By Whose Authority?

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 
“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” 
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 
The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”  News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28

As I’ve mentioned previously, Mark doesn’t waste any time. His sense of urgency is palpable, and his writing is densely packed. We’re only about halfway through the first chapter in today’s reading, and Mark has already covered John the Baptist’s entire career, Jesus’s baptism and temptation, as well as the core teaching of his message and the calling of his first disciples. In the rest of the chapter, Mark details some of the things Jesus became known for doing: teaching, healing, and praying. Today’s passage is concerned with two of these. Most people will tend to fixate on Mark’s account of a successful exorcism, while overlooking the part describing Jesus as an extraordinary teacher. The exorcism is certainly spectacular, but I think the description of Jesus as one who taught “with authority, not as the teachers of the law” is perhaps more significant.

I might as well get what I think about the exorcism out of the way first, because Jesus’s ability to drive out demons seems to be one of the things that attracted people to him, and the synoptic gospels have many other references to demons and demon possession. In most cases, the symptoms described seem to indicate the person suffered from epilepsy or mental illness, and I can certainly see how ancient peoples might have attributed strange behaviors caused by brain dysfunction to demons. The important thing to me is not what caused the sufferers such distress, but that Jesus healed them. He didn’t ostracize or blame them or declare them particularly sinful for falling prey to powers beyond their control. He helped them to the full extent of his abilities.

We know a little more about brain chemistry today than they did in the first century, but there are certainly still many cases of people who suffer from what pre-scientific societies might have called demon possession. They are not in control of their own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, and they may endanger themselves or others. People with mental illnesses often suffer greatly and may cause great suffering to those around them. Certainly anyone who has ever dealt with an addiction, or an addicted family member, can identify with the concept of someone being controlled by something they are powerless to resist. The question we should ask ourselves is not why are they like this, but what can we do to help? We may not be able to effect instantaneous cures in the way that Jesus did, but I think we ought to have the same attitude Jesus had. We ought to see them as suffering human beings to be healed, not lawbreakers deserving of further punishment. And I am afraid that, unlike Jesus, we are not doing all that is within our power to help. Too often our jails become holding pens for mentally ill people whose behavior spirals out of control, where they do not receive the medication or treatment that might help them. We have learned a great deal about addiction, even developing medications which work to effectively suppress the desire to get high, but instead of viewing addiction as a sickness to be cured, we see it as a crime to be punished.

That’s all I have to say about that right now. If we focus too much on demons and whether they are literal or metaphorical, we miss Mark’s very important statement that “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” There was something about the way Jesus taught that was really different from the rest of the Bible teachers of his time. In addition to the written Law and Prophets with which we are familiar in our Old Testament, there was a large body of oral commentary on it, After the destruction of the Second Temple, these commentaries came to be written down in what came to be known as the Mishnah.  The predominant Bible teaching methodology of the time seemed to have heavily relied on quoting from these oral-traditions; that is, quoting what other religious scholars thought about a particular passage. Instead of quoting a respected authority to make his points known, Jesus says what he himself thinks. He is his own authority, and often puts a completely different spin on a familiar passage. “You have heard it said…..but I say unto you…”

I don’t think that it’s an accident that Mark juxtaposes a story about an exorcism with an observation about Jesus’s unique nature. “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” Mark wanted to offer proof of Jesus’s authority to his readers, and for those readers, being able to cast out demons was pretty convincing proof that Jesus was not just your average itinerant rabbi. Of course, if you’re familiar with the rest of the story, you know that what was proof to his followers didn’t prove anything to his opponents, some of whom accused Jesus of being possessed by a demon himself! And in the very pointed parable Luke records of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus observes that some people won’t be convinced of the truth by even the most spectacular of miraculous events.

Paul later writes to the Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom” and both are tripped up by the foolishness of the cross. Faith can’t be proved; it has to be lived, and the best way to live it, then as now, is to follow Jesus in our attitudes and actions. And we often find that in the living we have all the proof we need. And that’s good news to me.



Corinthians: The Greatest of These is Love

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The church at Corinth was Paul’s problem child, as his two letters to the Corinthians will attest. The Corinthians seemed to have been an enthusiastic, but immature group of people.  Paul’s letters to them deal less with theological than practical matters, primarily how to deal with cliques and one-upmanship, but also with “anything goes” behaviors that went beyond what was considered normal by even the fairly lax standards of a cosmopolitan city in the pagan world. He spends most of 1 Corinthians telling them everything they are doing wrong, and a fair amount of 2 Corinthians apologizing for his earlier harshness

The good news of the gospel- that God loves and accepts everyone- was perverted by some as justification for licentious and harmful behavior. Paul emphasized the difference between liberty and license. Yes, you are free from following arbitrary rules in order to be accepted by God, but no, you are not free to do things that hurt other people. For Paul, the key to moral behavior was love.”Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”  “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” When it comes to moral choices, don’t just think of yourself. Don’t do things that hurt other people. Do do things that help other people. Paul gives several examples that most people would consider universally relevant: don’t murder, don’t steal, be faithful to your spouse. He also gives some examples that most people do not consider universally relevant: women should wear head coverings in church and remain silent.

I think the thing to remember about Paul’s letters is that they were just that: letters to specific churches, dealing with specific problems those churches were facing. I don’t agree with my more traditional and conservative friends who think every word Paul wrote was straight from the mouth of God and therefore literally and universally applicable for all cultures and all times. I don’t agree with my more progressive and liberal friends who think Paul’s letters are irrelevant and have nothing to say to us today. Some of his advice to first-century churches may no longer be applicable in the twenty-first century, but the principles which lie behind his advice are still valid. If Paul were writing today, he might give different examples of bad behavior- maybe he’d rail against spreading gossip on the internet instead of women with bare heads.

The devil is in the details, but God is in the principles, so it’s the underlying principles I look for when reading Paul. And the greatest principle of all is love. As Peter later writes, “love covers a multitude of sins“. If we put the principle of love first, in everything we say and do, we will be headed in the right direction.  It’s that easy, and difficult.

And that’s good news to me!

Zephaniah: Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

 Woe to the city of oppressors,
rebellious and defiled!
She obeys no one,
she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord,
she does not draw near to her God.
Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her rulers are evening wolves,
who leave nothing for the morning.
er prophets are unprincipled;
they are treacherous people.
Her priests profane the sanctuary
and do violence to the law.

Zephaniah is bound to create a bit of cognitive dissonance for Biblical inerrantists. The writer identifies himself as  ” Zephaniah, son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah”. He then proceeds to announce impending doom coming for Judah, along with the surrounding nations, because of their continuing sins against God and neighbor. There’s nothing new about that motif; the problem is the time frame. Zephaniah’s invectives, which include the royal family,  occur in the time of Josiah. Elsewhere in the Bible, Josiah is portrayed as a very good king, in fact one of the best as measured by his singlehearted devotion to God and attempts to stamp out idol worship. The priests and prophets who are castigated as being unprincipled, treacherous, and profane would have included Hilkiah, Josiah’s mentor, as well Jeremiah and other prophetic luminaries. as  So what’s going on here?

Some more literally-minded scholars will attempt to harmonize the discrepancy by assuming that Zephaniah’s prophecies are from very early in Josiah’s reign, when he was still a minor, and before the Book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy) was discovered during temple renovations. That doesn’t really make sense to me, especially as Zephaniah invokes judgement not on the king himself, but on the “king’s sons” And as we know in historical hindsight, that’s exactly what happened. Whether you judge them on political or theological criteria, Josiah’s sons were bad kings, and their poor leadership led to Jerusalem’s conquest and the Babylonian exile. So other scholars think Zephaniah was written after the monarchy came to an end.

I’ve always wondered why Josiah met such an early and untimely end, considering that the books of Kings and Chronicles present him in such an unwaveringly positive light.According to the prevailing traditionalist theologies of the time, that should not have happened. God rewards the good guys with health, wealth, and long life, while punishing the bad guys with the opposite. Clearly, that was and is an inadequate understanding of God and the way God works.

I see the Bible is a rich and living book not because God magically dictated every word to an auto-writing scribe, but because it contains so many different perspectives. We all try to make sense of what is going on around us, and see the world through our own lenses. Perhaps Zephaniah’s writings date from the time of Josiah, but from his vantage point things were not going so swimmingly. Perhaps they are from a later time period, one in which the exiles struggled to make sense of history. Regardless of when it was written, Zephaniah says to me is that things are always more complicated than they seem. As Paul observed, we “know in part and prophesy in part” and “see through a glass darkly”.  Or as Mulder and Scully might say, “The truth is out there somewhere”.

I appreciate the Bible as a record of humanity’s evolving understanding of God. For me, acknowledging that its writers were a diverse group of people, each with their own particular perspective, doesn’t diminish but enhances my faith. The details may differ, but the story is the same: There is a God; he wants us to live in love and justice with each other; and he is always working with and through us to make that happen.  And that’s good news to me.