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Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

January 28, 2024

Today’s Invitation

Today we invite you to explore demons and demonization in the Bible, through the book of Mark and the Messianic Secret; engage with tools for justice in Catholic Social Teaching; and embody justice and liberation with a contemplation on Jesus and demonization.

Commentary by Dr. Craig Ford Jr.

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading 1

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

YHWH will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people;
to that prophet you must listen.
It was this that you asked of YHWH, your God,
at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said,
“Let us not hear again the voice of YHWH, our God,
nor see this great fire again, or we will die.”
And YHWH said to me,
“This was well said.
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their people,
into whose mouth I will put my words,
and that person will tell them all that I command.
If any person will not listen to the words that my prophet speaks in my Name,
I myself will call that person to answer for this.
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my Name
a message that I have not commanded to be spoken,
or speaks in the name of other gods — that prophet will die.”

Responsorial Psalm

Psalm 95

Response: If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.

Come, let us sing joyfully to God; / let us acclaim the Rock of our salvation.
Let us greet God with thanksgiving; / let us joyfully sing psalms.
R: If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.

Come, let us bow down in worship; / let us kneel before the God who made us.
For the Most High is Our God
And we are the people God shepherds, the flock God guides.
R: If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.

O, that today you would hear God’s voice: / harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
As in the days of Massah in the desert, / where your ancestors tempted me;
They tested me though they had seen my works.
R: If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.

Reading 2

1 Corinthians 7:32-34, 35

I would like you to be free of all worries.
Unmarried people are busy with God’s affairs,
and are concerned with pleasing God,
but married people are busy with this world’s demands
and occupied with pleasing their spouses.
This means they are divided.
I tell you this for your own good.
I have no desire to place restrictions on you,
but I do want to promote what is good,
what will help you to devote yourselves entirely to God.


Mark 1:21-28

They came to Capernaum,
and on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and began to teach.
The people were spellbound by his teaching,
because Jesus taught with an authority
that was unlike their religious scholars.
Suddenly a person with an unclean spirit appeared in their synagogue.
It shrieked: “What do you want from us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God!”

Jesus rebuked the spirit sharply: “Be quiet!
Come out of that person!”
At that the unclean spirit convulsed the possessed one violently,
and with a loud shriek it came out.
All who looked on were amazed.
They began to ask one another, “What is this?
A new teaching, and with such authority!
This person even gives orders to unclean spirits and they obey!”
Immediately news of Jesus spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved. 

The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.



Exorcism as liberating embrace

This week’s Gospel reading comes from the Gospel of Mark. It’s one of my favorites. As it unfolds, the narrative positions us as listeners in one of those places where God’s arms, as it were, reach across time and space to embrace us – especially those of us who know pain because society’s configuration of power leaves us feeling so often defeated. In a special way, God’s arms embrace those of us who – whether in our parishes, in our schools, or in the doctrines we are commanded to obey – experience these same destructive forces within the very Church that we want we love. In a phrase, in this Gospel passage, God embraces those of us at the margins: those subjected to the menacing forces of homophobia and transphobia; to racism and xenophobia, to sexism and misogyny. And we know the list does not end there. 

The story is, of all things, an exorcism – the first one in the entire Gospel. We are in a synagogue, on the sabbath, and Jesus has already emerged as an impressive teacher. “They were astounded at his teaching,” we read, “for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes” (1:22). As if to dramatize this realization that Jesus’s identity is special, someone at the synagogue steps forward. He’s possessed. But he’s not asking for an exorcism. Instead, the demon speaks through him: “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” (1:24). The story ends how we might expect it to:

“But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be quiet and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. [All those looking on] were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him’” (1:25-27). 

The story is fascinating from a Biblical studies perspective. As the famous late New Testament scholar Raymond E. Brown notes, this story represents the very first instance of the use of Mark’s most distinctive literary device, the “Messianic Secret.” The secret is this: everyone seems to know Jesus’s true identity as the Son of God, except the main characters in the Gospel – folks like Jesus’s disciples, as the reader will come to learn. These folks realize Jesus is the Messiah only after Jesus’s crucifixion.The demons know who Jesus really is; many of Jesus’s would-be and actual followers throughout the Gospel of Mark, do not. 

I believe there is a challenging message here for us, but to see it clearly we will need to reframe how we typically read a story like this. We typically believe that demons are bad. And there’s some sense to this, since demons typically pose a threat to the health of the host. But what if people who are cast as demons really aren’t demons? 

In our contemporary climate, both in the church and in the wider society, we know the folks who, rather than being themselves demons, are instead demonized – members of the LGBTQ+ community; people of color; migrants; the poor, and these are just a few. But those of us who are demonized and marginalized because of who we are, because of who we love, because of what side of the U.S. border we found ourselves born on – we know the secret. We know that Jesus does not condemn us or confront us with endless interrogation wrapped in esoteric theological distinctions because we are, say, gay or lesbian, trans or gender nonbinary. No, we know the secret. We know that Jesus is the Holy One of God, and that the message he brings is one of acceptance, of love, of reconciliation, of justice. And far from destroying us, Jesus calls us out of strictures and situations of confinement – whatever those strictures and situations may be – into freedom. 

Jesus calls us out from the various confining spaces we find ourselves in, not because we are problematic demons in the Church and society, but because we are being problematically demonized in those very places. What might be seen from one angle as an exorcism is actually, in truth, an act of liberation. Or, to use the words with which I began, it is actually an embrace. 

As you read these words this day, I encourage you to ask yourselves: into what spaces of freedom is God calling you? Whose arms, like Jesus’s, are open to you? And will you take up Jesus’s offer? After all, you know the secret. 

Commentary by Dr. Craig Ford Jr.

Craig A. Ford, Jr., is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College where he also serves as Co-Director of the Peace and Justice Interdisciplinary Minor. Dr. Ford is also on the faculty at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, which is hosted as Xavier University, the United States’ only Catholic Historically Black College or University (HBCU). He writes on topics at the intersection of the Catholic moral tradition and critical studies of race, gender, and sexuality.

Engage Catholic Social Teaching

Tools for entering such spaces of liberation are actually available within Catholic Social Teaching, for we know that the path toward the liberation that God offers us is justice. David Hollenbach, a well-known theologian currently working at Georgetown University, once explained the Catholic view of justice in a very helpful way. Rather than having only one sense, it actually has three. There is the notion of commutative justice, which is justice owed from one person to another in private interactions. Then there is the notion of distributive justice, which is justice in the allocation of goods and services in a given society on the part of the government or some other authority. And finally, there is contributive justice, which is the justice whereby each person is able to offer their gifts and talents for the benefit of the common good. 

Those who are demonized and marginalized in society deserve justice in all three senses. The poor deserve a fairer distribution of our nation’s wealth, especially – and I know this is controversial – those whose enslaved African ancestors built so much of the nation, yet have not received any dividends from their labor or reparations for the past crimes committed against them. Those who are transgender or otherwise identify outside of the gender binary deserve access to income, housing, and other goods, without the threat of discrimination on the part of private actors. And those who journey hundreds of miles (if not more) north to the U.S. border to enter the country in order to work, support their families, and build better lives for themselves, deserve work authorizations in order to lend their skills to the industries best suited to them. 

As happens so often with respect to Catholic teaching, we have the conceptual tools, we just don’t always use them well. Instead, we end up trapping people into the confined spaces of stereotype, of fear, of misapprehension – we end up, in other words, demonizing them. But those who are demonized know the secret. 


A Contemplative Exercise

Today and in the days to come this week, I invite you to ask in prayer: where is Jesus calling you out in order to liberate you from the strictures and structures that bind? 

I invite you, today and in the days to come this week, to look for those little moments where, despite how confining the ways of the world are, God is inviting you to renewal, to creative uses of agency, to new ways of resurrecting life in the relationships around you. 

For those of us who know that we have been demonized by the world – and perhaps even by those same forces operating in the Church – I invite you, today and in the days to come this week, to linger a little longer with God. To believe a little more deeply that, in this vast wide world, God still knows our need, and that God accompanies us in it. 

My prayer for all of us is that even when the Church and the World fail to recognize God’s call to justice; we will still heed the voice of the Messiah who beckons us onward – through prayer, toward liberative action; and through liberative action, toward a better world. 

After all, we know the secret.