This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:21–28:
Then they came to Capernaum, and on the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. 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.” His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.
Back in my youth, prophecy was a big business. We had no end of apocalyptic visions at the bookstores and at the cinema. Some were strictly secular, such as The Population Bomb in 1968, which assured us that food supplies would soon run out. Others blended secular issues with bad catechesis, particularly Hal Lindsey in Late Great Planet Earth (later also a documentary ‘hosted’ by Orson Wells), which predicted the rise of the Anti-Christ in the 1970s and a Soviet invasion of Israel, neither of which took place. A sequel by Lindsey, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, included the prophecy that “the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it”. Another book and documentary of that time, Future Shock, hinted at the collapse of civilization due to technological progress. The film also had Orson Wells as its on-screen narrator, suggesting doom was just around the corner.
Going back to watch these now is a bit like discovering a time capsule outside a sanitarium. Their predictions turned out to be nothing short of hysterical, but man, were they popular at the time. One of my middle school teachers showed us Future Shock in an assembly for good citizenship, the irony of which has only struck me as I’m writing this. Needless to say, after Wells’ gloriously theatrical voice warning us of unavoidable doom, we wouldn’t exactly have been motivated to continue our good citizenship.
What does this tell us? Prophecy sells — but the kind that sells rarely if ever turns out to be prophetic at all. It’s better to say that fear sells, especially the kind that reinforces our pre-existing worldview. It doesn’t matter which direction on the religious or political spectrum the prophecy lands — it will get embraced based on how well it resonates with the biases of the population. And when prophecy cuts against those biases, well … prophets can find themselves in a lot of trouble, even if they turn out to be correct.
Our need for prophecy comes from our fallen human nature, and our first reading explains how we got them in the first place. Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, and until that point, the Lord had communicated directly with an elder leading a community — Abraham, Noah, and Moses himself. During the Exodus, the Lord made himself present among the people in a constant theophany, creating awe and dread over a long period of time. The people of Israel asked to have the Lord remove himself from their company so as to remove from them the imminent fear of death and judgment.
Rather than take offense, God responds kindly and with compassion. The Lord tells Moses that “This was well said,” and promises to speak in the future through members of the community — the prophets. He warns that the Israelites must listen to His words in the mouths of prophets in the same manner to which they listened to Him directly, and further warns the prophets to come of the deadly consequences of abusing their authority or of leading His people into idolatry.
Why use prophets at all? Moses had given the Israelites the law. Shouldn’t that have been enough? The Lord knew better; He knew that humans needed continual guidance, and also yearned to make wise choices. He also knew that some appointed at His messengers would abuse their power as prophets, and others would falsely claim that status for their own ends. And the Lord also knew that we would tend to err in choosing which was which. In the passage immediately following our first reading, Moses gives the Israelites a warning:
And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him.
This brings us to our Gospel reading, which has a curious bookend later in Mark (and also in Luke) in regard to the assessment of prophets. In today’s passage, Jesus comes to Capernaum to teach at the synagogue at the very beginning of His ministry, a place where He is not known to the community, and astonishes them with the authority of his teaching. His presence provokes an evil spirit to attempt to expose the true nature of His divinity before Jesus has prepared disciples to know it, and banishes the spirit immediately. The people at the synagogue at Capernaum judge Jesus on His word and its impact, and hail Him as an authority superceding that of the current temple establishment.
Compare that to the reception Jesus gets in Nazareth after a miraculous healing of a young girl in Galilee later in His ministry (Mark 6). He speaks with the same authority and has testimony of miraculous works already following Him as He travels the region. And yet, in His hometown, the people there pay no attention to His teaching or His works but instead remain stuck on their familiarity with Jesus to dismiss Him as a false prophet. He leaves after healing “a few sick people,” apparently under pressure from the Nazarenes who rejected Him and who want the presumably false prophet far away from them. In the very next chapter of Mark, the Gospel tells of the murder of John the Baptist, the result of his all-too-accurate warnings to the corrupt and dissolute Herod Antipas.
Jesus’ resurrection and salvation put an end to the need for more prophets by allowing human hearts to give room for the Holy Spirit to speak to them directly. In that transaction, we experience the Lord on a personal basis, although we still need the guidance of Jesus’ church to form us properly to allow for it. But the lessons of the acceptance and rejection of the prophets remain for us in that openness to the Holy Spirit and the teachings and prophecies across the entire arc of salvation.
The human impulse for reinforcement of biases and agendas has not changed much since the days of Moses or of Jesus. Do we embrace all of the prophets, scripture, Gospel, and teachings? Or do we pick and choose our prophets, our Gospel, and our teachings to suit our own biases about the past, present, and future? Do we prioritize the most dire and judgmental passages to support those biases, or to attack those who do not think as we do?
Or do we fall into a different trap: choosing to see only the worst aspects of prophecy as a way to feed our despair and relieve ourselves of the responsibility to work for the Kingdom in the present? Paul wrote of the need to put aside anxieties 2,000 years ago in his first letter to the Corinthians in our second reading today. mostly expressed in terms of advocating for celibacy and the unmarried state. However, that advice came in the context of keeping from getting caught up in the material cares of the world and focusing more on the Lord. At the time, the apostles assumed — much as we did in the 1970s, it seems — that we only had one more generation to go before Jesus’ return, and that further work in community building was not necessary except for the spread of the Gospel.
His advice as it relates to anxiety is still well considered today. Gospel, scripture, and authentic prophecy and teaching will not cause despair nor panic. It instead liberates us, lifts us up, and points us toward the Lord — even above all of our own biases and limitations. Be not afraid, Jesus tells us directly and through all of the teachings, for salvation is at hand if we choose it.
The front-page image is “Study for ‘Jesus in Capernaum'” by Rodolpho Amoêdo, 1885. On display at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, via Wikimedia.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.