery of God’s plan for humanity, the Kingdom of God.

Following Jesus includes a “listening” to Him. He is the Word of God who has taken flesh as man. The “listening” is associated with obedience. His words are an invitation to life. Sometimes challenging, always rewarding. The readings for today’s liturgy encourage us to be renewed in our “listening” to the One who speaks this word of life.


Moses, in the first reading, speaks of a prophet who will come after him. The Lord tells Moses: “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.” The prophet will speak for God.  The people are called to “listen.” Jesus is the promised one who speaks for the Father.

Psalm 95 is a call to praise God in song and adoration but also to “listen” to His word – to respond to his word with an open heart ready to accept and to live accordingly. Hence the refrain: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The psalm recalls the grumbling of the Israelites at Meribah and Massah. They were complaining to Moses: “Give us water to drink.” Moses asks why they are putting God to a test. They reply: “Why then did you bring us up out of Egypt? To have us die of thirst with our children and livestock?”

The people had grown embittered by life’s struggles. They forgot that they were once slaves in Egypt, that their people were being slain by the Egyptians. They forgot that the Lord heard their cries. They forgot that He was the one who delivered them from the power of Pharaoh. Perhaps the psalmist realizes that it is easy to forget the Lord’s goodness in times of trouble. Not just for the Israelites but for anyone in anytime. So the call is given not to give in to grumbling or complaining but rather to trust and to listen to His word – for He is the “rock of our salvation.”

St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, says: “I should like you to be free of anxieties.” He sets up a contrast between the way of the Lord and the way of the world. The first is seen as a good. Having the desire to please the Lord is a good thing to be pursued. The pressures of life in the world rather than lead one to God can cause anxiety, the type of which is built on fear. This robs the person of life, peace and joy. So Paul encourages us to keep our lives centered on God’s and the things of God (love, mercy, kindness, joy, virtue, etc.)

The Gospel passage recalls Jesus speaking in the synagogue on the sabbath. The people are amazed at Him for he teaches “as one having authority and not as the scribes.” His words have an effect on the listeners. They are uplifted and inspired. Through Him they find God. The amazement they experience is as that of one who encounters the divine. Jesus and His Word is where this encounter takes place. His speaking with authority signifies the authenticity of His words. Jesus will later say: “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life (John 6:63).”  What Jesus offers, the world cannot. He is the One who speaks for God. The power of His word is demonstrated in the healing that occurs after his teaching. A man with an unclean spirit approaches Jesus. Jesus says to that spirit: “Quiet! Come out of him!” Immediately He is obeyed and the man is healed.

Many are intrigued by the words of the unclean spirit when the man approaches Jesus. He says: “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!” The unclean spirit correctly identifies Jesus. Yet Jesus commands silence at this. Why “command the silence?” It should be first noted that this is not the only time in the gospel that such a silence is commanded. Scholarship refers to this theme as the “Messianic Secret.” The consensus thought on this is that Jesus commands the silence so as not to mislead the disciples as to his messiahship. He, indeed is the Messiah, the Christ.

However, the common notion of the time was that the Messiah would be a great and powerful leader who would free Israel from earthly and foreign powers reestablishing the Kingdom of David on earth. This is not what He is about. Rather, he will willingly embrace suffering all the way to death by crucifixion.

The embrace of suffering for the benefit of all is key to understanding the Messiah and His mission. Rather than spring this on the disciples from the outset, a concept that they would react against, Jesus slowly unfolds this mystery throughout the public ministry. He, not the unclean spirits, will be the one who presents this teaching. He will teach, as he does today, in word and deed. The understanding of this teaching will be only grasped when His victory is achieved through the resurrection.

Jesus, the Christ, embraces the human condition all the way through passion, death to resurrection. So for now his identity as Messiah or Christ will remain hidden until the time when the popular understanding of the expected Messiah can be refined by Him who is the Messiah.

Jesus is the Word of God whose words are spirit and life. Our encounter of Him in the Word leads us further along the path to the Kingdom of God which He proclaims. Reading and meditating on the Scriptures is an excellent way to encounter the Messiah and to be touched by the Word. Some ideas for doing this at home can be found at

Today we are invited to be renewed in our listening to God speak through His Word: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”


Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.