Edward R. Murrow in his recording “I Can Hear It Now” which presents excerpts of Winston Churchill’s war speeches introduces the quotes saying, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, a spearhead of hope for Britain and the world.”
Churchill was a great orator and captivated his listeners with his words. The relatively recent movie “The Darkest Hour” puts Murrow’s observation to drama as it recounts Churchill’s first days as Prime Minister.
The use of language in moving people to think, learn, consider, change, act, and motivate is amazing. Certain words put together a certain way can have marvelous effect. We can all probably think of words that moved us and how we responded when hearing them. Some literature, for example, is so good and moving that we commit it to memory.
In ancient times, God spoke to Israel through the prophets. The first and greatest of these, in the mind of the Jewish people, was Moses. Moses was a mediator between God and Israel. His words were spoken for God. God communicated through him. Such is the case for today’s first reading. In it we hear Moses announce that a new prophet will come. The Lord, speaking to Moses, confirms his words saying, “This was well said. 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.”
He then offers a word of warning to those who will not listen to the prophet and to false prophets who will attempt to offer words which the Lord does not authorize. Many prophets followed Moses in the life of Israel for example: Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. There were also a large number of unnamed prophets. In them Moses’ announcement was fulfilled. It was also fulfilled, in a unique manner, when one of the kindred of Israel, began his ministry in Galilee.
Jesus’ identity is something that anyone who encounters Him will have to address. Who is He? The question serves to draw us deeper into our relationship with Him, our understanding of Him and the meaning of His words and actions. We could and do use short titles or descriptions to answer the question, as the early disciples did: Son of David, son of Mary, Christ, Son of God and so forth.
One of the first descriptors of Jesus seems to have been – prophet. He was identified as a prophet – recall the passages where Jesus, much later in the ministry, asks His disciples “Who to people say that I am?”
We are following The Gospel According to Mark this year in Ordinary Time for the Sunday gospel passages. Last week, the beginning of the Gospel was recalled along with the call of the first disciples. He begins with the bold proclamation, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
His next words were, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.” That simple but remarkable invitation evoked a response in Peter, Andrew, James and John who heard and followed.
This week we hear from Mark’s narrative account of Jesus’ speaking in a synagogue in Capernaum. He does not present what Jesus said but speaks of the reaction of the people listening to His words. Mark notes that, “The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”
They are amazed at His words, and are drawn to Him through those words. Immediately He is compared to some of their leaders, the scribes, but something about Him and His words are different. The difference lies in His speaking the words with authority.
Presumably, since He was in the synagogue on the sabbath, He is speaking related to the Scriptures, interpreting the Word for them. Authority in some degree relates to the author. The Scriptures had authority for the Jews because they, in some way, had their origin with God. Ultimately, He is the author. When the people recognize Jesus speaking with authority it is another way of saying that what He says is authentic or true, it resonates with the message of the Scriptures. Another contributing factor may be the way in which Jesus spoke but this is hard to identify at this point in the Gospel.
Interestingly Jesus only says four words in this week’s passage, “Quiet, come out of him!” The authority of His words is immediately witnessed as the demon flees the man it had, up to that point, possessed. The crowd is once again amazed saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
The refrain for the Responsorial Psalm is, “If today, you hear his voice, harden not your heart.” Perhaps that sets the tone for our listening to His word today – opening our hearts to listen, to accept, to trust and to respond.
Perhaps we are being invited to trust in Jesus through the witness of those who recognized His voice; perhaps we are being invited to trust in His ability to help us through the exorcism he performed; perhaps we are being invited to welcome Him as they did in Capernaum.
Perhaps there is something inside us, something in our lives that needs removing that we seem to have no power over. For the possessed man in this account it was an unclean spirit. For some it might be anger.
For others it might be resentment, an inability to forgive, an addiction, a prejudice or unjust bias, an illness, a poor image of one’s self or even a bad habit. Perhaps we can hear today’s Gospel and we hear His words being spoken to us along with the possessed man, “Quiet, come out of him!”
Churchill and other great writers and orators through history inspire with their words. Jesus does something more. He speaks with authority, unlike the scribes. And so, “If today you hear his voice, harden no your heart.”
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.
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