Fifth Sunday Year (B)
(Job 7:1-4, 6-7; 1st. Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23; Mark 1:29-39)
Simon and his companions searched for Jesus and, finding Him, they said to Him:
“Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For that is what I came out to do.”
We can gather from that passage of the Gospel that Jesus considered His preaching to be supremely important. This fact led that great imitator and apostle of Jesus, St. Paul, to declare in his first letter to the Corinthians (1:17):
Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.
Therefore, we should not be surprised to find that, throughout His public ministry, Jesus’ preaching provoked astonishment as well as opposition and confrontation among those who heard Him; and they reacted in this way first of all because of the content of His preaching -- many, for example, would say after hearing Him:
Where did this man get this wisdom? (Mt. 13:54)
There were others astounded by the manner in which He spoke, as you heard in last week’s Gospel passage:
The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.
Now, this was not just the reaction of simple people perhaps too prone to religious excitement, it was also the response of soldiers notoriously untouched by any such sensitivities, as St. John tells us in his Gospel (7:46):
The officers answered, "Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.”
And, indeed, the religious authorities themselves -- those highly intelligent and extremely dangerous enemies of Jesus -- had a like appreciation of His preaching and Person:
The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching. (Mark 11:18)
Now, when the scribes -- learned in the Law and the Jewish oral tradition -- taught the people, they frequently did little more than string together a series of quotations centring on some brief passage of the Torah -- taking them from earlier authorities or currently well-known and influential teachers – without making personal statements that might involve or commit themselves. With Jesus, however, it was quite different: He would, indeed, quote on occasion, but only from the Scriptures; then, also, He would frequently refer to the natural world around, and recall everyday events and situations of human life, before finally -- by the fullness of the Spirit that was in Him -- bringing forth a supremely authentic revelation of God’s presence and purpose in the Scriptures, and in the history -- past and present -- of Israel. In this way His teaching was able to reveal the divine meaning and eternal purpose, as well as show something of the present beauty and hidden significance, of everyone’s ordinary experience of life and their vocation to worship in Israel.
His was, indeed, a unique authority, being based upon a unique awareness of divine realities:
Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. (John 3:11-13)
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. (Matthew 11:27)
St. Paul, again, appreciated this aspect of Jesus’ teaching, as we can tell from the advice he gave to Titus, an early convert of his whom he later established as head of the church in Crete:
These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2:15)
As Paul bears witness, this authority, so striking in Jesus’ own Person and preaching, was essential for the founding of the Church, and consequently, is still essential today for the well-being of the Church. It is not, however, something that can be directly imitated by ordinary human beings: to attempt anything of that sort would smack of the heretical illusion of those who believe themselves to be divinely inspired or the satanic pride of those who want to impose their own personality and ideas on others in order to seize hold of, and enjoy the experience of, some measure of power.
The proclamation of the Word of God, by public preaching and personal witness, is, indeed, essential for the Christian Church; for us, however, the authority recognizable in the priest’s manner of preaching and the people’s witness of Christian living can only come from faith: a faith gratefully received, wholeheartedly believed, and deeply loved. This confidence in the Church’s proclamation and assurance in her Christian living cannot come from some stirred-up, emotionally contrived, personal ambition which ultimately only seeks to promote self. It must come from an absolute and total commitment to what transcends our own being and what, nevertheless, becomes essentially part of, and the very key to, our deepest self; a total commitment to the God proclaimed by our faith, evoked when we come to truly and fully realize that our supreme duty as Christians is to know God:
The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14)
This knowledge, however, is not just the awareness of some facts about God, or about the Scriptures or the Church; it has to be a personal appreciation of, love for, and commitment to, God Himself, as manifested to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, and witnessed to by His revelation of the Father and His Gift of the Holy Spirit in and through Holy Mother Church. This is a knowledge that can only be received by those who consistently and perseveringly seek to do what Jesus did, that is, commune with God in prayer:
Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.
It is the lack of such loving knowledge and appreciation of, communion with and whole-hearted response to, the Personal God abiding with and in Mother Church and all the faithful children born of her that bedevils the proclamation and the witness of too many Christians and Catholics today; and just how deeply such ignorance afflicts us and, of course, the whole of our world today, can surely be imagined from the following few words of the prophet Hosea and then of Our Lord Himself:
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. (Hosea 4:6)
I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (6:6)
Our Blessed Lord, for His part, can be said to have quite literally bequeathed to us the following most inspiring prayer of praise and intercession revealing the bond of mutual knowledge and love between Himself and His Father with which He would endow and enrich us :
O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:25-26)
The world’s religiosity today is above all a proclamation of self-sufficiency and mutual approbation: we can be holy of ourselves without any God. Because God is rejected as not-necessary, there is no authority able to command respect and give peace, strength, direction and coherence, to our modern experience of life: the institutions and laws that would govern the nations are subject to cynical self-interest, widespread hypocrisy, and frequent barbarism; the law that seeks to govern our society is at times quite derisory in its pandering to popularity, and for an ever growing number of its citizens there appears to be no right law nurturing our society, nothing other than the compulsive pressures of the markets’ search for profit, the corrosive passions of individuals lusting for pleasures of every sort, and the merely political aspirations of parties and candidates hankering after prominence, power, and renown. This recalls those ancient words of Job we heard in our first reading:
Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Troubled nights have been allotted to me. If in bed I say ’When shall I arise?’, then the night drags on and I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle; they come to an end without hope. Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.
And yet, People of God, those words of Job are no final assessment, not an end in themselves but a help and provocation for us to appreciate what Jesus and His salvation has brought into our lives; a salvation the prophets Isaiah and Hosea had glimpsed already dawning centuries before Jesus:
He will raise us up on the third day that we may live before Him; so let us know, let us press on to know, the LORD. (Hosea 6:2-3)
They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
Therefore, let us pray that not only the Lord may give authority to both the preaching of Mother Church and the witness of all her devoted children, but that even our own personal lives may themselves be penetrated through and through by the faith we have most gratefully received, in which we whole-heartedly rejoice, and to which we most sincerely hope and humbly aspire to give witness and expression in all its compelling truth and beauty by both our life and our death in Christ Jesus our Lord.