A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 29, 2012.
15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet* like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.*16This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ 17Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. 18I will raise up for them a prophet* like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet,* who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet* shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.’
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He* commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Beginning with Moses, the Bible presents prophetic people as key actors in God’s liberating work. Moses delivered God’s message of redemption to Hebrew people enslaved to a corrupt empire. Moses delivered God’s demand that the people be set free to the head of that empire. Moses then delivered God’s judgment on the empire when God’s demand was disobeyed. Moses spoke for God to encourage and rally the people when the empire retaliated against them. And when the drama of their liberation resulted in their freedom from slavery, it was Moses who led them along the journey and growth process in becoming a people who answered to God.
In the reading from Deuteronomy Moses assures the freed people that God would always provide a prophetic presence—someone from among their community—to communicate God’s words. The community was promised a prophetic presence. The prophet would be accountable to God alone. And the people to whom God would send prophets would be accountable to God if they refused to heed God’s commands delivered by the prophets.
The rest of Scripture presents God’s ongoing process of delivering people from oppression through the activities of men and women who answered to God as prophetic forces the way Moses did. Samuel, Deborah, Huldah, Elijah, Elisha, Nathan, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, John who we call the Baptist, and Jesus spoke for God to people. They confronted the rulers of their places and times. They were God’s messengers of hope, repentance, judgment, restoration, and truth.
And as the passage from Mark illustrates, prophetic work involved confronting evil and delivering people who are oppressed by it. There’s an irony in the encounter between Jesus and the unnamed man who confronted him as he taught in that Capernaum synagogue. Jesus is possessed by the Spirit of God. The man is oppressed by demonic forces. The Spirit of God working through Jesus delivers the man from the oppression of demonic possession.
This lesson reminds us that Jesus was sent from God to confront and be confronted by oppressive power and deliver people who are held hostage by it. It reminds us that people can be involved in religious efforts yet hostage to oppressive forces. Jesus refused to leave a child of God hostage to evil. The sermon for the troubled man involved being set free from his oppression. Meanwhile, Jesus stands in bright contrast to the “scribes” who were the established religious authorities.
What set Jesus apart from “the scribes” was that Jesus delivered truth that set people free from oppression. Jesus didn’t just come do a preaching. He set people free. He fed people who were hungry. He healed people who were ill. He didn’t just associate with worshippers, he focused the power of God’s grace and truth on their situations in ways that were liberating. Mark’s gospel presents the love of God in action to set people free from oppressive forces. Unlike the scribes, Jesus taught in ways that produced freedom, deliverance, and help for oppressed, vulnerable, and needy people.
Unlike Jesus, the scribes left people hostage to oppression. Unlike Jesus, the scribes didn’t change the plight of suffering people. Unlike Jesus, the scribes didn’t produce freedom, deliverance, and help to overcome oppression. Mark’s lesson—indeed the entire career of Jesus—presents a new standard for evaluating the worth of religious teachers and leaders. The issue isn’t where we’ve gone to school, what degrees we hold, or the number of people who attend the services and ceremonies we oversee.
The true worth of religious people is defined by what happens to the unnamed people who labor under the weight of oppressive forces. Do we see them around us? Do we see them in our congregations, on our jobs, in our neighborhoods, and in our families? Are we actively involved in setting them free from oppressive forces and conditions? Or do we simply go about our religious routines, services, and ceremonies while leaving them to remain hostages to oppressive powers, forces, and situations? Are we “scribes” or prophets?
The troubled man who confronted Jesus in that Capernaum synagogue didn’t need a devotional leader. He didn’t need a pulpit celebrity. He needed a change agent in whom the power of God’s grace and truth worked with so much force that whatever was oppressing him had to move. He didn’t need a scribe. He needed a prophet.
- People struggling against the oppressive weight of being under-water on their mortgages while government leaders pass policies to help mortgage bankers, credit card companies, and other actors responsible for much of that oppression need prophets, not scribes.
- Veterans struggling under the oppressive weight of painful war memories and wounds, disabilities, ostracism, prejudice, and other troubles need prophets in their lives, not scribes.
- Struggling schools, teachers, and families need prophets, not scribes.
- Policymakers need prophetic people to call them to create policies that relieve vulnerable people from suffering and oppression.
- We need prophetic people to deliver us from the forces that hold us back.
Jesus developed a reputation in Capernaum and throughout the surrounding region of Galilee because his ministry delivered people from oppression. His ministry was different from the scribes because it made a redemptive difference for people with ostracism, illness, guilt, and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. The Jesus we encounter in Mark is not a scribe but a prophet.
And like Moses promised, Jesus was a prophet from among the people. He acted for God as an agent of deliverance for oppressed people. He petitioned God on our behalf. He was God’s intermediary to us.
You and I are called to follow Jesus as prophets of God’s love and care for downtrodden people. We’re called to be prophets of God’s truth and peace for people oppressed by hate, cruelty, violence, and fear. We’re called to be prophets of God’s judgment against any and all power that violates the law of divine love. We’re called to be prophetic people because we’re following Jesus.
Jesus was a prophet, not a scribe. What about us? Jesus made a holy and healing difference in the lives of people who were oppressed by evil power. What about us? Jesus was God’s prophetic force in his time and place. What about us? Jesus was a prophet. We shouldn’t believe that we’re following him faithfully if we only want to be religious scribes.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.