4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 | 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 | Mark 1:21-28
Grant us, Lord our God, that we may honor you with all our mind, and love everyone in truth of heart. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
THE world we live in is formed by all the events that have happened before us. We think we’re starting anew when we enter the world as individuals, but we are part of a long, long story. We’re even taught by a person like Dr. Carl Yung, [the famous Swiss psychiatrist] that we carry within us a memory of what has happened in the past. They are the experiences of our ancestors. Well, now that I’ve been preaching as a Catholic priest with both the Old and New Testaments, the world of my ancestors has broadened, lengthened, and so I see my faith starting as it truly did with the call of Abraham. That was 4,000 years ago. There is about 2,000 years between Abraham and Jesus, another 2,000 years between Jesus and the present. So here we are with this story, and the story is so interesting to me about Scripture because I don't know how I’ve seen it in the past. I used to see it as a place to go to find answers. We would figure out what God was telling us. So when a prophet spoke to someone in the Old Testament and told them, “This is what you must do,” I would figure, “Well, that’s what I must do,” a kind of naïve, oversimplified notion of it, but it’s really the story of the evolution of a community of people who have made contact with and have a deep, personal connection with a God who has decided he wants to do something for them. He wants to take them from slavery to freedom. He wants to open their eyes to what’s real, what’s true. He wants them to find their destiny and live it out honestly and truthfully, and so that’s the story. And we happen to be on the part of the 4,000 years that was initiated by Jesus, the prophet.
Moses was a prophet, and what Moses basically was called to do was to lead the people on a journey and be the voice talking to them about what God said to Moses. And so we’ve always had prophets, people who speak for God, and one of the interesting things about this role that the prophet has — we see it in the first reading. It seems that Moses was the prophet first, but when Moses talked to God, he had this experience of God. And to these people, God was, in a way, terrifying. He was so powerful, so awesome. The images they had of God, you can hear them in the Old Testament. God is usually in the thunderstorm. He’s in the hurricane, the major forest fire, the earthquake, the thunder. He always manifests himself as something so awesomely powerful, and it was terrifying. They thought, “If I get close to this God, I will die.” And it’s interesting that this is the God of enlightenment also, and enlightenment is obviously depicted as light, a purifying light, like a fire. I’m not sure what they say to Moses in this first reading, but it sounds as if they’re saying, “Look, when you talk to God, when you come back, you have to put a covering over your face, because we can’t look at your face. It’s so bright and so light.” Well, think of that as Moses seeing things about God that they weren’t yet ready to see, are incapable of seeing. So they said, “Get us a prophet who’s like us, who can talk to us, who understands us, who’s more like us.” That’s interesting. The prophet needs to know the people he’s talking to, and what his role is; the role of any prophet, is to speak the will of God to the people. So that basically comes out as telling the people what to do, and Moses constantly told the people on their journey what they needed to do. And he was constantly trying to satisfy their disappointments and their difficulties and their stubbornness. So we start with that kind of relationship between God and his people through prophets.
Now, if you remember last Sunday’s reading, it was a story about the prophet, Jonah. He was not doing what a prophet must do. He refused to really surrender to the will of God and cooperate with God in saving the people of Nineveh. He didn’t want them to be saved. He wanted them to be punished, to be destroyed, and so he has talked about, almost prophetically, in this passage that we just listened to, that “If a prophet doesn’t speak the truth I tell him to speak, he will die.” Another way to say it is that he will cease being a prophet. So when we saw the story of Jonah, what we realized is that Jonah was basically saying no, and as far as we know, that was the end of his work as a prophet, at least the end of the story as God is — he’s not reconciled to God as far as saying, “Yes, I believe mercy and forgiveness is your will, and I will preach it and teach it.” He said no, which is so fascinating to me, because when you look at the role of the prophet, he’s the one who speaks to the people about what God wants, and who does that more than ministers like me who stand up in pulpits or in front of microphones and try to interpret these readings for you? And one of the things I try not to do — it may sound as if I’m not being a good prophet, but I don’t really believe today the prophet’s role is so much to tell people what they’re supposed to do, but who they’re supposed to be, how they’re supposed to understand the relationship they have with God.
And if you’re looking for a way to make decisions, it seems like the prophecy of the New Testament that’s witnessed in Jesus is that he, the model of who we are to become, the perfect prophet, is the one who has this mysterious authority, this mysterious power in him. And he made it very clear to everyone that he was a different kind of prophet. The story of the gospel is so clear. Here he is coming to a town. He starts speaking in the synagogue, and all of a sudden, everybody’s blown away by this man, this Jesus, because he speaks with authority. Authority, what is authority? Authority is the power and the capacity to change people’s minds, to influence them. The power to influence is authority, and the only thing that has that kind of power in and of itself is the truth. And we’re told that Jesus is the way. He is the truth. He is life. He’s the truth made flesh. So it seems that more important than telling people what they are to do, the prophecy of Jesus, the prophecy of Christianity, now is not so much to tell them what to do, but to be truthful to who you are. To be true to someone is to be in truth with them. We prayed the opening prayer. Let us love people in the truth of our hearts. So Jesus did something radically different. He came to proclaim a kingdom by not saying, “If you want to be a part of this kingdom, this is what you have to do.” No, he said, “If you want to be a part of this kingdom, this is who you have to become,” and if you want a model of who you are to become, Jesus said, “It’s me.” So his life is his prophecy. The words of his prophecy are: “Look at me. You see me, you see God. God is in me. I’m in God.” He said all these strange, blasphemous things to those who heard it. How can anyone claim to be close to this God? First of all, in the Old Testament, no one would even dare to get close to him for fear of being destroyed, but some 2,000 years later, it seemed that the world was ready to hear the fullness of the revelation of who God is. And instead of being the God who calls them to a community of worshippers and believers and followers of a law, surprise, surprise, he’s the God who wants to live inside you, be one with you, intimately related to you and everything you do.
Instead of being a voice that comes through the voice of other prophets, he’s almost saying that, “I want you in the new age, the new time, the New Testament — I want each of you to be prophets, and your prophecy, your ability to speak the truth is how close you are, how real is this presence of God inside you that is guiding you and teaching you and showing you things that are real and true. I love the description of the truth. It’s so simple. The truth is what is. It’s reality. You would think it's the easiest thing for human beings to do. Just live in the world as it is. Just be yourself. It is the hardest thing to do. We have this amazing capacity to create a world that isn’t real. Look at the 2,000 years of the Old Testament. God gave these people a promise to take them to a better place of freedom where they had everything they needed, where they’d find life to be full and exciting, as well as wonderful, painful and difficult, both hard and easy. It’s all he wanted, and he wanted them to get to that place by trusting in him and following him. And he gave a commandment in the form of 10 items. That’s all God ever gave, in terms of laws, to his people, and they’re pretty simple. To change them from rules, I’ll make it his intention. He wants you to believe that he is who he is. He’s the God, the only God. He wants you to spend some time with him and listen to him and know that he’s with you. He’s not some distant figure in the past. He’s not someone who only speaks through the words of Scripture or through other prophets or through some other person who is standing in front of you or at a higher level than you in a church and telling you what you’re supposed to do. No. No, it’s like this simple prophecy in the Old Testament: “Believe in me. Spend time with me. Don’t use my power for anything negative, because I’m going to give you a lot of power. And then stop killing each other. Stop lying to each other. Stop stealing from each other. Stop envying each other. Get along. Support one another.” That’s all he ever said, and human beings — I used to think that this was God’s plan, that he gave us 600 rules and laws in the Old Testament that ran the operation of the temple. No, those didn’t come from God. They came from human beings. God just said, “Love me, and love your brothers and sisters.” That’s why people say, “What’s the heart of these 400 rules?” Well, it’s pretty simple. I gave it to you once. Love me. Love your brothers and sisters.” So that’s what happened when, I think, the prophecies that God called people to give, the works of the scribes and the Pharisees, somehow over thousands of years from the time that God called Abraham and wanted this to happen — we look at the influence of human nature, when it’s up to us to do this work of becoming who God wants us to be, we see it’s impossible.
So then comes the New Testament, the new way, the only way, the predicted way and the way that God had always planned. So first we realize that when you’re told what God wants you to do and you seek to do it, it’s not going to work. That’s when 90 percent of the people give up on the call of holiness, saying “I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. I’ve tried to be holy. It doesn’t work.” But here’s the key to the New Testament, the new way: You were called, and I am called to understand that the message of the New Testament prophets or their prophecies are so direct and almost overwhelmingly simple. It’s no longer listening to a voice outside yourself, but it’s now listening to a voice inside yourself. With Jesus as the model, his prophetic presence says, “What you need to do, if you want to know what God wants, God’s will for you, it’s not going to be about decisions you need to make or things you have to do, but if you want to do what God wants you to do, believe that he’s in you. "Believe,” Jesus would say, “in me.” Believe in Jesus, and for some people that means Jesus is all they think about. They don’t think much about God the Father, but God the Father is the goal for every deep spiritual journey. To be in union with God, that’s it. That’s what we’re called for, and the prophecy of Jesus is that it can happen. I am witnessing it. I am a fully human being. I’m so connected though, so deeply rooted in God that there’s really no distinction between the way I think and feel and the way he thinks and feels. That can happen to anyone. Not literally, but we get confused about Jesus’ divinity. We think, well, he’s not really human. He’s a God. Well, he’s like God, and he is God. He’s so like God that he is God, but he’s still fully human. He’s the witness to us of who we can become so that, when you see him doing what he does — and what he does is so extraordinary and different. Instead of condemning people, Jesus in the story is revealing that not only is God here with him — and you can feel the presence of God because of the truth that comes out of Jesus — they feel this is a different kind of person, and what he’s saying is that he’s come to free people from the evil that is in them, that confuses them and makes them do crazy things. That’s a different kind of ministry altogether, a God inside you and inside me that’s then able to free you and me from the things that rob us of life and then make us witnesses of that very miracle, and that’s the miracle that’s to continue over and over again. That’s our new way. That’s the truth.
Father, we are part of a long story of the human race struggling to understand you and understand who we are. You’ve given each of us a place, a time, a family, a work. Open our eyes to see how we’re a part of this great scheme of bringing you more and more into the consciousness of the people you created, who you long to free, who you long to experience the beauty of being loved as you love us, graced as you grace us, saved as you save us. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.