Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
Our reading from Deuteronomy is one of the reasons for my doing this sermon series on prophecy. Prophecy is big in Biblical religion. And it takes various forms.
Typically the prophet is the person with a special connection to God, who has something to say in a time of crisis, in a day of decision, who tells the truth in a moment of truth. Prophets break open the logjams of history, they get things moving, they challenge the status quo.
That’s why they’re opposed, not only by those in power who have interests in the status quo, but also by those in bondage to the status quo, who have reason to fear the prophet only making bad things worse. “Moses, just leave us alone!”
Two weeks ago I said that Biblical prophecy is more often speech than sight. I said that when it’s sight, it’s less often seeing into the future than seeing the hidden reality, the reality hidden in plain sight. I said that when it’s speech, it’s rarely predicts the future, like a Greek or Roman oracle, but it states the crisis that is now, with its future implications, so that you can make the right ethical choices to bring about the better future. The Greeks and Romans believed in fate and destiny, but the Hebrew prophets taught human freedom, freedom for the sake of doing righteousness.
The Gospel reading from St. Mark offers Jesus as the kind of prophet that Moses predicted in Deuteronomy. And because all the prophets after Moses always had one eye on the Torah, and the because the Torah was read out loud in the synagogue, the synagogue is where Jesus offers himself as a prophet. In the liturgy there, the Torah reading would be followed by the Haftarah reading, usually one of the prophets. Jesus offers himself as a prophet, he’s offers himself as a sort of living, breathing Haftarah! He’s a teacher but more than a teacher–a prophet like of old.
He’s got a new teaching, a new departure, an advance, depending on your point of view. While the other rabbis continued to teach that a person is always a free moral agent, and always able to choose between good and evil, Jesus taught that your freedom of choice has been compromised and impaired, that you’re in bondage to spiritual powers too big for you, so that you do not have the freedom you’re supposed to have to choose the good. And what need is liberation.
That’s the second thing that St. Mark wants to show us, that Jesus is the liberator. He liberates the guy in the synagogue from the power of the unclean spirit over him. This is the first miracle by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. The point of the miracle is that the miracle validates his teaching, that his teaching has prophetic authority. His words are more than just information. His teaching brings about what he teaches. He only has to say it. Like the prophet Elisha of old, his words have power to cleanse the unclean and liberate the man in bondage. His teaching does the liberating.
The teaching of the scribes did not have such authority. They didn’t expect to. They didn’t see themselves as prophets. Their job was to interpret the authorities already established, using the official commentaries, in order to work out the rules and regulations of daily behavior. No scribe would ever claim a fresh, new, personal interpretation of his own, but like any lawyer today would always cite some prior authority. While Jesus claims his own authority. Who does he think he is? He acts as if he speaks for God. He could be dangerous. His authority is at once appealing and threatening. Liberation is threatening if you’ve spent your life in a cage.
The scribes taught not for liberation but for survival, for holding the Jewish people together under a foreign regime. They taught you how to manage your ethics under a regime that was hostile to your ethics; how to get along under the Romans and still be holy; how to share the marketplace with your pagan neighbors and still be clean; how to have no other God even when the Roman gods were the ones in power. The teaching of the scribes was to manage this predicament. And here is this prophet of liberation. The danger of that is sensed by this man who speaks up.
Don’t get this story wrong. Don’t assume that the man in the unclean spirit was rabid or abnormal. I suspect the unclean spirit was not obvious to the others in the synagogue. Maybe the guy was unlikable, or maybe known for being contentious, or even maybe a creep, but it was not with some demonic voice that he challenged Jesus. In fact, he was being reasonable: Jesus will be trouble.
The Gospel says he had an “unclean” spirit. Unclean means good dirt in the wrong place, on your shirt instead of in the garden. Or good food going rotten, which is still food, only now for bugs instead of you. Or unkosher, or treyf. Unclean can mean pollution, a toxic environment. The Gospel calling the spirit “unclean” means the spirit was not essentially bad but only effectively bad.
It was not a demon from hell. The Gospel is not a medieval document. The unclean spirit belongs to the natural spirituality of the world, but of a world corrupted, a spirituality polluted by human violence and greed and oppression, disordered by human sin in its political and economic expressions.
It’s a toxic environment, and the man is infected. He’s in the power of pollution. Maybe he’s got a toxic boss, or a toxic family. Maybe he’s Tony Soprano at Mass. He is bonded to powers greater than himself, powers human and more than human. He is beholden to corruption both natural and supernatural.
As all the Galileans were in Jesus’ day, more or less, willingly or not. They were in the power of Roman soldiers, Roman taxes, Roman imperial idolatry, and Roman gods and goddesses. Did the Roman gods really exist? Not essentially, but effectively, from human projection, so that their power did exist. Their spiritual authority existed and their spiritual power was unclean.
This guy was specially infected maybe because of his obvious spiritual sensitivity. He calls Jesus “the Holy One of God,” which means he can sense the holiness of Jesus, his purity, his cleanness. The guy is telling a visionary truth. He’s being prophetic. “Jesus, I can see who you are.”
But his prophecy comes up short. He thinks he sees Jesus starting a liberation from the Romans, a rebellion they cannot win, and they’ll end up collateral victims of Roman reaction, so sensibly he challenges Jesus to just leave them alone. They’re stuck, there’s no way out.
And the guy himself wants no way out. He’s corrupt. What deals has he made, what are his conflicts of interest? We don’t know, but he resists the authority of the savior who can help them in their predicament.
Jesus rebukes the man’s resistance. He silences his corrupted sensitivity. He calls the spirit out of him. Jesus the prophet could see the unclean spirit hidden in the guy, and his word had power to cast the spirit out and liberate the man. That shows that his teaching is more than information. The teaching of Jesus is the liberation to set you free to start choosing for the new creation.
Here’s your first take home. If you are looking for the miraculous power of Jesus in the world today, you don’t have to look elsewhere than his teaching. His teaching is the miracle you need. Be open to his teaching and you’ll be open to his power in the world. Honor his teaching with his authority and experience his power in your life and in the world today. The teaching is your miracle.
The second take home is that because the miracle is teaching it is not anti-intellectual. It may cross into the supernatural but it still is for your mind and for your intellect. It may be mystical but you are meant to engage it with your understanding. To follow Jesus is to be a lover of learning.
The third take home is that if his teaching is threatening to you in any way, that means you’re getting it. If you think the teaching of Jesus is all nice postcards, then you aren’t listening. If his word is in some measure threatening, then you’re getting it. It is life-and-death teaching, so it is challenging. It’s like learning Latin, or calculus, or gymnastics. You’re going to fall, you’re going to make mistakes, it can be hard, and it resists you, and it takes time. But you can learn it. You’re meant to.
And this teacher is on your side. As I said last week, this prophecy is on your side. This prophet is more than a messenger of God, this prophet is the incarnation of God, this prophet is in it for the love of his people. This teacher doesn’t just love the material, he loves the students.
This prophet is like that high school teacher who sees you, and sees more in you than you see in yourself, that teacher who calls you to become the person that you can be, that teacher who makes a difference in your life. That is a kind of love, a very important kind of love, and that is how God loves you too.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.