Last Sunday, we witnessed the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he started to preach repentance and the gospel and called his first disciples. Today, we see him taking his ministry into the synagogue and turning into an instant celebrity. “The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes… his fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee”
The scribes were the official interpreters of the Torah or the Law of Moses, hence the most authoritative teachers of the scriptures. Yet the people noticed at once a great difference between the authority with which the scribes taught and that of Jesus.
No doubt, Jesus must have taught with extraordinary eloquence and deep insight, but the authority of his words was something else and much more powerful. The scribes established the orthodoxy of their teaching on their faithful interpretation of Moses and the prophets. Jesus instead taught directly in his own name. In his later ministry, we would hear Jesus say, “You have heard that it was said… but I say…” The authority of Jesus came from himself, while that of the scribes was borrowed. The first reading explains why this is so.
God promised through Moses to his people, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and I will put my words into his mouth.” Jesus is the fulfilment of such promise. Like Moses, Jesus is a prophet, but a much greater one for his words do not only come from God. He is the Word of God himself, made flesh.
It should not surprise us then that at the end of Jesus’ preaching, his authority was fully exposed in the power of his words, which drove out the unclean spirit from the man in the synagogue. The people’s astonishment at Jesus’ teaching turned into amazement, as they asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
God is a God of revelation who constantly communicates with us. In the past, he spoke through the prophets and in the fulness of time, through his own son, Jesus Christ. Before returning to the Father, Jesus instituted the Church and tasked her to continue his mission. He empowered her with the Holy Spirit and gave her authority to teach and to speak in his name. “Whoever listens to you listens to me.” (Lk 10:16)
We are the Church and it is to us that Jesus entrusts his mission, “Go into the world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (Mk 16:15) Here we see the significance of the theme of our celebration of the 500 Years of Christianity - Missio ad Gentes.
Today’s gospel teaches us a valuable lesson on how to be credible in our mission of proclaiming the gospel. Like the scribes, we (the Church) may be the official interpreter of God’s Word. But we can only be effective in our ministry if, like Jesus, the word we preach is made flesh in us; if what we say is what we do. Such was the dissonance between the teaching and the life of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus had to warn his listeners, “Do and observe all the things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but do not practice.” (Mt 23:3)
Last week, in our CBCP Plenary Assembly (via zoom) we listened to a most enlightening presentation on vaccination by Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a micro-biologist and moral theologian Dominican priest. He expounded on the topic from the scientific perspective to its theological-moral implications. He ended his presentation with an impassioned appeal for the bishops to allow themselves to be televised when they would have their vaccination. He emphasized the necessity for everyone to be vaccinated if we are to end the pandemic. Unfortunately, a big majority of our people still do not trust the vaccine, (no) thanks to the proliferation of misinformation and fake news. He made his appeal to the bishops, saying that while our people may no longer believe in their leaders or even science, they still believe in the Church.
That the Church is still credible to our people is certainly a heartening observation but one that cannot make us complacent. Our gospel reading tells us that a possessed man was present in the synagogue. Indeed, the devil can be present in the Church. In fact, Pope Francis warns us of the more insidious enemy of the Church from within.
It is enough to think of the many scandals that rock the Church, the internal bickerings that polarize her and the vulnerability of some Church leaders to deception and conspiracy theories that leave the faithful confused and misguided – to know that today, more than ever, the Church stands in need of purification and exorcism.
In fact, St. Augustine has long said, “Ecclesia semper reformanda est.” The Church is always in need of reform.