Proper 4, Year B
1 February, AD 2009
The Sentence for today, like the Gospel passage, is a summary of the Lord’s ministry in Galilee. This doesn't give us such an easily caught theme as we have had in past weeks. In the Gospel reading itself we are prompted to consider the authority of Jesus.
Today and for the next two Sundays the Gospel readings are taken from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, verses 21-45. The events described in these verses all take place in a single day in Capernaum, a town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee which is the centre of activity in Jesus’ Galilean ministry. It is not necessary to imagine that these events all happened on the same day in history: the passage is probably best seen as an ideal day in the ministry of Jesus, which contains examples of his activities: teaching, healing, praying, and the like (D. E. Nineham, St Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries).
No connection with the immediately preceding passage (the call of the first disciples) is noted in the text, but at least one night must have intervened, since it is now a Sabbath, and when Jesus called them the disciples were fishing and mending nets, which they would not have been doing on the Sabbath.
Twice in the passage the crowd marvel at Jesus because of his authority. We catch what it means to say that he taught with authority in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where he contrasts “you have heard it said” with “but I say to you”. In this passage it has been explained that, unlike the scribes, Jesus spoke without citing various spiritual authorities in support of his teaching. Later the same crowd marvels because Jesus casts out a demon with a word, appparently without the solemn palaver usually associated with professional exorcists.
The question of how we are to understand the affliction which St Mark describes as being with “an unclean spirit” is one we cannot deal with here, but must refer to commentaries and studies of the Gospels. Of more immediate importance is to ask ourselves how we experience Jesus’ authority in our own lives, and what we do about it.
It is noteable that the demon names Jesus and cries “I know who you are, the Holy One of God!’ This reflects the belief that knowing someone’s name gave power over that person. “Jesus needs no counter-magic; it is nothing less than the power of God which works in him and a mere word from him will suffice” [Nineham, 75].
One of the reactions to Jesus' authority was to say “he is the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). This idea was based on this morning’s first reading, Deuteronomy 18:15-20. In vv 9-14 the Israelites had been forbidden to look for the aid of foreign gods, or resort to pagan divination, for the Lord will raise up a prophetic spokesman to reveal his will. This prophet will be like Moses, who was regarded as the fount of prophecy and the type of a true prophet (see Exodus 34:10-11). Although the text speaks of ‘a prophet ‘ the traditional nderstanding is that this means a line of prophets. So in the mediaeval commentary of Rashi we read “This means: Just as I am among you, from your brothers, so will He set up for you [another prophet] in my stead, and so on, from prophet to prophet.” However there is also a tradition that God would raise up a prophet in the future to herald the Day of the Lord. This tradition is found in the scriptures of the New Testament, particularly in John 1. 21 and 6:14, and Acts 3:22-23 (Peter’s sermon in the Temple) and 7:37 (Stephen’s defence).
In 1 Corinthians chapter 8. St Paul addresses a question from the Corintian congregation about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. The religions of the Greek and Roman world involved the regular sacrifice of animals. Only a portion of the meat was burnt; the rest was divided between the priests and the worshipper who had offered the victim. Often there was a feast in the temple, and often the priests’ portion was offered for sale. The problem for the new Christians at Corinth was whether eating in the feast or buying the sacrificial meat involved one in the worship of pagan gods. Opinion seems to have differed: some of the community felt that it was wrong to take part, while others argued that they were prefectly free to eat, since the idols were not real gods.
It is hard for us in Canada to understand the pressures that this question placed on Christians in the pagan world but Christians in other countries face serious questions about living in a culture based on different religious principles. An example is the question of the custom in many east Asian cultures referred to as “Ancestor worship”. [The word ‘worship’ seems problematic: In principle “worship” may be offered only to God. This is why some Christian traditions make clear distinctions between “worship,” “veneration,” and “reverence”. I have no idea what distinctions exist in other languages!] There is a large literature on this subject. Just a sample of what turns up in a web search is
In reading this passage, we should ask ourselves: Is anything in our society like this question of taking part in pagan worship in our society?
St Paul’s answer to the Corinthians is that what is important is not the individual’s knowledge that the idols are not real, but their concern for their fellow Christians. The basic principle is like that found in the question of sexual morality in the epistle a couple of weeks ago: the boundary of a Christian’s freedom is set by personal relationships with Christ as Lord and our fellow Christians as fellow members in him. It is here that Paul gives the rule of concern for “the weaker brother” (see also Romans 14.13—15:6).
The only comment I will offer on this principle here is the response King James I made when one of the puritan ministers at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 argued that the newly baptized should not be signed with the sign of the Cross, holding that it was an offence against the conscience of the weak Brethren. The King replied first with a tag (apparently from St Augustine) Distingue tempora, & concordabunt Scripturae, distinguish the times and the Scriptures will agree, pointing out the difference between between the Apostle’s time and ours: then the Church was “newly called from paganism and not thoroughly grounded”; this is not the case now “seeing that Heathenish doctrine, for many years, hath been hence abandoned.” His second point was to ask, “how long they would be weak? whether 45 years were not sufficient for them to grow strong?” [William Barlow, The Summe and Substance of the Conference (1604), pp. 65-66]. But again, one should refer to the commentaries.