The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 1 February 2015

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
I Corinthians 8:1-13
St. Mark 1:21-28

Background: Prophets
The office of the prophet is one that is often misunderstood in our time. Indeed, amongst fundamental Christians, the prophetic role is seen as one of telling the future. The ancient term “seer” may have given rise to this understanding of the prophet. The Hebrew term navi, is best described in Deuteronomy 18:18, I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kindred, and will put my words into the mouth of the prophet; the prophet shall tell them all that I command.” The office of the prophet is not so much about the future as it is about the “now” of things. The title speaks more about being a spokesperson than it does about gazing off into times that come. Robert Alter puts it well, “The literary prophets in the biblical canon are less in the business of prediction than of castigation.”[1] The Hebrew name comes from the verb n-b which means to “be open”, as in being open to an experience from outside oneself, thus expressing the word that comes to the prophet from God.

Prophets often used language and symbol to get their message across. Isaiah and Amos used names to telegraph their message, and Jeremiah uses clay pots, leather yokes, and other symbols to make clear or to point to his message. Several scholars point to schools of priest/prophets who could have been titled “seers” who practiced rituals that indicated what God wanted for an individual in a particular situation. The taboos against divination, however, made these practices dubious, and the notion of prophetic spokespersons was the favored idea.

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 any more, 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."

Israel was not alone in entertaining and cultivating prophets. Persia and Greece had similar personalities and offices. Often these individuals were harbingers of change in society. Here, however, the office is devoted to a single idea, and that is the notion of “word”. So, in this reading, we hear a lot of “word ideas”: “the voice of the Lord,” “I will put my words in the mouth”, “who shall speak”, “speak in my name”, “a word that I have not commanded.” What this pericope wants us to understand is the discernment of the true prophet from the false prophet. Canaanite religion and other religions in the Levant certainly had their own prophets, and their gods had their own words. Moses wants the people to be able to distinguish YHWH’s spokesperson from these other. Moses is anticipating his absence and the need for other persons to fill the prophetic office. As week look at the history that the Deuteronomist wants us to see, and at the situation that prevailed at the time of the books writing (8th – 7th Century BCE?) we see a common problem of discernment.  What did God want? Who was it that would indicate God’s will in a world turned topsy-turvy? The text leaves us hanging.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
  1. Who are the prophets of our time?
  2. Who speaks the word of God to you?
  3. How have you been a prophet to others?

Psalm 111 Confitebor tibi

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the LORD! *
they are studied by all who delight in them.

His work is full of majesty and splendor, *
and his righteousness endures for ever.

He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; *
the LORD is gracious and full of compassion.

He gives food to those who fear him; *
he is ever mindful of his covenant.

He has shown his people the power of his works *
in giving them the lands of the nations.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; *
all his commandments are sure.

They stand fast for ever and ever, *
because they are done in truth and equity.

He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *
holy and awesome is his Name.

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 general praise of God arranged in versets that begin with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, an acrostic. The setting for this psalm seems to be one of two places: either a psalm sung amongst an elite group, the assembly of the upright, or in a more general audience, in the congregation. It’s all encompassing content seems to suggest the latter. What the author outlines for us is all the attributes and acts of God, seen in their splendor and in their mercy. Not only is majesty described, but God’s compassion and mercy as well. This is a psalm of national stability and strength – a strength that is rooted in the wisdom that comes from God. Rather than being an esoteric collection of wisdom, it is rather the root of “good understanding”, conventional logic and good behavior.

Breaking open Psalm 111:
  1. In what ways are you wise?
  2. Is God’s wisdom present in your wisdom? How?
  3. What is your “good understanding” of God and self?

1 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.

We are in the midst of a lectio continua (continuing reading) from the first letter to the Corinthians, and the subject is a concise discussion on idolatry. It is introduced in general and then moves to a specific discussion about food offered to idols. This activity will serve as the platform on which idolatry will be discussed, and its reflection in the lives of Christians will be examined. “Since no idol really exists”, it is a morally neutral discussion. Paul, however, is never far from the effects that any act might have in the lives of Christians, so a more thorough discussion takes place. The questions revolve around the faith of the weak and the real parameters of Christian liberty. His stance is one of forbearance for those for whom the eating of meat offered to idols is an offence. “Therefore, if food is a cause…I will never eat meat.” One wonders what other social decision we are driven to make might be made differently were we to espouse such an ethic?

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. How do you “edit” your life and behaviors for the benefit of others?
  2. How do you not do so?
  3. How do you make the decision, one way or another?

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.

Capernaum becomes the center of Jesus ministry with its parallel focus on the region of Galilee. Here, immediately following the call of the disciples, Jesus urgently begins his mission and teaching. Jesus is characterized here and in other places in Mark as a teacher, but the Gospel actually contains a larger agenda of actions, rather than teachings. This particular pericope is a good example of the combination of both. Also an issue or a demonstration here is Mark’s vision of Jesus’ authority, seen in the context of the gathering at the Synagogue at Capernaum, and also in the exorcism story.  It is important to remember how Jesus’ word has been used in this pericope and in the one prior. The disciples are both called and convinced by that word, and in this pericope people are “amazed.” Thus Jesus enters into the commonalities of human life, and calls the disciples from their labors into a different labor, and calls forth the “demon” from the man, thus showing the power of God’s word in the difficulties of life. The “demon” knows Jesus and his effect, but it is the power of the word, God’s word, that Jesus abruptly pronounces that looks beyond what “evil” has to say, and pronounces good news in everyday life. The word, as it was experienced in Judaism involved debate, and eventually “a vote” to determine what its relevance was. Here Jesus shows forth his authority by pronouncing what is so.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What does Jesus pronounced to you?
  2. What are the “demons” of your life?
  3. How might Jesus expel them from you?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

[1]      Alter, R. (2008), The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton& Company, Kindle Edition, location 20075.


Popular posts from this blog

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 6 June 2021

The Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, 23 May 2021

The Second Sunday of Advent, 6 December 2020