Text Study for Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 4 Epiphany B 2021

Jesus speaks for God among us because Jesus is God with us.

“Don’t talk,” wrote Jose Luis Borges, “unless you can improve the silence.” This is one way to summarize the import of the first reading for this Sunday. This is a helpful rule of thumb for anyone seeking a deeper spiritual life. And it is excellent counsel for a culture obese with words and starving for wisdom.

Now that Moses is departing from the Hebrews, the writer of Deuteronomy wonders, who will speak for God among us? The writer preaches in the voice of Moses, soon to die on Mount Nebo, to a people leaving the wilderness and heading into an even greater unknown. Deuteronomy is directed to the people in the Babylonian Exile, cut off from the Temple in Jerusalem, the king and his priests, and even from the prophets who spoke “The Word of the Lord.” Who will speak for God among us in such a godforsaken place as this?

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Chapter eighteen gives support to the homeless, landless, wandering Levites among the people – the last remnants of the priestly tribe whose vocation has been to bridge the gap between the Hebrews and their God. These rootless religious shall remain entitled to a decent living as the Lord promised them in earlier days. They shall sustain the traditions of the people in chaotic times. But the people shall not pay attention to the pretenders, the imposters, the hucksters, and charlatans among them, sure to take advantage of the uncertain situation.

This is the theme of the paragraph leading up to our reading. Deuteronomy portrays the religious figures of the “nations,” those who already inhabit the land, as practitioners of fake religion. They risk their children as burnt offerings. They practice divination and soothsaying. They read the tea leaves or the chicken bones or the playing cards and make pronouncements. They consult ghosts and spirits. They plead for voices from beyond the grave, cast spells to manipulate events and people, pronounce curses to punish offenders.

Who will speak for God among us? Certainly not the parade of pretenders inventoried here! Attending to those voices will demonstrate loyalty to other gods. “You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God,” we read in verse 13. That rendering in the NRSV seems more interpretation than translation. “You shall be perfect, complete, whole, in being with the LORD your God,” the writer actually says. Listening to the LORD brings the Hebrew listener into deeper unity with the Divine.

Moses had performed that role for the Hebrews in the wilderness, but now he is bidding them farewell. Whose voice shall they heed? They shall listen, he says, to the voice of a prophet “like me from among your own people.” Moses, then, is the type and template for the prophet to come. The people have learned from hard experience that coming face to face with God, as they did at Mt. Horeb (Sinai) doesn’t work out as well as one might hope. Moses was the one who could speak to the LORD face to face (or at least nearly so) and live to tell the tale.

How will we know that this prophet speaks for God among us? Moses asserts that the words of the Prophet must be tested. First, if the prophet speaks in the name of those other gods (described by proxy in verses nine through fourteen), that “prophet” is false and shall die. It’s not clear from the text whether God will carry out the punishment or the people shall do so, but that’s of little concern here. So, first – no false gods.

Second, if the prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but events do not bear out the words, then the prophet is not speaking for God. The prophet has then spoken in mere arrogance, and there’s no reason to take that one seriously. It seems to me that this is the case where the prophet mistakes his/her/their own words for God’s words rather than speaking the words of some other god. Wait and see how things work out before you get too excited about what you hear.

It’s best if prophets don’t talk unless they can improve on the silence.

Who will speak for God among us? “When men (sic) choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing,” wrote Emile Cammaerts. “They then become capable of believing in anything.” We live in such a time as Cammaerts described. The number of people clambering to speak for God among us seems to double daily. This is not an argument against atheism, despite what some might suggest. But it is certainly an argument in favor of spiritual circumspection. Very few who wish to speak these days are improving on the silence. We shall not pay attention to the pretenders, the imposters, the hucksters, and charlatans among us, sure to take advantage of the uncertain situation.

We can take counsel from the text before us. If the prophet seeking our attention is one like Moses, then perhaps we should turn aside for a moment. But we Christians read that through the lens of Jesus Christ. For us, the voice which commands our attention must be the voice of Jesus, speaking to our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. If the prophet looks and sounds like Jesus, then we must attend.

This takes us to the gospel reading for the day. The voice of Jesus commands the demons to retreat and they obey. The voice of Jesus speaks words of comfort and compassion, and the sick are healed. The voice of Jesus declares a time of repentance, and hearts are turned to faith. The voice of Jesus calls for followers, and disciples are made. The voice of Jesus brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. The voice of Jesus frees the oppressed and proclaims the LORD’s Jubilee (see Luke 4).

If a prophet among us sounds like that, then we Jesus followers should listen. If not, then we shouldn’t be troubled by the noise.

The Prophet will not tell rich people that they should become richer in order to prove that they are truly blessed. Nor will such a prophet tell the privileged to do everything they can to defend their domains against the invasion of the masses yearning to breathe free. The prophet will reject the bad science fiction of the QAnon movement and the malicious mythology of white male supremacy. The prophet will proclaim comfort for the afflicted and affliction for the comfortable.

Thus, the prophet will likely end up dead at the hands of those who attend to the gods of power, privilege, and property.

If I were to read and preach on this text in a Christian worship service, I would likely want to read verses twenty-one and twenty-two as well as verses nine through fourteen. Because when it comes to prophets, the proof is in the pudding. Not only do we need to see where the prophecy ends up. We need to see where the prophet ends up. The fact that Jesus is executed by the oppressive machinery of the imperial state is a good reason to pay attention to what he says. No one gets executed for spreading comfortable and self-serving falsehoods. It’s truth-telling that gets you killed under authoritarian regimes.

We Christians are called to discern together what Paul calls “the mind of Christ. We see that phrase repeated in his letters, but it is most clearly stated in Philippians 2. The mind of Christ is demonstrated in the self-emptying love of God in Christ, obedient even to the point of death on a cross. It is because of that outcome and the resurrection that overcomes the dying that we can and should exalt the name of Jesus above every name and that every knee should bow to him in the end.

In a time when idolatry is rampant and destructive, we have a chance in this text to address some of that spiritual illness. When the Holy Spirit fills us with the mind of Christ, we can offer an alternative story to the violence, greed, fear, domination, and death which are worshipped with such energy in the present moment. The second lesson for Sunday offers even more insight and opportunity in this regard.

Jesus speaks for God among us because Jesus is God with us.

References and Resources

Fredricksen, Paula. Youtube lectures at Yale Divinity School – Christian Identity, Paul’s Letters, and “Thinking with Jews.”

            “GODS and the ONE GOD” — https://youtu.be/dTSR4bNlNT0

            “GODS in the BLOOD” — https://youtu.be/qlO5vfOHq6U

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-3.

Tappert, Theodore G. (translator and editor). Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1960.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2005.