12 Jan. Thursday of Week One
1 Samuel 4:1ff. Despite having the Ark, Israel loses the battle.
Mark 1:40ff. Jesus touches and cures the leper, who tell everyone else.
True and False Religiosity
The Scripture today invites us to evaluate our reliance on externals, whether visible religious objects like the Ark of the Covenant, or flamboyant religious services, or miracles like the cure of the leper, or customs and routines in which we are set and hardened. Reading today’s Old Testament passage, questions might surface in our mind. Who could blame the Israelites for trusting in the Ark of the Covenant? After all, it was their principal link with the days of Moses and the origins of their religion in the Sinai desert. Their traditions acclaimed the power of God, manifested through the presence of the Ark. In the Torah we are told that whenever the people set out from camp, the Ark moved with them, symbolic of God’s direction of their lives. They would sing, “Arise, O Lord, let your enemies be scattered, and may those who hate you fall before you.” And when the Ark came to rest, the people would pray: “Return, O Lord, you who ride on the clouds, to the troops of Israel” (Num 10:35-36). Out of this ancient tradition, a long psalm was composed which began with the rousing words, “Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him” (Ps 68:2). Why shouldn’t the Jews believe that with the ark in their midst, their Philistine enemies must scatter? And why shouldn’t the leper, once healed by Jesus, proclaim the whole matter freely? Somehow, it seems Jesus shunned these public demonstrations. To avoid notoriety, Jesus stayed in desert places, but the people kept coming to him from all sides.
No matter how marvellous was the healing of the leper, Mark stresses the supremacy of faith. As the Even today our heart must be open to new graces and most of all to God’s personal presence. The externals of religion, even the most sacred dogmas and holiest objects, are meant to facilitate our interior communion with the Lord. Our hearts, when silence prevails and distraction is absent – our hearts that seem like “desert places” – are the true Ark of the Covenant and place of miracle. For his own reasons, God sometimes allows the externals on which we rely seemingly to collapse. The Ark will be captured by the enemy. The tried and true of religious practice suddenly seems inadequate to our needs and leaves us lonely and helpless. We must traverse this desert to find Jesus.
Discerning true from false religiosity is not always easy. The common folk are hardly to blame for rallying around traditional centres of religion – the Ark of the Covenant and the miraculous power of God. Who then is to blame? It seems that religious leaders carry the burden of fault. Earlier in First Samuel, in a section not mentioned in the liturgy, Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas were guilty of serious wrongdoing. They were reserving the best part of the people’s sacrifices for themselves and offering to God only the remnants; there were other scandalous actions. Religious leaders bear the brunt of blame if superstition and selfishness are rampant among the people – or if the people cannot distinguish true from false forms of religion.
Each one of us has religious influence in one way or another: as parent or teacher, as priest or minister, as neighbour or friend. In all of these capacities we influence others and are responsible for the moral attitude and strength of faith in others. The Scriptures question us: Do I use my position of authority to dominate others or to acquire personal benefits or to further personal career? Do I seek not to be the centre of attention, so that my words and actions lead others to prayer and recollection in God’s presence?
1 Samuel 4:1-11
And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. In those days the Philistines mustered for war against Israel, and Israel went out to battle against them; they encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle was joined, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. When the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the Ark of the Covenant of God.
When the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth reounded. When the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid; for they said, “Gods have come into the camp.” They also said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, in order not to become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
So the Philistines fought; Israel was defeated, and they fled, everyone to his home. There was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
Gospel: Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.