Lectionary Commentaries for January 31, 2021
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:21-28

Osvaldo Vena

Jesus’ teaching ministry starts in Capernaum, on the Sabbath day, in the synagogue. Jesus’ exorcism represents a demonstration of authority, and Mark distinguishes that authority from the scribes’. (By the way, Mark refers here to acquired honor, the honor that is gained actively through social interaction).

The main activity of scribes was teaching. It consisted of an exposition of the Law or the Prophets with relevant implications for the present. Jesus is showing more authority than them. As Mark describes it, he is not presenting a new teaching but is giving an interpretation that proved to be more relevant.

The passage can be structured loosely as follows:

a. Jesus comes into the synagogue (21)

b. Jesus teaches with authority and this is acknowledged with amazement by those present (22)

c. A man with an unclean spirit cries out (23-24)

d. Jesus heals the demoniac (25)

c’. The unclean spirit cries out and leaves the man (26)

b’. People acknowledge Jesus’ authority with amazement (27-28)

a’. Jesus leaves the synagogue (29)

The center of the structure, d, shows where the main emphasis resides; it is in the exorcism. The rest of the passage is constructed around it in a rhetorical parallelism that is not coincidental. It betrays an intentional structure, perhaps already present at the oral stage of the tradition and later put into writing in order to facilitate its memorization and transmission.

Two mentions of Jesus’ authority seem to frame the exorcism (verses 22, 27). That is the reason why Ched Myers affirms that the demons speak on behalf of the scribes.1 “Have you come to destroy us?” is spoken by the demons, but in Mark’s narrative, it represents the scribes’ opinion. The narrator seems to be leading the reader to ponder what a demon-possessed person is doing in the synagogue, especially in the light of a later accusation of the scribes’ that Jesus performs miracles by the power of the prince of demons (3:22). In Mark’s view, the scribes’ teaching is “demonic” because it does not liberate, but oppresses and enslaves people. A liberating act was needed and Jesus did it!

The Jewish Annotated New Testament suggests at this point that the expression Holy One of God—applied to Elisha in 2 Kings 4:9, and opposite to unclean spirit—means that Jesus, like Elisha, “would restore the correct boundary between the demonic realm of death and the world of life created by God.”2 It is not to be taken as a messianic title, as suggested by the capitalization of “Holy One” (which is not marked as such in the Greek text), but wrongly assumed by the translators. The expression refers to Jesus as belonging to God, being pure and separated from impurity, and thus contrasting sharply with the unclean spirits. The reason why they recognize this attribute, while no other human being in the narrative has done it yet, is because demons are spiritual beings.

Jesus’ command to the demons to be silent has to do with the fact that he does not want them to name him, since in that culture the one doing the naming had more authority than the one being named (see Adam naming the animals in Genesis 2:19-20). The order to come out of him has eschatological connotations; if the time has been fulfilled and the domain of God has come near, that means that God’s enemies are beginning to be defeated, and that Satan’s rule over the world is about to end.

Contextualizing the text

The demons that I am talking about are those who possess us as a community, as a nation, and as members of the human race. They are intent on destroying us, and we need to cast them out. How? First, we have to name them. Second, we have to pray as Jesus did in Mark 9:29 when he exorcized the boy with a spirit.

Naming the demons is a way to recognize that they exist. We start with the big one, Unbelief: losing one’s faith in God, in life as a sacred force, and in our fellow human beings. It is the feeling that nothing can be done to solve our problems. Then, springing from this one, come the others in fearful company: homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, religious and ideological intolerance, violence at home and at school, poverty, militarism, terrorism, war, greed, extreme individualism, globalization, out-of-control capitalism, media-infused fear that leads to paranoia, and governmental manipulation of information. To name just a few.

Praying is not a pious resignation to God’s will, or an exercise that puts our minds at ease, but rather, using Ched Myers’ words, that “intensely personal struggle within each disciple, and among us collectively, to resist the despair and distractions that cause us to practice unbelief, to abandon or avoid the way of Jesus.”3 In other words, it is the struggle to believe that change can really happen. A better world is possible.

Unless we name the demons, they will name us; they will control us and destroy us. But it takes courage to do so, for it will make us unpopular. Some will consider us apostates, negating the faith. I am not sure that we are willing to pay that price, as Jesus did.


Notes

  1. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1995), 142.
  2. Amy-Jill Levine and Mark Zvi Brettler, ed. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, (Oxford University Press, 2011), 61.
  3. Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 142.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Cory Driver

Even God’s friend Moses did not live forever. But God swore to bless and shepherd the beloved community for all time.

How can we have a forever community without a forever [human] leader? The answer is profoundly unsexy, but nonetheless necessary: institutions.

In our denominations, we have institutions set up to preserve and gift to future generations our best practices and inherited wisdom. We count on institutions to prevent the rise of people who would abuse others or too rapidly remake the denomination in their own images.

It goes without saying that our institutions are not always up to the task. Sometimes, our inherited wisdom and practices inhibit growth and responsiveness to new situations, as I suspect we have all experienced recently. And yet, institutions like deacon, pastor, and bishop help us to ensure that the Church as the Body of Christ maintains its working in the world, even as individual humans come and go.

The prophet of Deuteronomy 18 was one such institution, designed so that the work of humans presenting the words of God to other humans would continue, even after Moses died. In setting up the institution of the prophet, God sought to counterbalance the other Israelite institutions of priests, elders, and kings by providing only one legitimate means of direct communication from God.1

The institution of the prophet was to be countercultural regarding Israelite neighbors. The context of this description of prophetic leadership in Deuteronomy 18 was not accidental. After describing how the Israelites were not to follow the divination practices of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 18:9-14), Moses described how God would raise up a prophet like him. The juxtaposing of the description of the prophet with the Canaanite practices that the Israelites also adopted is meant to be striking. Child sacrifice, divination, soothsaying, augury, consulting spirits, and seeking oracles from the dead are all human attempts to gain power and knowledge about an uncertain future. The prophet that God was to appoint would switch the prerogative from revealing what humans wanted to know, to disclosing what God wanted to reveal. The prophet was not a human Magic 8-Ball but was instead the mouthpiece of the Divine. The directionality of agency, from God to humans, was meant to be a reversal of usual practice that the Israelites observed.

Twice in this section, we read that the prophet will be like Moses (verses 15 and 18). Scholars and interpreters disagree on exactly what is meant here. Must the prophet be a Levite man of the Kohath clan raised in Egypt, but who ran away and married (a) foreigner(s)? It seems to me that we can and should interpret this as Scripture saying that faithful holders of the institution of prophet will emulate Moses’ personal example, rather than embody his gender, clan and tribe, and life-story.

Accordingly, we should expect prophets to be humble, as Moses was (Numbers 12:3). Rather than hoard power, he longed to share the Spirit and responsibility that had been placed up on him (Numbers 11:29). True, Moses had a demonstrated weakness in delegating responsibilities (Exodus 18:17-23). But eventually, Moses matured to learn that sharing leadership does not lessen the leader, but frees her up to actually spend time seeking God. Even early in Moses’ ministry, he needed others to literally support him so that he could help the people move forward (Exodus 17:12). Moses was a human with limitations—the only kind of human there is—and any prophet like him will acknowledge that leading any community is a team endeavor.

Moses, as a prophet, had a passion for reconciliation. Two of my favorite passages in Scripture speak of how Moses intercedes with God on behalf of the Israelites. The first episode, in the story of the golden calf (Exodus 32), tells how God wished to kill the apostatizing Israelites for their faithless creation of the golden calf idol. Moses interceded with God on behalf of the people and God relented from the evil that God planned.

The second episode, in the story of the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16), tells how God again wished to kill the rebellious Israelites; this time, the plague broke out before Moses was able to convince God otherwise. Moses sent his own brother, Aaron, to run into the midst of the assembly, minister between the living and the dead, and make atonement for the people. Moses, as prophet, did not simply bring God’s word to the people, but passionately sought to remind God of God’s mercy and desire for an ongoing covenant with the beloved community.

But even a prophet like Moses was not infallible. Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of his actions (Numbers 20:12). Prophets like Moses will also be imperfect. But they are not allowed to speak falsely—either in the name of other gods or to speak in God’s name when God has not spoken, on pain of death. This capital sentence for using God-language to deceive people was meant to discourage the very real temptation to use prophetic status for self-promotion or to attack others. I recently saw a tweet by @annakasirye that said, “I can’t believe I grew up thinking using God’s name in vain was saying ‘oh my God’ and not using God to manipulate people and advance your own personal agenda….” It is exactly that kind of manipulation through God-talk that the prophet must resist.

Instructions for the institution of prophet are meant to ensure that God will always be able to speak with God’s people through human voices. The prophet’s job is not to be a source of answers for pressing questions, but rather to faithfully relay God’s words. That the prophet is said to be like Moses should cause us to look for Mosaic humility and passion for reconciliation in prophets. Most of all, the true prophet does not speak on his own, but only speaks the words that God sends (John 12:49).


Notes

  1. Dr Jeffrey H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 172.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 111

Shauna Hannan

If I were tasked with introducing God as our visiting lecturer, I would use this psalm.1

Psalm 111 summarizes God’s “position,” accomplishments, and attributes. It even identifies a personal connection between the one offering the introduction and the one being introduced, which motivates a connection between God and those to whom God is being introduced.

Position
Plain and simple, as the Psalmist attests, this God is the true Lord of all.

Accomplishments
God’s curriculum vitae (CV) according to Psalm 111, includes a wide variety of accomplishments ranging from establishing and keeping covenants (verse 9) to providing food (verse 5). God has even sent redemption to his people (verse 9).

God shows people the power of his works (verse 6), which have been described as great (verse 2), full of honor and majesty (verse 3), faithful and just (verse 7). These works have been studied (verse 2) and have gained God renown (verse 4).

The precepts of this accomplished one are trustworthy and established (verse 7).

Attributes
Not only are God’s accomplishments impressive, but anyone who knows God has met one who is gracious and merciful (verse 4), and ever mindful of his covenant (verse 5). Indeed, his name is holy and awesome (verse 9). This combination of accomplishments and attributes are rare in the divine. In fact, the combination can be found nowhere else but in our God, the Lord.

Relationships
Usually those with such a combination of attributes and accomplishments remain at arm’s length from the masses. But not God; God connects with God’s people and encourages a profound intimacy with those who perform his precepts with faithfulness and uprightness (verse 8). Those who practice fear of the Lord will have a good understanding; they will be wise (verse 10).

The Psalmist has felt and attested to this intimacy by giving thanks to the Lord with his “whole heart” (verse 1). He puts his whole self on the line in the midst of the congregation for this one.

Presence
Finally, thankfully, it looks like this one will be sticking around. He’s not just stopping by for a temporary visit on his worldwide tour in order to broaden his fame. He’s on a worldwide tour, yes, but his righteousness endures forever (verse 3), his precepts are established forever (verse 7), he has commanded his covenant forever (verse 9), and his praise endures forever (verse 10).

Please join me in fearing and praising this one, who is, after all, not simply a “visiting” lecturer, but our ever-present teacher.

One can see how no one else could receive such an introduction. The Psalmist introduces us to God and we preachers have an opportunity to introduce (or re-introduce) God to others. Such an introduction prompts hearers to lead lives that mirror God. The latter is confirmed by the complementarity of Psalm 111 and Psalm 112. The two Psalms belong together. They are similar in organization; both are acrostic poems, which contain twenty-two lines with each line beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Even more, they utilize similar words and phrases: both refer to the upright (Psalms 111:1 and 112:2, 4), agents who are gracious and merciful (111:4 and 112:4), providers (111:5 and 112:9), and doers of justice (111:7 and 112:5). Both focus heavily on the future (in 111:8 the works are established forever and ever, and in 112:8 hearts are steady and in the end will triumph).

The amazing thing about this similar use of language is that one Psalm (111) is focused on the deeds of the Lord, as noted above, and the other (112) is focused on the deeds of those who fear the Lord. Could it be that those who fear the Lord are expected to act like the Lord? Even more, could it be that those who find great delight in his commands are capable of mirroring the deeds of the Lord? The complementarity of these two Psalms suggests so. Before our works righteousness detectors sound, note that Psalm 111 comes first; it is only because our Lord is already gracious and merciful and just that we are at all capable of being gracious and merciful and just.

For those preachers who will be focusing on this Sunday’s gospel reading (Mark 1), Psalm 111 offers a possible way to highlight Jesus’ accomplishments and attributes. Add to God’s CV Jesus’ accomplishments and attributes expressed in Mark 1—he teaches as one with authority, and rebukes, even tames, unclean spirits. Feel free to go the next step of introducing God to the hearers by identifying God’s words and work spoken and performed in the midst of your setting. Doing so is testifying to this accomplished one just as the psalmist does, thereby prompting the praise of all.

Wouldn’t it be something then if God were able to introduce us as those who have given our whole selves to giving thanks to God (verse 1); those who have performed God’s precepts with faithfulness and uprightness (verse 8); and those who have a good understanding/wisdom because we have practiced fear of the Lord (10)!


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 1, 2015.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Melanie A. Howard

Preachers may be flummoxed to encounter today’s New Testament reading that includes an entire chapter of 1 Corinthians, and a chapter on meat sacrificed to idols at that!

However, what might seem like a bewildering text from which to derive a relevant sermon is a treatise chock full of insights that remain applicable to the present time.

Love over knowledge

Much of 1 Corinthians 8 might be summarized as an argument for the priority of love over the pursuit of knowledge. Paul takes on this topic by starting with where the Corinthians are at in their thinking as they consider eating meat that has previously been sacrificed to pagan idols.

Although the earliest manuscripts of 1 Corinthians would not have contained punctuation, the choice to include quotation marks in 8:1 is a good one since the phrase “all of us possess knowledge” makes more sense as Paul’s quotation of a Corinthian slogan than as a part of his own argument. As this chapter unfolds, it becomes clear that Paul has little interest in the so-called “knowledge” of the Corinthians, and in verse seven, he blatantly contradicts the slogan from verse one by arguing that all do not have knowledge. Rather, in verse 11, Paul notes the potential of this knowledge to destroy others rather than to build them up in love. Paul will return to this hierarchy of love over knowledge later in 1 Corinthians 13 as he upholds love above spiritual gifts and knowledge (13:2, 8).

Paul develops the priority of love over knowledge more in 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 as he states that anyone laying claim to knowledge proves their very lack of the same. Such a person stands in contrast to one who loves God and thus benefits from being known by God. While the use of the term “knowledge” here (as opposed to “wisdom”) makes this text somewhat distinct from earlier chapters, the heart of Paul’s message in chapter 8 echoes similar sentiments from 1 Corinthians 1-3 where Paul pointed out that the world did not come to know God through wisdom (1:21), that he himself did not preach with words of wisdom (2:4), and that the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God (3:19). In short, although the language of chapter 8 is slightly different, the sentiment is the same.

Paul likewise connects to other chapters with his development of the theme of upbuilding. In 1 Corinthians 3:9-15, Paul used an analogy to construction to describe the building of the Christian community. Now in chapter 8, Paul takes up the issue of the maintenance and upkeep of that building. In short, Paul suggests that love builds up the community (8:1). This work of mutual upbuilding comes up again later as Paul discusses the practice of spiritual gifts. In chapter 14, Paul uses this criterion of upbuilding as the measure for assessing the efficacy of spiritual gifts and prioritizing prophetic gifts over gifts of speaking in tongues (14:4, 17). Thus, Paul’s discussion of upbuilding here in chapter 8 fits well within the larger scope of the epistle’s message.

The pursuit of liberty as sin

Beyond prioritizing love, Paul also hopes the Corinthians will realize the harm that their so-called “knowledge” is wreaking upon some community members. To address this, Paul continues with his strategy of quoting slogans from the Corinthians as he quips, “There is no God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4). Paul’s method of addressing this quotation proves different from his negotiation of the earlier slogan. While Paul had no qualms about overturning the Corinthian claim to universal knowledge (8:1, 7), Paul acknowledges that the Corinthians’ monotheistic theology is not incorrect, and he affirms as much in verses 5-6 where he agrees with the premise that the so-called “gods” of this world are powerless idols.

Yet, for Paul, this knowledge alone is not enough to justify the individual freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols, especially when that impulse has the power to destroy. Given that not all believers possess this knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:7), Paul observes that what can be a liberating force for some has the power to destroy others (8:11). In short, knowledge can be leveraged as a weapon against the very people for whom Christ died (8:11). Thus, Paul is uninterested in appeals to individual rights when the wellbeing of others is at stake.

To drive this point home, Paul equates wrongs done against fellow believers with sinning against Christ himself (8:12). This rhetorical move of equating the weak in the community with Christ is not far removed from Jesus’ own move of equating the Son of Man with “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46). Likewise, one might detect a similar connection to the Lord’s Prayer’s petition for forgiveness from God to be doled out in a measure equal to the forgiveness provided to others (Matthew 6:12). In short, for both Paul and Jesus, ecclesiology is not radically distinct from Christology when it comes to ethical action.

Sacrificing personal freedom for the greater good

Congregations today are not likely engaged in active debate about the propriety of eating meat that was previously sacrificed to idols. However, as the recent COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, there are other issues facing our congregations that might benefit from Paul’s ethic of love. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches struggled with a host of questions: Is it safe to meet in person? Should masks be required if meeting in person? People of faith vehemently disagreed on their answers to these questions.

While Paul was not addressing this, or any particular modern issue, the larger ethical principle that he espouses remains relevant: take care that your own liberty does not become a stumbling block to others (verse 9). This principle applies in any number of scenarios where faithful followers of Christ might otherwise disagree: on consuming alcohol, on the use of profanity, on styles of clothing, and other personal choices. While these matters are culturally different from the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols, Paul’s instructions nonetheless remain timely.