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Fourth Sunday in ordinary time: Destabilising prophecy

Today’s readings: Deuteronomy 18, 15-20; 1 Corinthians 7, 32-35; Mark 1, 21-28.

When religion becomes conventional it is no longer what religion should be. It no longer responds to people’s real needs and questions and it loses its punch in the public square. It risks becoming a relic of the past. This may be one of the most urgent problems facing the Church in a country like ours where mainstream religion is either anachronistic and reminiscent of times past or simply irrelevant for many.

Today’s Scripture readings illustrate how this issue about religion’s role is not just a contemporary one. Surprisingly, we read of similar situations in the history of Israel and at the time of Jesus. In Deuteronomy, we read how Moses’s leadership was waning and how the need for a quantum leap in the people’s religion was becoming urgent: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself”.

Moses had shown strong leadership with the people when they were faced with important decisions while in Egypt and, following their exodus, while journeying in the desert. Now they needed more than just leadership. They needed a prophet, someone who could make the future happen.

With the passing of time the Jews journeying towards the Promised Land were losing touch with what their ancestors had witnessed when God’s presence was manifest in their midst and in the face of the enemy. This made the proclamation of those marvels less and less credible, and demanded more vision and depth than just a repetition of rituals. That uncertainty and darkness demanded prophecy, a step forward, or more in depth in experiencing the divine.

In Mark’s gospel, we read of something very similar happening at the time of Jesus. With Jesus in the city of Capernaum, the future was already present but the people were too immersed in an institutional religion that hindered them from seeing this. For the Jews, the synagogue, the Sabbath, and the Torah represented the past, while Jesus was offering the future.

The gospel scenario is of Jesus going to the Synagogue on a Sabbath as if it was a routine business. But Jesus breaks radically from this routine and with the religion. On this occasion, Jesus in the Synagogue is faced with a man “possessed by an unclean spirit”. He goes beyond the proclamation of the Torah and offers a new teaching that, as the gospel says, “made a deep impression on them”.

When Mark says that Jesus “taught them with authority” he is clearly implying that the religion as practised at that time commanded no authority.

“It had become a ritual without any power whatsoever to touch people’s lives, without in any way bringing change. Jesus’s authority comes from the fact that he not only teaches, he also heals.

For Israel, the priestly institution, the law, and the Temple were the sacred constitutive elements of religion. Yet they were empty of God. In this context, and in line with the philosophy of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is a destabilising factor: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”, shouted the unclean spirit. “Have you come to destroy us?”

God, ever since the Old Testament, raised prophets to remedy the emptiness that takes over religion. There are times when in itself the institution of religion no longer serves as point of contact with the divine. This is what we are experiencing on various counts even today. These are times when prophecy is needed to uncover the mask of religion and to point beyond its facade.

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