Commentary for Epiphany IV

Commentary for Epiphany IV 31 January 2021

Texts for this week are Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8.1-13, and Mark 1:21-28

By Father Doug Woods

Deuteronomy 18:15-20  It's odd how little we Christians study the Hebrew Scriptures (HS), also known as the Old Testament (OT).  Some would say, "Why would we study the Hebrew Scriptures?  That's the scripture of another religion."  Against that, I would argue two things:


    • Jesus Christ was a Jew, a member of that "other religion". Certainly, in its earliest days, Christianity was viewed as a sect of Judaism.  We, as followers of Jesus Christ, are members of that "sect"-which, admittedly, now has a life of its own.


    • The Christian Scriptures, also called the New Testament (NT), quote liberally from the HS [Hebrew Scipture]; the HS are foundational to the NT. Would you buy a house without checking out the basement?



I'm not a HS scholar; the best I can do is point you to a few sources, e.g.,


    • The edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV) which I own has, at the beginning of the OT, a short description of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT); the last of the five is Deuteronomy.


    • In the edition of the New International Version of the Bible (NIV) which I own, similar descriptions can be found at the beginning of each book of the Bible.


    • More lengthy treatment of the books of the HS can be found in surveys, e.g., LaSor, William, et al. Old Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.



For most of our purposes, the descriptions in Bibles will suffice.


So, in a few words, let me give some context.  Deuteronomy is Moses' farewell speech to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land.  It's nearly forty pages long, so it covers a lot of ground.  It comprises God's acts of salvation and what that means for the people's life, but it's also at pains to take that tradition and make it relevant to daily life in a new time.  Of central importance in this regard is the Shema, the Summary of the Law, in Deut. 6.4-5.  This Summary forms an important piece of Christin worship.


Today's reading from Deut. 18 is part of a much larger section (4.44-26.19) which looks at what the Covenant has to say about the people's life.  Of this, there is a smaller section (chapters 12-26) which talks about worship, governance, the holiness of God's kingdom, and God as Redeemer.


Today's reading comes from the governance section.  Moses refers to his successor as "a prophet like me", someone chosen from among the people to be a go-between, someone who speaks to God on behalf of the people and to the people from God.  That's why every pronouncement from a prophet begins with, "Thus says the Lord."


There are also warnings.  One is that the people should heed the prophets:  "Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable."  The other is that "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 very specific terms, this prepares the people for the short term and the long term.  In the short term, this passage refers to Joshua, son of Nun, who will be next to lead the people.  In the long term, it refers to the prophets who will come later.  In today's context, I'm thinking of Jesus, whose authority comes from the fact that he speaks the word of God.  See today's gospel reading.


Psalm 111 A friend of mine recently sent me a video which shows planet Earth in comparison to other things, e.g., the other planets of the solar system and the sun.  It goes on to show our sun in comparison to other stars, then our solar system in our galaxy, the Milky Way, and then our galaxy in comparison to other galaxies.  My friend said this shows how "insignificant" we are.  My thought was not that we're "insignificant", but that such knowledge is very humbling.  Looking at the coin from the other side, a parent is "everything" to a newborn.  Good government is "everything" to a nation; its life depends on it.  To me, the relevance of X to Y is a relative matter.  A parent has life-and-death importance to a baby, and in some countries, a ruler has life-and-death influence over the life of the people, "insignificant" though the leader may be.


Coming back to that description of all Creation in the video, we're supposedly "insignificant", but whoever/whatever created it is infinitely significant, wielding ultimate power over all that is.  That's what today's psalm describes.  That's powerful.  And yet to God, I'm important, and so are you.


1 Corinthians 8.1-13 We've already talked about the church in Corinth.  They were an extremely talented, gifted group.  You can see from today's reading that many of them had gotten the picture:  idols are nothing, there's nothing behind them; this is what they know.  But apparently, there's a faction within the church who aren't fully convinced of that, who likely believe instead that idols are real and that to have anything to do with them is wrong. 

The conflict is over eating foods which have been sacrificed to idols.  Anywhere you went in Greece you'd find just such a situation, so Christians couldn't avoid it by just going somewhere else.

Paul's comments go in several directions:


    • What is safe for one person may be harmful to another. In our society, what might that be?  Alcohol?  Is it a good idea to have a beer in the company of an alcoholic?  At the very least, it might be unkind, possibly worse.  So, Paul counsels the Corinthians to look not only at themselves, but at others when they make their choices.,


    • We shouldn't make our choices solely on the basis of knowledge. You may have noticed that sometimes people who are really well educated can be arrogant at times.  They see themselves as superior to others.  They are not sympathetic to the needs of others.  Paul suggests that real knowledge would include sympathy for others.


    • Finally, Paul emphasizes that no one has the right to claim a right which will harm another. To do so, to do something which will harm someone else, is not merely an indulgence; it's a sin.



Mark 1:21-28 Some suggest that the main thrust of Mark's gospel is Jesus' authority.  Others maintain that the main thrust is Jesus' identity.  So let's see what we can come up with here.


Today's story has Jesus teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.  That wouldn't be totally unusual.  Those in charge of a synagogue could invite a guest speaker, but you have to assume that a guest speaker is some recognized authority.  So, it must be that Jesus had already made a name for himself.


It says that the people of the synagogue were "astounded at his teaching".  That could be for a couple of reasons:


    • He was doing something you wouldn't expect him to do.  At that time, a son was expected to do the same job as his father, so we would expect Jesus to be a carpenter.  In fact, since he was teaching, you might expect some of the people (if they even knew Joseph-he was from Nazareth, after all) to say, "Who does he think he is?!  Where does he get off doing this?!"  It was considered shameful to aspire to change the status quo.


    • Another would be that Jesus was really good at what he was doing.  That's what the rest of the reading would suggest.  He "taught them as one having authority."



You won't be surprised to learn that the word authority is rooted in the word author.  You can speak with authority if you're the author.  Furthermore, the text says, "not as the scribes."  There's nothing wrong with the scribes; they were experts on scripture, which was really important for people "of the book", especially since the Law is from "the book", and Jews place the Law at the centre of their beliefs.  But the scribes were the "academics" of their day.  They studied the experts and quoted them, and possibly expanded the body of knowledge about scripture.  But they quoted others.  Their knowledge was derivative; they were not the author.  So, the fact that Jesus speaks with authority means either that God speaks directly to him-as God does to prophets-or he is the author.


And in the midst of the proceedings, a man who is possessed by a demon appears in the synagogue.  But just a minute.  We have to talk about demons and evil spirits.  First of all, people then assumed that everything which was evil was somehow associated with demons, including sickness, misfortune, and mental illness.  Do we?  In this time?  A recent study done at Baylor University found that less than ten percent of Americans don't believe in some sort of spirit world.  I was astounded by that.  Of course, that's Americans.  I wonder what the number is in Canada.  Just to follow that up, I thought COVID was caused by a virus-so, did demons cause the virus?  I need time to explore that for myself!


Second, the demon says-or says through the man-" 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."  That's astounding.  How does the demon know Jesus' identity?  And here's where we have to talk about the Messianic Secret.  You've likely noticed that most people in the gospels don't get who Jesus it-not regular people, not the authorities of the Temple, not even Jesus' friends.  I do confess that Peter, when he says, "You are the Christ" is getting there, but he has only a poorly formed idea of what it means to be the Christ.  So, we'll give him a good solid D.  And Jesus, when people seem to be getting close to "getting it", tells them not to say anything about it.  It seems that Jesus doesn't want his identity to be known a) in the wrong way or b) under the wrong circumstances.


Yet here's this demon who has it absolutely right.  What does Jesus say?  "Be silent, and come out of him!"  "Be silent."  The original Greek is more like "muzzle/stifle yourself".  It's very forceful.  But he also says, "come out of him."  And he does!  He comes out!  Why would he do that-unless Jesus had incredible authority?  Unless Jesus could order him around.  And the people in the synagogue are duly impressed.  "What is this?  A new teaching-with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him."


So which is the centre of Mark's treatment of Jesus?  His authority?  His identity?  Or could it be both?  His authority tips his hand about who he is?


It's been great to see you again.  See you Sunday?

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