Breaking Open the Word

January 31, 2021


4th Sunday of Ordinary Time



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Mark's Gospel is the earliest written account of Jesus' life and work (~70 AD). Chapter one begins with a strange man called John the Baptist, who lived in the desert and was “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” (reminding us of Elijah, cf. 2 Kings 1:8). The Baptism of Jesus follows (1:9-11) with a manifestation (theophany) of the Holy Trinity. Then, Jesus is  driven out into the desert by the Spirit, remaining for forty days while being tempted (1:12-13). After John the Baptist had been arrested, Jesus began his public ministry, proclaiming a time of fulfillment and asking for people “to repent and believe in the Gospel.” (cf. 1:14-15). While passing by the Sea of Galilee, he called Simon and his brother Andrew, as well as James and John (1:16-20). Then, we come to today’s Gospel passage, the Cure of a Demoniac (1:21-28), where Jesus, now in Capernaum, teaches in the synagogue on the Sabbath and performs an exorcism. This teaching and exorcismstand together as the first act of Jesus' public ministry in Mark’s Gospel. 


The focus of our Gospel is Jesus' power and authority (cf. 1:22 & 27). As a young teacher, Jesus would have been expected to reference his teaching with acknowledged authorities, but he was not a student of any Rabbi. Yet, his teaching created a strong impression, for the “people were astonished at his teaching” (1:22), and all were amazed at this “new teaching with authority” (1:27).


This exorcism demonstrates that the Messiah and Son of God (cf. 1:1) is taking the offensive in demonstrating God's liberating power. We also find several Gospel motifs in this story, including faith, healing, and the power andauthority of the “Holy One of God” (1:24). A few chapters later, the evangelist will provide a link between people’s faith and Jesus' ability to perform acts of power: we hear in Chapter 5, “your faith has saved you,” (5:34), and in Chapter 6 that Jesus was unable “to perform any mighty deed [because of] … their lack of faith”(6:5-6).


Gospel Explained

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No scribe or Rabbi taught on his own authority, but rather interpreted what had been handed down to him. Since Jesus was never trained by a Rabbi, this story validates Jesus’ teaching authority through the exorcism of the unclean spirit. Jesus did not simply overpower the demon, but commanded it, and it obeyed (cf. 1:27). Jesus’ authority lay in his living as God’s servant, which he used to serve humanity. We read in Chapter 10, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). Mark is showing us that it is Jesus’ teaching that will provide us with happiness, and the proof is in the healing (exorcism).


The entire second chapter up to 3:6 portrays Jesus as the one who brings something so radically new that it threatens to break the old mold. Jesus’ new practices bring him into deadly conflict with the worldly authorities, who represent the old. We read in Chapter 3, “The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death” (cf. 3:6). It is Jesus’ claim to act on divine authority that leads to his death (cf. 14:62-64).


Today’s Theme:

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This spirit calls out, “Jesus of Nazareth” (v. 24b). The ancient world understood that knowing the name of a person was a way of controlling that person. The spirit asks a second question, “Have you come to destroy us?” (cf. 1:24c). The unclean spirit in verse 23 was singular, but now the spirit asks if Jesus has come “to destroy us” (plural), perhaps asking whether Jesus has come to destroy all demonic forces.


“I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (v. 24d). This title, the Holy One of God, has been used only three times in the New Testament (1:24; Luke 4:34; John 6:69). It isn’t Jesus’ earthly origin that troubles the evil spirit, but that Jesus has come to deliver the world from all that is unholy. Jesus responds, not with words of explanation but words of power, “Quiet! Come out of him!” Sadly, most of those charged with supervising the religious life of Israel were still not convinced of Jesus’ authority, because in Chapter 2, they accuse Jesus of blasphemy: “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” (2:7).


Why do the Scribes refuse to believe? Perhaps because they had the responsibility to be on the look-out for self-proclaimed prophets who might lead the people astray. Perhaps their devotion to tradition was a problem, i.e., how they interpreted Sacred Scripture. Perhaps their concern for their own personal status was involved. In Chapter 12, we do hear Jesus say, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets” (12:38-39). Jesus was seen as a threat to their status, for his “fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee” (1:28).


Theme in Our Life

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“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’” (1:27). With this verse, Mark has set up a major theme of his Gospel, the issue of Jesus’ divine authority, his bringing something radically new that will eventually result in his death. Just as putting new wine into old wineskins causes the wineskins to break and the new wine to be lost (cf. 2:22). So, Jesus’ bringing the radical newness of the kingdom leads to the breaking of the old (cf. 15:38) and the spilling of Jesus “wine” for the sake of many (cf. 14:24). Yet, through Jesus’ death, God’s mission to humanity was fulfilled.


We tend to forget or overlook that the core of our faith is what Jesus began his ministry with: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (1:15). Most Biblical scholars translate the Greek word not as repent but convert. The root of this word, metanoia, means a fundamental change in our thinking that leads to a fundamental change in our way of living. 


In order to grow in love for God and our neighbors as ourselves (cf. 12:29-31), we must be open to fundamentally changing our ways of thinking and living. If we only allow ourselves to listen to the voices of the world and be influenced by society’s values, then we have allowed ourselves to be possessed by the world and its values (cf. 8:44; 12:44-45; 1 John 2:15-17; 3:8-15). We have put ourselves in a straitjacket.


Preparing for Sunday

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To grow into mature Christian adulthood, we must be humble enough to admit that we are not perfect and that we have areas in our lives that need to change (cf. 6:34; 9:35-37;10:45; 12:38-40). If we refuse to change, we allow ourselves to live in a straitjacket, to the point where we find it very hard to move in a different direction. Many of us have heard the expression, “You will never convince him to change, he's too set in his ways.” The fact is, however, that to continue to grow to full adult maturity, we must change. We must shake ourselves out of our comfort zones and look for areas in our lives, personal and social, where we need to change in order to grow. 




(1) Have I become set in my ways of thinking and living?

(2) Am I resistant to change?

(3) Have I adopted the voices of the world and society’s values? 

(4) Have I allowed the demon to put me in a straitjacket?




O Lord Jesus Christ, please fill us with your Holy Spirit and release us from any straitjackets in our ways of thinking and living. Please heal us as You healed the demoniac in today’s Gospel.