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Jesus explodes out of the starting gate into the ancient world as his public ministry begins in the Gospel of Mark on the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B. He teaches in the Capernaum synagogue and amazes the crowds by what he says (and how he says it). Then, he is suddenly confronted by a possessed man. No problem. Jesus frees him easily. Jesus is so impressive that from these Capernaum events alone “his fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region.”
What’s not to like?
In fact, there is something amiss just below the surface, because we know the end of the story. We know that Jesus will later say, “And you, Capernaum … You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
Ouch. The original audience of early Christians would have known very well that this is how the story ends. So for them, this Gospel would not just be a tale of an incredible start to an amazing public ministry. It would be a story haunted by the knowledge that, “Even after all this, Capernaum didn’t keep the faith. Why not?”
Why not indeed.
But before we go there, Jesus’s fast pace and vast authority are the first focus of this Sunday’s Gospel.
Sunday’s Gospel follows immediately after the previous Sunday’s. Mark is showing us Jesus the charismatic one who is so compelling people are overwhelmed, and leave everything for him.
Mark’s way of telling the story of Jesus is the most cinematic of the four Gospel writers. His narrative is fast-paced and visual, and suggests a larger story through glimpses of key details rather than by showing it all.
Jesus’s stop in the Capernaum synagogue is like a movie’s: We don’t hear anything of what Jesus actually says when he teaches, but we see his confidence and his audience’s reaction: “he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes,” and “the people were astonished at his teaching.”
His power also extends over the supernatural world. Again, like a movie, after showing us anonymous reactions, the story focuses on one man in the synagogue — the one who cries out and convulses, possessed by a disturbing “unclean spirit.” We hear the demon’s objection: “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God!”
Jesus silences the demon with a single word and expels him with three: “Quiet! Come out of him!”
The incident has a dramatic effect. “All were amazed” and accepted the victory against the demon as proof of his teaching, saying “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
Then come the fateful words: “His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.”
That’s the hint of trouble, right there. Jesus doesn’t want fame. He wants followers.
The word “fame” comes up only a few times in the Gospels, apart from this incident. In Matthew, Jesus heals two blind men and tells them not to share what he has done. They disobey him and his fame spreads far and wide. In fact in a later verse this fame reaches John the Baptist’s assassin Herod, and the corrupt ruler speculates wildly about who Jesus might be.
The word fame comes from glory, in Greek. Jesus does want that. But when he tells people not to tell anyone about his cures, Jesus is avoiding the kind of celebrity “fame” that word suggests to us. He doesn’t want a great reputation, he wants great relationships. He doesn’t want people to know about him, he wants people to know him, personally.
St. Augustine commenting on this passage explains why. “Faith is mighty, but without love it profits nothing. The devils confessed Christ but lacking charity, it availed nothing,” he says. “Do not boast of that faith that puts you on the same level with the devils.”
Jesus doesn’t want people speculating about him, asking, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” He wants people asking him directly, “Master, where do you live?”
Jesus doesn’t want to be merely “famous;” he wants to be family.
Our entry into the company of Jesus and his disciples is all about leaving one family behind for another. But too often, we think interest in Jesus is enough, without commitment.
In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus picked his apostles and they left their families and business to follow him. The last verse of the Gospel last Sunday was Mark 1:20, “So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.” This Sunday begins with the very next verse, Mark 1:21: “Then they passed through Capernaum.”
Jesus is no longer a solitary figure who is “passing by” who we notice or not. Now “he” has become a “they,” as disciples join him and “they” share one mission together. That’s what Jesus wants us to be: Part of the “they;” not the group that reacts to Jesus from afar, but the group that walks with Jesus, and knows him up close.
In the Second Reading, from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we meet those in the next generation who are grouped as part of the “they” of Jesus: consecrated people. He tells his listeners that the best place to be is in the company of those who have given their whole lives to the Lord alone.
He will later explain to the Ephesians how marriage is itself like Christ and the Church. For now, he points out that the consecrated vocation is a higher calling: A married man “is anxious about … how he may please his wife,” and a married woman “is anxious about … how she may please her husband.” Both are “anxious about the things of the world,” and these concerns “impose a restraint upon us,” while consecrated people seek “adherence to the Lord without distraction.”
Whether we are married or devoted wholly to the Lord, though, we are baptized into his family where we can be happy as his adopted children of God, Our Father. As an old Christian saying puts it: Happy is the woman who is married; but happier is the widow who can dedicate herself to the Lord; and happiest of all is the virgin.
The demons know why Jesus demands this of us.
Ironically, in Sunday’s Gospel, it’s the demon in the synagogue rather than the crowds who best identify who Jesus is and what plan he has: He is “the Holy One of God,” who the demon fears has “come to destroy us.”
What “Holy One of God” does the demon have in mind? Demons don’t have special access to revelation that we don’t — but as we learn when Satan comes to Jesus in the desert, demons know the Bible. Perhaps this “unclean spirit” recognizes in Christ the prophecy we hear in the First Reading, when Moses says that God will raise up a prophet like Moses himself, and “will put words into his mouth” and “to him you shall listen.”
It’s instructive to hear how Moses describes this prophet. He warns them that meeting this holy one of God won’t be easy on them. He reminds them of the time the Jewish people came in contact with God himself at Mount Sinai and were so overwhelmed that the people said, “Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord, our God, nor see this great fire anymore, lest we die.”
God is an all-consuming fire whose voice puts us on notice that we need to question everything and start over from him.
It is no coincidence that the Church puts these words before us as we are preparing to receive communion at Mass.
We don’t receive Jesus Christ himself in the Blessed Sacrament because we are interested in him. We receive him because we want to combine our life with his.
We have to go beyond the celebrity “fame” of Jesus and embrace the sacred reality of Jesus. That means no longer looking at him merely with the eyes of the world, trying to define him — it means looking at the world through his eyes, because he defines everything.