The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 31 January 2021
I Corinthians 8:1-13
Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Diana Butler Bass tells the story of seminary students, who when asked whom they might turn to when having an ethical or spiritual concern, answered that they relied in people with whom they had a relationship, or the media, or the Internet. It is a different time for those who follow Christ, or who have any kind of religious life. The old authority seems to have drifted away. In two of our readings, the first from Deuteronomy, and in the Gospel, we have references to authority. The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures recognizes prophets as have the voice of God, and in the Gospel, the hearers in the synagogue are amazed at Jesus’ authority. The question for us is how do we either make a place or maintain a place for such authority in our spiritual lives.
We have just come through (no, we’re still experiencing and coping with it) a period of attraction in our society to authoritarianism. And we need to ask what are the marks of authority that we can really trust? Bass has something to say about this.
“Practicing what one preaches is a mark of spiritual truth, and humanity and humility foster trust. Although certain people will always hanker for authoritarian or charismatic leaders, there is a much broader longing for authentic leaders in these times—those whose message and actions validate their deepest beliefs. In the emerging spiritual culture, what matters much less than who is sharing the news, and the messenger has become the message.”
She goes on to further define the problem and the observation of the role of authority in lives of faith.
" Thus, religious organizations, ordained leaders, and conventional creeds recede in importance as mediators in favor of direct friendship with God through prayer and discernment as means to spiritual understanding. Friendship with God can be mystical and individual, but it is also communal and corporate—every major faith asserts that friendship with God is strengthened through friendship with our neighbor.”
Her thoughts here relate in many ways to an old authority, one that Jesus cites in his conversation with the lawyer – the recognition of the central law about loving God, neighbor, and self. The authority in Deuteronomy is one that recognizes a fundamental relationship with God in the Covenant and the prophets. We might ask in the individualism, and in the community that Bass makes mention of, who are our prophets? Who is it that speaks with the voice of God in our midst? There are so many candidates, and Bass gives us a measure of their possible worth. She thinks that such prophets and religious or political leaders are those “whose message and actions validate their deepest beliefs.” Discernment seems to be the order of the day.
First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Moses said: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God anymore, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 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.”
In ages past, and perhaps even in our own time, attempts to understand God and God’s will were rendered in the reading of entrails, or seeing omens in the flight of birds, or other observations. Here Moses articulates what will become a central understanding of Israel’s relationship with YHWH, and how Israel will hear or understand God’s mind. Moses sets the pattern, and promises that God will provide for another leader “like him.” What will be different is that Israel will have to listen for the words that are spoken to them. The key part of this new means will be discernment, the ability to detect the false word. Here we need to understand the role of prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. They did not gaze at some crystal ball, but rather listened for God’s will and then proclaimed that in human speech for the here and the now. The prophet then is someone in relationship with God, and who is held accountable by God.
Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1. Who are your prophets?
2. How do you determine whether or not they speak truth?
3. Who have you discovered not to be prophetic?
Psalm 111 Confitebor tibi
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the deeds of the Lord! *
they are studied by all who delight in them.
3 His work is full of majesty and splendor, *
and his righteousness endures for ever.
4 He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; *
the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.
5 He gives food to those who fear him; *
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works *
in giving them the lands of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; *
all his commandments are sure.
8 They stand fast for ever and ever, *
because they are done in truth and equity.
9 He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *
holy and awesome is his Name.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.
This is a psalm of praise for all of God’s acts, which are enumerated in the course of the psalm. It is an acrostic, which lends its availability to those who remembered it as a lesson in God’s providence, and the value of Wisdom. What is interesting is the indefinite nature of the “acts” of God. It allows the reader or reciter to fill in the blanks with their own experience of God’s acts. That experience leads to wisdom, and to relationship with God. In verse six we have an example of acts of God that need to be remembered and kept in mind – God’s gift of land to God’s people. With that we begin to hear of other gifts: faithfulness and justice, commandments, truth, equity, redemption, and finally the Covenant. All of this resonates with the people’s worship of God, their fear of God. Such a way or journey leads to wisdom and understanding.
Breaking open Psalm 111
1. What acts has God done for you?
2. How do you praise God?
3. What do you understand about the idea of wisdom?
Second Reading: I Corinthians 8:1-13
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Hence, 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.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
Paul will now spend a great deal of time dealing with the problem of food offered to idols. It is a bit of casuistry that was necessary. Animals offered in certain sacrifices were not offered as a holocaust where the entire animal was consumed, but only the entrails were consumed by the altar fires. The remaining flesh could be share with a family or group as a “communion sacrifice”, or offered to the priests of the temple, or was sold to the general public, often at a low cost. Such was the enigma faced by Christians, namely, was it proper to buy such meat and then consume it at home. In eating such a meal was one actually participating in the worship of idols. This is the problem that Paul confronts here. The first verse clues us into Paul’s approach, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” It will be the standard of love that guides the situation here.
Paul begins his argument by cancelling out the notion of idols – they don’t really exist. Thus the problem needs to be looked at from that particular point of view. Paul stresses the unity of God. There were many gods in the cultural world in which the Corinthians lived and worked. In their following of Jesus, however, there was only one God, and unity with God. Everything must be looked at in that context. The matter of food was of no consequence. “Food will not bring us close to God.” However, Paul wants his readers to understand the several situations which were evident in the community. Some were new, others seasoned, still others had questions in spite of their faith. Paul keeps in mind those who were “weak”, and finds that all must be done in view of their situation. He offers up himself as an example, by avoiding the consumption of meat so that others might not “fall.”
Breaking open I Corinthians:
1. What are the temptations in your life that might draw you away from God?
2. What have others done that offended you in your faith?
3. What might you do for the sake of the weak?
The Gospel: St. Mark 1:21-28
Jesus and his disciples 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.
What is striking about this reading are two different notions, evident authority, and knowledge. The people in the synagogue are twice characterized by Mark as recognizing Jesus’ authority (different than that of the scribes). It’s as if a border is being crossed here. There is a new knowledge (experience) of what God is showing forth in the acts of Jesus. This insight is given further recognition in the story about the man with an unclean spirit. There is recognition of Jesus here from the spirit as well. “What have you to do with us?” The spirit’s knowledge of Jesus opens up to us another identity of Jesus, the Holy One of God. Mark has a secrecy motif, and thus Jesus demands that the spirit be quiet and to leave the unfortunate man.
The experience of all in the synagogue now begins to revolve around Jesus’ authority – an authority over unclean spirits. They are amazed (believe), and they begin to tell the story to others. Here Mark displays what excited them, and moved them to speak, like the prophets. Here Jesus teaches like a prophet, casts out demons, and heals. This is all evidence of a benevolent God (see the Psalm for today), and Mark give us the recollection of a day of redemption and healing.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. When have you been amazed in your faith?
2. What is your knowledge (experience) of God?
3. When have you been cleansed of unclean things?
General idea: Finding Wisdom and Authority
1st Idea: Listening to the prophets, and hearing God’s wisdom (First Reading)
2nd Idea: Experiencing God’s acts in the world, and in our individual worlds (Psalm)
3rd Idea: Having knowledge of the “weak”, and acting for them (Second Reading)
4th Idea: Knowing our own amazement at Jesus (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2021, Michael T. Hiller