By the Rev. Darren Miner
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
The readings today are thematically disjoint, as is often the case during the liturgical green seasons. So, perhaps the best approach to today’s readings is to look at each, one by one, to see what they have to say to us here today.
The reading from Deuteronomy is simple, and its meaning is straightforward: After the death of Moses, God will continue to guide his people by sending them prophets. But as the reading makes clear, there is a problem: some self-proclaimed prophets will, in fact, be false prophets. How then are we to tell the difference between the true and the false? Well, one criterion is given in the reading itself, namely, that a true prophet will speak only in the name of the one true God. The next two verses in Deuteronomy give another criterion, and it’s a shame that the lectionary doesn’t include them in today’s lesson. The second criterion is that what the prophet predicts should prove true. Consequently, this means that a prophet can only be known to be a true prophet after the fact. Any new prophet would be a sort of probationer, until he or she had developed a good track record. Despite this second criterion concerning the accuracy of predictions, we should keep in mind that the main purpose of the prophet was not to predict the future, but to provide divine guidance when the people had strayed. A prophet’s predictions were merely demonstrations of the prophet’s divine authority.
The epistle today from First Corinthians is anything but simple and straightforward. As I mentioned in my last sermon, the church in Corinth had some so-called “advanced” thinkers who thought that their freedom in Christ allowed them to do all kinds of things that St. Paul found offensive. Previously, the acts in question were of a sexual nature. Today, the issue at hand is eating food offered to pagan idols, a problem for any Corinthian Christian who wished to attend a civic event at one of the city’s temples.
Paul uses some tricky rhetoric to persuade his audience to change their ways. He pretends to agree wholeheartedly with some of their slogans, such as “all of us possess knowledge,” but then he goes on to remind them that love trumps their “advanced” knowledge. He seems to agree with the slogan “no idol in the world really exists,” since there is only one true God. But then he argues against attending public events in a pagan temple, where they might be seen eating food that has been offered to idols. Here, he does not argue that the practice is wrong in and of itself; instead, he argues that the “advanced” thinkers should refrain from doing this because other Christians who find it wrong just might be tempted to do the same thing, in violation of their conscience.
Paul’s exhortation is pastoral advice intended to deal with a very particular emergent crisis in Corinth in the First Century. His advice is highly contextual, and in some contexts, I think it is, in fact, the wrong approach! Now, let’s take a look at a couple of modern-day examples. Let’s say you are dining with an alcoholic in the early stages of recovery. You might refrain from ordering a glass of wine, so as not to tempt your struggling dinner companion. You know that one glass of wine won’t hurt you, but out of love for another, you voluntarily limit your own freedom. In this case, Paul’s advice still applies. But let’s look at a couple of cases where Paul’s advice doesn’t seem quite so helpful. Suppose a visitor to the church mentions that in his culture the men and women quite rightly sit in separate sections of the church. Should the ushers accommodate the visitor and ask the men to sit on one side and the women on the other? N-O spells no! Or what if a parish is about to interview a woman to be their new rector, but the search committee knows that one lone parishioner does not believe women should be priests? Should the search committee cancel the interview and seek a man for the position? Again, I would say no. In both cases, to yield to the one who took offense would violate the truth that we are one in Christ Jesus. Sometimes the most loving thing one can do for another is to share with them “a new teaching—with authority,” just as Jesus did in the synagogue at Capernaum. Sometimes, as Deuteronomy reminds us, God calls us to act as prophetic teachers, to speak God’s word even when that word may cause offense to someone in our community. Perhaps we can reconcile Paul’s desire to avoid offending other Christians by saying: Let love be your guide, and give no offense, unless there is no other way to be true to God. For in the end, proclaiming the truth of God is an act of supreme love.
Finally, let’s look at the exorcism story from Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is in Capernaum, where he had set up shop for a time. It is the Sabbath, and he is in the local synagogue teaching. A man troubled by a demon reacts to Jesus’ presence. The demon addresses Jesus by name and announces that he knows Jesus’ true identity. The demon calls Jesus by name for a specific purpose that would have been obvious in Jesus’ day, but that makes little sense to us. You see, in ancient times, an exorcist usually needed to ascertain the name of the demon before he could complete the exorcism. Knowing the name of a spiritual entity gave one power over that entity. Here the demon tries that trick with Jesus. But it backfires! Literally translated, Jesus’ response to the demon is: “Be muzzled, and come out of him!” Jesus is not some bush-league exorcist; he is the Holy One of God. The demon can gain no hold over him at all. Jesus simply speaks the word, and the demon is expelled, albeit kicking and screaming on the way out. (Strangely, Jesus’ command to the demon to be silent is not as effective as his command to leave the body of the demoniac.) In any case, with the demon dramatically expelled, the onlookers finally recognize what Jesus has been doing among them. He has been giving them a “new teaching—with authority.” And recognizing the miraculous work of God in their midst, no one thinks to object that Jesus has broken the Sabbath by performing this exorcism.
In summary, we are reminded by Deuteronomy that God will continue to guide his people by sending us prophets when we have gone astray. But God’s people must prayerfully discern the false prophet who speaks in the name of some other god from the true prophet who gives “a new teaching—with authority” in the name of the one, holy, and living God. From Paul, we are advised to avoid offending our brothers and sisters in the faith, so far as it is possible, and to let our liberty in Christ be guided and informed by love, the greatest of the theological virtues. Finally, from Mark’s Gospel, we see how Lord Jesus freed a man enslaved by a spiritual power opposed to God. And to our great fortune, the Risen Lord continues to do the same for us today. For that freedom from the power of sin and death, available to us through faith in Christ Jesus, we should be ever grateful. And there is no better way to offer thanks to the Lord for our redemption than to gather at his holy table week by week and lift up our hearts to the Lord.
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.