4th Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 7:32–35; Mark 1:21–28
Two Kingdoms in Conflict Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom, but he left its completion to us. We must work harder at this task.
In the 1970s the movie The Exorcist was breaking box-office records. It concerned a young person who was possessed by an evil spirit, not unlike the one in today’s gospel. The movie was based on an actual case of a 14-year-old boy who lived in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, in 1949. Newsweek described the case this way:
“Pictures, chairs and the boy’s bed would suddenly move about. At night, the boy could barely sleep. After he was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital . . . the boy began to mouth fierce curses in ancient languages and at one point, while strapped helplessly in his bed, long red scratches appeared on his body.”
The boy eventually survived an exorcism and now lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
An old priest involved in the boy’s exorcism has taken a vow not to discuss it. He does say, however, that the experience dramatically changed his life for the better.
Like the people in today’s gospel, we too ask, “What does this mean?” What is the deeper meaning behind Jesus’ power to expel evil spirits—a power that he also gave to his Church? Jesus answered that question himself, saying, “It is . . . by means of God’s power that I drive out demons, and this proves that the Kingdom of God has already come to you.” Luke 11:20
The deeper meaning behind Jesus’ exorcisms is that the kingdom of Satan, which enslaved people since Adam’s sin, is now giving way to the kingdom of God.
This raises a question.
If Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God more than 2,000 years ago, why is evil still so widespread today? Or to put it another way, if Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom in his lifetime, why is Satan’s kingdom still so powerful in our lifetime?
The answer, of course, is that the coming of God’s kingdom is not an instant happening. It’s a gradual process. It is not a one-time event. It’s an ongoing movement in history.
Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God. But Jesus left us the task of completing it. That’s why we still pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come.”
We might compare God’s kingdom to a plant.
Jesus put the plant—the kingdom—in the soil. But he left to us the job of cultivating it, fertilizing it, and watering it. It is our job to see to it that the kingdom bears the fruit God intended it to bear.
This raises a second question.
Why is God’s kingdom so slow in coming? Or to put it another way, why is Satan’s kingdom so slow in dying?
The answer is that we are not carrying out our job as well as we should. We are not doing our job of completing the kingdom as well as we could be doing.
Take one example.
How many of us live out Jesus’ command to love one another as he loves us? (See John 15:12.) You know the answer to that as well as I do.
Our failure to love others as Jesus loves us extends not only to our enemies and to our neighbor, but also to our own family. The reason we fail to love even our family as we should is usually not because of malice on our part. It’s not because we are mean.
What is the reason, then?
More often than not, it’s simply because we are negligent. We are forgetful. We are delinquent in our vocation to love.
We get so involved in the affairs of life that we overlook the needs of family members. We get so caught up in everyday matters that we forget how wonderful they really are.
There’s a beautiful scene in the play and the movie The Rainmaker.
One of the play’s characters is a man by the name of Starbuck. He’s terribly unhappy with life. Worse yet, he can’t figure out why he’s so unhappy.
Another character, named Lizzie, tells him it’s his own fault. He’s always on the run—here, there, everywhere.
Starbuck never slows down enough to see people as they really are—beautiful creations of God.
Then Lizzie gives Starbuck an example of what she means.
She tells him how sometimes when she’s doing the dishes in the kitchen, she watches her father playing cards with her brothers. At first she sees only a middle-aged man, not very attractive or interesting to look at. But then something happens. She says:
“And then, minute by minute, I’ll see little things I never saw in him before. Good things and bad things—queer little habits I never noticed he had—and ways of talking I never paid any mind to. And suddenly I know who he is—and I love him so much I could cry! And I want to thank God I took the time to see him real.”
Starbuck’s problem is our problem, too. We don’t slow down enough to appreciate one another. We are so busy doing other things that we miss doing the one thing that makes all the other things worthwhile.
Today’s gospel is an invitation to slow down. It’s an invitation to see people as they really are and to love them as Jesus loves us.
We may sum up the message of today’s gospel this way:
Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom on earth. But he left to us the job of completing it. One reason it is slow in reaching completion is our failure to love other people, even our own family, as we should.
And our failure to love is not because of any meanness. Rather, it’s because we don’t slow down to see people as they really are—beautiful creations of God, to be loved as Jesus loves us.
Let’s conclude with a prayer. I invite you to follow along in silence:
Slow me down, Lord. Help me see that it’s necessary to spend time working for things money can buy.
But, at the same time, help me see that it’s necessary to spend time working for things money can buy. But, at the same time, help me see that it’s necessary to take time, now and then, to make sure I don’t lose the things money can’t buy.
Series II 4th Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 7:32–35; Mark 1:21–28
The Prisoner’s Confession Jesus continues to forgive and drive out evil spirits through the sacrament of Reconciliation.
In 1964 the Romanian government released a number of political and religious prisoners. One was Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor.
He had spent fourteen years in prison, three of them in solitary confinement. In his book In God’s Underground, Wurmbrand describes his years in solitary.
His cell was a basement room with no windows. A bare bulb illuminated it at all times. His bed was a rough straw mattress on top of three planks.
There were no toilet facilities. He had to depend on the guards, who sometimes made him wait for hours, laughing at his physical discomfort.
One night Wurmbrand was startled by a faint tapping on the wall next to his bed. A new prisoner had arrived in the cell next door and was signaling him. Wurmbrand tapped back. This provoked a fury of taps. After a while, Wurmbrand realized that his neighbor was trying to teach him a simple code: one tap is A, two taps is B, three taps is C, and so on.
From this crude beginning, his neighbor, who was a radio operator, taught him the Morse code.
Wurmbrand told the radio operator that he himself was a pastor. He then asked the operator if he were Christian.
There was a long silence. Finally, the radio operator tapped back, “I cannot say so.’’
Every night the two men spoke through the wall, getting better acquainted.
Finally, one night the radio operator tapped out a strange message. It read: “I should like to confess my sins.’’ Wurmbrand was deeply moved by the request.
The confession took a long time. It was interrupted by periods of silence and extended far into the night. No detail was left out. Nothing was glossed over. It was sincere and from the heart.
When the radio operator finished, Wurmbrand was touched profoundly and slowly tapped back the words of absolution.
It was a dramatic moment for both men. Then the radio operator tapped through the wall these beautiful words:
“I am happier at this moment than I have been in many years.”
There are two similarities between that story and the story in today’s gospel.
First, in both stories, a man with an “unclean spirit’’ meets Jesus.
In the gospel story, the man meets Jesus directly and in the flesh. In the Wurmbrand story, the radio operator meets Jesus in the person of his representative.
Recall that Jesus said to his representatives, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.’’ Matthew 10:40 And “Whoever listens to you listens to me.’’ Luke 10:16
Neither story tells us what “unclean spirit’’ was present in the man. In the case of the radio operator, however, we know that it was such that he no longer considered himself Christian, even though he had been baptized as one.
And so the first way the two stories are related is that in both stories a man with an unclean spirit meets Jesus.
The second way the two stories are related is that in both stories Jesus drives out the unclean spirit.
In the gospel story, Jesus does this directly through the words, “Come out of the man!’’ Mark 1:25
In the Wurmbrand story, Jesus does this through the words of absolution: “Your sins are forgiven.’’ Recall that Jesus told his representatives, “If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven.” John 20:23
This brings us to the all-important question. How do these two stories relate to us?
They relate to us in the same way that they relate to each other.
First, each of us in this church, to some extent, has an unclean spirit in us.
By that we mean that we have something in us that keeps us from being the kind of person we would like to be.
For example, we may have something in us that keeps us from praying the way we would really like to pray.
Or, perhaps, we may have something in us that keeps us from loving the way we would like to love—especially the members of our own family.
Or, perhaps, we may have something in us that keeps us from being as generous as we would like to be.
For example, we all have a responsibility when it comes to spreading God’s kingdom on earth. Yet, how much time, energy, or money do we devote to this?
We spend large amounts of time, energy, and money on ourselves, but very little on God and God’s work. As one man said very bluntly and honestly: “I give more in tips to waitresses and bartenders on Saturday night than I give to my church on Sunday morning. And even I know that’s not right!’’
This brings us to the second way both stories relate to us.
Just as Jesus drove out the unclean spirit from each man, so Jesus wants to drive out the unclean spirit from us.
He wants to free us from whatever is keeping us from being as prayerful, as loving, and as generous as we would like to be.
But Jesus can do this for us only if we approach him and open our hearts to him. And how do we do this?
We do it the same way that the radio operator did. We approach Jesus directly and humbly in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Put in a nutshell, this is the message of today’s readings. It’s an invitation to approach Jesus and to let him drive out from us the unclean spirit that is in us.
This is the invitation Jesus extends to each of us in today’s liturgy.
And if we accept his invitation, Jesus will do for us what he did for the radio operator.
He will take from our hearts our unclean spirit and replace it with the Holy Spirit.
Series III 4th Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 18:15–20, 1 Corinthians 7:32–35, Mark 1:21–28
The Kingdom of God We are called to proclaim the Kingdom of God by our worship and witness.
It is . . . by means of God’s power that I drive out demons, and this proves that the Kingdom of God has already come to you.” Luke 11:20
Some monks in Thailand were moving a large clay statue of Buddha to a new temple. The government had condemned the old temple and was tearing it down to make way for a modern freeway.
Suddenly, the cart carrying the statue hit a pothole in the road. The jolt created an enormous crack right down the center of the statue. The monks cried out in agony and horror.
Then something unexpected happened. The monks saw something shiny inside the huge crack. They checked it and found, to their utter amazement, that the clay was only one inch thick. Beneath the clay lay a solid-gold statue.
The gold had apparently been coated with clay centuries earlier to keep invading armies from taking it. Apparently, the monks had all lost their lives in the invasion. Thus, the solid-gold statue—valued at $200 million—remained concealed beneath the clay all these centuries.
In all this time, thousands of monks had meditated before it. But not one of them ever dreamed that beneath the clay lay a great treasure.
Only when the jolt accidentally cracked the clay did it become clear that there was something more to the clay statue than had met the eye. It housed a priceless treasure.
That brings us to today’s Gospel. It is a lot like the clay-coated statue. At first sight, it seems to be simply a story about a man with an evil spirit who came into a synagogue one day while Jesus was preaching.
When the evil spirit began screaming, Jesus ordered it to be quiet and to come out of the man. To the amazement of all, it obeyed Jesus. When the people saw this, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
The evil spirit’s obedience to Jesus was like the jolt that cracked the clay statue. Suddenly, people saw there was more to Jesus than met the eye, just as there was more to the clay statue than met the eye.
Jesus’ power over the evil spirit revealed that he housed within himself a treasure, just as the clay statue housed within itself a treasure.
We might compare the humanity of Jesus to the layer of clay covering the statue—it concealed Jesus’ true identity. And so when Jesus showed that he had power over evil spirits, people asked, “What does this mean?”
Jesus himself answered that question on another occasion. It happened like this: One day he was, again, driving out evil spirits. Someone accused him of being able to do so because Satan gave him the power. But Jesus said:
“No, it is rather by means of God’s power that I drive out demons, and this proves that the Kingdom of God has already come to you.” Luke 11:20
By his response, Jesus made it clear who he is and what he came to do. He is the long-awaited Messiah, whom the prophets foretold would do such things. But Jesus is more—much, much more!
Jesus is the Son of God, who came to destroy the kingdom of Satan that had held the world in slavery since the sin of Adam.
But this raises yet another question, an even bigger question: If Jesus came to destroy the kingdom of Satan and inaugurate the Kingdom of God, why is there still so much evil in the world? Alluding to this vexing question, author Morris West said the world is so filled with evil and tragedy that it seems madness to try to relate it to any divine plan. He writes:
You are conceived without consent . . . with the sentence of death already written in your helpless hand: a cancer will eat your guts . . . a drunken fool with an automobile will mow you down. Testimony of a 20th-Century Catholic
What is the answer to the question, Why is there still so much evil in the world?
Jesus did, indeed, inaugurate the Kingdom of God. But he did not bring it to completion. He sent the Holy Spirit upon his followers, forming them into the Church.
The Church may be compared to the “seed,” which will eventually grow into the Kingdom of God in all its fullness.
The task of the Church—under the headship of Christ and the guidance and power of the Spirit—is to proclaim and pray for the coming of the Kingdom in all its fullness to all nations. This was Jesus’ final instruction to his followers. He said:
“Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 29:19
As members of the Church, the Body of Christ, we all share in the responsibility of proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom to all the world.
We must proclaim it both by our collective worship together each Sunday and by our collective witness the rest of the week. Both of these dimensions must be present if our proclamation is to be effective.
It is not enough to pray in the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday at Mass, “Thy Kingdom come.” We must also live out our proclamation. A famous story illustrates this point: One day a Brahman said to a Christian missionary, “If you Christians in India, in Britain, or in America were like your Bible, you would conquer India in five years.”
That brings us to the answer to the question, If Jesus instituted God’s Kingdom, why is there still so much evil in our world?
It is because we are not proclaiming as we should the presence of God among us. We are not carrying out as we should the mission that Jesus gave us.
In brief, then, Jesus did, indeed, inaugurate the Kingdom of God. But he did not bring it to completion. He sent the Holy Spirit upon his followers, forming them into the Church.
The task of the Church is to proclaim by our worship and daily example the presence of the Kingdom among us.
This is the calling to which each of us is called. This is the challenge today’s Gospel sets before each one of us.