Lectionary Commentaries for February 1, 2009
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 1:21-28

Stephen Hultgren

A central theme in this section is the nature and issue of Jesus’ authority (exousia), especially seen through the literary structure of our material.

In the first brief section (1:21-22), Jesus and his newly called disciples enter Capernaum. On the Sabbath Jesus enters the synagogue and begins teaching. The people who heard him teach were astonished, “for he taught them as one having authority (exousia), and not as the scribes.” The data in 1:21b and 1:22a are closely paralleled in Mark 6:2, where Jesus enters the synagogue in Nazareth and preaches. The people are again astonished at his teaching. Thus, 1:21b and 1:22a represent a traditional way of describing Jesus’ teaching and its effects on hearers (cf. also Luke 4:22). But whereas Mark 6:2 highlights Jesus’ wisdom and his deeds of power, the emphasis in 1:22 is on Jesus’ “authority.”

The word for authority, exousia, is related to the verb exesti, meaning “it is free” or “it is permitted.” In other words, exousia is the “sovereign freedom” of one who acts without hindrance. Jesus’ teaching in sovereign freedom is contrasted with the teaching of the scribes. The difference is that the scribes’ teaching authority depends on their knowledge of and adherence to tradition–especially the traditional interpretation of the Torah. However, Jesus teaches with an independent authority–or rather, on the authority of God (cf. 11:28-33). Whereas the scribes are bound to tradition, Jesus is relatively free–free in the way that only one who lives directly from and to God’s authority is free.

Mark does not give us the content of Jesus’ teaching, but we can find examples of the difference between Jesus’ teaching and the teaching of the scribes elsewhere in the gospel tradition. For example, in Mark 12:35-37, Jesus asks why the scribes say the Messiah is the Son of David when Scripture indicates that David called the Messiah “Lord.” Scripture itself suggests that the scribes’ traditional interpretation is inadequate. Jesus is suggesting that who or what the Messiah is may break the traditional Jewish mold. Again, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not hesitate to suggest that the traditional interpretation of the commandments is inadequate. What God demands of us goes far beyond what the scribes require (cf. Matthew 5:20).

In the next section (Mark 1:23-28), the focus on Jesus’ authority continues. We have here a typical exorcism story. Notice the description of the possessed man as having an unclean spirit, his asking Jesus, “what have you to do with us,” Jesus’ rebuke to the spirit and command to come out, and the account of the spirit’s convulsions, loud cries, and exit from the man. Each of these characteristics can be found in other exorcism accounts (cf. Mark 5:2, 7, 8, 13; 9:25-26).

Other elements in this story have parallels to the story of the stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35-41). Jesus’ rebuking (epetimēsen) the spirit and the command to “be silent” (phimōthēti) in 1:25 are parallel to Jesus’ rebuke (epetimēsen) of the wind and the command to “be still” (pephimōso) in 4:39. The response of the crowd in 1:27, “what is this (ti estin touto)…he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey (hypakouousin) him,” is parallel to the response of the disciples in 4:41: “Who then is this (tis ara houtos estin), that even the wind and the sea obey (hypakouei) him?” These similarities suggest that, for the early Christians who formulated and transmitted these stories, the exorcism and the stilling of the storm illustrate a similar point: Jesus has power over both the natural world (winds and sea) and the supernatural world (demons).

This brings us back to the issue of Jesus’ authority. The most prominent element in 1:23-28 that does not have parallels to other exorcism or miracle stories is the declaration in 1:27: Jesus’ teaching is a “new teaching–with authority (exousia)!” Apparently, Jesus’ powerful exorcism is a confirmation of his teaching authority. What Jesus teaches is new (kaine)–unlike the scribes who teach the “same old stuff”–and his (divine) authority to teach is attested by his deeds of power.

In fact, the issue of Jesus’ (divine) authority is the major theme from Mark 1:21 to Mark 3:6! For example, in 2:10 Jesus says that “the Son of Man has authority (exousia) on earth to forgive sins,” openly declaring divine authority for himself. The whole section (2:1-3:6) portrays Jesus as the one who brings something so radically new that it threatens to break the old mold, as the similitudes of 2:21-22 make clear. (Mark places these similitudes at the center of the section, a literary device to highlight the major theme of the section). Jesus’ new practices bring him into deadly conflict with the worldly authorities, who represent the old (3:6). Furthermore, it is Jesus’ claim to act on divine authority that leads to his death (14:62-64).

Thus in 1:27, Mark has already set up a major theme of his gospel–the issue of Jesus’ divine authority, his bringing of something radically new, and the eventual result of which will be his death. Just as putting new wine into old wineskins causes the wineskins to break and the new wine to be lost (2:22), so Jesus’ bringing of the radical newness of the kingdom will lead to the breaking of the old (cf. Mark 15:38) and the spilling of his “wine” for the sake of many (14:24). The world resists God’s reign, and the world’s sinful resistance will lead to the death of God’s own Son. Yet despite; or rather through; that death, God will fulfill his purposes.

I write these words in the midst of a presidential election campaign knowing that preachers will preach on this text on February 1, soon after inauguration day. The nature and issue of Jesus’ (divine) authority provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of political power and authority.

In a worldly sense, Jesus did not have any power at all. He was not a worldly king with political or military power. He was not of the priests, who had the power in Roman Judea. He was not even a scribe with the authority of Jewish tradition. The only authority he had was the supreme confidence that what he did and said was God’s will and God’s truth. His authority lay in the sheer power of his words and in the example of his deeds. His authority lay in his living as God’s servant. Jesus used his authority not to obtain power for himself but to serve humanity (Mark 10:41-45). This is the same kind of exousia, sovereign freedom, of which Paul speaks in today’s second lesson [1 Corinthians 8:9]–sovereign freedom exercised for the good of others.

Jesus’ acting in authority brought blessings to people–health and healing (1:23-28). His authority possessed an irresistible power that drew people not through manipulation, but simply by the person that he was and the truth of his own existence and the gifts that he gave. This was not a claim to authority that was necessarily open to empirical verification in his own time. To many people of his time, it was anything but obvious that Jesus acted on God’s authority. To his opponents, Jesus was a blasphemer. Jesus had to trust that God would vindicate his authority–and, as Christians, we believe that God did vindicate his authority by raising him from the dead. (The example of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is observed on January 21 this year, comes to mind as something of a modern parallel: a man whose authority lay in his words and deeds, whose call for change was disputed in his own time, but the moral rectitude of whose call for change has been vindicated in subsequent history.)

How different from the conception of power and authority in our politics! Our politicians try to manipulate us. They say one thing and do another. They use their authority for self-aggrandizement. They look for short-term gain, even if that means doing the wrong thing, rather than doing the right thing and trusting that in the long-term, history (not to mention God!) will vindicate them. Will the future be any different?

Jesus’ authority and kingdom ministry invite us to imagine a different world — and to live towards it.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Beth L. Tanner

Where are the prophets today? Who speaks for God?

How do we know if one speaks for God or if God is being used to promote a social or political agenda? This question is as old as the ages, and this text from Deuteronomy goes hand-in-hand with the Gospel lesson from Mark. These questions are asked over and over again about Jesus. Is he the real deal? Is he really speaking for God, or is he just another itinerant prophet?

The literary setting for Deuteronomy is at the end of Moses’ life as the wandering Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. Moses is the only leader they have ever known, and his impending death puts the community in jeopardy. Deuteronomy represents Moses’ last words to Israel, both present and future. The style is one of a sermon. In other words, it is not simply information, but it encourages and cajoles, calling the people to belief and a life lived according to God’s instruction. It is the equivalent of Moses’ ancient life instruction book to the people of Israel.

To fully grasp the meaning of this passage in a modern context, some explanation is necessary. What is the modern equivalent of ancient prophets? First, most people are unfamiliar with exactly what a prophet was in the ancient near eastern context. In biblical times, prophets were not rare. Indeed, 2 Kings tells that the king of Israel had 400 prophets at his disposal (1 Kings 22:6)! The problem was not finding a prophet  it was finding a prophet that was truly speaking for God.

Prophets performed a wide range of functions, including some that are condemned in Deuteronomy 18:10-11. Prophets of the Lord are the mouthpieces for God, and their proclamations are made without the common acts of divination or speaking to dead spirits. Prophets of ancient times should probably be thought of as preachers, for they interpret the word of God to the people. Ancient Prophets, however, were distinct from priests who were responsible for leading the people in worship. The only function of an ancient prophet was to declare the word of God to the people. They did not run meetings or organize the congregation.

I see the modern day equivalent of prophets any given Saturday in New York City. As I go about my tasks, it is not uncommon to see an individual or a group standing on milk cartons and telling the passersby that “God loves them,” or that “they are going to hell,” or that “they are one of the lost ten tribes of Israel.” This religious cornucopia is now intensified by multiple cable television stations and internet sites. Prophets or preachers are still standing up and telling the people they speak for God. Often the messages are contradictory, and we still wonder which ones are true and which are false.

This passage begins with the reason why prophets are needed. It reaches back to the giving of the law in Exodus 19 and 20. When the people heard God speak they were so frightened, they begged Moses to speak with God and be their mediator. Prophets, then, are selected by God (“I raise up” verses 15, 18; “I will put my words” verse 18; “I command” verse 18) for the sake of the people. Prophets answer to God, not to the people, so they are free to speak the truth. Prophets also come “from among their own people” (verse 18). These speakers of truth are home grown. They know the ways and the hearts of the people they speak to and connect with them. They who speak for God must also be paid attention to, for to ignore their calls is the same as ignoring God (verse 19).

The hanging question is the same today as it was in ancient days: how do we know which of the many preachers/prophets who speak are truly speaking for God? The answer in the text is clear. If what the prophet says comes true, then the prophet is speaking for God. It seems like a good answer, but it does not answer all of our questions. Prophets talk of eternal things and life after death. Some of what they say is simply unknowable in this life. The test in Deuteronomy certainly helps us with some prophets who claim to speak for God, but not all. What is clear is that if a prophet/preacher leads folks astray, it is the prophet and not the people who are at fault. Unfortunately, unscrupulous prophets tend to prey on those who are the weakest and most vulnerable.

This text also speaks to Jesus’ life and ministry. His truths were not easy to hear, and eventually it was his truth telling that would result in death on a cross. Some would not believe him because he did not have the right pedigree, and did not hang out with the right people. Others did not believe him because they had already formed their own ideas of what the Messiah was to be, and Jesus’ message of grace and forgiveness was nothing like they envisioned. Still others were clear that this was Joseph’s son who could not possibly be proclaiming God’s will. Yet all of the things in the Deuteronomy text can be shown in Jesus’ life, preaching, and death.


Commentary on Psalm 111

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 111 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, a psalm type in which the singer gives thanks for God’s goodness in delivering him/her from various life-threatening situations such as illness, oppression, or enemy attack.

The words of thanks by this individual worshiper are unusual, however, for they recount not an event of God’s deliverance of an individual, but God’s deliverance of an entire community.

In addition, Psalm 111 is a succinct and masterful acrostic poem. It consists of twenty-two phrases (excluding verse 1a), each of which begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In a mere seventy-two words, the psalmist summarizes the whole history of God’s deliverance of ancient Israel in the following structure:

Verse 1: A Vow to Give Thanks
Verses 2-4: The Deeds of the Lord Praised
Verses 5-9: The Deeds of the Lord Described
Verse 10: An Introduction to Wisdom

The psalm begins with “hallelujah,” initiating a whole series of psalms (Psalms 111-118) in which the word “hallelujah” reverberates, occurring eight times at the beginnings and endings of these psalms.

Verse 1 of Psalm 111 suggests that its words are those of an individual worshiper giving thanks to God in a public setting of worship; the council of the upright and the assembly. While some scholars suggest that these two terms imply different groups of people, the first a small group that gathered around the worshiper and the second the entire congregation of worshipers, most make no distinction between the two.

The words “I will give thanks (yadah) to the LORD” tie Psalm 111 to the psalms that precede it in Book Five (Psalms 107-150). In Psalm 107, the reader encounters the words “Give thanks to the LORD” in verses 1, 8, 15, 21, and 31. They occur as well in Psalms 108:3 and 109:30.

Verses 2-4 of Psalm 111 describe God’s “works” and “wonderful deeds.” The Hebrew word translated “wonderful deeds” is niphla’oth.” It means “something that I simply cannot understand,” or “something different, striking, remarkable; something transcending the power of human intelligence and imagination.” The word is used many times in recounting the events of the exodus from Egypt. We find it in the stories of the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna, the provision of water in the desert. All of these are referred to as “wonderful deeds,” things transcending the power of human intelligence and imagination.

Verses 2-4 culminate in verse 4b’s refrain “the LORD is gracious and merciful.” “Gracious,” from the Hebrew verbal root hanan, and “merciful,” from the verbal root raham, are two of the self-declarative attributes of God given to Moses in Exodus 34:6. God declares, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” In Psalm 111, the word order is reversed (“merciful and gracious” in Exodus 34; “gracious and merciful” in Psalm 111) because of the constraints of the acrostic structure of the psalm.

In verses 5-9, the psalmist outlines, in brief descriptive phrases, the works and wonderful deeds of God. In verse 5, God gives “food,” a reference perhaps to the giving of the manna and quail in the Wilderness (Exodus 16 and Numbers 11). Verse 6’s “the inheritance of the nations” suggests God’s giving of the Promised Land to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 6-7). The “precepts” of verse 7-8 are part of the Torah, the instruction of God given at Sinai (see Psalm 119:27, 104, 173). And verse 9’s reference to “deliverance” summarizes the actions of God in the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings.

Verse 9 concludes with the words “he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.” God’s covenant and God’s name are foundational traditions of ancient Israel. Upon these the community may depend for its future as the people of God.

With God described as “awesome” in verse 9, the proper response of the worshiper in verse 10 is to “fear the Lord.” In the twenty-first century we tend to associate “fear” with something scary, something we want to get away from, or something we think will harm us. Yet we read in the Old Testament that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Thus, we know that “the fear of the Lord” is a good thing; it is a positive aspect of our faith.

The word “fear” (yara’) appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for “love” (Deuteronomy 10:12); “cling to” (Deuteronomy 10:20); and “serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will. The Hebrew word for “fear” is powerful in meaning, but it has more to do with feelings of awesomeness. It is more about being in the presence of the holy other with cautious reverence than it is about the sweaty-palmed, shaking, gasping for breath kind of fear we often experience. When we enter into a relationship with the God of the Bible, it is a high calling. It is a dangerous, a reverent, a fearful relationship.

The Psalm scholar Leslie Allen likens the words of Psalm 111 to Romans 5:1-11. He writes:

“Psalm 111 glories in the present and permanent relevance of the ancient events of salvation. … Those events have a once-and-for-all value which the New Testament in turn attaches to the Christological counterpart. They are a window through which God’s purposes for each generation of his people can be clearly discerned. They are a signpost pointing to his enduring care and claim.”1 

As believing communities recite and reverence the stories of the great deeds and wondrous acts of God performed on their behalf, they maintain and make ever-new their claim of being “the people of God.”

1Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Waco, TX:  Word Books, Publisher), 93.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Arland J. Hultgren

The text assigned is an entire, but fairly brief, chapter in 1 Corinthians, located at the beginning of a longer unit extending over three chapters (1 Corinthians 8:1 through10:33).

In that lengthy section, Paul questions whether it is permissible for believers at Corinth to eat meat (in temple dining areas) that remains after animal sacrifices have been made at pagan temples. The opening verse (8:1) indicates that this was a live issue at Corinth. Those who refuse to eat such meat consider it a matter of conscience (8:7). Essentially, Paul argues that because idols have no real existence as actual gods, one has freedom in regard to this question (8:4, 8; 10:23, 25-27). Nevertheless, out of love and regard for the other person for whom it is a matter of conscience, one who claims such freedom should be willing to relinquish it (8:9-13; 10:23, 28-29).

At the outset of this chapter Paul places two terms in contrast: “knowledge” (gnosis) and “love” (agape). The two need not be antithetical, but in this case “knowledge” is used in a derogatory sense. Paul is not speaking about knowledge in general, but of a religious sophistication that is arrogant. It “puffs up.” On the other hand, the love of which Paul speaks is a self-giving love. It is modeled on God’s own love, demonstrated in the giving of his Son. It is a love not based on the worth or attractiveness of the other person, but generated from within. Love such as this, Paul says, builds up (or edifies) the community. The two terms are set against each other: “knowledge” leads to spiritual self-aggrandizement, whereas “love” promotes a healthy, vibrant, spiritual community.

Paul goes on to speak of knowledge in a positive sense (8:4, “we know”), saying that believers know idols do not “really” exist. But later on he says some persons who have come out of a pagan background do not have such “knowledge.” Then he gets to the heart of the matter: “they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (8:7).

Paul has to use skill to wend his way through this local controversy. But he has come to a conclusion; eating such food or not is a matter of indifference. However, those who agree with him are to use their “liberty” in a way that does not cause “the weak” to stumble (8:9). In other words, eating this food could cause a misunderstanding. Those who are weak might think Christians can worship both God and idols, and thus, revert to pagan rituals. Therefore, it is better to refrain from eating food that has been offered to idols.

The specific issue being discussed is not a live one for most Christians throughout the world and can even seem strange for persons at worship who hear this text being read. Therefore, preaching on this text makes it necessary to transpose its essential message to other issues that people face.

As in a previous lesson assigned from 1 Corinthians two weeks ago (6:12-20), this one has to do with the use of one’s freedom. The term translated as “liberty” in the RSV and NRSV and as “freedom” in the NIV is exousia (8:9), often translated as “authority” in other contexts. It carries the nuance of possessing the right to act in some particular way.

One question many contemporary Christians need to face is how to use the “freedom,” even the “authority,” they have to behave in ways that are responsible. The old inhibitions and restraints that Christians, especially Protestants, inherited (embedded in “code morality,” “blue laws,” and more) have passed from the scene in most communities. In days gone by, that inheritance, in spite of its faults, served as a social glue, holding people together in a common consensus. Losing these guidelines concerning behavior within society and the church can be perilous for many people.

The message of Paul for the church of today is that one may well have freedom in Christ, but it must be used with discretion and, in particular, with care for the sake of the vulnerable. One’s own freedom in some matters of behavior can be put aside when a faith crisis for another is at stake. To relinquish one’s freedom is not to lose it; it is one way of using it.

This message is more difficult when applied to corporate matters, so extra caution is called for in applying it to congregational life. For example, if a congregation faces an issue in which some members call for change, and others seek to preserve what is familiar, it can be too easy to consider one of the groups as “in the know” and the other as “the weak.” One should avoid thinking this way, and certainly not speak in those terms, for it only leads to feelings of superiority among some and the sense among others that they are not being heard.

Still, this text can be applied in a corporate setting. In that case, the use of freedom; indeed, the use of authority; will not consist of abandoning one’s convictions. Instead, freedom and authority will be used to accommodate the views and feelings of all, making way for communal discernment and working toward a consensus. In the end, decisions have to be made. But they are made best when steps are taken to open up dialogue, and when genuine care is actually demonstrated.