6 minutes reading time (1159 words)

Homily - Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Bishop McKeown


Sunday, 31 January 2021 

Last week, Jesus announced his message about God's Kingdom and he called four disciples to follow him, saying that they would learn to catch people, not fish. Now he gives these apostles their first practical lesson in what proclaiming this Kingdom of God will look like. He teaches and he acts. Faith is not merely arguing over theory and words. Jesus is intensely practical because he is concerned about everything in people's lives that needs healing. 'Orthopraxis' – doing the right thing – is at least as important as 'orthodoxy' – accepting the right teachings. Jesus gets the balance of teaching and actions correct. Anyone can utter sweet pious words. Without corresponding actions those words are without authority. When right beliefs and appropriate actions are not in balance, faith is not being lived with healing integrity. That is why Jesus creates an impression on people in Capernaum. What might we learn from this first lesson on proclaiming the Kingdom?

Firstly, Jesus is confronted by a man who is tormented mentally rather than physically. The language used reflects the medical assumptions of the day. Such mental distress and strange behaviour were attributed to demonic possession. The ministry of Jesus is situated in the context of a struggle between what was in the possession of the devil and the Kingdom of God. Where grace and healing took place, God's reign was advanced and the power of the evil one was diminished.

We may have a very different worldview today. But we all know that there are many people who are in the grips of destructive urges. Ask anyone who is subject to depression or suicidal thoughts or addiction. They can often feel that there are powers inside them which they are unable to resist. Each time they succumb, their belief in healing diminishes. Guilt can scar our ability to believe that things can change. That is why addiction therapy involves confronting the effect that those damaging behaviours had on others. Overcoming addiction, one day at a time, is not just fighting the urge to abuse substances. It also involves recognising the need for forgiveness from others, believing that others will forgive them and that can eventually forgive themselves. The unclean spirit in the Gospel passage knows that Jesus wants to destroy its power. Jesus still wants to break the chains that hold so many people prisoners – at enormous cost to themselves and to those around them.

Secondly, because he acts and speaks with integrity, the Gospel tells us that Jesus' reputation spread everywhere. That awareness of him went from village to village. Such a reputation increased people's expectations of him and the opposition of others towards him. Reputation can have its value, but it can be very risky. At his temptations in the desert, Jesus was urged by the devil to develop a reputation as an impressive showman – turn stones into bread, jump off the Temple parapet and acquire political power. But he resisted all these shortcuts. The battle against evil would not be won by showmanship or the easy option. It would involve rejection and the Cross.

From the recent reports on how an earlier generation dealt with unwanted pregnancies, we have seen how the lives of vulnerable women were blighted in order to maintain the reputation for respectability in families and communities. Potential crimes against girls and young women may have been passed over without investigation by statutory authorities in order to preserve reputations. Guilt was dumped on the vulnerable. And their problem was dumped on somebody else to be sorted out. Thousands of lives were sacrificed on the altar of reputation. The only reputation that Jesus had was for acting and speaking with integrity. His disciples in 2021 should not seek any other reputation.

Thirdly, we will soon see that the integrity of Jesus will clash with the lack of authority shown by the Jewish leadership. Too often they see Jesus as a rival in a power struggle, not a wise teacher from whom they can learn. Indeed, the early church will see Jesus as one who sided with the outsider. He was counted with the sinners and executed as a blasphemer and criminal. He bore our sins in his own body. He became the scapegoat, on whom sin was laid that the people might be freed from the effects of sin. Jesus will die because he tackled a set of religious structures that loved to be able to condemn the sinner so that the leaders could have a reputation for piety. When that power base was threatened, Jesus had to be destroyed.

There is a human tendency to want to blame somebody else for things that have gone wrong. We see that often in how we deal with the past and in much of confrontational modern politics. There is a perceived moral high ground when we can identity and vilify some guilty party that is caricatured as not like us. Their blood should be shed to purge the sin and guilt of the past. Jesus's life will break that addictive cycle by taking on himself the sins of the world and overcoming the temptation to make somebody weaker pay for the reality of evil in human society. People can come to power on the basis of scapegoating when it costs them nothing. Jesus tells his followers that the cycle can be broken by taking up the Cross which may cost them everything. But that is the only way that the reality of sin can be faced. Jesus sheds his blood and gives his body, so that we stop demanding the pound of flesh from others.

Today's Gospel may be framed in terms of a simple view of the world. But it is not a simplistic story. Every generation struggles with how it deals with evil. This generation - religious and secular - may look back at the faults of the past and a future generation will lambast many of our modern choices. But Jesus is not focussed so much on finding guilt as on offering healing. He wants to free people from those powers that bind and mock us. He has a reputation for speaking and acting with authority. He is angry with those in every generation who want to spread guilt rather than healing. The Church in 2021 should seek to have no other reputation.

+ Donal McKeown

30 January 2021 | Episode 2, Series 3 

Bishop Donal continues his series of Scripture Saturday. In this episode he gives an overview of the Scriptures. He explains the structure of the New Testament, the background, the order, the first written accounts, the princples behind the Old Testament, the purpose of the Old and New Testaments - the purpose of the written Word of God.

Click the play butoon on the image below to view Bishop Donal's video.

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