The readings for this particular week (Week 4. Sunday 28 January 2018) tick all the boxes for Education Sunday. This of course is also the year of the 100th anniversary of the Scottish Catholic Education Act, and the theme for this year is "Serving the Common Good". It will come as no surprise whatsoever to find that the liturgy of the Word for today opens up for us a wealth of possible avenues for reflection on all of those themes.
Three teachers get to work in today's readings.
1. We have Jesus the teacher in the gospel, but we have the strange anomaly that the words of the teacher are not heard in this passage: only that people were impressed by the authority of his teaching. We will need to unpack that one!
2. We see Paul, the teacher, in action in the second reading. His words don't quite qualify for political correctness, but we cannot be other than impressed by his total dedication to the message he proclaims. It may be worth noting that Paul is really calling for his readers to be consistent: to act out what they profess. There was a belief in the early church that it would not be long before the Risen Christ returned and all things would end. So, in effect, Paul asks, why plan an elaborate wedding when you say that everything will end soon? One thing about Paul: he lives the faith he professes, and he serves the good of each community he founds in words and actions which are consistent.
3. And of course, there is Moses, the teacher. He speaks about genuine prophets, and how they can be recognised. Prophets teach God's people about God's word; they proclaim God's word. For Moses, rejection of a prophet's teaching is rejection of God's word, and a prophet who proclaims other than God's word is evil. Teachers, prophets, apostles, disciples of Jesus: all commissioned to be teachers whose ministry lies in serving the common good.
How do we define the Common Good?
An online search returns nearly 400,000 results, promoting messages from political parties, aid agencies, religious bodies, health products and many, many more! We really need to refine our search! Fortunately, the gospel for today can help us to do just that, giving as it does a remarkable instance of how Jesus serves the common good.
The gospel story we hear today deserves careful attention, because it not only contains many of the themes of the gospel of Mark, but also introduces Mark's particular way of presenting Jesus‘ teaching - in action, rather than in word.
We tend to think of the Marriage Feast of Cana as Jesus’ first miracle That is incorrect for two reasons. First, the Marriage Feast of Cana changing of water into wine appears only in the Gospel of John, and it is not called a miracle. John prefers to use the word "sign". Second, in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, different "first miracles" are offered. - Only Mark opens with a cure in the synagogue at Capernaum, although to be fair, Mark and Luke do share the same location and the same context. They each pursue a different agenda however. Matthew lists Jesus’ first miracle as the cure of a leper. It's Mark’s first miracle that we read about today, however.
The story begins with teachers, scribes, who clearly do not impress their congregation. The setting is the synagogue in Capernaum. Provincial scribes in places distant from Jerusalem were not likely to be ‘high flyers’, and there is evidence than their teaching was little more than the reading out of opinions of other scribes. Scarcely an authoritative teaching. It's easy to see how congregations become bored with teaching given without any great personal conviction. When Jesus visits this particular synagogue, hi is invited to speak, and the evangelist tells us that they, the congregation, were deeply impressed because here was someone who definitely did teach with authority.
Unfortunately, the evangelist Mark has a habit of telling us that Jesus thought, but seldom discloses what he actually said! Perhaps on this occasion the content of Jesus’ teaching is not quite as important as we might think. Two things are of importance however. One is that Jesus taught 'with authority'. This in itself was enough to distinguish him from the scribes who regularly taught in that synagogue. Just as we are not told the content of what Jesus said, we are not explicitly told what it was about his teaching that conveyed authority which so impressed the regular synagogue attenders.
Mark leaves the matter unresolved because events take an unexpected turn. Present in the synagogue was a man possessed by an unclean spirit - a very noisy one at that! It's unlikely that we will ever learn what really affected the man with this unclean spirit. This was a readily used term for a very wide range of conditions which diminished the lives of humans, and biblical writers use the term indiscriminately to describe a wide range of debilitating conditions. Even the evangelist Luke, traditionally considered to have been medically trained, although this is widely disputed today, talk of Jesus’ 'rebuking' the fever which afflicted Simon's mother in law - language which suggests demonic influence behind the fever (Luke 4:39)
To return to the Capernaum synagogue in Mark, what is really of importance is that with a word, Jesus could silence and banish the ‘unclean spirit’. This action is so unusual that the people, not surprisingly, react their take is that ‘here is a teaching that is new’. ‘Teaching’; not ‘miracle’, or ‘action’, or even ‘God's work‘. We should not be quite so taken aback however. This episode may well have spoken Immediately to the people in the Capernaum synagogue in a way that it may not readily do to readers of the story today. Jesus’ hearers/witnesses would surely have been aware of a feature of the Hebrew language (and the Aramaic language which they would have spoken) whereby the same word is used for ‘saying’ and ‘doing’. In the opening words of the Bible, the first creation story in Genesis chapter 1, God said ‘let there be light...and there was light‘. God said ‘let there be...‘ for various things and they came about, culminating in ‘let us make people in our own image and likeness...‘ and of course there were humans, in God's image and likeness. In Hebrew, the verb ‘to say’ is also the verb ‘to do‘.
This creation story shows that God's word and God's deed are always consistent. In Jesus‘ action in the Capernaum synagogue, we see the same idea working; consistency in Jesus‘ words and deeds. In this case, since we do not heat the content of Jesus' words, we might say that his words follow his actions. The order doesn't really matter, Jesus' authority clearly stems from the fact that there is total consistency between what Jesus says and what he does. Actually, we have heard something of Jesus' teaching already in this gospel. It has been very short, but Jesus’ first public words were "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the GOOD NEWS". Now, in the synagogue, we have a double indication of this good news: a person whose life is diminished by a debilitating condition, and the silencing and banishment of the powers of evil.
It's Education Sunday. It's the 100" anniversary of the Scottish Catholic Education Act. Today's gospel could not be more appropriate for these occasions. Jesus‘ disciples are constantly challenged to become more and more like their master. It is not difficult to conclude from today's gospel that like the master, their words and actions need to be consistent. This is what makes teaching authentic; it must be what makes Catholic Education authentic: that its practices must fully reflect its words and vice versa. To return to this year's theme of "Serving the Common Good", we should recognise that this is done in actions which are underpinned by the Word of God (which must be the word we speak), and in words which are made authentic in our actions which make the word authentic - ‘a teaching which is new, and with authority behind it‘ (Mark 1:27).