The Heart of the Matter: The 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 95:8-9; Mark 1:21-28

When you ask people about their favorite schoolteacher and what it was that made them so great, the answer often has less to do with what they taught than the kind of person they were. They cared about us, were compassionate to us, interested in us, challenged us, and so on. Whatever their qualities, the effect was the same – that teacher inspired us. They taught us much more than how to excel in a subject; through them we learned more about ourselves and how to make a difference in the world.

Good teachers touch our heart, bad ones make us heartsick; they get reactions. So it was with Christ, the teacher. Last week, Mark told us of our Lord’s first class: He called people to repent, to turn their minds and hearts around. We then witnessed his mysterious, charismatic ability to draw people to himself, namely the first 4 disciples, just by asking them to follow him. It was a week full of dramatic moments and powerful, positive reactions.

This week the drama continues but as we hear of Christ teaching in the synagogue, we see a totally different reaction. Twice Mark says that the people were astonished. While that might not seem much different, the original Greek word connotes fear; this is not a positive reaction as much as one full of anxiety and foreboding. We can feel the fear in the words of the demoniac: 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 (Mark 1:24)!

What do they fear? Is it what Moses spoke of in the first reading? Are they struck with fear at the presence of the Lord, like their ancient ancestors? Perhaps; Mark says they sensed his authority, and the demoniac certainly knew that Jesus was no ordinary rabbi. But I think a clue to another reason lies in today’s Psalm response: If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts (Psalm 95:8f). The term “harden our hearts” essentially means “close our minds.” The person with the hardened heart hears God but does not listen, only wants certain things from God, says the right words but does little or nothing, and may even have stopped feeling the guilt of their own sin.

Imagine the consternation inside such a person when confronted with Christ, the caring, compassionate teacher who challenges people, moves their hearts, draws them to himself, and inspires in them a longing for more. They can’t help but feel powerfully attracted to his message yet at the same time afraid of what that attraction will cost.

So then, we come to the heart of the matter. Is the psalm talking about us? Are our hearts hardened? How do we know? Reflect again on a few of the symptoms:

  • Refusal to listen to God. Listening is not hearing; it comes from the Latin word meaning “to obey.” Do I hear but fail to obey what God tells me in Scripture and through the authority he has given his Church? Or, do I rely on my own authority?
  • Only want certain things from God. When I take an honest look at my prayer life, do I tend to talk to God more about what he can do for me than how I can conform my will to his?
  • Say the right words but do little or nothing. Have I said I would change, take full advantage of opportunities given me to do so, but then done little or nothing?
  • No longer bothered by sin. Have I persisted in sin so long now that it no longer bothers me at all?

Every “yes” to these questions is as if we are saying to Christ, “What have you to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth?” We fear that he has come to destroy us, to condemn us to hell. He has that power; he is the Holy One of God! The longer we live this way, the more ingrained this fear becomes. We know things must change before the great reckoning, but we are so tempted to avoid it; that kind of change is going to hurt.

We cannot allow fear to deafen us to the call of Christ, the infinitely compassionate teacher. Note his first word to the demoniac: Quiet. He knows that demons love noise and distraction, and we do, too. But he also knows that only in silence can we hear him and only in hearing resolve to obey his voice urging us to face ourselves as we are. It can be a painful moment but in it lies openness; that weakness that pleads for the strength of Christ. First, utter the simplest prayer – one word, the Name above all names: Jesus. As St. John of the Cross said, from all eternity the Father spoke only one word – the Eternal Word – Jesus, and he has no more to say. If that’s enough for God, it’s enough for us. Next, include a request: “Open my heart.” This is the gift of docility, a teachable spirit. No teacher, not even God, can move us if we resolve to keep our minds closed. With docility comes that inner clarity through which we see that Christ has come not to destroy us, but the sinfulness that has hardened our hearts. Finally, ask for mercy. This goes right to Sacred Heart of Christ.

Do this often. It isn’t an overnight process; change of heart takes time. That’s OK; Jesus is a patient teacher and we have the rest of our lives to work on it. It is true that we know neither the day nor the hour of the “final exam” but we do know that unlike earthly teachers, Christ’s goal is not to touch our heart but to transform it; not to see that we excel in a subject but to see that we are the subject. Above all, he gives us his own Sacred Heart as the model of what a heart should be, one whose faith overcomes all fear, that can behold him and truly say, I know who you are – the Holy One of God!

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