Scripture notes – 4th Sunday in Ordinary time – Year B – 28th January 2024

The Liturgy has a timeless routine, so when we have a special Sunday, like Racial Justice today, the readings are not always appropriate for that topic. Today just the opening prayer can be taken as a reflection that our love expressed in words and actions should not discriminate against on the grounds of race or other such distinctions.

Opening Prayer
Lord, Our God, help us to love you with all our hearts and to love all as you love them.

The readings are available online here.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
This book, one of first five in the Hebrew Bible, does show an early concern for people who don’t match the majority as it several times calls for fairness and care for the ‘sojourners’ – non-Jews who were living in Israel. The selection for today, however, is directed to the ‘prophet like Moses’ that Christians see fulfilled in Jesus. The opening lines refer to the reaction of many people after they saw frightening sights and sounds that accompanied the giving of the Law to Moses. (See Exodus 19:16-19 for the thunder, lightning and fire that left the people trembling.) The people then were content to have Moses be the one to ‘meet with God’ and bring the message to them.

Many prophets followed, as we read in the Older Testament, but someone more special was still looked for, and we saw that in the questions directed to John the Baptist: ‘Are you The Prophet?” (John 1:21)

Psalm 94/95:1-2, 6-9
This short psalm also has a reference to the events of Exodus (17:1-7) citing Massa (meaning ‘trial’ or ‘testing’) and Meribah (meaning ‘contention’). The people were ‘contentious’ with Moses because of the lack of water in the desert. God directed Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water gushed forth. Jesus would find fault with some of his contemporaries who did not respond to his call and his words, but wanted ‘signs and wonders’, making demands on God about how he should be revealed.

The psalm also has two of the favourite comparisons for God – caring for his people, like a shepherd, and as reliable like ‘rock’ a fortress or foundation. The ‘saving rock’ would echo God providing fresh water in the desert.

1 Corinthians 7:32-35
You may ask, as I do, how this reading fits the others. Sometimes the second reading does offer something different to reflect on. Now it is continuing a short series drawn from this Letter of Paul, this at a point when he is taking up some questions sent to him by the community at Corinth which, from the context, wanted advice on sexual relations in marriage and about virginity. As last week’s selection, Paul’s response is in the context of an expectation of a speedy ‘Second Coming’ of Christ. He makes it clear it is his own feelings and not a command he gets from God. Obviously with the longer wait for Jesus’ return, a church with no marriage would be impractical. History has shown both some celibates not as single-minded in the service of God as Paul was, and many married couples who live exemplary lives of service to others. These words, however, have inspired men and women in every generation to dedicate their lives to God as celibates in both public action and lives of secluded prayer.

Mark 1:21-28
In Ordinary Time, the liturgy is following Mark’s account of the early ministry of Jesus in Galilee and this comes right after last week’s account of the calling of four fishing disciples. Although Mark is vague about the time, it would not be the same day, for they would have been resting on the Sabbath. This healing in the synagogue will set up a precedent that will lead to the ‘scribes and Pharisees’ protesting at such actions of healing on a Sabbath.

We have a vivid description of the unfortunate person, with the spirits speaking with his voice, and throwing him to the ground in convulsions as they are defeated and leave his life free. Possessing spirits are described sometimes as ‘evil’ showing a relation to Satan, or as ‘unclean’ which seems a reference to the conditions they set up in the person breaking the purity code of the Law.

The spirit shows a knowledge of Jesus’ identity that has not been so clear to the people yet – ‘the Holy One of God’. It is possible that the reasons such spirits gave a name to Jesus is to claim power – the ‘name’ in the thinking of the time represents the person and to name another claims some authority over the one named. (Compare Adam naming the animals in Eden in Genesis.) Later in the gospels, Jesus will forbid some of them to speak about him.

Exorcisms form a part of Jesus’ ministry, showing him overcoming evils that threaten human life and well being. But here, Mark puts it in the context of Jesus’ teaching, making the teaching he has been giving the more important role. He is seen in the first verses ‘teaching with authority’ as something new. The scribes did not speak for themselves but as interpreters of the scriptures. At the end, the listeners see a new kind of authority: Jesus’ words have immediate visible effects.

Joan Griffith

The Gospel reading today is an early, short example of one of Mark’s favourite story-telling techniques: bracketing, or making a meaning-sandwich, you might say. Here, he has people exclaim with surprise at how Jesus teaches ‘with authority’ – the two pieces of bread on either side. In between is the ‘meat’, which interprets or gives meaning to the brackets or bread on either side. In this case, it is Jesus casting evil out of a man oppressed by evil spirits, who recognises and acknowledges his true identity:

They went as far as Capernaum, and as soon as the sabbath came he went to the synagogue and began to teach.(21) And his teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.(22)

In their synagogue just then there was a man possessed by an unclean spirit and it shouted,(23) ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God.’(24) But Jesus said sharply, ‘Be quiet! Come out of him!’(25) And the unclean spirit threw the man into convulsions and with a loud cry went out of him.(26)

The people were so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant. ‘Here is a teaching that is new’ they said ‘and with authority behind it: he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him.’(27) And his reputation rapidly spread everywhere, through all the surrounding Galilean countryside.(28)

    • How do you interpret this ‘sandwich’ – what is it about the drama, Jesus’ words and deeds, and the words of unclean spirit that illustrates Jesus’ ‘authority’?
    • Read that central paragraph several times, perhaps even aloud, and see what bubbles up for you… what strikes you or comes to mind. Let yourself pray with those insights or ideas for a few minutes.