‘Hang all the law and the prophets’ … the statue of Bishop Charles Gore at the west entrance of Birmingham Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In the Bible studies in this tutorial group, we are looking at the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sunday after next.
The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday week [Sunday 1 February 2013], the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, are: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8: 1-13; and Mark 1: 21-28.
Mark 1: 21-28:
21 Καὶ εἰσπορεύονται εἰς Καφαρναούμ. καὶ εὐθὺς τοῖς σάββασιν εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὴν συναγωγὴν ἐδίδασκεν. 22 καὶ ἐξεπλήσσοντο ἐπὶ τῇ διδαχῇ αὐτοῦ, ἦν γὰρ διδάσκων αὐτοὺς ὡς ἐξουσίαν ἔχων καὶ οὐχ ὡς οἱ γραμματεῖς. 23 καὶ εὐθὺς ἦν ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ αὐτῶν ἄνθρωπος ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ, καὶ ἀνέκραξεν 24 λέγων, Τί ἡμῖν καὶ σοί, Ἰησοῦ Ναζαρηνέ; ἦλθες ἀπολέσαι ἡμᾶς; οἶδά σε τίς εἶ, ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ. 25 καὶ ἐπετίμησεν αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων, Φιμώθητι καὶ ἔξελθε ἐξ αὐτοῦ. 26 καὶ σπαράξαν αὐτὸν τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἀκάθαρτον καὶ φωνῆσαν φωνῇ μεγάλῃ ἐξῆλθεν ἐξ αὐτοῦ. 27 καὶ ἐθαμβήθησαν ἅπαντες, ὥστε συζητεῖν πρὸς ἑαυτοὺς λέγοντας, Τί ἐστιν τοῦτο; διδαχὴ καινὴ κατ' ἐξουσίαν: καὶ τοῖς πνεύμασι τοῖς ἀκαθάρτοις ἐπιτάσσει, καὶ ὑπακούουσιν αὐτῷ. 28 καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ἡ ἀκοὴ αὐτοῦ εὐθὺς πανταχοῦ εἰς ὅλην τὴν περίχωρον τῆς Γαλιλαίας.
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and 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.’ 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26 And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They 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.’ 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people’ (Deuteronomy 18: 18) … Patrick Pye’s Triptych in Saint Macartan’s Cathedral, Monaghan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Deuteronomy 18: 15-20
When I was at the mid-day Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral last Saturday [17 January], we were reminded that the calendar of the Church of England that day commemorated both Saint Anthony of Egypt and Bishop Charles Gore. The story is told that when Charles Gore – founder of the Community of the Resurrection, the first Bishop of Birmingham, and the Editor of Lux Mundi – loved to play a particular prank on friends and acquaintances.
As a canon of Westminster Abbey, he enjoyed showing visitors the tomb of one of his ancestors, the Earl of Kerry, with an inscription that ends with the words (in double quotation marks): “Hang all the law and the prophets.”
On closer inspection, he would point out, the words are preceded by “... ever studious to fulfil those two great commandments on which he had been taught by his divine Master ...” (see Matthew 22: 40).
Sometimes, we may want to hang some of the prophets if they preach the Word of God as if these are not the two commandments on which depend all the law and the prophets.
In the verses immediately preceding this (Deuteronomy 18: 9-14), the people are warned against false religion in the form of worshipping false idols, false gods, divination, magic, sooth-saying, sorcery and child sacrifice.
At the time, this must have been seen as weird, every other religion and culture in the region engaged in these practices, and hardly saw them as superstitious.
Then, having dismissed all that, Moses talks about how to tell if a prophet is a true prophet of the Lord. A true prophet is like Moses, conveying ideas and principals consistent with God’s commandments. False prophets are those who intentionally, through deceit, or unintentionally, because of self-delusion, preach false teachings or offer inaccurate predictions.
The people have the laws and instructions from God that are the measure of truth for them. They stand for something so they are not to fall for just anything – in theory, anyway.
If we see the Old Testament reading in these readings for Sunday week as being concerned with the law in terms of the Old Testament code repeated in Deuteronomy, we may get bogged down. But we know what the summary of the Law is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength … You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12: 30-31; see Matthew 22: 34-40; Luke 25-28).
If we approach this reading in the context of the difference between knowledge and love, then we may find a more useful, reflective and pastoral way of approaching this passage.
Here we find a good antidote to those who preach, and who know their Bible, but who impose their own rules and regulations on people, without taking any account of the scope of God’s love, which is seen in the life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again of Christ.
Sometimes, listening to them, or hearing about them, can be a deadening experience. If they put their preaching into practice, it might be a very love-less world indeed, and may indeed want to hang all the law and the prophets.
Some years ago, as I was preparing to preach in three churches on a Sunday morning, I was asked how many sermons did I normally preach.
I replied: “Three.”
And she asked: “Every Sunday?”
No, I said. I only have three sermons to preach, and humorously summarised them as:
1, Love God.
2, Love one another.
3, Love God, and Love one another.
And if that is at the heart of your preaching, you will find you are preaching with knowledge and with love, perhaps even with authority.
The Psalm (Psalm 111) tells us how great the works of the Lord are, and ends with that wonderful verse (10):
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
Those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
His praise endures for ever.
Saint Francis of Assisi says (in Admonition 27): “Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.”
I Corinthians 8: 1-13:
In the New Testament reading, the Apostle Paul reminds us of the difference between knowledge and love. There is a difference between knowing who God is, and loving God, just as there is a difference between knowing who someone is, and loving that person. Discipleship, and ministry, are less about knowing, and all about loving.
Mark 1: 21-28:
The Gospel readings is the story of Christ’s visit to Capernaum, where he teaches in the synagogue and preaches. All are astounded at his teaching, but when he actually puts it into practice, they are all amazed: He not only teaches, but he puts it into practice, he teaches not just with knowledge, but with authority; not only can he say, but he can do.
Christ has called his first disciples, Simon Peter, Andrew and the sons of Zebedee. Now this passage tells how his authority, both in word and deed, are first recognised. Christ and his disciples go to Capernaum, a prosperous town on the Sea of Galilee. In the synagogue it was the practice on Saturdays for the scribes, who specialised in the interpretation and application of Mosaic law to daily life, to quote scripture and tradition.
On this Saturday, however, Christ does not follow this practice. Instead, he speaks directly, confident of his authority and of his very essence. The Greek word here, ἐξουσία (exousía), has the same roots as the word in the Nicene Creed that is translated as “being” or “substance”: ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί (“of one substance with the Father”).
The “man with an unclean spirit” (verse 23) was, we might say, possessed, or under the influence of evil forces. In Jewish terms, he was under Satan’s direction, separated from God. The devil, speaking through this man (verse 24), asks what Christ is doing meddling in the domain of evil. He recognises who Christ is and that his coming spells the end of the power of the devil. He understands the significance of the coming Kingdom. Wonder-workers of the day healed using ritual or magic, but Christ exorcises simply through verbal command (verse 25), so clearly he is divine.
Verse 27, on the lips of the crowd, acknowledges Christ’s “authority” in word and deed.
The parallel reading of this pericope in Saint Luke’s Gospel is Luke 4: 31-37, but it is preceded by the story of Christ preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4: 16-30), when he proclaims the foundational text for his ministry, almost like a manifesto:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
These are high ideals and, if put into practice, threaten social stability and the ordering of society. This threat is realised by those who hear him, and they drive him out of the synagogue.
Driven out of the synagogue, Christ has three options: to allow himself to be silenced; to keep on preaching in other synagogues, but to never put what he says into practice so those who are worried have their fears allayed and realise he is no threat; or to preach and to put his teachings into practice, to show that he means what he says, that his faith is reflected in his priorities, to point to what the kingdom of God is truly like.
Christ takes the third option. He brings good news to the poor, he releases this poor captive, he can now see things as they are and as they ought to be, the oppressed man goes free and all are amazed.
There is a saying attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
Christ preaches with authority in the synagogue. But in this Gospel reading we are not told what he said. We are only told what he did.
In his actions he demonstrates the love of God and the love of others that are at the heart of the Gospel, that should be at the heart of every sermon that we preach. For the love of God and the love of others are the two commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets.
who in the beginning
commanded the light to shine out of darkness:
We pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ
may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief,
shine into the hearts of all your people,
and reveal the knowledge of your glory
in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Post Communion Prayer:
in word and Eucharist we have proclaimed
the mystery of your love.
Help us so to live out our days
that we may be signs of your wonders in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with a tutorial group of MTh students on Wednesday 21 January 2015.