Jan. 27, 2018

Fourth Sunday

ANXIOUS FOR THE RIGHT REASON

Readings: 1st- Deut. 18:15-20; 2nd- 1Cor. 7:32-35; Gospel- Mk. 1:21-28

I want to focus on the second reading in my homily today. It refers us to how we should expend our energies as believers. Moses is a typical example of what it means to be anxious for God. Moses was chosen by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He was committed to do the will of God and was zealous about His people. Moses was married to Jethro’s daughter called Zipporah, so he wasn’t a celibate. Yet, he invested his energy in doing God’s will. Towards the end of his life, Moses recapitulates the encounter with God on Mount Horeb and the promise made to the Israelites. That’s what we hear in today’s first reading, “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). 

The emphasis in the statement above is on prophecy and on the role of the prophet. Moses strongly orchestrates that. He is a paradigm for future prophets in Israel. What characteristics should a prophet exhibit? The prophet is raised by God. The prophet must speak the mind of God. The prophet is not to conform to the norms of the society, often times he challenges the status quo of his own tradition. The prophet is an independent voice that says only what God commands him to say despite the cost. He stands on the truth.

In the gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by visiting the synagogue. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets as demonstrated in the transfiguration episode (cf. Mk. 9:2-8). Jesus says to the people about Moses, “If you really believed him you would believe me too, since it was about me that he was writing” (Jn. 5:46). So, the characteristics that Moses points to about a prophet in the first reading are seen in Jesus. He teaches the people with authority unlike the Scribes. His teaching is not based on public opinion, not on popularity nor on interpretation of others. He rebukes unclean spirits in a man that possessed by demon. The emphasis which Jesus places on the man is contrary to the people’s emphasis on the Sabbath. Following the Jewish tradition, the man shouldn’t have been allowed into the synagogue with an unclean spirit. He should be expelled. But Jesus expels the demon instead of the man. Jesus confers the same authority on us over demons and unclean spirits. Our presence should silence the devil if we realize the authority we have as children of God.

Now, back to the second reading. Saint Paul tells us, “Brothers and sisters; I should like you to be free of anxieties” (1Cor. 7:32). Is it possible for human beings to be free of anxiety? Or what type of anxiety Paul is talking about? Moses was anxious to speak God’s word and to do his will. Christ was anxious to do the Father’s will and to free people from sickness and bondage. That means there is positive anxiety and negative anxiety that focuses on the things of the world. Anxiety could be an aspect of fear of danger or trepidation, certain distress or uneasiness of mind caused by misfortune. We are anxious of failure, suffering, disappointment, etc. Anxiety could also be in the form of strong desire or eagerness to do something. We are anxious to please our loved ones. Some people are already anxious about the types of flowers, shoes, special gifts, to present to the person they love on Valentine’s day. Psychologically, anxiety could also be a psychic condition in the form of mental disorder which leads to panic attacks. But are we anxious about what God thinks about us? Are we anxious to do God’s will in our lives? 

Paul says, “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 is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please the husband”. This passage is one of the arguments upon which the Church anchors the arguments for, and the practice of celibacy. Priests do not marry for the primary reason of being free from the entanglements of marriage. Priests and nuns are called to active pastoral service and to live completely for God. They are meant to be anxious for the things of the Lord. 

I had a friend who was a pastor in the Anglican church. He manages quite a sizeable congregation and looks happily married too. Each time he would say to me about my decision not to marry, “Fr. Vincent, I don’t know how you do it but your own is better. You’re just lucky”. Someday, we started talking about our experiences and I tried to go deeper into his statement that my own is better. This young man opened up to me about his marriage and his being a pastor. He said, “honestly, I’m constantly struggling to satisfy this my wife. Make her happy every morning before service or be in trouble. If not I wouldn’t be very sure of what to say in church. My wife is capable of embarrassing me in front of my congregation, and she won’t care. She’s just tough. You won’t understand”. He went further to say, “You know what it means that I’m preaching and looking at the expression on the face of my wife. Only when she nods her head can I be comfortable to say the next thing. If she shakes her head, I quickly change the topic”. As I sat down listening to him, I told myself that I wouldn’t be able to handle that. That’s the challenge of marriage. You never know what happens until you get into it. 

Think about your job and your marriage. If for example, you pick up a new job, you want the job descriptions to be spelt out clearly. You are thinking about your husband/wife as you sign the papers. It is either full time job or part time. There is an agreement about the number of hours you have to put in. And work times are strictly defined. Extra times are negotiated. If you start staying overtime at work, your wife or husband becomes worried, and possibly your phone rings off the hook because you started eating into her/his own time. Who’s the real boss? How about taking work-related calls at night? That is not acceptable by your spouse. You have to be anxious about pleasing your husband or wife, else your marriage begins to crack.

On the other hand, priests have no strict job description and no time charts to specify when our job starts and when it ends. Our shift is round-the-clock. Somehow, we work mostly on weekends- Sundays, Christmas and Easter, when everyone is looking forward to being with their families and loved ones. Priests are meant to be anxious about the Lord. 

Saint Paul is reminding us to make God our priority despite the vocation we have chosen. Nothing should come in between our vocation and God. In marriage too, husband should help wife to serve God. You wife, also help your husband to serve God. Both of you should together make God the center of your marriage and family life. That way, everyone is anxious about the same thing. Your interests and desires will then yield fruits that ultimately lead you to heaven.