January 28, 2018, 4th Sunday after the Epiphany YR B

Sunday, January 28, 2018, 4th Sunday after the Epiphany Year B

Ed Lawry




Today’s readings center around the issue of “authority” and the difficulties the Christian community faces in giving scandal to each other in the face of different understandings of what is required of each of us in our commitment to love God.


We all should remember how extensive, complicated and detailed the Mosaic Law was including rules about what is clean and unclean food, ritual purification laws, requirements for keeping feast days, rules about sacrifices and blessings, laws about contributions to the temple, instructions for construction and maintenance of the Ark of the Covenant, recommendations about blessings, etc.   Part of the aim of this complex of Law sought to make members of the Jewish sect distinct from other religious communities.  They were to be the people of Yahweh—the chosen people of God.  And the way they showed this off to others as well as the way they demonstrated this to each other in order to encourage piety grew elaborate and obvious.


This might give us some pause in our contemporary life.  Imagine how different our lives might be if we all went around wearing little Episcopalian hats or scarves, stopped what we were doing every so many hours to unravel our prayer rugs and dropped to our knees facing Bethlehem, produced and consumed special Episcopalian food on a regular basis (what would you suggest, Yorkshire pudding? fish and chips? shepherd’s pie?)


Among the various sects in the ancient Middle East it was typical for individuals and communities to at least show collective homage to their deities by sacrificing food to their gods in public ceremonies and if stories in the Old Testament are any guide, in private manifestations of worship.  Such a sacrifice demonstrated how loyal and dependent the worshipers were to the powerful protector and provider they had chosen as their god.  We see this food sacrifice in the earliest parts of the Old Testament—famously in the story of Cain and Abel.  And indeed this story suggests that the sacrifice of meat (Abel’s sacrifice) is understood to be most pleasing to the deity.


So we hear Paul giving this careful administrative counsel to the Corinthians about the religions implications of food consumption.  Is the consumption of the food offered in sacrifice to an idol a case of treating the food as merely food since “Food will not bring us close to God.  We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.”?  Or is it a case of treating it as a sacrament, in which case it would be a blasphemy because it acknowledges the deific status of an idol as opposed to the one true God?  Paul shrewdly splits the difference.  Since in fact, the food cannot be religiously important since the idol does not exist, there is no objection to eating the food as food.  But, since not everyone is so clear and strong in their theological understanding, it might contribute to their confusion about what really counts as sacramental.  Thus it could contribute to the disruption of doctrinal unity and solidarity of the Christian community.   Because meat is the real source of the problem as the primary sacrificial food in question, Paul concludes that we are all better off being vegetarians until the coming of the Kingdom.


Perhaps the Church in Her wisdom decided to include this section of the epistle in today’s lectionary as a kind of sneaky way to indicate that Paul was surely not the prophet talked about in the Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy who would be raised up from among the people and God’s own words put in his mouth.  What would Jesus himself have said to the Corinthians about the matter?


In contrast we have Mark’s gospel which presents Jesus who does indeed have complete authority.  Indeed that is the very point to this section of Mark’s gospel—to show at the beginning of this story that Jesus was, unlike the scribes or Church administrators, “the Holy One of God” as the unclean spirit in the synagogue identifies him.  How did the people know this?  Because he “taught them as one having authority”.  And how did they recognize that he had authority?….Well, the members of the synagogue cite the evidence that “He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”  So it appears that the Jews took the opinion of the unclean spirits.  But aren’t unclean spirits masters of deceit?  Perhaps they were like the contemporary Russians and were spreading Fake News for their own wily purposes?  It is very interesting that Mark doesn’t give us the actual teaching that Jesus provided in the temple which might have bowled his readers over with its authority.  But no—no words simply on their own contain authority except that minimal authority that whoever speaks them is the “author” of them (except when they are quotes from someone else’s words).  No, the idea of authority Mark is talking about is something else.


Authority as we discover it in Mark is that special attribute that some person has that intuitively calls forth confidence in the truth and rightness of what they are saying.  Authority elicits trust.  It is not contained directly in any words but is a global presence that cannot be resisted.  My favorite touchstone for this notion is from John’s gospel (Chapter 6) after Jesus has taught a revolutionary idea of sacrificial/sacramental food, namely his own personal flesh and blood as food and drink.  Many of his disciples heard this teaching and lost respect for Jesus’ authority, but when Jesus asked the 12 if they would also leave, Peter speaks up and says “Lord to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Here Peter’s spontaneous outburst includes the other apostles without checking with them, so certain was Peter of the reality of Jesus’ authority.  His trust in Jesus is robust, and interestingly he calls Jesus by the same title as is used by the unclean spirit in Mark’s gospel—the Holy One of God.  Yet here the puzzle becomes acute.  Peter and the apostles seem to be brought under the spell of Jesus authority, but many of the other disciples desert Jesus at this moment precisely because of the words of his teaching.  How then is  this authority of Jesus supposed to be obvious and irresistible?


I am in the middle right now of reading a fascinating book by the Psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman called “Thinking—Fast and Slow” in which Kahneman explores the many ways our intuitions provide unjustified evidence for rapid conclusions that form the foundation of how we make our way in the world.  Though he holds out a lot of respect for our ability to overcome our errors, it is a bit disheartening to realize that many of our typical mistakes in the way we intuitively understand our world are operative even when we know that they are mistakes!  He writes a little about how we form our opinions about authority.  Much of this is familiar to most of us upon reflection—deep voice, air of confidence, square jawed, athletic build, etc.  And if you want to gain authority in a group, speak assertively and early in any meeting. These are the sorts of things that sow seeds of confidence that someone speaks with authority.  Moreover, someone who seems to have power—the ability to manipulate the things of the world according to his or her own purposes suggests also that they have some authority.


Authority and power have long been associated concepts.  Those who seem to have authority seem naturals for getting power.  Those who have power often are accorded authority.  But we have many examples of the two attributes contrasting with one another—most often in someone who has power but who has little authority and sometimes in the case of someone who has authority, but alas, little power.


When we see someone with authority, we often think they should have power and we seek to give them power.  Thus the occasions when people wanted Jesus to become a king or a political leader.  When we see someone with power, we often seek to attribute authority to them too.  Thus the many examples in the scriptures of Jesus performing what many people took to be miracles and how those miracles were interpreted as signs of his authority, and especially the miracle of his own resurrection which was claimed to be self-authored—i.e. on his own authority.  Mark’s gospel gives us the story of Jesus’ power over even the unclean spirits as strong evidence of his authority.


So what prompts us as Christians to trust in the authority of the Jesus figure—the Holy One of God?  One good answer is “Well…it is just everything.”  And that is why we don’t just stop with the beginning of the Gospel story, but carry it through the Church year until it comes round again and we do it again until we manage finally to SEE.  But when I try to puzzle it out, I keep coming back to the marvelous way Jesus kept separate the easily confused attributes of power and authority.  The source of Jesus’ authority for me is paradoxically his deliberate powerlessness.  His example was to be the servant of all, to love rather than be loved, to understand rather than be understood.  As our passion scriptures call him, he was the one who emptied himself.  Even his miracles are mostly not exercises of power over the natural elements, (though he does make the wind subside and manages to walk on water pretty well) but of simply his words that are obeyed by other intelligent beings who, in order to obey, must have the discernment to see and the will power to follow his direction.  Everything in his life is a transformation into the spiritual.  Forgive one another, love one another—what else was his message?


The Old Testament is filled with depictions of God as omnipotent.  He is creator and destroyer. His wrath shakes the heavens and the earth and his support sustains his chosen people in battle.  He is an awesome God.  In contrast, the New Testament mostly portrays Jesus as almost defenseless against the plotters and the jealous and over-scrupulous Pharisees.  He sometimes has to run away to keep from being attacked.  Instead his life was more like a dance or a song or a poem—nothing political or military or even very organizational.  He made nothing happen, but he changed everything.  I think of him in the way that the poet W.H. Auden (“In Memory of W.B. Yeats”) characterized poetry itself.


“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From the ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.”