There is still a bit of the devil in us! Jesus must increase

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Year B

by Fr. Tommy Lane

Once when I was on retreat in a monastery in Ireland I greeted one of the monks, “How are you, Father?” He replied, “There is still a bit of the devil in me!” It sounds funny but it expresses a truth about all of us, “there is still a bit of the devil in us” because we have not yet overcome our attachment to sin. “There is still a bit of the devil in me!” would certainly be true of the man with the unclean spirit in the Gospel today (Mark 1:21-28). Perhaps no one would have suspected much was amiss with the man. He was in the synagogue on the Sabbath so he was obeying the Torah. Perhaps to outward appearances at least everything was in order. But inside he was “unclean.” That could be said about any of us. None of us is yet the wholesome and holy person we are called to be.

The man in the synagogue suddenly flipped when Jesus taught. “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!” (Mark 1:24) Jesus’ teaching, the word of God, challenged him and showed him up for what he was and likewise challenges us and shows us up for what we are, throwing light on the dark corners of our lives. Prayer and spiritual reading can reveal to us who we really are. Have you ever considered your distractions in prayer? They may have something to say to you about opportunities for growth in your life. The Lord can also reveal our need of his healing outside of prayer. Our dreams are said to be expressions of our wishes, desires and emotions so they can also reveal who we are before the Lord. Sometimes an event in our lives or our reaction to it may show us up for who we really are when we see our weakness and lack of holiness laid bare. In whatever way our true self is revealed to us, such moments of self-revelation are opportunities for grace, opportunities for the Lord to work on us and heal us and transform us into the holy and wholesome person we are called to be. Such a painful moment occurred in the life of that man in the Gospel today.

Jesus cleansed the man of the evil spirit. But it was not easy for the man. The spirit convulsed the man and came out of him with a loud cry (Mark 1:26). There is a sense in which we “convulse” when overcoming evil. If overcoming our attachment to sin were easy we would all be saints by now. The problem, of course, is that we don’t want to face the spiritual “convulsing” involved in spiritual growth. It is easier to remain as we are because such necessary spiritual “convulsing” is letting go of our ego and our attachment to sin. That is precisely why we shy away from it, we don’t want to let go of our ego and attachment to sin. The Psalm today gave a warning about not letting go of our egos.

Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
“Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works.” (Ps 95:7-9)

Instead as the first reading asked, we are to listen to the prophet to be raised up like Moses.

A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen. (Deut 18:15)

Jesus is that prophet, the fulfillment of that prophecy. When we let go of our ego and attachment to sin Jesus takes its place in our lives. The words of John the Baptist about Jesus apply to us at this stage, “He must increase but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) That is precisely why this spiritual “convulsing” is necessary, it fills us with God. We decrease but God increases. When this is intense the Carmelite spiritual tradition calls it a dark night.

In our day to day lives, to help us overcome our attachment to sin and our egos and instead allow God more into our lives, prayer, reception of the sacraments, and spiritual reading are so necessary. The second reading (1 Cor 7:32-35) reminds us that those who are celibate do not have as many worries of the world to bother them and so can devote themselves to the Lord’s affairs. This does not mean that celibates consecrated to the Lord are more holy than those who are married. No, I am sure there are many married people who are far more holy and therefore closer to God than celibates consecrated to God. But I know there are also very many holy celibates consecrated to God. While it might be unpopular in some circles now to say that consecrated celibacy is a higher calling than marriage I think that people have a sense of this; just look at the reaction to priestly scandals. People know a priestly scandal is much more appalling because of the different calling that a priest has received. The second reading (1 Cor 7:32-35) reminds us that those who are celibate do not have as many worries of the world to bother them and so can devote themselves to the Lord’s affairs. Therefore we expect consecrated celibates to overcome attachment to sin and ego to free themselves for God.

Once when I was on retreat in a monastery I greeted one of the monks, “How are you, Father?” He replied, “There is still a bit of the devil in me!” The man in the Gospel was in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Everything seemed to be fine. But there was a problem inside. When the Lord reveals our true self to us it may be painful but is an opportunity for spiritual growth. Perhaps a spiritual “convulsing” is necessary to overcome our attachment to sin and our egos. The man in the synagogue enjoyed a new life after encountering Jesus. Jesus offers the same new life to us also. For that new life of Jesus we must decrease, he must increase.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered in Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More material for the Fourth Sunday Year B

Related Homilies: Jesus Our Healer heals us through the Mass and Sacraments

We have faith in the power of Jesus to heal us and pick us up