Authority

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany; 31 January 2021; Epiphany 4B (RCL); Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28.

I find this passage from Mark’s Gospel to be rather frustrating. Jesus teaches as one having authority, but Mark doesn’t give us the content of his teaching, just the crowd’s response to it. We do get an exorcism, which is really the first public act of Jesus’ ministry. And it happens in the synagogue at Capernaum. What point is Mark making?

Burton Mack suggests that Mark is setting up a conflict between Jesus (good) and the synagogue (bad), and he sustains his point convincingly. By associating scribes and Pharisees and the Jerusalem authorities, Mark is presenting an ahistorical situation, tarring all of Judaism with the brush of the plot against Jesus that results in the destruction of the Temple. Not really a message helpful in our day and age and circumstance.

I think, however, we can nuance Mack’s argument a bit. Demon possession seems to be a phenomenon of cultures under oppression by an outside force (in Mary Douglas’ typology, low group/high grid). People who have little freedom in their situation are susceptible to demon possession. The story of the Gerasene demoniac illustrates this point well. Those pigs on the hillside would have been for the market of the occupying Roman army, and indeed the demon’s name is Legion (Battalion). The local economy has been crushed by Roman occupation, and the weakest members of society respond demon possession.

Is Mark telling us (in addition to developing the plot against Jesus) that the synagogue is under the pressure of the occupation as well? Mack’s point still holds — the Jewish authorities (according to Mack) are participating with the occupying forces. Mark is certainly not the only one making that point. The Essenes and Sicari and the Qumran community seemed to be saying much the same thing. But Mark is portraying Jesus not just then as a force in opposition to the religious leadership, but also in opposition to the occupying force. Jesus is the liberator of the people from Roman occupation and its local adjutants. Certainly, the centurion’s confession at the foot of the cross is as much political as religious (truly this man is divi fili).

All the more frustrating, then, that we don’t get the content of Jesus’ teaching.

I find the passage from Deuteronomy equally frustrating. God promises the people a new prophet, who will deliver God’s word to the people. Any prophet who speaks in the name of another god shall die, as well as any prophet who presumes to speak in God’s name a word that the prophet has not received from God. Easy enough to know when a prophet is speaking in the name of another god, but how are we supposed to tell when a prophet is speaking a word not received from God? Again, it raises the question of authority. How do we discern what is authoritative?

The law that Moses gives in Deuteronomy is meant for the flourishing of the people, so that they may live long in the land God is giving them. Of course, Deuteronomy, at least in its final form, is being written after the people have been exiled from the land, and seeks to explain why that happened: the people were not exclusive in their worship of God.

So, perhaps the the principle of discerning authority is the health of the community. Certainly, the passage from 1 Corinthians would suggest as much. Eating meat amounted to the worship of another God, and even though the ‘strong’ in Corinth knew that other gods had no real existence, yet their actions might harm the consciences of others for whom Christ died. If that were true, Paul was willing to be a vegetarian for the rest of his life.

I suppose the question for us is what false gods exist in our circumstance, and what oppressions crush the people whom God loves. We will have to discern these things, before we can discern what is authoritative teaching.

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