Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) (28 January 2024)

Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) (28 January 2024)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They 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.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee (Mark 1:21-28 – NRSV).

Introductory notes


Matthew 8:14-15 and Luke 4:38-39 both draw on this text of Mark.

“After narrating the initial call of companions for his mission of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, where Jesus appears as one whose word can uproot people’s lives, Mark continues his focus on Jesus as the Spirit-endowed stronger one by portraying a ‘paradigmatic day’ that inaugurates his ministry. This day, a Sabbath, involves demonstration of his power as a teacher through confrontation with an unclean spirit (1:21–28), through the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:29–31), and by summary statements on healing and exorcism (1:32–34). The day is structured in a pattern of ABAʹ, since it begins and ends with casting out of demons and injunctions of silence to the demons. Some authors have viewed the day as the first of a ‘new creation’, but there is little direct allusion to creation motifs. More likely this day foreshadows the final section of the gospel, another Sabbath (16:1) between the day of Jesus’ condemnation and death (which is clearly defined by time indications: 15:1, 25, 33, 34) and the day of his raising up” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 82).


Capernaum: A town on the N-W edge of the Sea of Galilee, about 4kms from the source of the Jordan River. “Josephus says it was a fertile and prosperous area known also for its fishing industry (War 3.516–521). In the gospels it is the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and in Mark 2:1 it is the site of the ‘home’ (oikia) of Jesus (see Matt 4:13, who mentions explicitly a departure from Nazareth). Jesus first teaches in the synagogue there (1:21), heals Peter’s mother-in-law and others at the house of Peter and Andrew (1:29–34), and passes through there on his way to Jerusalem (9:33). In the Q source Jesus heals the centurion’s son there (Matt 8:5–17; Luke 7:1–10; cf. John 4:46–54), but ends up cursing the town (Matt 11:23–24; Luke 10:15) for its lack of response to his preaching about God’s kingdom and repentance. Extensive excavations in recent years have uncovered an early synagogue (second or third century c.e.) and an octagonal fifth-century church built on the ruins of an earlier house church, which has been claimed to have been the site of Peter’s house in the first century” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 78).

when the sabbath came: The original Greek expression can be read as implying a regular activity – normally on the Sabbath Jesus would go to the synagogue and teach. There is considerable evidence that Jesus was raised within a practicing Jewish family and continued to live as a faithful Jew when he left home. Though, after his rejection from the synagogue in Nazareth – see Mark 6:2 – we do not hear Mark tell of any other times Jesus entered a synagogue. The synagogue came to symbolize a place of hostility to Jesus – see Mark 12:39; 13:9 and Jesus does his teaching in private houses – see Mark 7:17; 9:28, 33–50; 10:10–12 – or in the open – see 2:13; 3:32; 4:1; 10:1. He is also generally available to the people no matter where he is.

synagogue: The word “synagogue” (from the Greek synagōgē, “assembling”) can mean a gathering of people or the place where people gather. As a building it was a place for study of the Law and religious instruction. The Hebrew qehala, the Greek ekklesia – used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew, qehala, and in the Christian Scriptures to name the gathering of Christians for teaching and worship – and the Greek synagōgē, each carry the notions of a gathering of people called together by God.

astounded: “One of the salient characteristics of Mark is the motif of surprise, wonder, awe, and fear (appearing over 34 times). Such reactions embrace all aspects of Jesus’ ministry: (1) in reaction to his teaching (1:22; 6:2; 10:24, 26; 11:18, 12:17); (2) as a conclusion to miracle stories (1:17; 2:12; 4:41; 5:15, 20, 33, 42; 6:50, 51; 7:37); (3) in narratives of divine epiphanies (4:41; 6:50–51; 9:6; 16:5; 16:8); (4) notices about the fright of the disciples at predictions of the Passion (9:32; 10:33; cf. 14:33, the fright of Jesus); and (5) reactions by opponents, both before and during the Passion of Jesus (11:18; 12:12; 15:5, 44). Though reactions of awe and wonder are a formal element of miracle stories, the emphasis Mark gives to them establishes a rapport with the reader and becomes a symbolic reaction to the whole gospel” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, op cit, 79).

his teaching: There is a paradox in Mark’s Gospel. Compared with Matthew and Luke, Mark makes much of Jesus as a teacher but in fact gives us little of the content of his teaching. Mark focuses more on the actions of Jesus. On the other hand, “Matthew (in his five great speeches) and Luke (in his greatly expanded journey narrative) make substantial additions to the content of Jesus’ teaching” (Ibid).

Jesus rebuked (the unclean spirit), saying: ‘Be silent’: There is a delightful irony here. The unclean spirits know who Jesus is, they name him and declare him, in a way bearing witness to him. The religious authorities are, for the most part, unwilling or unable to name him or declare him or bear witness to him. Another theme at work here is the so-called “messianic secret”. Jesus does not want his identity to be revealed. Perhaps because it will distract him – and the people – from his true purpose which is to go up to Jerusalem and the Cross?

the holy one of God: Jesus is called by this title only here and in Luke 4:34 and John 6:69. The phrase is not found elsewhere in the nt, and rarely in the ot: 2 Kgs 4:9 (Elisha); Judg 16:17 (Samson); and Ps 106:16 (Aaron). The word “holy” suggests consecration to God and distinguishes Jesus who received the Spirit (1:9–11) and will baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:8) from the “unclean spirit.” Since the Hebrew term nazir also means “consecrated, holy,” some have seen a word play here on “Nazarene.”


In 1964, the Cypriot film director Michael Cacoyannis released Zorba the Greek, based on the 1946 autobiographical novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The film starred Anthony Quinn as the larger than life Zorba and Alan Bates as the rather diffident English writer, Bazil. At the heart of the film is a horrible event – all the more horrible because it occurs in the churchyard while God is being worshipped inside. Bazil has spent the night with an attractive widow who refuses to marry a young man from the village. That young man commits suicide when word spreads that the Englishman has been with the widow. The men from the village corner the widow on her way to the funeral and cut her throat. Later, Zorba asks Bazil: “Why do the young die? Why does anybody die? Tell me!” Bazil, deeply distressed, replies very quietly: “I don’t know”. Zorba turns on him: “What’s the use of all your damn books! If they don’t tell you that, what the hell do they tell you?” Bazil replies with both humility and compassion: “They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.” Zorba’s reaction is unforgiving: “I spit on your books!”

Bazil is right, there is no rational explanation for evil and suffering. But Bazil’s response adds something to the stock of goodness in the world. Zorba’s reaction adds to the evil. There are times in life – such as the Book of Job addresses – when we are bereft of answers. But we must stand our ground in humility and compassion. This will enable us to stem the tide of evil even if we cannot the rid moment of that evil. Sometimes, in all honesty, the best we can bring to a situation is a humble and compassionate presence. This does not mean that we stand there passively, utterly impotent, refusing to do anything. It does mean that we do not add to the evil by pretending we can or should be or do what we cannot be or do.

Today’s Gospel – Mark 1:21-28 – gives us one of a number of instances in which Jesus encounters the mystery of evil. Clearly we are not witnessing two equal forces – good versus evil – contending for ascendancy. In none of the Gospel passages is such a scenario suggested. Evil and its agencies do not stand a chance: “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.” Jesus’ response is simple and direct and effective: “Be silent, and come out of him!”

Evil has no power over Jesus or us – except what we allow. Through Him, with Him, and in Him . . . Listen for those words in the Mass. They come after the words: “This is my body …. this is my blood ….do this in memory of me”. We are guests in a totally safe place.

Becoming disciples

In today’s Gospel – Mark 1:21-28 – two encounters with Jesus are described. First of all, the people in the synagogue encounter Jesus teaching. They are “astounded at his teaching”. Secondly, the people encounter Jesus’ confrontation with the demonic. Again, the people “were all amazed”. Mark places great emphasis on Jesus being made known through his actions. One scholar writes: “We learn through a variety of encounters (calls, exorcisms, healings, and travels) who Jesus is by what he does”(J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 52).

Mark tells us that the “unclean spirit” recognizes Jesus immediately: “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.” What Jesus does here, makes it very clear to the demonic who he is and what he intends. But we must wait for seven more chapters in Mark’s Gospel before he tells us that the disciples come to this same recognition: “On the way (Jesus) asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah’” (8:27-29).

It seems fair to assume that Jesus’ disciples were with him and witnessed what the demonic witnessed that day in the synagogue. After all, the selection of the disciples occurs immediately prior to this event in the synagogue – see 1:16-20. It also seems fair to assume that the disciples were either not willing or not able to declare that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” with the same confidence and clarity as the demonic. We might wonder why this is so.

There is no obvious answer to that question. But there may be something in the fact that the demonic is the enemy and the disciples are the friends of Jesus. As enemy, the future is clear to the demonic: Defeat! As friends, the future is not at all clear to the disciples. The promised kingdom of God is yet to be revealed. The disciples are beginning a journey into the unknown. This will naturally evoke questions, uncertainty, perhaps tentativeness. Ironically, it will take time therefore before the disciples can declare who Jesus is with the same confidence and clarity as the demonic.

Becoming disciples is a lifelong process, a never-ending journey. Necessarily, we will always be on the edge of knowing and not knowing, arriving and departing, conviction and question. Is this not the way all living is? Living is relating – with God, ourselves, other people and the world at large – and relating is always growing and changing. We are always becoming human. To live is to be a pilgrim. Becoming a disciple is what happens to this human becoming when we encounter Jesus and begin to recognize him as “the Holy One of God”.