Friday, January 30, 2015

Homily: the Fourth Sunday of the Year:2015 (updated)

Homily: the Fourth Sunday of the Year:2015

They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes

I thought about beginning the homily this Sunday with a good lawyer joke, but I read 300 or so lawyer jokes and came to the conclusion that there is nothing funny about lawyers. That’s always the joke.

But you have to be careful around because St. Francis has always had, to use the proper collective noun, the term of venery, a greed of lawyers.

Still you have to wonder if the folks at the synagogue at Capernaum had a few lawyer jokes of their own since in the Gospel they compare the teaching of Jesus to that of the scribes, who were really nothing more than 1st Century Jewish lawyers. The scribes, as their name implies, originally were entrusted with producing copies of the Scriptures. But in time they became teachers of the Scriptures according to the letter of the law.

The Jews were faced with a situation not unlike our own. For us it is Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, red states and blue states and thousands upon thousands of churches, sects, and cults all competing for our vote or money or membership. For the Jews it was all those factions  we hear about in all the gospels.  In the face of the Roman occupation of Palestine there were  the Sadducees who advocated compromise with the Romans, watering down the religion in the process; the Pharisees, often mentioned in close connection with the Scribes, who insisted on separation from the Romans and other Jews based on  strict adherence to the Law; the Zealots who preached armed revolt.  Behind these political currents the people suffered from a spiritual malaise, a crisis which always appears, when religion is politicized: the perennial struggle of human beings with sin, death, the world, the flesh and the devil and the fact that religion seems to have no answers to all this.

Surprisingly enough St. Mark does not bother to tell us what Jesus actually said, what so impressed the Jews at Capernaum. Instead Mark tells us what Jesus did. In fact the only thing that remotely resembles a sermon is what the unclean spirit 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.”  As is so often the case the demons are the only ones besides Jesus who know what is really going on. But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”

We should note several things about this casting out of the unclean spirit:

First, as Fr. Rogers was fond of saying, “you start taking God seriously, the devil will start taking you seriously.” The devil does have to show up with the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots; they are already on his side. But it is a different story with Jesus. He is a threat to the enemy. “Have you come to destroy us?” The unclean spirit knows that is exactly what Jesus has come to do. Not to throw the Romans out, to pass laws against evil, form a PAC, but to ‘thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls’, as the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel puts it.

Secondly, we may think that we are too sophisticated to believe in unclean spirits. The only problem with that is it requires us to believe that all the evil in the world is due to our poor choices.  No doubt much of it is. But we suffer from more evil than we can explain. We flatter ourselves into thinking that there is no evil we cannot figure out. All that proves is that we have never looked the thing in the eye. We read the daily news tragedy upon tragedy, atrocity upon atrocity, cruelty without end. and the journalists scramble to tell us why it happened, confident that they will find the motive or the circumstances or the chain of events which caused the appalling, even though they and everybody else as well has no idea why we sin, why they reject goodness and embrace evil.

Thirdly, and most importantly, “there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” Jesus meets the man as he is, not as he would like him to be. Jesus does not say that this is a silly old superstition. Or you need to be on medication. Or nothing that 300 hours of psychotherapy can’t fix. Or if only who he had been a better Jew or a better Christian. What he says is “Be silent, and come out of him!” He says what needs to be said.

He taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes

Jesus speaks and acts upon things that matter, death, life, and salvation. . But the scribes taught trifling matters of rites and ceremonies which were passing away, such as the washing of hands and of cups. What he taught in word, he fulfilled in deed. The Lord taught with great spirit and fervor, such that the words of Scripture come alive and are seen in himself.  The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up. The Savior confirmed his teaching by miracles, which the scribes could not do. The scribes were mere interpreters of the Law, but Christ is the Lawgiver sent from heaven. While the scribes sought their own glory and the praise of men, our Lord taught solely for the glory of God and our salvation. Not only by his words and example, but also by his divinity,  Jesus illuminated the minds and inflamed the hearts of his hearers. Thus, he made the ignorant to become learned, and the wicked to become good.

So he teaches us still.

They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes

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