Opening our Hearts to Christ’s Amazing and Astonishing Authority, Fourth Sunday (B), February 1, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
February 1, 2015
Deut 18:15-20, Ps 95, 1 Cor 7:32-35, Mk 1:21-28


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following text guided today’s homily: 

Jesus’ astonishing authority

In today’s Gospel, we see that on the Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. All those who listened to him, St. Mark tells us, were “astounded at his teaching, for he taught with authority and not like the scribes.” He then showed the tremendous power of his authoritative words by silencing and casting out a demon from a man. That amazed the crowd even further. They asked, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

The same Jesus who entered the Capernaum synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath enters St. Bernadette’s Church on the Christian Sabbath. And here he teaches with the same authority he wielded two thousand years ago. He has just spoken to us in the word of God and later he who created the heavens and the earth with his word, who called fishermen and tax collectors to follow him so powerfully that at his word they immediately got up and did so, will do something far more amazing than cast out a devil or silence a stormy storm. He will change bread and wine into God, into his body and blood, and cast himself into us. If we recognize what is really going on, if we awaken to the power of his words, we ought to be far more amazed than Jesus’ contemporaries two millennia ago.

Jesus teaches unlike any other teacher who has ever come, before or after. His contemporaries said he “taught with authority, unlike the scribes.” The scribes, the ancient Biblical scholars, always used to cite Sacred Scripture or Jewish tradition, to base their teachings on the authority of the word of God. That was obviously an appropriate way for them to teach, sharing their interpretations of God’s word rather than merely their own opinions. But Jesus didn’t need to cite the word of God, because he is the word of God. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he contrasted himself to what Moses, their greatest teacher about the ways of God up until then, had said to them on behalf of God in the desert: “You have heard that it was said — in other words, Moses said to you — ‘you shall not kill…’ ‘you shall not commit adultery… ,’ ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…,’ but I say to you, you shall not even be angry with a brother, or look on a woman with lust in your heart, or if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other as well” (Mt 5:20-45). Jesus was capable of saying, “But I say to you,” in contrast to what the greatest Biblical figure until then had said.

Authority comes from the Latin word auctor for “author,” and Jesus spoke with authority because he is the author, the creator, of man, woman and the world. To capture just a little of what it must have been like to listen to Jesus talk about God, about the world, about man, and about faith and about morality, it would be greater than sitting down with Bill Belichick to talk candidly about football and to hear him break down in detail for us the game plan he will use to try to beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. It would be better than listening to the Wright Brothers talk about airplanes, Henry Ford talk about cars, Thomas Edison describe electricity, Steve Jobs talk about computers, iPads, iPods and iPhones, all of whom could speak with stunning authority because they were the “authors,” the inventors, of what we now take for granted. That’s just a glimpse of what it would have been like to be in that Capernaum Synagogue listening to Jesus, who is the author of the world, the one through whom we and all things were made. He could command even the seas and the wind (Mk 4:41) and the demons and they would obey him, because he is the Lord of all.

Jesus continues to speak with authority

The truth is, though, that even if we can’t go back in a time machine to the Capernaum Synagogue, we can have that experience of amazement and astonishment. We should have that experience. The reason is because Jesus continues to teach us, here and now, with that same amazing authority.

He does so, first, at Mass. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council emphatically reminded us that “when the holy scriptures are read in Church, it is Christ himself who speaks” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). That’s why we stand when the Gospel is proclaimed, because we stand out of reverence and respect for Christ who himself is proclaiming the words of the Gospel through his minister.

Christ also speaks to us through the teaching of the Church, to whom he gave his own amazing authority to continue his saving work. Before ascending into heaven, he said to his apostles: “Full authority — total, astonishing and amazing authority — in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:18-20). The Church has been given, we have been given, Jesus’ astonishing and amazing authority with which to proclaim his words to others.

Jesus, third, gave that authority in a special way to the visible head of the Church he founded. He told Peter that he was the rock on whom he was going to build his Church and then gave him the authority even to open and lock the way to heaven: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). The Church firmly believes that that authority was passed down to St. Peter’s successors all the way to Pope Francis.

And Christ also gave his authority to the apostles as a whole (and their successors, the bishops). Through Moses in the first reading, God had said in prophecy about Jesus, the prophet God would raise up from among the Jewish people, “Whoever will not listen to my words that he speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.” When Jesus, that long-awaited messenger of God the Father actually came, he authoritatively spoke about how he was giving that authority to his apostolic ambassadors, saying in St. Luke’s Gospel, “Whoever hears you hears me, and whoever rejects you rejects me” (Lk 10:16).

Responding in kind to Jesus’ astonishing authority

Jesus continues to teach with staggering power in all of these ways. The question for us today is: How do I respond to the Lord’s teaching? Am I amazed and astonished by it? Am I grateful for it? If we genuinely are, then we will do what people normally do when they’re amazed: we’ll behave as if we can’t possibly get enough of his teaching. We’ll devour the Gospels. We’ll seek to enter much more deeply into his words through Bible Study and prayerful lectio divina. We’ll long to meet those who can open up the Word of God to us and help us to experience anew Jesus’ amazing and astonishing authority. There are some Catholics who live this way. Their fingerprints are all over their Bibles, they can’t read enough commentaries to help them to understand better what God is saying, and they can’t keep themselves from sharing all they’re learning. They behave about God and the love letters he has given us in the Bible with even more enthusiasm than rabid Patriots fans are preparing for the Super Bowl: These last two weeks Pats fans have been watching all types of programs on the NFL Network and ESPN, listening to sports talk radio, reading newspapers and websites and so much more. Is that the way we live? Is that the way you live?

All of us who read, moreover, have our favorite authors whose works we generally devour. For me, I love to read Peter Kreeft, CS Lewis, Scott Hahn, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and Scripture Scholar Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. Anything they write I want to read because they give me lenses to see things I don’t notice, understand or appreciate on my own. Those who like fiction generally can’t wait until the next book comes out from their favorite authors, whether it be best-selling scribes Ken Follett, John Grisham, JK Rowling, Danielle Steele, Steven King or others. Each of us is called to have more zeal for what the Holy Spirit writes us through the Word of God and the teaching of the Church than kids in recent years have had for Harry Potter books.

If God amazes us, if his Word astonishes us, then we — you and I — simply need to show it by reading the Bible, particularly the Gospels. We can hear a little bit of the Word of God at Church, but if we never study the Word of God on our own, we’re no better than a student who just shows up for class but never does homework. That might work in kindergarten, but it would never work in college and especially in grad school. None of us is a “spiritual genius” with all of God’s wisdom infused so that we need to make no effort. We have to meditate on what Jesus teaches us with amazing authority in Sacred Scripture. We also have to ponder what he teaches us with astonishing authority through the Church he founded, through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, through the writings of the Popes and the bishops. We need to overcome the spiritual immaturity of thinking we learned everything we need to know about the faith by the time we were confirmed. It’s simply not true. There’s so much to learn, and this truth that we will learn will set our lives free. But all of this begins with an astonishment and amazement toward God and what he teaches.

The lack of amazement among many of us and the reason behind it

Most Catholics, we have to be honest, unfortunately don’t live astonished and amazed at Jesus’ teaching. When given a chance, for example, to spend time reading the Gospels or watching Pat Sajak and Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune, or Jethro, DiNozzo and McGee solve another Navy homicide on NCIS, or another singer seeking fame on American Idol or The Voice or American’s Got Talent, most Catholics won’t choose the Gospels. Three percent of Sunday Mass attending Catholics, according to a 2008 survey of Catholics in eight countries, consistently read or pray the Bible on their own. Most Catholics will never use their freedom and their free time ever in their life to come to a Bible Study no matter how often it is offered, no matter how strongly a pastor or a friend appeals to them to give it a try. Many Catholics have been known to say that they think the best homily is not the one that best opens up Jesus’ amazing authority in Sacred Scripture and applies it to their lives but rather that the best homily is the shortest one or the one that makes them laugh the most. There’s no problem with brevity or with humor, but the people who say such things look toward the homily as just something to endure or to entertain; they don’t look at it with the perspective of learning God’s amazing wisdom. Most Catholics don’t come to Mass saying, “I can’t wait to hear what Jesus is going to say to me in the Gospel today!” or “I can’t wait to hear what wisdom God’s going to impart about the Christian life in the apostolic epistle, or the Psalm or the Old Testament Reading!” They don’t say, “I can’t wait to hear what the Holy Spirit has been whispering to Father Landry or Father Nick in prayer all week long to share with me and fellow parishioners about the type of revolution God’s word is supposed to make in my life.” They don’t approach saying, “I can’t wait to get my hands on the bulletin to see what Scott Hahn is going to write in the bulletin reflection about today’s rich four course meal of God’s holy word!” No rather than being astonished and amazed at Jesus’ teaching in any of these ways, many Catholics behave rather as if they’re bored and burdened by Jesus’ teaching in all of these ways.

Why and how does this happen, that so many Catholics don’t approach God, his holy word, and his authoritative teaching, with hunger rather than apathy? When God will give us all the help he knows we need to be blown away and bowled over by Jesus’ teaching, why do so many respond to it with as if it’s uninteresting, dull, and practically useless? Why, when we say “Thanks be to God!” or “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!” at the end of the liturgical recitation of Scripture in Church, why do so few people do so with an enthusiastic exclamation point rather than a yawn? Today’s Responsorial Psalm helps us to understand this phenomenon, but before we see why, I’d first like to ask whether you remember what the response was that we prayed four times today together. Take some time to think over what we prayed. Can you recall it? I ask these questions because if we don’t remember it, it’s probably not because of a bad memory but because we weren’t astonished by it— or by God’s word in general — and for that reason may not have been paying adequate attention to it. We prayed in the words of Psalm 95, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Notice we didn’t say, “… harden not your minds” or your “ears.” Lack of astonishment is not a function of a hardened head but of a stony heart. It’s not a thing of inadequate intelligence but of insufficient love. Those who love God are astonished and amazed by him and what he says and does. That’s where we need to begin. You know what it’s like when people are in love. Enamored of each other, they’ll talk to each other for hours on the phone, because their hearts lead them to be astonished at what the other person says. We’re supposed to love God even more. The Psalm tells us today that many of the Israelites had hardened hearts “even though they had seen my works.” God has done far greater works for us than he did for the Jews in Egypt and the desert, but sometimes, just like our spiritual ancestors, our hearts harden through sin, through self-centeredness, through distraction and through lack of love such that we fail to have a passionate amazement for God and for the gifts he gives us.

Stoking our Amazement

Moved by the Gospel, today is an opportunity for us to stoke our amazement and astonishment at the great gift of Jesus’ authoritative teaching. Jesus teaches us today, just like he did during his own day, because he loves us and knows that we don’t know it all. He speaks to us day-by-day, subject-by-subject, through prayer, through the Word of God, through the school of the Church, to help us overcome our lethal ignorance. When we are spiritually mature, we recognize how little we know, how much we need to learn, and how grateful we are for the education in faith and life Christ provides us. The real litmus test as to whether our heart is hardened or astonished and amazed is how we respond to the gift of God’s teaching. Today is a time to make resolutions to live astounded by Jesus’ teaching, by listening to the Word of God at Mass differently, by studying Sacred Scripture on our own, by coming to Bible Study, by bringing Jesus’ words to prayer, by listening to Pope Francis, to Bishop da Cunha, and to those God sends us to teach authoritatively in his name with the ears of a grateful, awestruck heart.

This morning in his Angelus meditation in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis discussed Jesus’ amazing authority and the response it’s supposed to have in our life. “What does ‘with authority’ mean? It means that in the human word of Jesus the strength of the Word of God was felt, the same authoritativeness of God, the inspirer of the Holy Scripture, was felt. And one of the characteristics of the Word of God is that it carries out that which it says. … He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him. The word of God astonishes us with that strength. It really astonishes us. The Gospel is the word of life: it does not oppress people, on the contrary, it frees those who are enslaved by so many evil spirits in this world: vanity, the attachment to money, pride, sensuality…The Gospel changes the heart, the Gospel changes the heart! It changes life; it transforms the inclination to evil to resolutions of good. The Gospel is capable of changing the hearts of the people. Always remember that the Gospel has the power to change life! Do not forget this! That is the good news that transforms us when we allow ourselves to be transformed by it!”

The Awe for the Word of God that should reign in the Domestic Church

One area in which this type of changed, grateful, awestruck heart, totally open and appreciatively attentive to God, is needed is in the family. In today’s second reading, St. Paul was writing to the Corinthians about marriage, which in his day was a distraction from God, because in ancient Corinth most weddings were to pagan spouses who wouldn’t pray with their Christian spouses and who often became serious obstacles to their Christian spouse’s practicing the faith. Marriage obviously doesn’t have to be that way — in God’s plans it’s not meant to be that way — but in Corinth in the 50s AD, practically-speaking, it was. That’s why Paul praised virginity or celibacy for the kingdom because it allowed a person to be “anxious about the affairs of the Lord.” Today we know, and the Church clearly teaches, that all of us — celibates, married men and women, young men and women still discerning what God wants of them and singles of whatever age — are called to be anxious about the Lord’s business. The Sacrament of Marriage — the marriage, in other words, between two baptized spouses in the Church — is meant to be a living, life-long encounter with God in which the spouses reverence one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21). Marriage not only is not an impediment to being concerned about the Lord’s mission but the Sacrament of Marriage is meant to help a man and woman to do so together, hand-in-hand.

If we’re truly anxious about the Lord’s affairs, though, we’ll be hungering for his Word in Sacred Scripture and through the teaching of the Church that continues to speak to us authoritatively in his name, and we’ll be trying to help our spouse and other family members hunger for that same divine nourishment. That’s why Pope Benedict in his beautiful 2010 Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church spoke to families about the importance of the Word of God in their familial life. The home, as a domestic Church, is supposed to be a place where family members are just as amazed at Jesus’ word as were the ancient Jews in the Capernaum Synagogue. Pope Benedict said he felt impelled “to stress the relationship between the word of God, marriage and the Christian family. Indeed, with the proclamation of the word of God, the Church reveals to Christian families their true identity, what it is and what it must be in accordance with the Lord’s plan. … The great mystery of marriage is the source of the essential responsibility of parents towards their children. Part of authentic parenthood is to pass on and bear witness to the meaning of life in Christ: through their fidelity and the unity of family life, spouses are the first to proclaim God’s word to their children. The ecclesial community must support and assist them in fostering family prayer, attentive hearing of the word of God, and knowledge of the Bible. To this end [I urge] that every household have its Bible, to be kept in a worthy place and used for reading and prayer. … Spouses should also remember that the Word of God is a precious support amid the difficulties which arise in marriage and in family life.” Notice what Pope Benedict was saying. First, every family should have it’s own Bible, something that gratefully here in the first world, all of us can easily afford. Second, it should be kept in a worthy place. It shouldn’t be left just on a library bookshelf next to our encyclopedia or dictionary, because our Bible is sacred and should be treated in a sacred way, by giving it it’s own stand, placing it in a prominent location in the house, so that everyone entering the house can see that it is special, so that we can read it routinely by passing it, so that we can reverence it with a kiss just like a priest kisses the Gospel after proclaiming it.

Pope Francis said this morning that he is always asking us “to have daily contact with the Gospel. To read it every day, a passage. To meditate upon it and also, to carry it with you everywhere, in your pocket, in your purse. That is, to nourish yourselves every day from this inexhaustible source of salvation. … It is the power that changes us, that transforms us, it changes life and it changes the heart.” That’s what should regularly be happening in Christian homes. The first place that children are to learn not only the word of God but the astonishment and amazement with which it ought to be received is at home. I give thanks that that’s where I learned it, sitting on my mother’s lap as she read me children’s stories from the Bible and filled me with her own sense of wonder for all that Jesus said and taught.

When I prepare couples for marriage, I remind them that the whole point of the Sacrament of Marriage, like every Sacrament, is to help the other and their children to become saints. I also remind them that they can only give what they have. How can Jack make Jill Saint Jill unless he himself is seeking God’s holiness himself and trying to pass it on contagiously? How can Jill make him Saint Jack unless she herself is on fire with love for God? How can they build their married and familial life firmly on rock unless they do what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, when he tells us, “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.” If a married couple, if a family, is trying to fulfill its purpose of being a school of sanctification, the only real foundation for it is, as Jesus says, listening to the word of God and acting on them. If a family doesn’t center itself on God’s astonishing and amazing word, it is building its foundation out of popsicle sticks. Unless a family is helping each other to grow in love of the word of God, it’s words “I love you” are frankly cheap, because the greatest way to love them is by sharing God’s own love letters and helping people through God’s word to get to know Him, each other, the faith and moral life, and the real, real world better. How pleased I am that many couples have taken up the challenge I make in marriage preparation and and have begun to pray the Bible together 10-15 minutes a day together, discussing it and seeking to live by it better. I would urge every family member to try to help the others grow in amazement and astonishment at Jesus’ word by helping others to catch the fever of your own amazement and astonishment as you pray over Sacred Scripture together. Prayerfully reading the Bible together is one of the greatest investments a family can make for their present, for their future, and for eternity

Longing to hear God’s word!

One of my favorite Catholics hymns, one that I had sung at my first Masses and regularly sing or say to God in prayer, is “Word of God Come Down on Earth.” The lyrics summarize the type of amazement we’re supposed to have to God’s word. We sing, “Word of God, come down on earth, living rain from heaven descending; 
touch our hearts [which can be stony!] and bring to birth faith and hope and love unending.
 Word almighty we revere you; Word made flesh, we long to hear you.” Can we really pray those words, that we “long” to hear God’s word more than a parched man longs for water? The second verse continues, “Word eternal, ‘throned on high, Word that brought to life creation,
 Word that came from heaven to die, crucified for our salvation,. Saving Word, the world restoring, speak to us, your love outpouring.” When God speaks to us, he is pouring out his love! The third verse focuses on the power of God’s word: “Word that caused blind eyes to see, speak and heal our mortal blindness; 
deaf we are: our healer be; loose our tongues to tell your kindness; Be our Word in pity spoken; heal the world, by our sin broken.” And the final verse turns to the union between the “two tables” at Mass, the table of God’s word and the table of the Eucharist. We sing, “Word that speaks your Father’s love, one with him beyond all telling, Word that sends us from above God the Spirit, with us dwelling,
 Word of truth, to all truth lead us, Word of life, with one Bread feed us.”

Jesus is that word of God. Jesus is the One who comes down on earth, to touch us, to enter into Holy Communion with us. Today we turn to him and ask him to touch us in such a way as to make us burn for him with longing and amazement, softening and opening whatever hardness there is in our hearts, so that, led to all truth and fed by him and with him, we may become the echoes of his astonishing and amazing Word among all our families and friends in this world and, one day, among the choirs of saints and angels in eternal awe around the heavenly throne.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 DT 18:15-20

Moses spoke to all the people, saying:
“A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you
from among your own kin;
to him you shall listen.
This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God, at Horeb
on the day of the assembly, when you said,
‘Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’
And the LORD said to me, ‘This was well said.
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin,
and will put my words into his mouth;
he shall tell them all that I command him.
Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name,
I myself will make him answer for it.
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name
an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak,
or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.’”

Responsorial Psalm PS 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9

R. (8) If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD;
let us acclaim the rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us bow down in worship;
let us kneel before the LORD who made us.
For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
“Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works.”
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

Reading 2 1 COR 7:32-35

Brothers and sisters:
I should like you to be free of anxieties.
An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord,
how he may please the Lord.
But a married man is anxious about the things of the world,
how he may please his wife, and he is divided.
An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord,
so that she may be holy in both body and spirit.
A married woman, on the other hand,
is anxious about the things of the world,
how she may please her husband.
I am telling you this for your own benefit,
not to impose a restraint upon you,
but for the sake of propriety
and adherence to the Lord without distraction.

Alleluia MT 4:16

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light;
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death,
light has arisen.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MK 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.