Bible Study: 4 Epiphany (B)

February 1, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him” (Mark 1:23-26)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

This passage defines the nature of a true prophet. A prophet is a gift from God. A true prophet is obliged to speak God’s truth – good news or bad – and must be heard and heeded by the people of God. A true prophet may not speak in the name of other gods, nor speak in God’s name what God has not commanded. In this sermon to the people of Israel, Moses reports God’s promise to raise up for them a prophet like him from among their own people. Christians have long interpreted Jesus to be this prophet – the “one like me from among their own people” – as is evidenced in the Gospel of Matthew’s strong identification of Jesus with Moses. In Acts 3: 22-23 ff, Peter reminds the congregation in Jerusalem of this promise, specifically naming Jesus as the appointed prophet and Messiah. He also reminds the congregation of their roots as people of Israel: “You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors” (Acts 3: 25).

In the name of what other gods might a false prophet speak? How can we distinguish between God’s commands and what God has not commanded?

Can you think of any prophets in our times? Someone you know or someone you’ve encountered in books, the news, social media?

How does the description of a true versus false prophet apply to the qualifications and trustworthiness of our community and religious leaders?

Psalm 111

Imagine this psalm as a response to the excerpt from Moses’ sermon that we read in today’s passage from Deuteronomy. The gathered people respond as a congregation with thanks and praise to God. In the opening verses, the people are thankful for God’s work and deeds, and for the gift of studying God’s word. On this day, they are especially thankful for God’s covenant with them, for the justice and steadfastness of God’s commandments, and for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Finally, they are ever mindful of the eternity of God. God’s righteousness and praise endure forever.

How does reading and meditating on this psalm connect worshipers here and now with the worshipers who might have heard Moses speaking in ancient times?

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

This passage from First Corinthians offers a fascinating glimpse into Paul’s first-century Christian community. The earliest Christians were Jewish followers of Jesus. In most cases, they followed the Jewish Law. It was the Jewish custom to refrain from eating the meat that was sold in the marketplace, because of the possibility that it had been used in pagan sacrifice. Paul’s mission was to bring the Good News of Christ to the gentiles. This is not the only time in his letters when he addresses whether or not a gentile (or pagan or Greek) must conform to Jewish practices in order to be a part of the community of followers of Jesus. Paul says those who possess the knowledge of Christ’s salvation understand that food has no bearing on one’s relationship to God. However, it is best not to cause discomfort to those who are offended by eating food sacrificed to idols. So do not sin against Christ by wounding the consciences of others. Later in the letter (1 Corinthians 10:32) Paul is quite specific in his instruction to his mixed community of Jews and gentiles: Do not offend the Jewish believers by what you eat.

What does this passage say to you about dietary laws, respect and religious tolerance? Are there specific examples from your campus community, workplace or multi-faith community that apply to this discussion?

Do you think Paul is advocating an inclusive tolerance within the Christian community at Corinth? Why or why not? What are the implications for multicultural intra- and inter-religious relations today?

Mark 1:21-28

Today’s passage from Mark returns to the question raised in Deuteronomy 18:15-20: How can we recognize a true prophet? While the people gathered in the synagogue in Capernaum react with surprise and wonder to Jesus’ teaching, the unclean spirit recognizes him immediately: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The title Holy One of God is a reference to the prophet and healer Elisha (2 Kings 4:9). True to form as one who works and teaches in the tradition of the most honored prophets of the Jewish people, Jesus has authority to direct the power of God’s kingdom against the power of evil. “Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus commands, and the spirit obeys. While the scribes depend on their knowledge of Torah and tradition for their authority, Jesus preaches and heals with the authority of one sent by God. As his fame spread throughout Galilee, might the people have wondered: Is this the prophet from among their own that God promised in his covenant with the people of Israel?

Imagine a conversation between two witnesses to this day’s events in the synagogue. One is struck with awe and wonder: Surely this is the prophet promised by God in Deuteronomy! The other is a skeptic and warns against being taken in by folk healers and false prophets. Try role-playing or a debate between these two points of view.

What is the relationship between authority in teaching and the power to exorcise? Why do you think the evangelist Mark chose to introduce the public ministry of Jesus with stories of healing and exorcism?

Try bringing this healing story into the 21st century. What demons might a new prophet need to cast out? How might the Good News of the Kingdom of God have power over such demons?

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