Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Homily by Fr Wulstan Peterburs OSB
‘Listen’ is the first word that St Benedict speaks to us in his Rule, and today’s readings from the Scriptures invite us, as Benedict did, to listen attentively to God’s Word, so that slowly and with great patience, we may be transformed into the image of Jesus.
In St Mark’s account of the healing of the man with an unclean spirit in today’s Gospel, the people recognised Jesus as possessing a certain ‘authority’ – one quite unlike that of the scribes – and that his teaching was ‘new’. The scribes were recognised teachers of the Law of Moses, not just secretaries as their title might suggest, and based their teaching upon the Jewish Scripture and its interpretation by established Jewish teachers. Jesus’ way of teaching was quite different from this, seemingly being more direct, not based on authoritative sources, but on his own authority as the Son of God. In the Prologue to his Gospel, St John described Jesus as the ‘Word of God’ made flesh in the Incarnation. We might say, then, that in Jesus God the Father has in his Son spoken his Word directly to us, and it is to this Word – to Jesus and his teaching – that we are now invited to listen with, as Benedict put it, the ‘ear of your heart’.
And it is this mention of the heart that indicates quite how important this listening is for us. In the psalm (the same psalm, incidentally, with which Matins begins every morning in the monastery), we heard the exhortation: ‘O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts.’ (Psalm 94:8)
In the Scriptures, the word ‘heart’ should not be taken simply to refer to the physical organ within us, but rather to the centre of our very being. Thus, we are to give our full attention to the Word of God that is spoken to us, allowing this Word to penetrate to the very core of our being. In listening to the Word, then, we encounter Christ, and in listening with the ear of our heart, we invite Him into our lives to change them, to change us; and we know that this is effective, because as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, ‘The Word of God is alive and active.’ (Hebrews 4:12)
In his Gospel, St Mark provides several accounts of exorcisms, such as the one in the synagogue at Capernaum which we have heard this morning. Whilst these accounts can sound a little strange to our modern ears, there is nevertheless an important message: Jesus is recognised as ‘the Holy One of God’ with power – or authority – to cure sickness and to defeat evil, and in so doing begins the process of establishing God’s reign on earth. The teaching which is ‘new’ is that in the Incarnation, in God’s taking flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, God has acted in a new and powerful way to bring salvation to all of mankind. This is what St Paul meant when he wrote to the Corinthians about the Resurrection, saying ‘Christ has been raised from the dead…. As it was by one man that death came, so through one man has come the resurrection of the dead. Just as all die in Adam, so in Christ all will be brought to life.’ (1 Cor. 15:20-22) The choice that lies before us, then, is ultimately the choice between life and death. This is why Jesus was born, and why we are invited to listen generously to the Word of God that is spoken to us.
But this listening is hard work – we can find it difficult because it can require us to change the habits we have established as the result of choices we have made - and as Moses said to his hearers in today’s reading from the Book of Deuteronomy it requires fidelity: ‘The one who does not listen to my words [that are spoken] in my name, shall be held answerable to me for it’ (Deut. 18:19); and why St Paul in the second reading encouraged the Corinthians to ‘give your undivided attention to the Lord.’ (1Cor. 7:35) The Word of God demands a response from us – a response that it is worth giving, because of the gift that it promises, the gift of true and eternal life. As Jesus taught in St John’s Gospel, ‘I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.’ (John 10:10)
Because of our human weakness and our sin, we find it hard always to listen to God or to recognise Him in the different and varied circumstances of our lives, and we can become discouraged, wondering whether God’s gift is really for us or whether we are really worthy of it. I am sure that we must all feel like this from time to time. But when we think about it, it is at times like this when we stop relying on our own natural (our God-given) abilities and strengths, and recognise our weaknesses, that we are in a position genuinely to understand and accept our need of God. Our salvation – the gift of life – is not something that we have in any way merited or deserved; it is, rather, God’s free gift to us. What stops us receiving it is our self-reliance. What we need to ask God’s help for is simply to open our life to Him, to receive Him into our heart, and to offer ourselves to Him – as we really are, not as we would like to be or as we think we should be before Him and others. This, of course, takes time and learning this lesson of humility is painful, but placing our trust in God alone – in sorrow for our sin, but in greater love – He will over the course of our life bring us to Himself. This is the way of conversion held out to us in the Gospel, the fruit of listening with the heart as St Benedict exhorts us.