Fourth Sunday: No Empty Words

In this Sunday’s gospel Jesus begins his ministry.

A Prophet (Jeremiah)

The first two readings teach us about prophets.  In the first, from Deuteronomy, Moses tells us God gives us a prophet, and God says he “will put my words into his mouth” so that we can hear God’s word before we are ready to face him.  The Psalm confirms that the prophet lets us “hear his voice.”

Our Epistle takes us now to the end of 1 Corinthians 7, where we hear the value of virginity.  For us, the rationale is more important than the conclusion.  The two most important words are “anxious” and “distraction.”  The Greek for anxious really is just “worry”: it’s not that we shouldn’t worry, Paul says, it’s that we should know what to worry about: pleasing God.  And distraction is “getting dragged around.”

In the context of our other readings, the point is: God speaks to us to tell us what we should be worried about, so we don’t get dragged around by every little thing.


In our Gospel, Jesus speaks his third word, according to Mark.  He introduced himself with the shout, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God draws near. Repent, and believe the gospel.”  Then he said to the first apostles, “Come after Me and I will make you fishers of men.”

This week what he says is surprising: “Quiet!  Come out of him!”

It surprises us that after such a bold basic message, and after calling his apostles not only to follow, but to be fishers, he tells the demon not only “come out of him,” but “quiet!”  Quiet because he’s saying, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  Doesn’t he want that shouted from the rooftops?


The question in this Gospel is about “authority.”

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus is saying, in the synagogue in Capernaum.  He says only that Jesus “taught.”  But he does tell us that “the people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”

The word scribe, in Greek as in English, is connected to the word “Scripture.”  They are “the Scripture Christ Giving His Blessing.jpgguys,” or Scripture scholars.  “Pharisee” means separatist; Sadducee might mean “righteous” or might refer to the name of their founder; the “priests” have a function, and social status, in Jerusalem.  But the “scribes” have no message, they are just guys who quote Scripture.

Jesus quotes Scripture – if he’s in a synagogue, that’s what they’re talking about.  But he does it with authority.  The distinction is parallel to what is sometimes said about lectio divina.  The difference between lectio and other ways of reading Scripture is that it actually has force in our life – authority over us.  The scribes are like cartoon characters, with words floating in bubbles outside their heads but no real significance.  (I’m stealing that image from Parker Palmer’s work on teaching.)  Jesus speaks and it matters.


And that is why Jesus silences the demon who says, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  We can say those words . . . we can say “Lord, Lord” . . . we can profess the true nature of Christ, as Peter did before denying him at the Cross . . . we can exclaim over our own orthodoxy . . . we can quote Scripture, like a scholar or a trivia buff, or even like an apologist . . . and not accept his authority over us.

But Jesus has come not so we can make empty statements, but so that we can know his authority.

F.Mazzola-Cristo benedicente.jpgThe whole structure of Mark’s Gospel – Peter’s Gospel – is to say, sure, as Matthew tells us, perhaps people along the way called Jesus Lord.  But until the Cross, we cannot really know what it means.  Until we embrace his total authority, it is meaningless to say, “Lord, Lord.”  Even demons can say, “I know who you are,” as Peter did that fateful day.

So Jesus’s first words are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God draws near.  Repent, and believe the gospel.”  He points first not to himself, but to God’s authority over us.

And second, “Come after Me and I will make you salties of men”: if I am to be your Lord, you must be serious about your neighbor.

And now, “Come out of him!”  The demon asks, “What have you to do with us?”  It is a deeper question than “who do people say that I am?”  Deeper because it includes that question, takes us deeper into it.  Who do you say that I am?  What do you think I have to do with you?

Jesus’s answer is to demonstrate his authority, even over unclean spirits.

What part of your life calls into doubt your profession that Jesus is Lord?

Third Sunday: Of Beach Rats and Businessmen

This Sunday’s Gospel tells again the story of the calling of the first four apostles – but this time from Mark’s perspective.

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The first two readings suggest our angle of approach: Jonah (after his experience with the whale) tells the great city of Nineveh that destruction is at hand – and they repent of their sins, and God “repents
of his plan to destroy them.”

In our reading through First Corinthians, we now have Paul telling them that the time is short, this world is passing away.  Therefore – this is the theme of chapter seven, where our reading is near the conclusion – even those who are married should look beyond our marriages to the time of fulfillment.

Our first two readings give us an apocalyptic slant.


Our Gospel has three acts.  First, we have Jesus alone, preaching.  In Mark, these are his first words.  Last week, John in his account emphasized the closeness between John the Baptist and Jesus.  But in Mark, the clouds hang lower and darker.  Jesus begins his preaching “After John had been arrested,” or betrayed.  Our first two readings have set the right theme: Jesus comes in apocalypse.

In this context, he says, “This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.”  This is the good news – Mark says, “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel, the good news, of God.”  But he concludes, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

The Gospel is good news, God is good news.  But it is a radical call, out of our complacency (“repent”) and worldly perspectives (“believe”).  So too Jonah had good news for Nineveh, and Paul for Corinth – but the good news is that they can change their ways and live in the light of God.


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What comes next is the calling of the brothers Simon and Andrew, and then the calling of the brothers James and John.

In many ways these two stories are the same, but take a look at the differences.

Simon and Andrew are brothers.  But James and John are “sons of Zebedee” – and we will hear later how their family sticks up for them.  (We will later hear that Simon is “son of Jonah”: that’s probably just his father’s name, but it’s fun to imagine him belched onto the beach from the belly of the whale, parallel to that bumbling preacher of old.)

Simon and Andrew are “casting their nets into the sea.”  James and John “were in a boat mending their nets.”  Jesus “said” to Simon and Andrew, as if in a normal voice, up close – on the beach.  He “called” James and John, a Greek word often meaning a loud voice, for people far away – on a boat.  There’s no mention of Simon and Andrew having a boat, or taking care of their stuff.  James and John seem more established, more like they have a business plan.

Simon and Andrew leave behind only “their nets.”  James and John leave 1. “their father Zebedee” 2. “in the boat” 3. “along with the hired men.”


These are two kinds of conversion stories – or two sides of every conversion story.

File:Konrad Witz 008.jpgIn one, Simon and Andrew have little to lose.  Here they are, bumbling through life.  They don’t know what to do.  The English calls them “fishermen,” which sounds established.  But the Greek word refers not to the fish but to the sea: they are “salties,” beach rats.  And aren’t we all?

In the other, James and John are established, they have life plans, a proper family, a business, employees and property to tend to.  And don’t we all?  But they need to be shaken.  Preachers sometimes note the impropriety of leaving their father in the boat.  Well, Jesus tells us to care for our parents – but he also calls us to love him above even our family.  What our reading from First Corinthians says is shocking, but important: we can’t get so tied up in our marriages and families and earthly joys and sorrows that we treat these things as the end: “For the world in its present form is passing away.”  The only way to live your life is to lay your whole life down.  We all need to be shaken out of our business and busy-ness, like James and John.


He finds them in their own situation, and then makes them, not “fishers” of men, but “salties of men.”  The image is different – more like Pope Francis with the smell of the sheep.  It’s not so much that they are called to sit above the water hooking the people that are in.  Rather, they are called to smell like the water, smell like those in the water, be united to the fish – sympathize with the perils of both the washed-up beach rats and the fancy businessmen of the world.

Jesus sets them free so that they can dive in.

How are you bound up in this world?  How does Jesus want to set you free for the Gospel? 

Second Sunday of Ordinary Time: Beginning with Christ

And so we begin again, Ordinary Time.  This year we are reading Mark.  As I have often said, I like the theory that Mark was Peter’s disciple, and this is therefore Peter’s Gospel.  Peter is, above all, the one who was commended for knowing who Jesus is – “who do you say that I am? You are Christ!  . . . You are Peter!” – and then immediately put down for denying the cross (“Get behind me Satan”), and who would always know that he abandoned Christ at the Cross.  Therefore Mark’s Gospel is the most Cross-centered, rushing toward the key event.

But because it is short, we also get some supplemental readings from John.  This first Ordinary Sunday (called the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time), in fact, we get the story of the call of Peter.  It is a conversion story.


John is like a theological commentary on the other Gospels.  At the end of our Gospel this Sunday, he inverts Peter’s Confession.  In the other three Gospels, the call of the first disciples begins like this: “And walking along beside the sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.”

But in John, there are three differences.  First, those two disciples are disciples of John the Baptist, not just fishermen.  The other Gospels tell us that the Baptist has prepared the way – but John the Evangelist dramatizes it.

The second and third differences are here: “One of the two who heard John and followed Him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, We have found the Messiah (which is, being translated, the Christ).  And he brought him to Jesus.”

Peter is not the first called, he receives his call through his brother.

And Peter is not the first to profess Jesus Messiah – he hears from his brother.  All the way through, they are hearing from another.

John’s version of the story culminates like this: “And when Jesus saw him, He said, You are Simon the son of Jonah; you shall be called Cephas (which translated is, A stone).”  It is an inversion of Peter’s profession.  In the other version, Peter says, “You are Christ, Son of the Living God.”

The standard theory says John is only distantly related to the other three Gospels.  I guess I should submit to those who know better than I.  But look, in the Greek, these are word for word the same.  John isn’t ignorant of Matthew’s story.  He’s quoting it, and turning it inside out.

It’s not that John is opposed to Matthew – or that any of the Gospels are opposed to each other.  It’s that John is giving a theological commentary.  Yes, of course Peter professes Christ (in John 6, it will be about the Eucharist).  But before Peter found Jesus, Jesus found Peter, and before Peter knew Jesus, Jesus knew Peter.

How powerful the moment earlier in our reading when “Jesus turned and saw them.”  To be seen, to be known, by Christ.


I just got to teach Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium again.  This time, one of the lines that moved me the most quoted this Sunday’s Gospel: “The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: ‘It was about four o’clock in the afternoon’ (Jn 1:39).”

15 Lorenzo Veneziano, Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew. 1370 Staatliche Museen, Berlin..jpgIn fact, I think the point of the document – it’s about evangelization, but it’s called “The Joy of the Gospel” and talks a lot about our motives – is not that we should start with evangelization, but that if we don’t want to evangelize, we should ask what is wrong.

In the introduction, almost the first words, Francis says, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment” – not to start with evangelization, but – “to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.”  This is the topic of our Gospel this Sunday.

He continues, “Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. . . . Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”  Evangelization is a result of the joy of the Gospel.

Our first reading, the call of Samuel, says the same thing.  Samuel leaps when he hears the Lord’s voice, and then says, “Speak for your servant is listening!”  That is why “the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.”  His words had an effect on his listeners because he was listening to the word of the Lord.

Our second reading is First Corinthians – the first several weeks of each year begins with a different section of First Corinthians – here, talking about sexual morality.  But that’s not how St. Paul approaches the issue.  He talks about being a member of Christ, a temple of the Holy Spirit, glorifying God in our body.  As Pope Benedict said at the beginning of his first encyclical, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

At the beginning of this new year, the Lectionary summons us to encounter Christ, to begin again with that first meeting.  To stumble with the disciples of John the Baptist, as they hear Jesus pointed out, follow him, are discovered by him, go to see where he stays, and thus become apostles even to the other apostles.

When did you first meet Jesus?  Can you remember the hour?Hendrik ter Brugghen - De Roeping van Sint Mattheus.jpg

The Incarnation and the Sea

Since my first John Denver Christmas post was popular – and, more important, since I encouraged us to think about Christmas in relation to the kerygma – here’s another piece.

The least Christmas-y song on “John Denver and the Muppets: Christmas Together,” is called “When the River Meets the Sea.”  Once again, John Denver is helpful because he’s so wrong – and then also helpful because he’s not all wrong.

His theme, I guess, is patience.  Some of the lines are just corny: “Like a baby when it is sleeping / In its loving mother’s arms / What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery”

I’m not sure a baby’s dreams are any more mysterious than anyone else’s, except that they appear to dream a lot about nursing.  So hey, let’s not press too hard on John Denver’s philosophy.  He’s just writing sentimental lyrics about the beautiful things he cares about: mostly mountains (the first line is “When the mountain touches the valley / All the clouds are taught to fly”), other things Colorado (the next verse begins “Like a flower that has blossomed / In the dry & barren sand”), and at this point in his life, I guess, babies (the chorus of another song says, “Merry Christmas, little Zachary” – it appears that he adopted a Zachary and an Anna, which might explain why he loves babies but doesn’t know that newborns appear to dream about nursing).

Anyway, the song is about patience: “truth and justice will be done” eventually, just like, I guess, the clouds learn to fly when they bump into the mountains.  But the chorus – the central image – is, “when the river meets the sea.”  For example, whatever that baby might be dreaming about now (maybe John Denver thinks he has premonitions of his blessed hope?), “His life will find a purpose / and in time he’ll understand / When the river meets the sea / When the river meets the Almighty sea!”


Well, here’s my point: as Christians, we don’t believe that our lives end the way the river ends when it meets the Almighty sea.  John Denver’s idea is a perfectly reasonable one, held by most world religions: somehow our lives are momentary outgrowths from God (the “Almighty”), like spots on the sun, into which we then disappear again.  That makes sense.

But it isn’t what Christians believe.  One way of stating the kerygma is that we believe in heaven: we believe that we will survive contact with God.  Like the burning bush, and unlike the sunspot, we are not destroyed by contact with God.  The pleasure in heaven is our ability to survive as persons in union with God.

One of the greatest theological words for this is communion (from the Latin translation of the Greek word koinonia, a central word in the New Testament).  Com- means with, and communion means that in our union with God there is not just union, not just one being swallowed up by the other, as the river meets the almighty sea, but still two who are “with” one another.

Gebhard Fugel Moses vor dem brennenden Dornbusch c1920.jpgTraditional piety connects Mary with the burning bush – but the original burning bush is the one lying in the manger.  The mystery of Christmas is that human weakness is not destroyed by contact with God.  Were Jesus only to be a superman, we might think that somehow God and man had been blended, a halfway-between – but the weakness of Jesus, in the manger and on the cross, shows us that the fragile human person remains in all its singularity, even in the closest contact with divinity.

Mary is the burning bush because she too remains in her integrity, she is not swallowed up, either by the God in her womb or by being full of grace.  Jesus in the manger is the first full proclamation of the Gospel, and Mary is the second: she shows that the mystery of the burning bush doesn’t end with Jesus, but is our destiny too.

We don’t end like when the river meets the sea, swallowed up and disappearing.  We survive, like the burning bush, and live eternally, full of the light and life of God himself.  Communion.  That is the kerygma, and that is the mystery of Christmas.  John Denver has it exactly wrong.


Now, I’m not trying to make you a John Denver fan here – I just like the album because I think the Muppets are funny.  (And humor, like family, is not destroyed but embraced by the presence of God.)  But we can come back and see that John Denver does get some things right.

The mountains bumping the clouds is not yet communion – the mountain pushes the clouds out of the way.  But the clouds do survive.  Even silly sentimentality knows it can’t be right that our destiny is just to disappear into the ocean.File:Cretey-Nativité-Detroit.jpg

The flower that is born in the dry and barren sand hints at a deeper union.  Jesus himself uses the seed as an image of how we flourish in union, and somehow the tender image of the flower does say something about life – though Jesus’s metaphor points to communion by insisting that the soil not be dry and barren.  It is worthwhile to ponder whether God or man is soil or seed.

We needn’t completely beat up on our silly sentimental secular songwriters.  Grace does not destroy nature, and the truest flowering of our nature survives contact with God.  But let the weakness of John Denver’s visions remind us how desperately we need the Gospel of that baby in the manger, and the grace he pours first into his mother’s heart and then into ours, to purify our hope.