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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany - Year B
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany - Year B

                                  
DEUTERONOMY 18:15-20                   The Book of Deuteronomy is 
skilfully designed as a series of sermons Moses supposedly delivered to 
the Israelites as they prepared to enter the promised land of Canaan.  How 
they may reliably know God's will and thus be equipped to face an 
uncertain future is the question considered here.  They are promised a 
prophet whom God will inspire.  The people will hear the prophet's words 
as the voice of God.


PSALM 111                              This is one of several psalms of a 
particular type known as "wisdom psalms." In the original, each of its 
twenty-two lines began with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  
This created a restrictive artificiality not evident in English.  Our 
version is a pleasing celebration of God's faithfulness and goodness.  


1 CORINTHIANS 8:1-13                   The Corinthian church was a mix of 
both Jews and Gentiles.  They faced a serious problem about food that had 
been sacrificed to idols, then sold in the marketplace.  Some felt it 
could be consumed without harm to their faith or morals.  Others felt that 
to do so would defile them.  Paul tried to mediate the divisions this 
caused in the fledgling congregation.  He seemed to suggest that they are 
starving to death spiritually while arguing about the menu for the church 
supper!  Instead the Corinthians needed the central encompassing truth of 
Christ's redemptive death which makes us all members of God's family who 
therefore love and respect one another.


MARK 1:21-28                           It was the custom to invite a 
visiting rabbi to speak in a local synagogue such as the one in Capernaum.  
Jesus' authority both demonstrated and challenged his audience when he 
taught and healed on the Sabbath.  By his teaching and his healing Jesus 
revealed that the reign of God's redeeming love had already begun.  He 
also knew that some would believe and some would not.  That does not seem 
to have changed, does it?


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

DEUTERONOMY 18:15-20   The Book of Deuteronomy was skillfully designed as 
a series of sermons Moses supposedly delivered to the Israelites as they 
prepared to enter the promised land of Canaan.  To keep the covenant of 
Sinai (Horeb), they needed to know Yahweh's will and thus be equipped to 
face an uncertain future.  They were promised a prophet whom Yahweh would 
inspire.  The people would hear the prophet's words as the voice of 
Yahweh.

2 Kings 22:8-20 tells of the discovery of a book was during repairs to the 
temple in the reign of King Josiah (circa 622 BCE).  This book is usually 
identified as one of the main components of the book of Deuteronomy.  
Scholars tend to agree that at least some of Deuteronomy had been written 
in the middle half of the 7th century, prior to this discovery and several 
centuries after the time of Moses.  Some parts of it also came from a 
slightly later date.  The great age of prophecy extended from the 8th to 
the 6th centuries BCE.  During this period and against all odds, the 
worship of Yahweh and obedience to the sacred covenant of Sinai flowered 
into moral monotheism.  The book of Deuteronomy represents the full flower 
of this monotheistic faith after Israel's return from exile in 539 BCE.  

This passage claims that prophecy can be traced back to Moses at Horeb 
(also known as Mount Sinai).  It is more probable that it represents a 
view of prophecy that Israel had experienced over the previous two to 
three hundred years.  It came at a crucial time, however.  Assyrian 
imperialism had been the dominant factor in the political life of the 
nation.  The end of the Northern Kingdom had occurred circa 722 BCE.  
Southern Kingdom of Judah alone remained of the once great kingdom of 
David, although greatly weakened and reduced to a feudal servant of 
Assyria.  This had been a spiritual disaster for the chosen people of 
Yahweh.  Idolatrous worship of foreign gods, especially the adoption of 
certain Canaanite practices, had been part of this spiritually Dark Age.  
(Cf. 18:9-14)

Assyria's power had now begun to wane.  Smaller nations like, Judah among 
them, plotted against their overlord and gradually freed themselves of 
Assyrian domination.  Along with their new freedom, the people of Judah 
experienced a religious revival attributed to the leadership of their King 
Josiah.  The promise of a prophet like Moses who would speak for Yahweh 
and the rediscovery of the covenant law symbolized this return to the 
worship of Yahweh and a stricter obedience to the law as defined in the 
larger context in which this passage appears.

Do we not live in similarly chaotic times when political and economic 
change seriously affects our spiritual discernment? Where are the 
prophetic voices who speak for God in such times? Has the God of justice, 
righteousness, mercy and love fallen silent? Is no one listening? Can 
anyone hear amid the blaring cacophony of multiple media? In a global 
culture with instant digitalized communications available, what is the 
word of hope, justice and love that our scriptures proclaim? Where is the 
prophetic voice speaking for God today as Moses spoke to the Israelites on 
the threshold of the Promised Land?


PSALM 111   This is one of several psalms of a particular type known as 
"wisdom psalms." The concluding formula in vs. 10 expresses the 
fundamental concept of Hebrew wisdom: "The fear of the Lord is the 
beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding." 
From all that goes before this formula, we realize that "fear" must be 
seen as "reverence" as opposed to the terror that comes from the 
expectation of danger.  "Awe" or "respectful dread" might be even better 
ways to describe it.

In the original Hebrew, each of its twenty-two lines of the psalm began 
with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  This may have created a 
restrictive artificiality not evident in English, but which to the 
redactor of the Psalter recognized as a valuable poetic device.  Our 
version is a pleasing celebration of God's faithfulness and goodness.  The 
faithful become aware of these divine qualities by observation of "the 
works of the Lord".  What Yahweh has done for Israel expresses the kind of 
God Yahweh really is: righteous, gracious, merciful, powerful, faithful, 
just, trustworthy, covenanting, redeeming.  It is as if there are 
insufficient ways for the psalmist to celebrate Yahweh's holiness.  Such 
an awesome deity can only be praised.

Could it be that our worship today lacks the enthusiasm such a vision of 
God conveys? Do we even believe that such a God exists and is eternally at 
work implementing in the historical events of our time God's majestic 
purpose made fully known in Jesus Christ?


1 CORINTHIANS 8:1-13   The Corinthian church was a mix of both Jews and 
Gentiles.  They faced a serious problem about food which had been 
sacrificed to idols, then sold in the marketplace.  Some felt it could be 
consumed without harm to their faith or morals.  Others, particularly 
strict Jews, felt that to do so would defile them.

Apparently this had become a seriously divisive issue in the Christian 
community.  Someone would seem to have exercised authority in the matter, 
claiming special knowledge but without much compassion (vss. 2-3).  The 
situation may have been exacerbated by Jews who insisted on the 
application of their dietary code to Gentiles as well.  For some Jews, the 
code itself may have become an idol.

Paul dealt with the matter first with certain theological definitions.  
Idols do not really exist because there is only one God (vs. 4).  Despite 
the evidence of a many of gods and idols, especially common in Corinth one 
would suspect, there is really only "one God, the Father." He further 
defines the Christian tradition of God as creator of all and Father of our 
Lord Jesus Christ.  All things owe their existence to this one God.

With genuine pastoral concern, Paul next spoke of the special 
sensibilities of the unlearned.  There would have been some Corinthians 
who had come to their new faith with very little religious experience 
other than the predominant idol-worship of that city.  These folk would 
necessarily be puzzled by the new situation.  To eat food they knew to 
have been sacrificed to idols would be implicitly wrong.  Hence "their 
conscience, being weak, is defiled." (vs. 7) 

So Paul laid down a very simple rule to be followed: "Food does not bring 
us closer to God." (vs. 8) Neither eating nor refraining from eating has 
any spiritual value.  The important issue was how one's own practice 
affected one's neighbors.  What some felt was no more than the exercise of 
their freedom, might well "become a stumbling block to the weak." (vs. 9).  
He drove the point home by advocating a more generous and compassionate 
approach, especially for those who felt that such things really didn't 
matter.  Not to do so would be a sin against Christ.  (vs. 12)  He himself 
was prepared never to eat meat of any kind so that he might do not harm to 
anyone else. (vs.13)

Do we still confront food issues? Does anyone remember the grape and 
lettuce boycotts in support of the farm workers of California? Genetically 
altered foods have become a controversy in Europe, if not in North America 
where they are far more prevalent.  Is there a moral issue involved? Does 
the political and economic issue of low prices and subsidies for farm 
products have a moral component with which Christians need to consider?  
Paul's answer to these questions surely applies: if someone is being hurt, 
we have to become involved for no other reason than that as Christians we 
are bound to be compassionate toward our neighbors.
 

MARK 1:21-28   It was the custom to invite a visiting rabbi to teach in a 
local synagogue such as the one in Capernaum.  Mark does not tell us what 
scripture passage Jesus explained in his message.  He only gives us the 
reaction of two sets of people - the many who were astonished at his 
authority and the one whom he obviously frightened, though perhaps more by 
the man than his message.

The scribes were men who spent their time discerning the intricacies of 
Jewish law and custom from both the written texts and the oral tradition 
that had passed from teacher to pupil for generations.  They were jealous 
of their special role in the Jewish synagogues.  One scribe or rabbi, 
however, might not agree with another.  Arguments inevitably ensued as to 
whose interpretation of scripture had greater validity.  This only 
confused people.  Jesus' approach was different.  He had an authenticity 
about his teaching that expressed genuine authority.

The man afflicted "with an unclean spirit" created a scene by crying out, 
obviously in fear, "Have you come to destroy us?" Yet with his frightened 
question, he spoke the truth about Jesus.  For whatever reason, the 
mentally ill frequently fear being confronted with the possible 
implications of their cure.  If Jesus was indeed the Holy One of God, i.e.  
the Messiah, this sick man could be healed.  Perhaps he had become 
accustomed to being the sick man of the village and benefiting from the 
compassion people showed him.  In the village where I grew up, such a lad 
lived right next to our schoolyard and daily enjoyed the friendship 
extended to him as the enthusiastic spectator of our games.  A few years 
later he was indeed destroyed by other children who taunted him to the 
point of violence so that he had to be incarcerated in an asylum for the 
rest of his life.

Jesus' exorcisms and healing miracles were the evidence on which Mark 
built his case that Jesus was no one other than the Messiah.  The miracles 
expressed both Jesus' personal holiness and divine authority.  The 
witnesses to this first of several miracles were simply astonished and 
began to ask questions about him.  The news about him quickly spread 
through Galilee.  

In a new book, *Mary Magdalene: A Biography*, (Doubleday, 2005) Bruce 
Chilton asserts that the oral tradition behind the gospel narratives of 
exorcism can be traced to Mary Magdalene from whom Jesus had exorcised 
seven demons (Luke 8:2).  "Read in order, (Mark's) three stories amount to 
a manual on how to cope with unclean spirits (Mark 1:21-28; 5:1-17; 9:14-
29): by identifying them, confronting them with the divine Spirit, and 
proclaiming their defeat....  (This first story) depicts the unclean 
spirits whose threats dissolve once they are confronted with purity." 
(Chilton, 35-36)
 
New Testament authors used several Greek terms to describe miracles.  In 
English translation these variously became "signs, wonders, powers, 
works."  Yet none convey the supernatural aspect that "miracles" does.  A 
miracle does not occur as a supernatural event of its own accord or by 
virtue of the person who does it, whether Jesus himself or one of the 
apostles.  It is the outward manifestation of divine presence, purity and 
power in specific situations.  Mark expected his audience to know the 
answer to the question the people in the synagogue at Capernaum asked, 
"What is this?"  They were not only asking what happened, but what did it 
mean?  To Mark's audience this was the presence of the God of love and 
mercy active among these people inauguration God's rule in this place at 
this time.  

Do miracles still happen? Has God died? Or is it our faith in divine power 
that has waned to the point of disbelief? Do we still trust in a God who 
is with us and working in our situation with love and compassion for the 
sick, the oppressed, the helpless and the faithless? 

The biblical meaning of miracles is that God discloses and fulfills God's 
purpose in the world, especially on behalf of God's people and for the 
redemption of those who respond in faith to God's activity.  By his 
teaching and his healing Jesus revealed that the reign of God's redeeming 
love had already begun.  Spiritual discernment interprets apparently 
extraordinary events as the working of God's power in human affairs.  This 
may not be so much divine intervention as it is the enabling of processes 
which can ordinarily be seen as outside the boundaries normal human 
experience.  Equally true was the conclusion Jesus would have drawn that 
some would believe and some would not.  That does not seem to have 
changed, does it? 

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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