4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B

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Homily by Dcn Bill O'Donnell (PDF) (Kindle) (Podcast)

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The people were astonished at [Jesus’] teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.

Both here in Mark’s Gospel (which we will read from this Sunday) and in Matthew’s Gospel at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the people are amazed at Jesus’ doctrine because he teaches as one having authority. But what does this mean? What was different about the way that Jesus taught? And, finally, how can priests today follow Christ’s example in their preaching?

Christ, prophet and professor

The Lord Jesus is the “new Moses”, the prophet spoken of by Moses in Sunday’s first reading (Deuteronomy 18:15-20): A prophet like me with the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your kin; to him you shall listen.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) very clearly presents our Savior as the “new Moses”, the new Lawgiver. St. Mark does the same in this Sunday’s Gospel (which you can read [here]). The passage begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue and the people being astonished at the authority with which he speaks. Then, after the exorcism of an evil spirit, the people are again astonished at our Savior’s teaching, saying to one another: What is this? A new teaching with authority.

Far too often today, people speak as though our Savior did not come to give any teaching or doctrine, but was only a “nice guy”. However, the Gospels clearly show that Jesus was known, during the time of his earthly ministry, as a great teacher and as a prophet.

Christ is truly the Prophet, the one promised by God to Moses and the people of Israel. And the very word “prophet” is related etymologically to the word “professor” – for a “prophet” is one who “speaks in the presence of others”, Latinized from the Greek “pro” (meaning, “before”) and “phanai” (meaning, “to speak”). And this is precisely the same etymology as the word, “professor” – “one who speaks in front of others” (namely, in front of students). The connection between the two words is more clearly seen in “professor” and “prophecy” (where the “t” has been softened to the “s” sound).

Christ is the Prophet, which means he is the teacher. Our Savior came to instruct us in doctrine, and salvation is more than just about being nice, it also requires true and orthodox belief in what our Lord has taught us.

The authority with which our Savior teaches

Christ was and is (through his Church) a teacher, but he does not teach as did the scribes; rather, he teaches as one having authority. But what does this mean? What set our Savior’s teaching aparat as being with authority?

St. Theophylus (cited in the Catena Aurea) tells us: “Again, Christ taught them by rebuke, not by flattery as did the Pharisees; wherefore it says, And they were astonished at his doctrine; for he taught them as one having power, and not as the Scribes. He taught them also in power, transforming men to good, and he threatened punishment to those who did not believe on Him.”

Further, St. Bede the Venerable adds: “The Scribes themselves taught the people what was written in Moses and the Prophets: but Jesus as the God and Lord of Moses himself, by the freedom of His own will, either added those things which appeared wanting in the Law, or altered things as He preached to the people; as we read in Matthew, It was said to them of old time, but I say to you.”

Commenting on Matthew 7:28, Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide gives seven points in which Christ taught with authority:

1) He taught important matters of the highest importance and which are necessary for salvation. But the scribes taught trifling matters of rites and ceremonies which were passing away, such as the washing of hands and of cups.

2) What Christ taught in word, he fulfilled in dead. Precisely because he is without sin, our Lord teaches with the greatest authority those things which pertain to holiness and salvation.

3) The Lord taught with great spirit and fervor, such that the words of Scripture could always be applied to him, The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up.

4) The Savior confirmed his teaching by miracles, which the scribes could not do.

5) The scribes were mere interpreters of the Law, but Christ is the Lawgiver sent from heaven.

6) While the scribes sought their own glory and the praise of men, our Lord taught solely for the glory of God and our salvation.

7) Not only by his words and example, but also by the hidden inspirations of his grace, the good Jesus illuminated the minds and inflamed the hearts of his hearers. Thus, he made the ignorant to become learned, and the wicked to become good.

Lessons for preaching today

In imitation of the Savior, the priest must preach neither for his own glory nor seeking to be accepted or thought well of, but for the glory of God and the salvation of his flock. He must preach with zeal, recalling that his sermon really will have an effect on the salvation of souls, either for good or ill. Further, the priest must not preach his own doctrine or opinion, but rather the doctrine of Christ which nourishes the Church.

Most importantly, the priest must live a holy life in accord with what he preaches – and, though he be not perfect, he must at least strive for perfection. Thus may what St. Gregory Nazianzen said of St. Basil the Great be said of all priests: “A sermon of Basil’s was like thunder, because his life was like lightening.” (Orat. 20)