Lectionary #71, Mark 1: 21-28
We all know that words can be both edifying and destructive: on the one hand everyone at some point has experienced the moving power of a great speech (or even a good homily!), and on the other we have all occasionally been taken aback by harsh language or felt the sting of gossip.
Both dimensions of speech are in evidence in today’s scripture readings: first we hear about the necessity of listening carefully to the words of God’s prophets, then we pray the responsorial Psalm, which urges us to strain the ears of our heart “hear his voice”. Finally, in the Gospel, we hear how Jesus himself listened to the angry words of the demon he encountered in the synagogue at Capernaum, and in turn spoke in order to instruct and reassure the worshipers in the synagogue—Mark the evangelist tells us that they were “astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes”.
The authority that the citizens of Capernaum noted in Jesus’ speech illustrates how words can convey reality and truth in a way that cuts us to the quick. One might wonder then why Jesus would later order the demon he met in the synagogue to remain silent: wouldn’t he want everyone to hear what the demon said? After all, although this spirit was evil, it spoke the truth about the Lord, saying “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”.
This Gospel scene, in which Jesus’ words are carefully measured and his identity mysteriously protected, introduces us to what has often been called the “economy of revelation”. This use of the term “economy” does not refer in the usual way to finance, employment, and commerce, but rather it indicates the gradual unfolding of God’s message of salvation in God’s own good time.
Each of us has experienced moments when we knew that it was best to leave certain things unsaid, both in small matters and in important ones: our sense of discretion and good judgment tells us to wait for just the right moment to make something known. Another place where one can see this same practice at work is in the teaching profession: teachers present things in a particular, sensible order, so that all might learn, and not be led off track prematurely—this is the heart of good pedagogy.
In the same way, Jesus wanted his disciples to be prepared for the fullness of the truth about him on his own terms, something that of its nature must come gradually lest it be taken out of context, or hi-jacked through misinterpretation. The economy of revelation is thus a beautiful sign of God’s gentle accommodation to our human frailty and understanding: he leads us in a gradual and comprehensible way into a mature knowledge and acceptance of him through Christ.
Those worshippers in the synagogue at Capernaum, illumined by Jesus’ presence and words, were able to make such a mature acceptance; they recognized the newness and freshness of his teaching, they recognized its genuine authority (since it flowed naturally from their Jewish faith), and they saw this teaching and authority proven through the casting out of the demon.
For our part, let us treat words with the respect that their power deserves, not being excessively forward with them or using them to confute or to sting others. Then we will remember that sometimes it is best to reveal things gradually—or not at all—if we are to imitate the loving kindness of Christ, not misleading others into a naïve vision of our faith, but rather allowing its beauty and truth to unfold naturally, in due course.
Father Edward M. Mazich, O.S.B.