Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Prophet Like You

We pause now for our regular programming . . .

The lessons for the fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • Deuteronomy 18:15-20
  • Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7a, 7b-9
  • First Corinthians 7:32-35
  • Mark 1:21-28
I'm getting to that stage in my life where I am getting to attend more farewell parties. I've been the guest of honor at only a few, but the numbers are adding up, including (gulp) the retirement parties of friends. Saying goodbye is part of the passage of our lives.

We get to hear part of such a goodbye today. The book of Deuteronomy is a retelling of the teachings that Moses gave to the people of Israel at the end of the Exodus, when they were about to enter the promised land. Moses, as the servant and messenger from God, has led his people from slavery into freedom. Because of his faithfulness the people have come to trust Moses, and fear having to deal with the living God directly without the intercession and guidance of their leader and prophet. In today's lesson, God responds by promising his people, through Moses, that
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.
The prophets that followed Moses were part of God's fulfillment of this promise, which includes the warning that God will hold any prophet accountable for presenting only the words he gives them But the people of God came to understand this is also a promise of a true "prophet like you [Moses] from among their kin," a leader and lawgiver, the anointed one of God, or Messiah. Moses is leaving them, but he is not leaving them alone.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is not at the end, but at the beginning of his ministry. He has just arrived at Capernaum, a center of commerce on the shore of the Sea of Gallilee, and is facing a challenge. At this time, the word "synagogue" does not mean so much a building, as a meeting of Jews seeking God through study and worship together. These meetings are usually open to all male Jews, and one of the members of the community, or a visiting religious teacher, offers some teaching. But those at the service have a problem with Jesus and his teaching. He is facing the challenge of establishing his authority to preach.

Jesus is not preaching like the scribes, the local religious scholars and teachers. They present the results of their own studies in God's law, along with what other scholars have said, with the emphasis on what they have received of the teachings of Moses himself, the Torah. The community understands that their authority comes from the accurate and thoughtful transmission of what someone else has said about God. As we can see in the Gospel stories, Jesus is doing something else. He is speaking directly about God and how we must respond to Him, out of his own knowledge.

The problem is that according to the community's standards, Jesus is a nobody, just the son of some hick village carpenter who has just hit town. This kind of traditional community relies first on inherited status or honor, and then on reputation, for judging who to trust. Jesus, in their eyes, has no established status or reputation, and therefore is a problem.

Then the man possessed by an unclean spirit pipes up:
. . . he cried out, "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!" Jesus rebuked him and said, "Quiet! Come out of him!" The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. All were amazed and asked one another, "What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him." His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.
The onlookers have no problem understanding the possessed man -- they see the world as being filled with spirits that intervene in human life, for better or worse. These spirits can control humans, but are subject to the almighty power of God. The unclean spirit has acknowledged Jesus by name, and by a title of supreme status and honor, the Holy One of God. By ejecting the unclean spirit with a simple command, it is seen as the work of God, not magic, again by Jesus' own authority. This act establishes his legitimacy in the community as a religious leader, the basis for his teaching on his own authority, and his fame and honor spreads. He is "a prophet like Moses".

These lessons give us some leverage on the challenge of proclaiming the Good News to the world we are now in. To begin with, we must understand that we will be held accountable for what we teach or preach; that we proclaim not our word, but God's. Our message must be rooted in the great story of the redemption of God's own people, as recorded and transmitted in Scripture and the teachings of the Church. We must ground ourselves in the truth.

But in this world, Instead of relying on status or authority, we distrust anyone claiming to have ultimate truth. Once again we have a problem establishing our legitimacy to teach or preach, and I am not talking about a degree from a seminary. In this postmodern, simultaneously fragmenting and globalizing pot of cultures, we have lost much of our trust in institutions, and have, for good reason, a hard time taking what they do or teach at face value. These institutions have lost their ability to confer authority. Our starting point is suspicion, and we have learned to test everything, if we are smart.

Moses and Jesus show us the way here. They teach the truth, because they personally know the Father, who is truth itself. Intellectual understanding is not enough. Also, their teachings are effective; the people in bondage are freed, the possessed man is restored to the community and God's friendship. It is not enough to be correct, we must also be good, by the grace of God, and do as he commands us to feed the hungry, teach the ignorant, visit those sick or imprisoned, clothe the naked, and protect the poor and powerless. We have to, with God's help and guidance, become a way for God to perform all the little, average, ordinary miracles of change and redemption. Only when the world sees that, will we be able, once again, "to teach with authority, and not as the scribes".

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