Lectionary Commentaries for January 29, 2012
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:21-28

Paul S. Berge

Our initial approach to this text is from a first person response to what took place on Sabbot at the synagogue in Capernaum, a city on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Were you at the synagogue in Capernaum today? I wasn’t sure I saw you and so I will tell you as clearly as I can what happened. I can only explain that something occurred that has never, yes, never ever happened before in our hometown synagogue where our people “gather together.” What took place is unlike anything our rabbis have instructed us in over the years. This was far beyond their teaching and authority.

Sabbot worship started out like a routine, very normal gathering. We all came with the usual expectation. Now don’t get me wrong, our rabbis are faithful interpreters of the Torah as they instruct us in the Word of the Lord, but their teaching does get to be routine. Everything was progressing as usual, the prayers, the Psalms, the reading of the Torah, when a newcomer “immediately” entered the synagogue and began teaching and instructing us, dare I say, with a new “authority” (Greek, exousia). His authority was not as our scribes. When I use the word “authority” about his teaching, you know that the word also includes the power to “exorcize” demonic spirits.

I am still in shock as to what happened next. “Immediately” a deranged person screams out. No one in the synagogue had a clue as to what brought forth this outburst. It appears an unclean spirit had identified this rabbinic-like teacher as one who had authority to exorcize and called out to him by name: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The voice was a shrill demonic-like scream. How did this spirit know the name of the rabbi from Nazareth? Did the voice really assume that this teacher has the authority to exorcize demonic or unclean spirits?

The scream continued with words of blasphemy using the name of God: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” With this a hushed silence came over the entire synagogue as these words were spoken. The rabbi named Jesus from the hill country of Nazareth sensed the offense of these words, the identity of the Holy One of God. He addressed the possessed man and rebuked him with exorcizing words which likewise silenced the entire synagogue, “Be silent, and come out of him.”

What occurred next was a demonstration I have never, ever, witnessed before. The man was writhing on the floor like he was in conflict with the spirits possessing him. Then the voice of a demonic spirit cried out with the same shrill demonic-like scream. The unclean spirit came out of him and he appeared to be calm. He stood up and in his right mind looked as normal as any of us.

Needless to say we were all overcome and amazed and kept saying to one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority he exorcizes a demon possessed person!” What took place we saw with our own eyes that he commanded even a host of unclean spirits and they were obedient to him. On my oath this is what took place on this Sabbot. I can’t explain what came over us, but it was like we gave witness to the rabbi from Nazareth as our praise to the one, holy and righteous God in our midst. We have no other experience like this to compare. We have since heard that what took place in our synagogue “immediately” spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

The evangelist of the Gospel of Mark has selected this exorcism story to inaugurate the public ministry of Jesus. In the Gospel we are “immediately” faced with the story of Jesus’ exorcism in the synagogue of Capernaum (1:21-28). Our text for this Sunday follows the title and promise of the Gospel (1:1), the identity of John the Baptist (1:2-8), Jesus’ baptism and voice from heaven (1:9-11), God’s Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness and encounter with Satan (1:12-13), Jesus’ announcing of the presence of the kingdom of God and call to repentance (1:14-15), and Jesus’ calling of Simon, Andrew, James and John (1:16-20).

We have experienced early in our hearing from the Gospel of Mark a story which proclaims the lordship of Jesus Christ. This text is just as present for us as the experience in this first century story and world. The immediacy of the story is continuously present as the adverb “immediately” appears three times in this brief story (1:21, 23, and 28). The evangelist emphasizes the immediacy of God’s reign and rule breaking in and present in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

In this world of demonic powers that continue to enslave us, Jesus has broken its hold. The hold of the evil one has no power over us. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer “deliver us from evil,” when the Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew reads “rescue us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13, New Revised Standard Version). We too have been rescued from the evil one and restored in our right minds through the lordship of the crucified and risen Christ. This is an epiphany in our lives present in the Word of God.

How do we live with this dramatic story of exorcism from a first century world in our so-called sophisticated 21st century world which questions such? Whether in the first century world of a healing in a synagogue in Capernaum or in our gathering of worship today, the kingdom of God, the reign and rule of God’s power and authority is manifested in Jesus Christ. This is an epiphany story now in our proclamation for all who gather to worship the one, true God on January 22, 2012.

“The Holy One of God” is our title for the Christ. He alone breaks into our world of possessions to free us to live in his authority to exorcize the powers of this age.


First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Callie Plunket-Brewton

Prophets are a rather complicated gift.

According to Deuteronomy 18:15-20, they were a gift from God to the people who needed to hear what God had to say but were reduced to a state of abject terror at the sound of the divine voice. To enable communication to continue, God will send a prophet “like Moses” who will act as the mouthpiece for God: “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to [the people] everything that I command” (verse 18b).

Such figures are vital to the wellbeing of the people, and the narratives of the prophets demonstrate just how difficult it was both to wear the mantle of the prophet and to hear the prophets’ words. The word of God is hard to bear.

The authentic word of God is also quite difficult to discern, particularly when there are competing messages. The admonition of verse 20 highlights the problem of the false prophet: “But 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 to speak — that prophet shall die.” Thus, the price for prophesying falsely is clearly articulated, just how the human recipients of the false prophet’s message are to know the message is not from God is less clear.

It might be a simple matter if false prophets were those who spoke for gods other than Yahweh, but it is also possible that a false prophet might claim to speak for Yahweh. Indeed, Micah in 1 Kings 22 claims that the other prophets have been intentionally deceived by God in order to trick the king, which shows that even a prophet who speaks in the name of God and believes that he or she is speaking a true message can be a false prophet.

The text does contain other clues for how one might judge between one prophet and another. God will call prophets “like Moses” and presumably their messages will correspond to the Mosaic law. One might also consider the characteristics of Moses himself: one who was both an advocate for the people before God and also an obedient servant of God, speaking faithfully on behalf of God to the people. Love of God and God’s people might be said to set the true prophet apart from the false. The text also mentions that the true prophet will be “from among your own people” (verse 15), however, Balaam (Numbers 22-24) speaks an authentic message from God and is not of the people of Israel. Also the people of Samaria viewed the prophet Amos as an outsider because he was from Judah and presumed to proclaim a message to them.

Although it is outside the verses selected for the lectionary this week, verse 22 presents one technique by which to separate the true prophet from the false: “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken.” The limitation of such a method is obvious: one can generally discern what was the correct path in retrospect. The problem is how to decide what is the true word of God in the moment, when the matter is pressing and the choice must be made.

The problem is that the words of the true prophets are quite often the last thing that people want to hear, something that King Jehoshaphat of Judah seemed to realize in 1 Kings 22, the narrative of the prophet Micah, a narrative mentioned above as well. When all the other prophets confirmed the two kings in their proposed course of action, Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire” (verse 7)?  Prophets in the Old Testament were known to pronounce judgment on the very foundations of the people’s beliefs.

Jeremiah 18:18 reports the efforts of Jeremiah’s opponents to plot against him because they viewed Jeremiah as a threat to the religious life of the people. They say: “Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah — for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet…let us not heed any of his words.” The basis for their refusal to listen to him and to go and act against him is that he is speaking outside and against the legitimate religious authorities. Although Jeremiah says on numerous occasions that the authorities are corrupt, his was just one voice, one perspective on the proper conduct and beliefs of the people of God. Even the book of Deuteronomy represents just one view among many, albeit a view that has come to be seen as authoritative.

Preaching this text could take a preacher in any number of directions. It is a helpful lens through which to view many of the stories of the prophets we find in the Old Testament and can provide an opportunity to talk about how difficult it would have been to hear and recognize the word of God. It is all to easy to condemn the people of Israel and Judah for failing to listen to the prophets, and this text can give a congregation some understanding of the struggles associated with recognizing a true prophet.

Most people and communities have a hard time hearing the words that demand a drastic change of belief or practices, and so the tendency is to ignore such words of judgment or to dismiss them as the words of a false prophet. We find layers upon layers of difficulty before us in our effort to discern the word of God in our midst, and yet the task is of the utmost importance.

The task of determining God’s word to us requires a great effort on our part and a willingness to listen for the word that challenges all that we hold dear and believe to be true. The word of God is, indeed, difficult to bear and to hear, but the alternative — being cut off from God, unable to look beyond our human limits and see God’s dream for us — is untenable.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 111

Rolf Jacobson

“The ABC’s of Theology”

In his commentary in the Westminster Bible Companion series, James Limburg titles Psalms 111 and 112, “The ABC’s of Theology” and “The ABC’s of Anthropology,” respectively.1 The reason for this is that the two neighboring psalms are “twins.” Each psalm is 22 lines, divided into 10 verses. Each psalm is an alphabetic acrostic — with each half-verse beginning with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet, from alef to tav (from “A to Z,” so to speak).

Psalm 111 is mostly about theology — it is about God. Whereas Psalm 112 is mostly about anthropology — it is about the human response to God. Themes introduced in Psalm 111 are echoed in Psalm 112. For instance, Ps 111:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Psalm 112:1 says, “Happy are those who fear the Lord.” Or, Psalm 111 confesses about God’s character: “The Lord is gracious and merciful”(verse 4b). Psalm 112 says God’s people reflect God’s character: “they are gracious, merciful, and righteous” (verse 4b). 

Since the psalm for this week — the fourth Sunday after Epiphany — is Psalm 111, the focus is on God. On God’s character, actions, promises. In short, the focus is on “the ABC’s of Theology.” This is appropriate in the Epiphany season, because the focus is not so much on us and our actions, so much as it is on God and who God has been revealed to be.

Because of the psalm’s acrostic structure, perhaps the best way to approach the psalm is thematically rather than structurally. Because the poet was constrained by the alphabetic structure, the poem does not develop logically — from one logical development to the next, or from one theme to the next. Therefore, rather than moving from one section of the psalm to the next in an expository fashion, perhaps the most fruitful approach to preaching the psalm is thematic — picking out key themes.

Who God Is

A first theme to be considered is who God is. The psalm provides both metaphorical, creedal expositions of who God is. In terms of metaphors, in verses 3-4, the psalm draws first on terms drawn from the realm of royalty and then from the realm of parenthood (especially motherhood). Drawing from the realm of royalty, the psalm refers to God as “full of honor and majesty.”

The image here echoes the common image in the Psalter of the Lord as king (see Psalms 93, 95-99). God is like a great king, ruling with power and might. But then the psalm moves toward a more domestic vision of God. Drawing from the realm of the family, the psalm refers to God as “gracious and merciful” — note especially that the term merciful suggests the image of God as mother, since behind the term “mercy” is the Hebrew word for womb — rechem. The parental metaphor is continued, as God is described as one who provides food. 

As noted above, there are also creedal dimensions to the description of who God is. The above phrases — “gracious and merciful” — echo the ancient creed-like confession of God found in Exodus 34:6-7a

The Lord, the Lord
a God merciful and gracious,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
Keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,

In verse 9, the psalm also refers to God as “holy and awesome.” The language here is of God as transcendent, as surpassing any rival and indeed, of surpassing any comparison.

Throughout, the psalm is bearing witness to the very nature of God — to God’s character, to who God is. 

What God has Done

The psalm also touches at multiple points on what God does and has done. Already above, it was mentioned that God provides food. As part of the divine creative agency, the Lord goes on working within creation — providing food. But also suggested here is that the sustaining and renewing of creation are God’s ongoing work. As it says in Psalm 104:30, “When you send forth your spirit, they [all “your creatures”] are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” Among God’s other actions, the psalm names:

  • “he is ever mindful of his covenant” (verse 5b; see also verse 9b) — a reference to the covenant that was initiated at Mt Sinai
  • “giving [the people] the heritage of the nations” (verse 6b) — a reference to the gift of the promised land
  • “all his precepts are trustworthy” (verse 7b ) — a reference to the gift of the law
  • “holy and awesome is his name” (verse 9c) — a reference to the gift of God’s name, which the people can use to call upon God in “praise, praise, and thanksgiving,” as Luther says in the Small Catechism.    

Throughout these references to God’s activities, the history of God with the chosen people is foregrounded. Even though God is transcendent (holy and awesome, full of majesty and honor), God is equally immanent (gracious and merciful, ever mindful and providing). Even though Gods works are “great (verse 2), those works are also faithful and just and trustworthy and they may be studied. God may be beyond comprehension, but God can be known. 

Specifically, God has drawn near in the history of the chosen people — and, of course, Christians believe most of all in the person of Jesus Christ. The transcendent God is also a God of providence, guidance, deliverance, law, a God who answers those who call upon his “holy and awesome name.” And all of these activities of God occur within history

Which is, after all, the message of Epiphany. In the history of the chosen people Israel — a nation of people who were chosen, by the way, not for their own benefit but rather that through them, all the other nations could be blessed through them — and above all in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God has drawn near. In the words of the Gospel of John: “And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:14, 16).


1Psalms (Louisville: Westminster, 2000) 381, 384.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Frank L. Crouch

At first glance, this might seem like a good text to pass over as the basis of a sermon.

How does one bring out the contemporary relevance of an ancient debate over whether to eat food offered to idols?  However, the other passages offer their own challenges — from Mark (casting out an unclean spirit) and Deuteronomy (prophets who speak on behalf of other gods shall die — an observation or a command?).  All three passages call on us to get at the heart of the gospel and at the heart of a community of faith.  So, what about this question over meat offered to idols?

For many people in the US, the primary questions raised about meat are “Do I want chicken, beef, or pork tonight?”  “Is this beef grass-fed or grain-fed?”  “Do I want regular bacon, low-sodium bacon, or turkey bacon?”  Or, there is the contemporary continuum along the lines of vegan, vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, to those omnivores who eat and enjoy anything, including Spam, potted meat, and haggis.  People at various points on that continuum engage in debates that typically start along ethical or environmental lines and might get to theological considerations of whether meat is right or wrong to eat.  That is not the arena of Paul’s debate here.

Paul focuses on how we might gauge the impact of our actions on the lives of others and how we might use that impact as a reason to restrict our own behavior.  A closer parallel to our own day would be debates over “political correctness,” for example, whether to use gendered language for God or the people of God in worship.  No one debates whether the words “father,” “mother,” “he,” or “she” are, in themselves, good or bad.  They’re just words.  But in various contexts, those words take on additional layers of meaning. 

The importance of that fact is made clear by Paul’s take on meat offered to idols.  For Paul, a piece of meat is a piece of meat.  It does not matter if that meat was offered as a sacrifice to a false god in a pagan temple.  Eating it will not hurt you.  There’s no actual power in it to do damage to you or to your faithfulness to God.  But that’s not the only consideration.  Suppose that there is a covered-dish supper at your church.  Someone brings a platter of food saying, “The local Satan-worshippers had a table set up at the mall giving away this food.  It’s delicious!”  Would you eat it in front of everyone?  There would be no actual power of Satan in the food.  It would be fine to eat it.  But how might that be interpreted by others?  What impact might it have on a new convert or on someone who would take that to mean that there’s no real difference between things offered to Satan and things offered to God?  In a context where no one would have a problem with it, it would be fine.  In a context where someone might be led to “fall” because of it, it would be wrong.

For some this might sound suspiciously like situation ethics or simply giving in to political correctness.  But there exists an underlying ethic that skewers any pretentions held by anyone on either side of a political correctness debate.  Paul doesn’t attack either side of the debate.  He attacks both sides of the debate.  Or, more precisely, he attacks everyone, regardless of which side of a debate they stand on, who focuses on showing that “I’m right.  You’re wrong.  And, it’s stupid of you to think and act the way you do.”  Paul goes after both sides of liturgical wars, worship wars, talk radio hosts, even up to ideologically deadlocked members of Congress and says, “Tape this up on your mirror so that every time you see yourself you also see these words: ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by [God].'”

Anyone who can only see “how right I am” and does not pause to consider the intrinsic value and worth of those who think and act differently misunderstands the heart of the gospel.  Paul says, “If you have to choose between being loving and being right, be loving.  If you see someone wavering on the brink of their faith in God, think about what you can do for that person on their terms, not on your terms.”  Paul calls us to humility before God and our fellow human beings, to an awareness of the immensity of our own ignorance and the enormous extent of our own capacity to fall into error.

Paul says that, objectively speaking, and in actual fact in the eyes of God, people who oppose eating meat offered to idols are wrong.  Nonetheless, people stand at different points in their understanding and in the strength of their relationship to God.  So, for their sake and out of respect for their relationship to God, I’ll act as if they’re right.  At least for now and in this case.  And, he takes that approach not out of condescension or self-righteousness but out of his recognition that on a scale of one to a hundred, when we compare our understanding and love to the understanding and love of God, we all stand, at best, at, maybe a two, or on our best days, a five. 

A closing dilemma.  When we’re in a community, faced with a choice to do something or not, we can’t help but make a choice. We’re either going to do that something or not.  For example, a few paragraphs above this I chose to take the translation “anyone who loves God is known by him” and state it this way, “anyone who loves God is known by [God].”  Would you call that choice good or bad, right or wrong? And why?