Each Sunday’s scripture readings from the Hebrew and New Testaments typically address a theme. This week, one specific thread is hard to detect among the assigned readings (Deuteronomy 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and Mark 1:21-28). It makes for intriguing reading and reflection. The concluding questions offer a way of looking at the collected passages.
In Deuteronomy, Moses is giving his farewell to the Israelites. Having led them out of Egypt and through the desert for 40 years, he knows that he is about to die. The Israelites are dismayed at the prospect of life without him.
Moses reassures them on God’s behalf, The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. Then he quotes God as telling him, “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.”
These two verses are the theological foundation for the powerful role of the prophets in the life of Israel. As God’s spokespeople they will reassure the people, speak the truth to power, confront evil, and sometimes foretell the future.
Yet Moses’ assurance comes with a twofold warning. God warns the Israelites, through Moses, that, Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. This statement reinforces the role of the prophet as God’s spokesperson.
And to the prophets who may be tempted to profit personally from their power, God says, “But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” The powerful role comes with great responsibility for integrity. The prophet not only speaks God’s word, but must also live it faithfully.
The second reading from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8:1-13) seems to pick up the thread of this last note: responsible use of knowledge as power.
The specific issue that Paul addresses is alien to us: whether Christians should eat food that had been used in a pagan sacrifice. Yet it was a divisive matter for the Corinthians.
In the reading for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany Paul writes to the well-educated Christians. They had argued, accurately, that since the idols aren’t real the food used in pagan sacrifices isn’t ‘spiritually contaminated’. However, eating such pagan sacrificial food scandalized others who thought that it was sinful.
Paul’s writing in this passage is theatrical and somewhat convoluted, so the following is a highly edited version of the passage. Paul gently but clearly rebukes the more sophisticated Christians. Concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.”… but knowledge puffs up, while love builds up. He tells them not to be too self-important, to focus on love. True wisdom is knowing and being known by God, Anyone who loves God is known by him.
Paul agrees with the sophisticates: As to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one” … the Father, from whom …all things … exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
Despite this agreement Paul turns to the importance of not scandalizing others. Not everyone, however, has this knowledge. Some …still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. In other words, some still believe that it is wrong to eat meat that comes from sacrifices to pagan idols and the example of you sophisticates may tempt them to ignore their conscience …So take care that this liberty of yours does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, …they might be encouraged to… eat food sacrificed to idols, in violation of their consciences
So by your knowledge those weak believers … are destroyed…When you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. If food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
This passage is about the ethics of those who enjoy the power of knowledge but more significantly it is about the greater duty of love. Paul sees a dynamic relationship between individual freedom and responsibility for the community’s spiritual well-being. Like the prophets in Deuteronomy, the sophisticated people enjoy power, but the grace of knowledge also raises the bar on their duty of care for others.
The gospel passage, (Mark 1:21-28) tells a relatively straightforward story. Having just recruited Andrew, Simon, James and John, they went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. In Greek, the verb that is translated he entered indicates that this was a habitual act. In other words, Jesus went to the Synagogue regularly on the Sabbath.
They (the attendees of the Synagogue) were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. In Mark’s gospel the motif of surprise, wonder, awe and fear appear thirty-four times in response to his teaching, miracles and the reactions of his disciples. These reactions indicate that while elements of Jesus’ appearance were common his teaching and behaviour were not.
The phrase, he taught them as one having authority, reflects Jesus’ deep personal knowledge of the scriptures. His words probably inspired people with his insights.
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.” The man disrupted Jesus’ talk with his shouting. It would be as if someone stood up in the middle of a Sunday sermon and began shouting.
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit…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.” The irony is that a man with an unclean spirit knows that Jesus is the Holy one of God, while the others in the synagogue apparently were confused.
These days the person might be diagnosed with Turrets’ Syndrome, or some other social pathology. Regardless of what we call it, the affect of Jesus command was instantaneous: something we do not see even with our modern diagnostic tools and medicines. Not only did Jesus bring an end to the interruption but he cured the man. It was marvelous on several accounts.
At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
These three scripture passages raise the question: what is the unifying thread or threads. It may be how the central characters – Moses, the sophisticated Christians in Corinth and Jesus – use their power. Moses used his power to reassure the Israelites that God would send other prophets to lead and instruct them. Paul instructed the knowledgeable Christians that the power of love was a greater good than knowledge. In Jesus’ case, he used the power of his words to cure the man.
Or perhaps the unifying thread is the constancy of God working through humans to navigate the troubles that we face. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites feared for their loss of leadership when Moses died. Yet God reassured them through Moses. In first Corinthians, God worked through Paul to resolve the conflict, without diminishing one side or the other. In the gospel, Jesus ended the disruption peacefully, cured the possessed man and instructed the attendees. In doing so he acted always as God’s beloved son.
Or, the unifying thread may be the prophetic role of confronting challenges. Moses, Paul and Jesus each faced a different kind of challenge from their community. Each led them to a resolution. They did not hide, they did not deny the challenges, but faced them with divine wisdom and love.
- What unites these passages for you?
- Who are our contemporary prophets? Who in our lifetimes speaks God’s word, confronts challenges with love, leads and directs people? Deitrich Bonhoeffer? Desmond Tutu? Oscar Romero? Jean Vanier? Abraham Heschel? Martin Luther King? Who else?
- Is there an equivalent to ‘pagan offerings’ in the church today? Are there behaviours that some consider permissible and others do not? How do we respond?
- The devil recognized Jesus immediately and accurately. Is the devil a prophet?