What authority?

Epiphany 4B (RCL)
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

I always find reading Mark’s Gospel frustrating. He is not very fair to those assumed outside his audience. In this passage, Jesus shows up at the synagogue at Capernaum to teach. It is the first instance of Jesus’ teaching in Mark’s Gospel, aside from the first sermon, “The time has arrived, repent and believe the good news.” This provides the readers with our first view of the substance of Jesus’ teaching, the meat of his message. And what do we get? An exorcism. And after the exorcism, all the people in the synagogue are asking, “What is this? A new teaching? But with authority.” We get exactly none of Jesus’ teaching, but plenty of Mark’s: Mark is teaching us that people who go to synagogue are often demon possessed, and that the demons (and not those they possess) recognize Jesus. Remember, even the demons believe. These few short verses set up a tension that will run throughout Mark’s Gospel, between Jesus’ followers (on the inside) and those who go to synagogue, on the outside. Jesus’ teaching is directed only to those on the inside and intentionally encrypted against those on the outside — not what I would call effective evangelism.

So, how to redeem Mark? One has the feeling Mark is shouting into the wind at a debate partner who has already walked away: “Oh, yeah?! Well, who needs you, anyway?!” We’ve seen it on playgrounds. If we are to take anything away from Mark’s Gospel, we will have to hear that taunt directed at ourselves. What demons need exorcising in our own congregations. Certainly, we spend a lot of time talking to those on the inside, and not a lot of time figuring out how to translate the message, “The kingdom is already arriving” into language others will understand.

It is interesting to back up and read a few chapters before the passage we read from Deuteronomy. The deuteronomists define the roles of four kinds of officials within society: judges, kings, priests and prophets. Some scholars believe that these chapters in Deuteronomy were written after the crisis of 579 BCE in Jerusalem, i.e., after the Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians, and after they had installed their own client king. The future of the monarchy is in grave question. Kings, we are told, come from among the people — that is, they are not divine. They should not amass too much wealth, or have too many wives. They are to read daily from the book of the law (i.e., Deuteronomy). This is a very scaled back understanding of kingship from the excesses of people like David and Solomon — a sort of constitutional monarchy. Priests are to come from the levitical class, and any levite who wants to come to the place of God’s worship are to be accorded an equal share in the priestly living. That certainly never happened while the Temple stood, when priests were rather more like royal functionaries, administering the royal tithes. Judges are to come from the priestly class, and are to decide cases based on deuteronomic law, favoring orphans, widows and sojourners. Kings are to execute their judgments.

All of this could get pretty rigid in a bureaucratic society. So, the deuteronomists give us prophets, which had always been a fixture of Israelite and Judaic society. Prophets formed a completely uncontrolled and uncontrollable medium for God’s word to enter into the social life of Israel and Judah. They were troublesome, especially to kings and also to priests. But kings rarely had the courage to kill prophets, if we are to judge by the books of the prophets. They often attracted large followings. But the guideline the deuteronomists give us for deciding who is a true and who is a false prophet is singularly unhelpful: If what the prophet says comes true, he is from God. By the time his warning comes true, it will be too late to heed it. By the time it doesn’t come true (if you’ve heeded it) it will be too late to unheed it. What to do? Of course, this guideline will be helpful for deciding on which prophets’ works to include in the canon, but no real help when you need it.

How do we look for God’s word bubbling up in unexpected places in our social life? What old patterns need to be changed? It’s risky to step out — much more comfortable to stay with the tried and true. We don’t have the luxury of waiting to see how it turns out to decide. It will be too late. We have to do our best to assess what is the heart of the message (the kingdom has arrived, turn around and trust the good news), and trust God. In the Episcopal Church, we have probably relied too much on bureaucratic forms of government (offices and orders), and not enough on prophets. But we need prophecy that will address the world outside the doors, rather than shout at the wind.

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