As we heard in this Sunday’s first reading, we might recall that throughout the Old Testament, God speaks through prophets like Moses, calling the people to repent of their unfaithfulness—which is often illustrated by their worship of false idols, immoral living, and failure to care for those who are poor and oppressed. In the first reading, Moses describes the role of a prophet, who is to be God’s “voice” to the people. Moses invites the people to listen to God’s words to them.
Moses’ message from God to the people spans numerous chapters in Deuteronomy. The instructions aim to help the people remain in right relationship with both God and neighbor. Part of the instructions are about caring for the stranger, orphan and widow (14:29) and forgiving the debts of those who are poor (15:1-11), for example. Moses exhorts the people to listen (18:15). Those who listen to God’s voice, engaging in both right worship (orthodoxy) and right practice or deed (orthopraxy), will flourish.
The refrain of the Psalm likewise exhorts the people to hear God’s voice: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
Listening is also key in the second reading. Paul writes to the community at Corinth in anticipation of Christ’s second coming, which he and the early Christians believed was imminent. Whatever our state in life, this reading calls each of us to create space in our hearts and lives so that, “without distraction,” we can listen to God’s voice.
In this past Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus—the son of God, the one about whom the prophets spoke—speaks words that elicit immediate response. “He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him,” the people remark. If “even the unclean spirits” obey, then those who are “faithful” should be even better at recognizing Christ’s voice!
We can peel back another layer to this story by asking: Who is the man with the unclean spirit, whom Jesus liberates? In Jesus’ time, mental illness, disability, and disease were frequently attributed to demonic possession. (See, for example, Mt. 9:32-34, 12:22-32, and 17:14-21; and Lk. 4:31-41.) As a result, those who were sick, disabled, or mentally ill were on the peripheries. They were ignored or even intentionally marginalized. But not by Jesus. Jesus approaches the man in today’s Gospel without fear. He sees the person behind the condition. In some other healing stories (e.g. Mt. 9:32-38, Mk. 1:29-45, etc.), Jesus is “moved by pity” or compassion. He speaks with authority, healing the one who is sick or possessed. Those who watch the miracles rarely seem to understand Jesus’ message. We know his invitation to faith and compassion is not only for the Gospel crowds and Pharisees: it is for us today as well!
We all struggle to listen to Christ’s call. This can be challenging due to our busyness or from our unwillingness to prioritize prayer or to encounter Christ in the “other.” How can we listen, when the world around us seems so much in turmoil? Instead of viewing prayer as a way to escape from the realities around us, can we think of it as a special time to unite the deepest concerns of our hearts, and of the world, with Christ’s loving presence?
Try this prayer exercise: find a quiet space and read the Gospel reading again (Mark 1:21-28). Imagine that you are a character in the story—perhaps someone in the crowd, perhaps the man with the unclean spirit. Imagine how it would feel to be there. Imagine using your senses: what do you see around you? What do you hear? What do you smell? Imagine seeing or meeting Jesus. React to what he says and does. Enter into the story.
Then, read the story again. This time, substitute a modern-day person into the story for the person with the unclean spirit—perhaps someone who is often rejected: a homeless person; someone with a mental illness; an undocumented person; an individual with a disability; a refugee. Watch Jesus see and approach this person. See what happens. Let this exercise lead you into prayer for those on the peripheries. Pray about how Christ might be calling you to respond.
In God is Love, Pope Benedict XVI challenged us to allow love of God and love of neighbor to “become one: in the least of our brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God” (no. 15).
The month of January is Poverty Awareness Month. Connecting love of God and love of neighbor in prayer can help us form a strong foundation through which we can open our hearts to see Christ’s face in those who experience poverty—over 40 million people in the United States. At PovertyUSA.org, a website of the Catholic bishops in the United States, you can learn facts about poverty, watch videos, and read stories about how faith communities are responding.
Another part of our response is to allow ourselves to be “moved with compassion” to imitate Jesus’ example of healing. Consider: how can I imitate Jesus and encounter someone on the peripheries? Following the footsteps of Jesus, we are all called to listen to God’s voice, recognize his presence in our neighbors, and respond with acts of charity and justice.
This reflection is excerpted from a liturgical aid for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Jan. 28, 2018), by the USCCB Dept. of Justice, Peace and Human Development.