Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-22, Mark 1:21-28, Divine Providence 230:2, Secrets of Heaven 668 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo by Eduardo Goody on Unsplash
We join Jesus today at the begining of his minstry in the gospel of Mark, right after he has called his first disciples to follow him. They reach the town of Capernaum, and Jesus goes into the synagogue and begins to teach. It is not so unusual that Jesus would have engaged in a public reading and exposition of the Torah - this was the purpose of the synagogue - but rather that his teachings began to put him in conflict with the experts in the law, the scribes. He was starting to preach something different, something that made the people sit up and take notice, something that made the religious leaders uncomfortable.
What is interesting is that Mark characterizes less what Jesus says, but how he said it. He tells us Jesus taught with “authority” and that was part of what the people, and indeed, the impure spirit, were responding to. We’ll leave modern interpretations of exorcisms to another day. For now, I’d like to focus on the question of authority: why did Jesus have it, and why was that important to the people listening?
To understand why the Jewish people would sit up and take notice of someone teaching with authority, we need to take a detour through Deuteronomy. It is the fifth book of the bible, traditionally ascribed to Moses, and takes the form of various Mosaic speeches and acts, providing a supplement and an expansion of the of the original law, including the ten commandments, which we hear about in Exodus. The book experienced “several stages of growth and editing,” coming together during the Babylonian exile and after it, as Israel worked to reclaim its identity, both internally and politically.
So in our reading, in the midst of this reclamation of identity and nationhood, we see the careful balancing of the powers in religious life. In making a covenant with the people, God had established Godself as the ultimate authority, but understandably, the people had always required some kind of accommodation of that authority in their context. So, God gave them the law, and the priesthood, and finally a king. But, the problem with authority passed down by inheritance, like the priesthood and kingship, is the rise of orthodoxy. Therefore, God also gave authority to prophets. When the authority of the king or the priests calcified into something that no longer served the people but served the elite, God sent prophets to preach a word that challenged the status quo. A word new enough shatter complacency but old enough to remind the people what had been true all along. These prophets are an incredibly important part of Jewish tradition, they are an embodiment of God’s continual care and love, a compassionate God who cares enough to send correction when God’s people have gone astray. This is one of the reasons that the question of “authority” was important to the Jews in Jesus’ context and why they were so attuned to it. They had a tradition of prophets rising up to challenge the status quo, and so the people were always on the look out.
But, the particular people who wrote and collated Deuteronomy were not prophets but priests. They recognized the importance of prophets to the balance of righteous power but they also feared them. They feared for their own position, of course. Those ensconced in orthodoxy rarely believe it is right for it to be dismantled or reformed. But also, there is a potential dark side to prophetism. Such a back door into God’s authority can leave a space open for bad actors and profiteers. Vulnerable people will often believe anything that gives them hope. But not everyone who claims to speak for God, does. Not everyone who claims to speak the truth, does. So, the Deuteronomists were attempting to set up some boundaries. They wanted to limit the influence of outsiders, so they said prophet must rise up from “among your own people” and they wanted leave a high bar, so it needed to be someone “like Moses,” their most revered prophet. And then they also provided some guidelines for answering the question: how do we know when someone is speaking for God? How do we know if what they say is the truth?
The first guideline is that the prophet should not speak in the name of other gods. On the face of it, that seems pretty simple. If they say it doesn’t come from the one true God, then it doesn’t come from God. But speaking in the name of other gods isn’t always so straight forward. In Swedenborgian sense, a name symbolizes the character, the essential nature of a thing. If you are familiar with the play by Arthur Miller, the Crucible, the main character is asked to sign his name to a document professing his guilt in order to gain his freedom. Many others had already done so. But he is not guilty of the crime and he cannot bring himself to do it because his name, to him, is not only what he is called by others, but what he stands for as a person. Speaking in the name of other gods is also about speaking with allegiance to the character of not only other gods, but other powers, other priorities. In the words of one of my commentaries it is preaching “doctrines which teach the soul to worship other things as supreme.” Other things like money, power, influence, celebrity, pleasure, security, the list goes on. So a true prophet does not lift up priorities that are antithetical to God’s kingdom, does not invite us to worship things other than God, does not call us to value things which God has cautioned us against valuing.
The other guideline this chapter provides is that the word of prophecy must come true. Already, this is a tricky one. The Israelites, post-exile, were chastened that they did not listen to their many prophets who preached destruction, for that did indeed come to pass. And yet, we heard several weeks back the story of Jonah, about a prophet who did preach destruction but found that prophecy averted by the Ninevites’ repentance. As we know having come through a modern pandemic, it is often very hard to prove the realness of a disaster averted. But the prophetic word is not always about predictions of calamity; remember it is a new word about what has always been true. The prophets were bringing the people back to the covenant, back to what they knew was right. This is a type of word that can be proven true in the course of our own lives. Is it better to love than to hate? Is it better to tell the truth than to lie? What happens when we respect our parents, our neighbors, our spouses according to the commandments? What happens when we look after the most vulnerable among us? The truth of this type of prophecy is borne out everyday, right in front of us. The realness of God’s divine truth is not an abstract thing; its realness comes to pass in the small moments between people just as readily as in the “arc of the moral universe.”
So, the first guideline is prompting us to pay attention to what a prophet is calling upon us to love and serve. The second guideline is prompting us to take a look at the form of the prophecy and the fruit that it bears. Do the words encourage us to love or hate, do the words encourage us to act with courage and integrity? Because, for something to be true, it must be giving form to love. If it is not giving form to love then it is not true. From our Swedenborg reading: no truth can be brought forth unless love exists within it. If it is giving form to love of the Lord and love of the neighbor, then it is true. If it is giving form to self-love, giving form to love of dominion, giving form to fear….then what is being preached is falsity, no matter how appealing, how pragmatic, how right it may sound. We will know a prophet by what they tell us to love and by what they tell us to do.
So, the Jewish people of Jesus’ day were urgently waiting for a prophet to rise up and speak truth to power. As an occupied people under the boot of Rome, with a political and religious elite complicit in their efforts to retain control, they hoped and prayed for a word from God that would change their dire circumstances. By their tradition, they were finely attuned to the authority of the prophet, and they saw it in Jesus that day.
We too look for prophets, in our day and age, even if we don’t necessarily understand people to speak for God as directly as in ancient Israel. Perhaps we don’t always look for religious prophets, but political and cultural prophets certainly. It is a natural human tendency to resist the calcification of our institutions, to try to introduce some fresh air into fossilized ways of doing things. God knows this, and the Deuteronomists knew this.
But prophets are not always recognized in their day. Many did not recognize Jesus for what he was, many did not recognize the word of God being spoken in their midst. Likewise, often it is only the passage of time that proves the truth of the prophet. As many have reminded us this past Martin Luther King day, Dr King was not popular in his day. He is oft quoted now, and is much admired, but Gallup polls in the 1960s show a very different picture. In a a survey in 1963, the year before Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize, just under half of the respondents had a negative view of him, with a fourth having an extremely negative view of him. Much of white america did not approve of Dr. King’s actions during the civil rights movement. And we can see why; he was employing the prophet’s refrain…Repent! Open your eyes to the suffering of the marginalized! The *purpose* of the prophet is to make us feel uncomfortable, to help us see where God’s kingdom is yearning to be born more fully. And we don’t always welcome that reminder. But, let us apply the rubric: what was Dr. King calling on us to love? Our fellow human beings. What was he calling on us to do? Give form to that love through the granting of equal rights.
Dr. King’s good friend and colleague, Rabbi Heschel has written, that “the purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness….prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: few are guilty, but all are responsible.”(1) As we will learn as we journey though Mark this year, Jesus will not be satisfied with an understanding of power and authority that is apart from sacrifice. Many will marvel at his miracles, at his teaching, but Jesus meant for these to be a call to action, to responsibility, to an embrace of a kingdom in which servanthood and mutual love reign. Having our eyes opened to the moral state of our lives, individually, socially, nationally, can be very painful. But it can also be transformational, because the recognition of the authority of divine truth is just as much a call as any of Jesus’ disciples received. The question is: are we listening?
(1) Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction, p16-17
15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. 16 For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.” 17 The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name. 20 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.” 21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “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!” 25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. 27 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.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
Divine Providence 230:2
We can see from this that in the Word, "the name of God" means both God and everything divine that is in God and that emanates from God. Since the Word is a divine emanation, it is a name of God; and since all the divine gifts that we refer to as the spiritual gifts of the church come from the Word, they too are a name of God.
Secrets of Heaven 668
…Indeed no truth can ever be brought forth unless some good or delight exists for it to spring from. Within good and delight there is life, but not within truth apart from that which it derives from good and delight. It is from these that truth is given form and develops, even as faith, which is connected with truth, is given form by and develops out of love, which is connected with good. Truth is like light; there is no light apart from that which flows from the sun or flame. It is from these that light is given form. Truth is merely the form which good takes, and faith merely the form which love takes. The form that truth takes depends therefore on the character of its good, as does that of faith on that of its love or charity.