YEAR B: EPIPHANY 4
(Sunday between January 28 and February 3.
If this is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday use the readings for the transfiguration of Jesus.)
Today’s reading takes us away from Jonah, the reluctant prophet, back to Moses himself. In last week’s reading it was clear on whose authority Jonah was called upon to act. The problem was that Jonah resisted that authority and sought to evade the task set. In Deuteronomy 18 we go back to the more fundamental question of how we know on whose authority a prophet speaks. The question is addressed squarely in the Gospel reading (Mark 1:21-28) as Jesus begins his ministry. Mark indicates that the authority Jesus has himself and on which he works is from God. But in Deuteronomy, the writer is bold enough to ask a hard question: wherein does religious authority, here the authority of a prophet, lie? Or more simply, how do we know the word of a prophet (or preacher) is from God?
The question is as old as faith and religious practice itself. Clearly Israel, in its multi-cultural and multi-faith world, had its share of competing faiths and competing words. A good deal of Old Testament writing deals precisely with this problem. See for example the story of Elijah (1 Kgs 18:17-46) or that of the prophet from Judah (1 Kgs 13) or that of Micaiah (1 Kgs 22). Many of the prophetic books in the Old Testament begin or contain some account of the prophet’s call or commission, a story which undergirds the authority of the prophet’s message (see Isaiah 6; Jer 1:4-10; Ezekiel 1-3 etc).
The passage in Deuteronomy belongs to a larger section of the book, Deut 16:18 – 18:22. It deals with the authority of a number of officials in Israel: judges and other officials (Deut 16:18-17:13), priests (18:1-8), and the king (17:14-20), even though at the time Deuteronomy is set kings were not part of Israelite society. Clearly the regulations in Deuteronomy come from a period when many different social issues and institutions had developed, well after the time in which the story is set. Another law on true and false prophecy is contained in Deut 13:1-5 where the problem is clearly that some who claim to be prophets lead the people into apostasy, the worship of other gods. That is part of the problem here too (18:20), and the passage goes on in vv. 21-22 to suggest that one can tell the words of a genuine prophet because that prophet’s words come to pass. But is that a practical solution? We often have to make decisions about action or belief in the hope of certain outcomes rather than in the certainty of them having already happened. What is more it seems that not just the words of ‘true prophets’ came to pass (Deut 13:1-2). Matters were evidently not so clear-cut in Israel’s world, as indeed they are not in ours.
It seems clear from Deuteronomy that discerning religious truth and ‘what is the word of the Lord’ in any one instance is neither easy nor simple. It is, above all, a matter of faith. Nevertheless, Deuteronomy does give us some important clues in this task. First, Deuteronomy works on the premise that there is a word of truth that comes to us ‘from outside’ – from God. It may not be easy to discern at times but it is there and is determinative for our lives. This is immensely important in a complex world where there are so many voices competing for our attention and commitment – political, social, family, work etc. Secondly, this word ‘from outside’ comes to facilitate our choosing life over death (Deut 30:11-20). It is a word of truth which does not seek to bend us to the shape of some presupposed agenda or condition that is self-interested, self-serving or simply furthers the power of others. It invites us to enter freely into the presence of the God who willingly commits himself to us in covenant. Thirdly, it is a word that, precisely because it neither comes with bells and whistles so we do not miss it nor can be discerned through the mechanical application of some magical formula, is to be sought out and probed in order to be understood. Fourthly, it is a word that is consistent with the word that has come to the community of faith before. God who gives the word to the prophet is consistent and faithful in his dealing with his people. This is the point of saying that a prophet will arise ‘like Moses’ (Deut 18:15, 18). Moses stands as the exemplar, not because of personal qualities but because God’s commandments, God’s way of inviting the people into life, were given through him. True prophets who come later will walk in the steps of Moses. Finally, when the writer says that you can tell a true prophet by the fact that their word comes true, they are not simply giving us a rather useless test of true prophecy. They are saying that this word which comes from outside and offers us life is not some abstract entity that remains ‘outside’ of our life. No, the word itself breaks into our history and changes that history in accordance with the will of the One who gives that word.
All of this is relevant to out thinking of Jesus, the word of God incarnate, and to our pondering his teaching and what the church has proclaimed about him. At Christmas and through Epiphany we celebrate his coming to us. At this early time in the Christian year, we are again called to test out the word we hear in and through him, ponder its meaning, and commit ourselves to it, in order that we may choose life.
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