NOTE: Below are Study Guides for two sets of Sunday readings. If there are people in your parish preparing to be baptized this Easter, then you might hear the readings for Cycle A. We are currently in Cycle B.
This passage is often interpreted as a statement against unjust practices, corruption, or empty displays of worship. Although some of this may have been happening, these interpretations ignore historical realities and start to sound anti-Semitic.
God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt in a dramatic display of power that included plagues, environmental disasters, and, finally, the death of their enemies’ firstborn sons. Despite all that God did, the Israelites keep grumbling about how things were better in Egypt than in the Sinai desert.
“Jesus, filled with the Spirit, went out into the desert…”
“Inspired by the Spirit, Jesus went out into the desert…”
“Then the Spirit led Jesus into the desert…” (Matthew and Luke’s version)
Nope. Instead, we hear, “At once the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert…” Drove! Jesus drove demons out of people! It seems wildly inappropriate to use the same word to describe the Spirit’s action upon Jesus.
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that Jesus didn’t want to go into the desert. Maybe he didn’t want to go until he could first have a few big meals and hydrate. Maybe he didn’t want to go because he might step on a scorpion, and that would hurt him and possibly the scorpion. Or maybe Jesus didn’t want to delay the start of his mission. After all, he had just been baptized, and a voice from heaven had declared, “‘You are my beloved Son…’” If that’s the case, shouldn’t he get right to work bringing about his Father’s kingdom?
Not so fast, the Spirit says. (I can’t think of a single passage in scripture in which the Spirit slows people down, but we’re pretending here.) You’re not doing anything without spending some serious time in prayer and reflection. Come into the desert, like Moses and Elijah before you. Come reflect on who you are. Come learn what you can — and cannot — do. Come discern God’s will — discern it truly, discern it fully. Then you will be ready to recognize evil in all its forms and to drive it out of the world. Then you will be ready to proclaim and bring about the goodness of God’s kingdom.
Our own forty days have begun. This is our season to be driven into deeper prayer, greater wisdom, and a stronger commitment to God’s kingdom of justice and peace. We might prefer the Spirit to fill, inspire, or lead us, but sometimes we need the Spirit to drive us down a path we hadn’t known we needed to go.
Jesus’ disciples recognize him as the Messiah, but they don’t yet understand that he is also God’s Son who will willingly endure crucifixion and death (8:27-33). Jesus thus takes his closest followers aside for an encounter with God that will help them understand who he is, though they won’t fully understand until after his death and resurrection.
Lent is coming up, but I for one feel like I’ve had plenty of Lent. Other than eating more cookies than are good for me, the past year has been so full of sacrifices and self-denial that I’m ready for Easter — a real Easter, not a virtual one.
The leper we hear about in today’s Gospel was ready for Easter. He was ready for resurrection. Because of his ailment he had been forced to live apart from his family and friends. He had to keep his distance from others. He had to deal with the stress of meeting his basic needs since his social and economic situation had drastically altered. And he couldn’t rejoin his community until he was pronounced clean.
After Jesus healed the leper, the man could have gone back home, celebrated, and settled back into his former life, albeit bearing the scars of his ordeal. But he didn’t. Instead he set about constructing a new life, one in which Jesus and his story of healing were central. Perhaps the pain of his recent past helped him find a new path forward.
When the worst of this pandemic is over, we might want to return to our former lives. We might want everything to be “normal” again. But our world has changed drastically, and it will keep changing. We must seek new paths forward. Lent can help us find our way if we choose our Lenten disciplines with care. This season of sober reflection, of prayer and penance, helps to shape us for the new lives that await us.
There are two explanations for Mark’s mention of the wild beasts. They could intensify the danger Jesus faces. If Jesus controls these beasts, however, then they are a sign of God’s kingdom in which hostile animals become tame. This second meaning recalls the prophesy of peace in which carnivorous animals become non-violent (Isaiah 11:6-9).
Several years ago my eyes began to hurt. The pain grew so severe that I couldn’t open my eyes without immediate, searing pain, and I was having to move about my house by touch. The first few doctors I met with recommended treatments that either didn’t help or increased and prolonged the pain. Eventually I met with a doctor who found the underlying problem. Although I will always experience some level of eye pain, it’s much more manageable now.
I could not have endured those months of pain and uncertainty without the kindness of my friends and family, as well as people from my faith community who would call, visit, or simply pat my shoulder at Mass and tell me they were praying for me. In those dark moments when I despaired of ever feeling better, I would think of the people who were out there remembering me, and that gave me the strength to get through the day.
Our first reading for today is from the Book of Job. At the beginning of the book, after Job was stricken, three of his friends went to visit him. For an entire week they simply sat with him, saying not a single word, “for they saw how great was his suffering” (2:13). Job’s friends were at their best when they didn’t try to explain what was happening but simply sat with him, silently acknowledging his pain.
Much of our world is in pain now, both physical and psychological pain, and that pain will linger for years. Some of us will recover fairly quickly, while others will never recover. Even when this pandemic has passed, people will still suffer from physical ailments, mental illness, trauma, chronic hunger, loneliness, grief. Rarely can we take such pain away, but we can be with those who suffer from it. Our gestures of acknowledgement, our quiet care, our simple effort to remember makes the days of those who suffer more bearable and their nights less restless. We might even help someone find hope and happiness again.
In Leviticus leprosy refers to a much broader range of conditions than Hansen’s disease. “The common denominator of all the skin ailments described in Leviticus 13 is that the body appears to be wasting away.” One biblical scholar calls these conditions “scale disease” because they cause the skin to flake or peel off.*
Who do you consider authoritative? Pope Francis and other church leaders are probably on your list. You might also list some doctors and nurses, as well as attorneys, financial advisors, and so on. You might follow certain news outlets or particular reporters or journalists. Although I wouldn’t call advertisers and social media outlets authoritative, they do influence our beliefs and decisions. Once I started jotting down all the people, institutions, groups, etc. that exercise some kind of authority over me, the list got surprisingly long.
When Jesus came “teaching with authority,” people wondered if they should add him to their list of authoritative figures. Four Galilean fishermen had already put Jesus right at the top, but other people, including those who also claimed authority, were more hesitant. Then, right when they were all wondering about him, Jesus suddenly expelled a demon. That was bound to lend some weight to his claims. The demon even called Jesus “the Holy One of God,” but the people would have rightly hesitated to trust a demon. After all, no one wants “demons” on their list of authoritative figures. As it turns out, the demon’s words were true, but they were spoken with the sole purpose of seizing control over Jesus and his mission.
We want to be like those Galilean fishermen who have Jesus at the top of our list of authority figures, but other names will inevitably appear. As we decide what names to keep on our list, we evaluate them through the ministry of Jesus. Who (or what) is helping me become free from evil, and who is leading me deeper into it? Who is helping me grow in wisdom, and who is trying to manipulate me? Who is really listening to me, and who is only talking? Who is trying to cast demons out of the world, and who is demonizing others? Sometimes it’s really hard to tell. So long as we keep Jesus’ name at the top of our list — and not our own name nor anyone else’s — we will find the way out of evil and into God’s reign.
Jesus has just expelled a demon; now he expels a fever. In both cases Jesus acts effortlessly. Here he simply takes the woman’s hand and helps her up. The Greek word for helps can also be translated as raises. Jesus raises the woman from the evil of suffering.
Whatever your political views, the ten Republican representatives who voted in favor of impeaching President Trump acted courageously. After they voted, they received death threats so vitriolic that some of them bought bullet-proof vests, hired bodyguards, and changed their travel routines. They are not alone. Robert Kyagulanyi (aka Bobi Wine), who ran for president of Uganda, has endured assassination attempts and groundless arrest. Alexei Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption activist, flew back to Russia from Berlin where he had been recovering from an assassination attempt. He was promptly arrested.
These are examples of courage from the past two weeks. In today’s Gospel we’re offered an example of courage from the distant past: “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God…” King Herod Antipas arrested someone who prepared the way for Jesus’ own ministry. Yet after John the Baptist is arrested – and later beheaded – Jesus doesn’t change his mind about the ministry he is undertaking. Despite the ever-increasing danger he faces Jesus continues to announce and enact God’s reign.
Until God’s reign comes in its fullness, violence will continue to permeate society. It has insinuated itself into our legal systems, latched onto our economic structures, and muted civil discourse. It thrives on social media. It seers family members who grow up to leave scars on the next generation. Yet we who are quick to display crucifixes — symbols of nonviolence — in our churches, in our homes, and even around our necks are painfully slow to oppose violence. We hesitate because we’re afraid of the danger we’ll face, but we’re also afraid of the violence we’ll find. The violence that permeates our society comes ultimately from within ourselves.