A new teaching

28 January 2018
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany 4B (RCL)

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

This is Jesus’ first public appearance in Mark’s Gospel after the general announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom. Burton Mack makes much of the fact that it is an exorcism in a synagogue. Jesus arrives on the scene as the man of power, casting out unclean spirits in the synagogue. There is certainly a polemical point being made. Mack sees a remarkable contrast between the man of power in the first half of Mark’s Gospel and the crucified righteous one of the second half. I believe Mark has already telegraphed this contrast in the words from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, which quote both Psalm 2 (a coronation psalm) and Isaiah 42 (the first of the suffering servant songs).

One could argue that Mark is making the point that power doesn’t look like we expect. The people respond to Jesus’ ‘teaching’ (Mack is right to point out that no teaching takes place in this passage) by remarking that it is with authority. The word used for authority in Greek is exousia, which means something like, “coming from one’s being.” The Latin equivalent would be auctoritas. The reason the people are startled is that their own teaching doesn’t come from their own being.

In this day, to a large extent, the Church has abdicated its authority. We may declaim about what we see happening in the world around us, but we do it in the safety of our own sanctuaries. And many who claim the title Christian claim to like what they see. We have begun to confuse Christianity with capitalism and race supremacy. As long as a politician lines up with our stance on abortion, gays, and free markets, we’ll give him a ‘mulligan’ on all the rest.

In the passage from Deuteronomy, God promises the people to raise up a prophet like Moses in future times. We often read this as a promise concerning the end times. The prophet like Moses is a harbinger of the renewed reign of God. It was one of the titles given to Jesus (for instance when Philip called Nathaniel in John 1, or when Jesus asked his disciples who people said he was in the synoptics). But I detect here a bit of impatience on God’s part, just like the impatience when the people ask for a king in 1 Samuel. The people are afraid to encounter God, so God reluctantly interposes a prophet as mediator between Godself and the people. Fine, have it your way. I’ll give you a prophet.

God then goes on immediately to spell out the danger of having a prophet. A prophet may prophecy in the name of another God. A prophet may speak a word that God has not given the prophet to speak. How do we know? Only if the prophet dies, and by then it may be too late.

I think in our political arena, we have abdicated our responsibility in much the same way the people asked Moses that they might never see God again. We have asked not to have to confront the truth for ourselves – we’ll listen to the pundits, the politicians and the news that is most comfortable to us. How do we know whether our appointed prophets are speaking in God’s name, or in the name of another God, like wealth, power or race? Only when it’s too late can we know for sure.

Paul warns the cognescenti in the Corinthian congregation that ‘knowledge’ puff us, but love builds up. How do we know what God is saying? We have to look at the good of the whole. Just like his warning that visiting a prostitute takes the whole Body of Christ into the encounter, so our eating together creates solidarity, even with idols that have no existence. And if that damages one of the weaker of the community, then let’s be vegetarians. The truth of God builds up community. Jesus’ authority comes from recognizing this truth. It’s a powerful truth, but one that ultimately he will die for.

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