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FEBRUARY 1, 2009: FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
I Corinthians 7:32-35
Mark 1:21-28

When asked, “What was Jesus’ first miracle?” most of us respond, “Changing water into wine at Cana in Galilee.” That’s correct if we’re dealing with John’s gospel; but wrong if we’re talking about the other three. Since those who originally read gospels already believed in Jesus’ divinity, evangelists employ miracles not to prove Jesus is God, but to show what kind of God he is. The first miracle sets the theme for the rest of the gospel. Just as it’s significant for John’s Jesus to replace the water of Judaism with the wine of Christianity, so it’s significant for Mark’s Jesus to begin his ministry by curing a demoniac. If we asked Mark how we’re to imitate Jesus in our daily lives, he’d simply point to today’s pericope.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, demons were thought of as agents of evil. But unlike our day and age, demons reached far beyond just perpetrating moral evil. When something bad or painful happened, demons were behind it. If for instance, you woke up with a bad cold, demons were responsible. You name the evil, religious experts could name the demon who caused it. Modern scholars often mention that many people who were regarded as being “possessed by demons” during Jesus’ lifetime would today be classified as severely mentally ill. Two thousand years ago, evil and demons were synonymous.

That’s why it’s essential to Mark’s theology that Jesus’ first miracle is an exorcism. If we’re to be other Christs, then we, like Jesus, are to eradicate evil wherever we find it. When today’s Capernaum demon asks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” the Christian response is an emphatic, “Yes!” If we accept the call to imitate Jesus, then there should be less evil in the world when we go to bed at night than there was when woke up that morning.

No doubt this passion to eradicate evil is also behind Paul’s suggestion to the unmarried in his Corinthian community to remain unmarried. (By the way, this is the only passage in the entire Christian Scriptures which addresses the celibacy question.) The Apostle begins this section of his letter by stating, “I have no commandment from the Lord,” on this issue. Everything he writes on the topic is” . . . my opinion.... “

His instruction is based on two premises. First, as we heard last week, “time is running out.” Jesus’ Parousia is just around the corner. Those who continue their marriage plans should know they’re not going to have their hall deposit refunded if Jesus arrives before the wedding. Second, unmarried people are better able to carry out Jesus’ plan to destroy evil than those who are committed to a spouse.

Since we’re hearing Paul’s words 2,000 years after they were first written, it’s clear he was wrong about his first premise. He probably never would have encouraged anyone to live an entire natural life unmarried. Regarding his second premise, if you’ve seen the movie Amazing Grace you remember how William Wilberforce’s wife Barbara was the major force and support behind his long drawn out struggle against slavery in the British Empire during the early l9” century. He would never have succeeded in eradicating that horrific evil had he remained single. But no matter what we think about marriage or celibacy, we must never forget Paul’s disclaimer: “I tell you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you . . . “

Our Deuteronomy author hits the evil-eradicating nail on the head when he reminds his people that Yahweh will always supply us with prophets: people who cut through culture, security and even organized religion, to point out what evils should be on our eradication list. Those who refuse to surface - or worse yet, try to silence - the prophets among us usually go to bed every night falsely believing our culture and religion have already gotten rid of all the evil God wants eradicated. Without prophets we have no list.