January 31, 2021

Brief synopsis of the readings: Moses spoke to the people in the Book of Deuteronomy, telling them that after he is gone, God will chose from among them a prophet. They must listen to this prophet, but also the prophet must be true to God. If the prophet does not listen to God, he will die. Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus’ trip to Capernaum where he spoke in the synagogue. Those gathered listened to him because he spoke with authority. While he was speaking a man with an unclean spirit approached and asks if Jesus meant harm. Jesus ordered the unclean spirit out of the man and the spirit left. Those gathered were astonished at Jesus’ ability.

Much of the Book of Deuteronomy describes the last part of the journey of the Jews from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land. And while Moses led them, he would not complete the journey with them. When God tells them (through Moses) that others will be appointed, God tells us something interesting that’s easy to overlook. God will appoint prophets but there is at a chance that these prophets will not speak the truth: “The man who does not listen to my words that he speaks in my name, shall be answerable to me for it.” In other words God will not take this prophet’s freewill away from him and this person can still fall under the influence of greed or envy or the need for power.

Frankly, that’s been a problem ever since. Our history literally bursts with people claiming to be prophets, claiming to speak for God. Sometimes it’s just been an irritant, but sometimes these false prophets have inspired deadly results. In 1844 a Baptist Preacher named William Miller predicted the Second Coming of Jesus for that year. Many believed him and gathered, expecting to see Jesus on March 21, 1844. Alas, nothing happened and his followers referred to that as the “Great Disappointment.” Many of us remember Harold Camping who predicted Jesus’ return on May 21, 2011. We read all sorts of stories from followers who sold what they had to purchase billboards to encourage Christians to prepare. Again, nothing happened.

But sometimes they turn deadly. Famously, in 1993, David Koresh let a community in Waco, Texas to their death. In 1983 he began to proclaim himself a prophet of God and eventually led a group called the Branch Davidians and they gathered in a compound in Waco, Texas. Because of allegations of child abuse the government raided his compound and this led to a 51 day siege that ended with the death of Mr. Koresh and 79 followers when David set the compound on fire before killing himself.

We are unlikely to ever cross paths with David Koresh, or even William Miller but the question persists: how can we tell a true prophet from a false one? That plagued even those in Jesus’ time. While he proclaimed that he was the Messiah, the Chosen One, he was far from alone in this. Any number of people, then and since, have made claims to varying degrees of success.

There was something in Jesus that was different. “And his teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.” Most of the people listened to the scribes and pharisees because of their intelligence, but intelligence is not authority. When I was a child we had a priest at my church who was, in fairness, a good priest and his heart was in the right place, but he was more of a scholar than a pastor. I grew weary of hearing from adults something to the effect of this: “He must be really smart because I can’t understand a word he’s saying.” Years later, when I was running a Sunday School program, I met a priest who gave a presentation to me and my colleagues. He was a master of explaining complex ideas in ways that made perfect sense. He didn’t attempt to show us how smart of clever he was but cared only that we understand what he was talking about.

But let’s face it, it’s not that easy. The followers of William Miller and David Koresh believed those leaders spoke with authority. And so Jesus gave us another clue: he cured the man possessed by a demon. At the time of Jesus most people honestly believed that there were demons that needed to be removed. In 1971 the author William Peter Blatty published The Exorcist about a girl who suffered demonic possession and it caused a great deal of fear over this.

Nevertheless most of us don’t think much about demonic possession. Given this how do we look at this (and several other) events of Jesus healing someone of possession? There’s good reason to translate this into our current understanding of addiction or destructive patterns of behavior. Many who suffer stay far away from healing simply because they are just not ready. But there was something in this man who, despite his possession, managed to approach Jesus. We all know people who are living lives healing from addiction because of a belief in a higher power.

I believe, at the end of the day, that we should listen to those who call us to the better angels of our nature. We should certainly listen to someone who calls for healing and wholeness. But more to the point we should ignore those who don’t. Last week we read about Jonah who fled from God who called him to convert people Jonah didn’t want to convert. Later in Matthew’s Gospel we learn that the mother of James and John pushed for Jesus to put her sons in a place of honor.

I believe this is an important point: too often we can be lured into following someone who attempts to prophesy that we can get a better deal or we can cut in line. We all want to think of ourselves as important or valuable and when someone tells us that this gives us a better deal we can easily be persuaded.

But those who followed William Miller and David Koresh paid dearly for this. They were told that their decision to follow these men would give them a better place in God’s plan for salvation and they were wrong.

Instead let us look toward those prophets who tell us that the last shall be first, that we benefit from our generosity to others, and that salvation does not come with rank. In other words authority comes to us not just with intelligence but also with kindness.