Being a Prophet
by Gary Simpson
4th Sunday After Epiphany
January 31, 2021
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (Contemporary English Version)
Instead, he will choose one of your own people to be a prophet just like me, and you must do what that prophet says. 16 You were asking for a prophet the day you were gathered at Mount Sinai and said to the LORD, “Please don’t let us hear your voice or see this terrible fire again—if we do, we will die!”
17 Then the LORD told me:
Moses, they have said the right thing. 18 So when I want to speak to them, I will choose one of them to be a prophet like you. I will give my message to that prophet, who will tell the people exactly what I have said. 19 Since the message comes from me, anyone who doesn’t obey the message will have to answer to me.
20 But if I haven’t spoken, and a prophet claims to have a message from me, you must kill that prophet, and you must also kill any prophet who claims to have a message from another god.
Mark 1:21-28 (Contemporary English Version)
A Man with an Evil Spirit
21 Jesus and his disciples went to the town of Capernaum. Then on the next Sabbath he went into the Jewish meeting place and started teaching. 22 Everyone was amazed at his teaching. He taught with authority, and not like the teachers of the Law of Moses. 23 Suddenly a man with an evil spirit in him entered the meeting place and yelled, 24 “Jesus from Nazareth, what do you want with us? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are! You are God’s Holy One.”
25 Jesus told the evil spirit, “Be quiet and come out of the man!” 26 The spirit shook him. Then it gave a loud shout and left.
27 Everyone was completely surprised and kept saying to each other, “What is this? It must be some new kind of powerful teaching! Even the evil spirits obey him.” 28 News about Jesus quickly spread all over Galilee.
At first glance, the Hebrew Scriptures reading for this week and the Christian Scriptures reading for the week appear to be on vastly different topics. In the Christian Scriptures reading, there is a story of Jesus casting an evil spirit out of a man. The Hebrew Scriptures are about choosing a prophet for the people. There are times when a community of faith chooses a spiritual leader based on the demonstrated power of the person’s life and the person’s ministry. The last two verses of the Gospel reading. “It must be some new kind of powerful teaching! Even the evil spirits obey him.” News about Jesus quickly spread all over Galilee.” As the news of Jesus’ ministry spread, His popularity seemed to increase.
The passage in Deuteronomy is about what will take place when the children of Israel enter the promised land. Moses is not able to enter the promised land, so a new person needs to take on the role Moses held for the community of Israelites. God promises to find a person from the children of Israel to fill Moses’ role. The Israelites are not to have anything to do with a prophet who claims to speak for God when God did not speak, or with a prophet who speaks for other gods.
J.A. Thompson, who wrote the Deuteronomy volume of Tyndale’s Old Testament Commentary, indicates that the role of the prophet for Israel can be seen in the role Moses had when the law was given at Sinai. The people pleaded with Moses to meet with God and to bring to them, from the burning mountain, God’s word.(1) In the face of unknown challenges, such as living in the wilderness and facing formidable foes in the promised land, I think the people were seeking the assurance that God is abiding with them.
The main qualification of the new spiritual leader is that the person is supposed to be like Moses. This means the new religious leader does not teach things that “strayed from the central truths that Moses laid down.”(2) Some of Israel’s neighbors to the children of Israel had prophets. Because the Israelites were monotheistic, the prophets from other groups were not considered to be “authentic.”(3) The prophet was not going to be a foreigner and that might be an attempt to ensure that any prophets that came after Moses would not be speaking for other gods.
A true prophet spoke for the God of Israel, but a false prophet “spoke presumptuously.” A meaning found in the root word of the Hebrew word from presumptuous is “to boil up" and to “seethe.”(4) False prophets also spoke to please people or spoke for other gods.(5) When I hear clergy who are seething, boiling, and raging over people’s sins, I become concerned. Rabbi Harold Kushner comments that when he hears politicians and clergy condemning sin, he does not hear “pain in their voices.” He continues, observing that they seem “comfortable" condemning sin and that makes him wonder if they are “bringing us God’s words and God’s thoughts.”(6) God takes no pleasure in the downfall of people. In the Talmud, a story is told of angels cheering when the Egyptian army drown in the sea. God rebukes the angels, saying, “How can you cheer? They too are my creatures.”(7)
Rabbi Abraham Heschel commented, “To be a prophet is more than an invitation. It is a sense of overwhelming force against one’s will.”(8) For some reason, I am more skeptical of the call of those who seemed to embrace the call immediately than I have to those who seem to have relentlessly struggled with God, resisting the call. Perhaps, some of this is due to my experience in a church that was so small everybody had to take multiple jobs. There were times when you were placed in a job that you felt unqualified to do and did not want to do. You ended up taking the position because it needed to be done and doing the best you could. At times, it worked well and the job became a calling. In other cases, you could hardly wait until the year was over so you could get rid of the job.
In the future, Israel was expecting a prophet who would be greater than all other prophets and who would lead everybody like Moses.(9) Writers of the Christian Scriptures say that this passage shows that Jesus Christ is the prophet.(10) From the Gospels, we get the sense that some people thought John the Baptist was this prophet.(11) Other people thought Jesus was the prophet who was in the line of Moses.(12)
From a traditional Christian perspective, Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God to humanity and is the ultimate revelation of love. The Spirit of the risen Christ is in us. Because the Spirit of the risen Christ is in us, in a small way, we are a prophetic voice of love for the world. We are the voice of assurance of love for those who are in the wilderness. And the wilderness feels vast for some people.
(1) J.A. Thompson. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy, An Introduction and Commentary. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1974), 213.
(2) Walter J. Harrelson, et al., eds. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 272.
(3) Thompson. (1974), 214.
(4) Thompson. (1974), 213.
(5) Thompson. (1974), 213.
(6) Harold S. Kushner. Living a Life That Matters. (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 96.
(7) Kushner. (2002), 64.
(8) Kushner. (2002), 94.
(9) Christian Community Bible. 2nd ed. (Madrid, Spain: San Pablo, 1988), 207.
(10) Richard J. Foster, et al., eds. The Life With God Bible. (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 275, and The New American Bible. (New York: Catholic Book Pub., 1992), 193.
(11) John 1:21, Christian Community Bible. 2nd ed. (1988), 207.
(12) Acts 3:22, Christian Community Bible. (1988), 207.