ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

A Prophet Like Moses

MARK 1:21-28

WANTED : Men, women and children of courage and conviction willing to raise their voices in the service of the truth and to confront injustice wherever and whenever it exists. Such work requires a thick skin, a heart warm enough to forgive and big enough to forget the offenses of others, a willingness to begin anew each day, enough strength of spirit to be lonely and unpopular, a faith that believes that the impossible can be realized and that the seemingly insurmountable is only a stepping stone to further challenges. Those who will attempt this often difficult and unpleasant task should expect no gratitude or praise for their efforts; rather, they must accept to bear the brunt of criticism, sarcasm, scorn and hostility. Those seeking stability, security and personal satisfaction should channel their efforts elsewhere.

As unappealing as this “want-ad” sounds, many people through the centuries have had the generosity of heart and the clarity of spirit to respond to its challenge. We call these courageous souls prophets. As regards the saga of our salvation, these were the people who were sensitive enough to hear the call of God and strong enough to respond to it. These were the people who so understood and accepted their solidarity with the worldwide human family that they were ready to suffer its rejection rather than shirk their responsibility to bring the light and truth of God’s word to bear on every aspect of the human experience. Depending on what the situation or particular circumstance may warrant, the word of God, as mediated by the prophets can either “root up and tear down, destroy and demolish or build and plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).

While believers have become accustomed to listening to the familiar prophetic voices of Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Micah et al., these holy men did not have a monopoly on the ministry of prophecy. Nor did prophetic communications cease with the death of the last scriptural prophet. For those who have ears to listen and the openness of heart to understand, there have been, there are, and there will be other voices to speak the Word that commands our attention and challenges our individual and collective consciences.

For example, when Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed the freedom of all the slaves in the United States, his was the voice of a prophet. When Lincoln’s contemporary, Susan B. Anthony pioneered the suffrage movement that eventually led to the passage of the 19th Amendment (1920) and gave women the right to vote, hers was the voice of a prophet. When Pope Leo XIII delivered his encyclical entitled On the Condition of the Working Man and called upon Christians to attend to unjust labor laws and practices, his was the voice of a prophet. Similarly, when Cardinal Leo-Josef Suenens of Belgium stood up at the end of the first session of Vatican II and urged the council to examine not only the mystery of the church in itself but also the church’s relationship to and responsibility for the world at large, his was the voice of a prophet. Ralph Nader spoke and acted in a prophetic manner when he exercised his role as an advocate for consumers. Rachel Carson’s book entitled Silent Spring (1962) was prophetic in that it summoned the world to an awareness of the dangers of environmental pollution. When Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu drew the world’s attention to the dangers and injustices of apartheid, his was the voice of a prophet as were so many others in this century alone, e.g., Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Teilhard de Chardin, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino and the Latin American Bishops who raised their voices first at Medellin, Colombia (1968) and then at Puebla, Mexico (1979) to affirm the church as “an instrument of liberation, an agent of social justice and a defender of the poor and the oppressed.”

All of these prophetic men and women were and are of the understanding that prophecy is not necessarily concerned with the unknowable future but with the present. Nor did they believe that voices of prophets speak only to matters of “sacred” significance. On the contrary, prophets are to bring the reality of the sacred into every sphere of the human experience, thereby penetrating the secular and redeeming it by the very word of God they have been sent to speak.

In today’s liturgical readings, the gathered assembly will be called upon to allow the prophetic messages of Moses, Paul, Mark and Jesus to penetrate their consciences and claim them for God and for the predilect of God in this world who need their love, compassion, concern and service. Moreover, all present are also challenged to continue to listen to the prophets among us, and when grace beckons and as situations and circumstances warrant, to exercise the ministry of prophecy for our contemporaries in our words, works and manner of living.


In his provocative study on prophecy in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Walter Brueggemann (The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN: 1978) called Moses, “the paradigmatic prophet” and declared that the “task of the prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. Moses did not simply engineer the escape of a group of displaced persons who had been enslaved in Egypt. Speaking and acting for God, Moses’ prophetic ministry effected a radical break between Israel’s past and its future. Moses dismantled Egypt’s religion of static triumphalism by exposing its gods to be powerless and not gods at all. He dismantled Egypt’s politics of oppression and exploitation by countering it with a politics of justice and compassion. Over and against Egyptian dominance, Moses offered his fellow Semites an alternative reality which included a newly identified people (Israel) with its own land, history, laws, norms of right and wrong, sanctions of accountability and, above all, the freedom to enter into a relationship with the God who had called it into being. In a word, Moses, as God’s prophet, delivered the message that God is with us. God is for us!

Can there be any wonder that Moses became the model against which all future prophets would be measured and judged authentic or not. For this reason, subsequent generations would remember the promise as presented in today’s first reading (v. 15: “a prophet like me will the Lord, your God raise up”), and look for one like Moses to whom to listen.

Underscoring the importance of the prophetic ministry in Israel’s development as a people, Brueggemann has elsewhere (Texts For Preaching, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 1993) suggested that the prophetic voice in Israel was not an accident, an intrusion or an extra in the life of the community. Rather the prophetic voice, as demanding and/or disconcerting as it may be, is constitutive for Israel. By its very character, the community of believers, both then and now, is challenged to host and to heed its prophets.

Notice the ominous warning for the community in verse 19: “if anyone will not listen…I myself will make him answer for it.” Notice also the warning against false, inauthentic and/or disingenuous prophets (v. 20). Having heeded both warnings, and having listened to its prophets through the centuries, the early Christians understood that the prophet par excellence, i.e., the prophet like Moses, had come to live and speak and move along them in the person of Jesus. Speaking for God, Jesus evoked in his contemporaries and continues to evoke in us, a consciousness and a perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. In a culture that celebrates individualism, Jesus insists on the mutual interactivity that is community. In a world that promotes competition and aggressive leadership, Jesus calls for cooperation and humble service. In a society that measures success in dollars earned, Jesus would have us find it in dollars shared.

Obviously, the alternative way of life that Jesus would evoke in us has yet to completely take hold. To put it another way, the reign or dominion of God has not been fully established within the human experience. Therefore, it behooves us to carefully attend to institution of prophecy, willing to live prophetic lives and speak the prophetic word when called to do so and eager to welcome others when the burden falls to them. In her reflections on the continuing contemporary need for prophets, Alice L. Camille (God’s Word Is Alive, Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, CT: 1998) writes: “Prophets make lovely additions to the Bible, but you certainly don’t want one in your neighborhood. No Sir! Prophets wreak havoc on the status quo…but still we like to have just a few—somewhat marginalized and carefully controlled—prophets around…but if they get out of line and become really dangerous to the system as it stands, never fear…. They will probably be assassinated…prophets don’t have very long careers and they have no insurance, only the power of oracle and God’s eternal promise.”


On the subject of marriage, Mike Mason (The Mystery of Marriage, Multnomah, Portland, OR: 1978) once wrote, “We are not simply moving in with someone we think it might be fun to be with. Rather, we are giving our prior assent to the whole chain reaction of trials, decisions, transformations and personal cataclysms which, once they are done with us, may leave us not only changed beyond recognition but marked nearly as deeply as religious conversion.” Mason understood, as did the apostle Paul, that the marital relationship, which makes of two lives one shared life, is a full-time and long-term commitment requiring great attention, endurance and love. While the joys of marriage are manifold, so also are its challenges. Therefore, Paul, who expected Jesus to return to his own at any moment, wished his readers to concentrate their concerns on nothing else. He would not have them distracted or their energies dissipated by any other relationship or responsibilities. It is in this light that his advice to unmarried men and women should be understood.

Moreover, should anyone be tempted to absolutize Paul’s counsel concerning marriage and celibacy, his remarks should also be appreciated in relation to his own admission: “Now, in regard to virgins, I have no commandment from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy (1 Corinthians 7:25). Paul’s words in this regard, therefore, should not be seen as prophetic; he was not speaking for God in an official capacity but for himself. Paul’s opinion had been shaped by personal experience and while scholars remain uncertain as to Paul’s marital status and history, it appears that he had eventually chosen celibacy in order to spend himself completely in Christ’s service. As Richard B. Hays (First Corinthians, John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 1997) has explained, Paul’s dedication to “the affairs of the Lord” (v. 32) and his concern about “freedom for mission” were his sole motivators. Therefore, Paul cannot be justly accused of being anti-marriage, nor should his words be used to support the theories of those who are.

Paul was not alone in his opinion as regards married life. One of his Jewish colleagues, Rabbi Ben Azay has been quoted as saying, “Why should I marry? My love is the Torah! I shall leave it to others to prolong the human race.” Among the great Greek thinkers, there were also some that preferred celibacy to marriage because it allowed them more freedom for intellectual pursuits. Episcetus, for example, advised would-be Cynic philosophers to avoid marriage: “it is a question of being free from distraction, wholly devoted to the service of God, free to go about among men, not tied down by private duties or involved in relationships which he cannot violate….” (Diss. 3.22.69).

For a more complete appreciation of Paul’s thought concerning relationships, it is necessary to survey the bulk of his contribution to the Christian scriptures. After a time, his ideas about the imminence of Jesus’ return and the crises advice that it generated had to be tempered and altered by the reality of delayed eschatology. To his credit, Paul and the other contributors to the Pauline corpus were willing and able to readjust his thinking and apply it to the changing and evolving circumstances faced by the community of believers. Therefore, today’s second reading should be read in conjunction with the haustafel or household codes of advice that appear elsewhere in the Pauline literature, e.g. Colossians 3:18-4:1; Ephesians 5:21-6:9; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; Titus 2:1-10). Herein the teachings of Paul are presented as supporting and promoting the ties that bind us as families within the one great family of humankind.

MARK 1:21-28

In her book entitled Plain Words About Biblical Images (Paulist Press, New York: 1989), author and educator Margaret Nutting Ralph described the prophets who are sent among us as “images of God’s word.” Called, graced and commissioned by God, the prophets perceived the will and ways of God through a variety of experiences; they imaged these experiences in order to understand them and communicate then to others. Through this process of representing or imaging God’s word for their contemporaries, the prophets sometimes became an image of their teaching themselves. This is precisely the dynamic which is at work in today’s gospel. Jesus, as the image of God incarnate, illustrated through his words and by his actions that goodness will never be overcome by evil because the reign of God had become present in him.

Before his confrontation with evil, as imaged in the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus had been teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Synagogues were primarily houses of instruction; the synagogue service was comprised of three elements, prayer, the readings of Scripture and an exposition of it. Administered by the laity, and geared to the day-to-day catechesis of the people, the synagogues of ancient Judah may have an even more influential factor in Jewish life than the temple. By law, wherever there were ten Jewish families, there had to be a synagogue. Neighborhood gathering places, the synagogues were vital to the faith life of the community. Therefore, if a person had a message to preach, the synagogue was an obvious choice of venue. There, Jesus gained a hearing; following his example, his disciples would do the same after his death and resurrection. Now…back to Capernaum….

With his characteristic frankness, Mark tells his readers that the people in the synagogue that day were “spellbound…because he taught with authority and not like the scribes.” Indeed, Jesus spoke with the authority that was intrinsically his by virtue of his identity as the prophet like Moses, who was promised in the first reading, and as the Holy One of God as acclaimed by the evil spirit. Unlike Jesus, the scribes, who had been the recognized interpreters and teachers of the people, spoke with a derivative authority in that they appealed to the sacred texts, legal precedents and others with expertise in the laws.

Jesus’ intrinsic and commanding authority is further illustrated in his power to rid the convulsing man of an unclean spirit. Notice the tone of Marcan irony in this scene. Throughout the first gospel, the identity of Jesus is often “under a cloud”. His family, his disciples and the crowds were frequently confused as to who he was and full of misunderstanding. But the evil spirit recognized and identified Jesus with the divine and eschatological title, “Holy One of God”. Through the demon’s acclamation, Mark was giving voice to the belief of the Marcan community in the decades after Jesus’ death; given the perspective of resurrection faith, they had come to know and accept Jesus for who he was and is.

Significantly, however, Mark tells us that the people in the synagogue that day were amazed and wondered who Jesus was. Moreover, he said that Jesus’ reputation spread throughout the region, but what he did not say was that they all came to believe in Jesus. The miracles or acts of power worked by Jesus were not proofs of his divinity or identity. Rather, these were challenges that revealed Jesus as God’s prophet and incarnate image and invited those who witnessed them to believe.

Today, we are similarly invited and challenged to believe that Jesus, who established the reign of God among us, continues to exercise the power to rout evil in all of its ugly disguises and manifestations, viz., in poverty, sickness, greed, hatred, indifference, over-indulgence, etc. If we accept the challenge and have faith in Jesus, his ministry of confronting and confounding evil becomes our own. I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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