Is the food or your friend’s salvation more important? (photo from the movie Babette’s Feast)

Today’s readings

Gospel: Mark 1:21-28

Last week, Jesus called His first disciples. Today, He makes His first public appearance in the book of Mark.

Jesus is with His disciples in Capernaum, a mid-sized town of about 10,000, significantly larger than Nazareth. This is Jesus’ adult hometown, and He would have been known here. It’s the Sabbath and the men of the town have gathered to hear the Torah read and discussed as usual. But today isn’t usual. We see a demon-possessed man accuse Jesus, and we watch Jesus cast that demon out. But let’s back up a little.

Jesus and His disciples entered the synagogue. This is a word we haven’t encountered in a while. How is it different from the Temple in Jerusalem? Synagogues originated during the Babylonian exile around 500 B.C. Jews in Babylon began gathering to read and discuss the Torah. The word “synagogue” actually comes from the Greek words for “gather together.” Over time, the habit became using the Sabbath to gather to listen to the Torah. (Yes, the Sabbath went from REST to “go-to-church-day.” Which is why you still need to REST on the Sabbath!) Eventually, every town with at least ten Jewish men would have their own synagogue.

At the synagogue, scribes and rabbis would read from and the expound on the Torah. Important for our lesson today is the manner in which they taught. Scribes and rabbis always relied on the authority of others. “Rabbi So-and-so said…” would have been typical. In Mark, we don’t know what exactly Jesus said, but he definitely said it on his own authority, so that alone would have been remarkable.

Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus typically prefaces teachings with, “Truly I tell you” or “I say to you.” These are very different than teaching based on another person’s interpretation. This difference would have been truly shocking in the tradition-bound teaching method of the synagogue.

Also note the use of the word “authority.” In English, the word can sometimes be used to mean “expert,” as in “the world’s leading authority on coffee bean roasting.” But the Greek word used here refers to “having power over another.” This authority extended to having power over the demon who started speaking, power to cast him out of his victim.

In verse 24, the demon in the man identifies Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” This is the second identification of Jesus in Mark–the first was in verse 11, when the voice of God identifies Jesus as His Son.  Also remember that John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God (John 1:29). Also, even though the demon properly identifies Jesus, he does not FOLLOW Jesus. It is entirely possible to know exactly who Jesus is without claiming Him as your own Savior. (James also tells us that.)

It’s significant that one of Jesus’ first acts of public ministry is to be of service, in this case to the possessed man. And He refuses to negotiate with the demon in any way. This is definitely a sign of Jesus’ authority: you don’t negotiate with someone who isn’t at least your equal.

Finally, a note about that demon possession. Many, many modern commentaries cast doubt on whether this is an actual demon possession or merely an illness of some sort. Personally, I come down on the side of actual possession. Jesus had plenty of opportunities to heal sick people, and we are told about them. I think that it’s very possible that the demon was attracted to Jesus in some way, which is why demons often seem to show up in His presence.  More importantly, though, I think to discount the reality of demon possession is dangerous.

Old Testament: Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Remember that Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Pentateuch, written by Moses. The book is essentially one long sermon about how the Israelites wandered in the dessert and have come to the edge of possessing the Promised Land.

In this passage, Moses is speaking. He is saying that God will raise up someone in the future like himself. After this prophecy was given, it was common to regard the line of Old Testament prophets as one prophet for purposes of this prophecy. After Jesus, though, it seems plain that this passage is directly talking about Jesus. Note the similarities between Jesus and Moses that don’t exist with other prophets:

  • Both were spared death as a baby (Moses in his basket, Jesus avoiding the slaughter of the innocents)
  • Both were offered royal life but didn’t choose it
  • Both looked at the people who surrounded them with compassion
  • Both made intercession with God the Father on behalf of these people
  • Both spoke with God the Father face-to-face
  • Both were mediators of a covenant with God

All of these aren’t true of any other prophet.

Note in this passage that Mount Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai. God had revealed Himself to the Israelites through fire and it had terrified them so much that they begged for it never to happen again. We need an intermediary for God. Thanks be to God that we have that in Jesus.

Psalm 111

This is a good Psalm to read out loud, several times if necessary, when you really don’t feel like praising God AT ALL. Proverbs tells us that our feelings can follow our actions–praising God when times are difficult leads to a grateful and glad heart.

This Psalm is the first of the “Hallel” psalms. They start with “Praise the Lord”–in Hebrew, Hallel Yahweh. This is where the word Hallelujah comes from!

New Testament: 1 Corinthians Chapter 8

This chapter reads as if Paul is continuing to respond to questions on a point-by-point basis. It’s apparent that in the city of Corinth, it’s hard to eat meat unless it’s one from one of the sacrifices to an idol. Some people regarded eating that meat as an endorsement of idol worship, and others said, “It’s just meat and I’m hungry.” So who was right?

Paul gets to the larger issue, one of the heart. If something isn’t prohibited, does it make it your right? And is holding fast to your right more important than your brother’s salvation?

In our age of rights to everything, this is an incredible message. How much do you love your neighbor? Are you willing to forego something that God is silent on anyway, so that you can help your neighbor along in his faith? I don’t think Paul is talking about deciding that something is no longer prohibited that once was. I think he is talking about areas where the Bible is actually silent, especially the New Testament.

And I think he is also talking about looking at the spirit in which the thing is offered. If they are talking about participating in the actual ceremony of sacrifice, that’s a different matter. But to try to come together in love is the most important idea.

I’ve had a little time to reflect on this passage, even since Sunday (since this post is a little late). Paul is definitely not talking about differences in belief here. He directly addresses doctrinal issues throughout all of his epistles. I think the difference here is that he is speaking to the more experienced Christians about their friends who haven’t yet come to a full understanding. He says in verse 7:

Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they STILL think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. (emphasis mine)

It seems that Paul is just saying to accommodate a fellow believer’s naivete, their newness in belief, and to be patient. I think he is NOT talking about someone developing a “new understanding” of part of God’s word and then forcing it on other people. I’m talking here about worshipping God under multiple names, not all of which are male, or deciding that there is a new understanding of how marriage works, for example. The Bible is already explicit about these. It isn’t explicit about eating food offered to a (nonexistent) idol.

I read a great review of the movie “Babette’s Feast,” and how it could be viewed as an expression of this chapter in 1 Corinthians. I haven’t seen the movie but intend to this week. If you know the movie I’d love a comment on your view of it as it relates to this passage!

We can do far worse than the idea that Paul lays out in this sweet chapter of 1 Corinthians. What are you holding on to more tightly than your love for your neighbor? Unless it is Jesus, you may need to consider putting it down.