Scripture and the Liturgy

Listening to the Great Prophet: 4th Sunday in OT

In the Readings for this Sunday, we are following 1 Corinthians and the Gospel of Mark ad seriatim, so there is less cohesion between the Second Reading and the Gospel than on a high feast day.

Nonetheless, the Readings this week can be linked by the theme of “hearing the voice of the prophet.” We see that Jesus is the culmination of the prophetic tradition of Israel. He is the great “prophet like Moses” who was to arise at the end of time. Of course, Jesus is more than a prophet, but he is certainly at the least a great prophet who’s words we ignore to our own peril.

1.  The First Reading is a very famous passage from the Book of Deuteronomy that should be familiar to every Catholic student of biblical theology:

Reading 1 Dt 18:15-20

Moses spoke to all the people, saying:
“A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you
from among your own kin;
to him you shall listen.
This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God, at Horeb
on the day of the assembly, when you said,
‘Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’
And the LORD said to me, ‘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.
Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name,
I myself will make him answer for it.
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name
an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak,
or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.'”

The context is, at the end of his life, Moses is giving his valedictory speech to the people of Israel (which is basically the whole Book of Deuteronomy), and amongst his various warnings and promises, he prophesies that God will one day send the people of Israel a prophet like himself, to whom they will need to listen in order to be saved.

Now, the term “like” can have at least two senses: similar to, or equal to.  What we find out is that all the great prophets of Israel: Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc. were like Moses in the sense of “similar to.”  However, none were his equal, as Moses’ epitaph in Deuteronomy states:

Deut. 34:10 And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, 11 none like him for all the signs and the wonders which the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 12 and for all the mighty power and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel. 

Therefore, on the basis of this prophecy of Deuteronomy 18, the “Prophet like Moses” became one of the standard anticipated eschatological figures in Judaism, along with the prophet Elijah (based on Malachi 4:5) and the Son of David (based on Ezek 37:24-25 and many other texts).  This is necessary background information for understanding what the priests and Levites mean when they ask John the Baptist, “Are you the Prophet?” in John 1:21.  Also, the Samaritans, since they did not accept as canonical anything but the Five Books of Moses, had no other Messianic expectation than for the “Prophet like Moses.”  So when the Samaritan woman at the well says, “I know that the Messiah is coming” (John 4:25), her understanding of the Messiah would have been shaped almost solely in Mosaic terms.

The one catch was, when the “Prophet like Moses” did come, everyone had to listen to him, or else face the judgment of God. 

But the Apostle John asserts that Jesus is not only equal to Moses, but superior to him:

John 1:17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  18 No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

2.  The Psalm ties closely to the First Reading.  It urges us to listen to the voice of God—something that the Israelite tribes didn’t want to do.  Not only did they not want to hear God’s voice directly (see the First Reading) but time and again they rebelled against God’s Word give to them through Moses (there are ten rebellions recorded in the Book of Numbers).  With the coming of Jesus, we have a new chance, a new start, a New Covenant.  Let’s listen to the new Prophet like Moses and obey his words while we have the opportunity:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9

R. (8) If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD;
let us acclaim the rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us bow down in worship;
let us kneel before the LORD who made us.
For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
“Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works.”
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

3.  In the Second Reading, St. Paul teaches on marriage and celibacy:

Reading 2 1 Cor 7:32-35

Brothers and sisters:
I should like you to be free of anxieties.
An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord,
how he may please the Lord.
But a married man is anxious about the things of the world,
how he may please his wife, and he is divided.
An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord,
so that she may be holy in both body and spirit.
A married woman, on the other hand,
is anxious about the things of the world,
how she may please her husband.
I am telling you this for your own benefit,
not to impose a restraint upon you,
but for the sake of propriety
and adherence to the Lord without distraction.

I once lived in a Christian tradition and community that had many positive features, but unfortunately almost no theology of singleness or celibacy, no use for the religious life, and in fact a contempt for the practice of religious celibacy in the Catholic tradition.  One of the results of this attitude was a strong pressure in my former community for everyone to marry, and a feeling of pity for anyone who made it out of the college years without finding a spouse: a kind of sense that the single person could not be happy or was incomplete.

In hindsight, I’m surprised that I and my community did not reflect more on Paul’s teaching given to us in the Second Reading, especially since we were so focused on Scripture and especially the writings of Paul.  In this passage, Paul points out that singleness is to be encouraged, because it means freedom: a freedom to be fully focused on the Lord.  The celibate life should not be construed in terms of restriction (what he can’t do) but in terms of freedom (what he can do because he is available for the Lord).  The single Christian is not “incomplete” and doesn’t deserve “pity,” but ought to use his or her freedom from encumbrance to focus more deeply on a life of prayer and service.  Such a person is able to hear and respond more quickly and fully to the voice of God, as the previous Psalm urged us. 

In the Catholic tradition, the custom became, from early times, to choose priests from those Christian men who had committed themselves to a celibate life.  Let me repeat that: to choose priests from among men who had committed themselves to celibacy.  (In the early centuries, many Christian men gave themselves to a celibate vocation, not simply those in the religious life or priesthood.)  I think that is the proper way to frame priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite: not a restriction imposed on men who want to be priests, but a decision to choose priests from among those who have so committed themselves.  Some apostolates within the Church, like the Prelature of Opus Dei, continue to foster celibate vocations for lay people, and then periodically request some of these men to seek ordination.  We need to return to this attitude for the entire Church: every Catholic young person should consider whether they may be called to follow Christ in a life of singleness—which allows them to be available to serve the needs of the Church and society—even in the world, even apart from taking religious vows per se.

4. The Gospel continues our journey through Mark:

Gospel Mk 1:21-28

Then they came to Capernaum,
and on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.
The people were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.
In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit;
he cried out, “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!”
Jesus rebuked him and said,
“Quiet! Come out of him!”
The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.
All were amazed and asked one another,
“What is this?
A new teaching with authority.
He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

We find that Jesus—viral YouTube videos notwithstanding—does not disdain the practices of “religion,” but participates in the study, prayer, and worship of the local synagogue along with his fellow Jews.  His manner of teaching shocks people: he teaches “with authority” unlike the scribes.  The scribes were religious scholars (like myself and the other contributors to this blog) who were taught to debate based on detailed arguments and careful citation of authoritative texts and older, revered teachers.  Jesus, on the other hand, taught on the basis of his personal authority, as Prophet and as God.

That Jesus actually did have this authority is demonstrated dramatically when the “unclean spirit” heeds his voice and departs from the possessed man. 

First, it is interested that the possessed man was present in the synagogue.  It shows us that those under the influence of spirits of evil may be found even in places of worship. (This fact will not surprise people who have done a lot of parish ministry!) Even today, the Church is not free from the activity of persons who are diametrically opposed to her mission, and need to be liberated from the bondage to evil that afflicts them. Pope Francis speaks of a kind of bondage to evil which he characterizes as “corruption,” which is a blindness toward one’s own sin, a frozen conscience which does not convict oneself of one’s own wrongdoing, an unwillingness to accept correction, and a hostility toward those that would point out one’s fault.[1]  This kind of “corruption,” the Pope says, is found also in the Church, and we might add: it may well be a manifestation of the demonic. In recent years, we have seen notable examples of this kind of “corruption” in the hierarchy, the priesthood, and Catholic politicians, but getting angry about some notorious examples will not help our own holiness. The only heart we can change by our will is our own, and we need to make an examination to see whether, and in what ways, we have been blind to evil and even participated in it.

Second, we note that the power over the spirits of evil is still exercised by the Church, most dramatically in formal exorcism, but also in the other sacraments, particularly Confession.  I have spoken on this on many occasions, but the sacrament of confession has great power for spiritual warfare, and those in spiritual bondage should make frequent recourse to it.  Permit me to share some quotes from the famous Fr. Gabrielle Amorth, the chief exorcist of Rome under the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI:

“Many times I have written that Satan is much more enraged  when we take souls away from him through confession than when we take away bodies through exorcism.” (Fr. Gabrielle Amorth, An Exorcist Tells His Story, Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 67)

“Q. My pastor claims the best exorcism is confession. A. He is right.  It is the most direct means to fight Satan, because it is the sacrament that tears souls from the demon’s grasp, strengthens against sin, unites us more closely to God, and helps conform our souls increasingly to the divine will.  I advise frequent confession, possibly weekly, to all victims of evil activities.” (Amorth, Exorcist: More Stories, 195)

“In my experience, a good general confession—which I always recommend as a starting point—in conjunction with an intense life of prayer and grace, is sufficient to end the afflictions.  Without prayer and grace, exorcisms are ineffective.” (Amorth, Exorcist: More Stories, 79)

The Church’s power over the spirits of evil derives from her bond with her Lord: she is the body of Christ, and she speaks with Christ’s authority.  And Christ is the new Prophet like Moses, the definitive spokesman of God, to whom all must listen or else stand before God to give account. His word can free us from the grip of evil.

[1] Pope Francis, Homily in Santa Marta Chapel, 29 January 2016.

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