The Common Good
January-February 1997

Breaking with the Old, Making the New

by Peter B. Price | January-February 1997

Reflections on the revised common lectionary, cycle B.

A new year offers new hope. Whatever nostalgia we have for the past, each year's end provides an opportunity to take stock, make new promises, set new goals, and develop new relationships. However, for all too many people much will remain the same: Denial of citizenship, lack of human rights, poverty, oppression, and violence will continue to mark their lives.

As God's people we are invited to renew our discipleship, to dream of a new community, to repent of our complicity in injustice, and to rededicate ourselves to the cause of the saving justice of God. We also are called to count the cost—"deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me." We need to listen, discern, and witness to the hope that is in us, and once again be faced with the question from Jesus: Who do you say I am?

January 5
Arise, Shine Out


Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

People who are oppressed need to dream of another world. Isaiah paints a picture of a city where oppression and war are no more and the nations are reconciled (Isaiah 60:18-22). Isaiah's vision of Jerusalem symbolizes a new community, a new way of being for God's people. For the wise men who followed a star (a mythical symbol of tyranny), Jerusalem represents a city in the grip of a paranoid monarch, who cynically promises to do homage to the infant King of the Jews, but in his heart plans a slaughter (Matthew 2:16).

The three stories of Herod, the wise men, and the holy family together demonstrate the way things are in the world. The wise men, Joseph, and Mary represent those who obey the signs of promise and look for a new order. Alternatively, Herod stands for the powerful who seek a new world order through cynicism, cruelty, and oppression.

What was true then is true now. We continue to need visions of a new city uncontaminated by idolatry, oppression, and death. Discipleship is about knowing and doing God's will. To "know" God means to do justice. Mary, Joseph, and the babe represent the new household of God, the church. It is the church that Paul understands as helping the principalities and ruling forces to learn how many sided is God's wisdom (Ephesians 3:10-11). The call of the prophet in each generation is to "arise, shine out, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you."

Reflection and Action

Who represents the powerful in our world today? Who opposes the powerful by the doing of justice? How can you take courage from the stories of the wise men, Joseph, Mary, and Paul the prisoner? What are the signs from God that enable you to hope and work for a new order?

January 12
Listen to the Voice

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee (Mark 1:9). To those from Judea and Jerusalem, Galilee was a notorious region. It was populated by non-Jews, separated from "true Israel" by another notorious state, Samaria. Galilee was a hiding place for guerrillas, a hotbed of revolution. We should be warned! If Jesus comes from here, he is likely to be trouble! Jesus, of whom John said, "I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals," lines up to receive a baptism of repentance.

Did Jesus need to repent? Unless the gesture is an empty one, apparently he did. John had been announcing a coming new order; his baptism prepared people for new ways of living and behaving. Jesus is the focus of that new order. His baptism was a sign of renouncing the old order. His act of repentance signaled a break with the structures and values in society by which people are oppressed, and with the prevailing moral, religious, and political order.

Jesus' baptism is marked by two dramatic events: the alighting of a dove and the voice of God. Both of these confirm the rightness of his action. He will need all the courage and faith available as he faces the drama, conflict, and testing of the desert (Mark 1:12-13).

Reflection and Action

How does your church understand and practice baptism today? Find your baptismal certificate. Look at the date of your baptism. Who were your sponsors? Light a candle and recommit yourself to the promises of baptism, possibly using the words that are part of your church tradition.

January 19
Have Integrity

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

From Nazareth? Can anything good come from that place? Nathanael's question echoes the opinion of those who saw themselves as the "true Israel." It smacks of self-righteousness.

But Jesus identifies something more when he is introduced. There is an Israelite in whom there is no deception (John 1:47). High praise indeed, for the original "Israel," Jacob, was a deceiver (Genesis 27). Nathanael, clearly overwhelmed by the compliment, raises his own accolade: Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the king of Israel.

Today's readings highlight the importance of integrity in those who serve God and seek to usher in the new order. There is enormous freedom in following Christ, so much so that Paul can comment, "For me everything is permissible." That may be true, Paul continues, but not everything does good (1 Corinthians 6:12). He then offers a critique of Christian behavior, arguing that the body is not for sexual immorality because it is the temple of the Holy Spirit (6:19).

The psalmist encourages clarity of conscience by reminding us that God, who created our inmost selves, knows and understands us (139:1-2, 13). The call of the child Samuel becomes a parable of openness and availability. Almost naively the boy thinks the ancient priest Eli is calling him in his sleep. Eli knows better and discerns an ear able to hear the voice of God, marked as it is by a clear conscience and receptive will (1 Samuel 3:10-18). With such receptivity God promises: I am going to do something that will make the ears of all who hear it ring.

Reflection and Action

Who are the people you respect for their integrity? Do we tend to celebrate or fear the knowledge and understanding that God has of us? Where do you hear God saying, I am going to do something that will make the ears of all who hear it ring?

January 26
Go Fishing

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

After John had been arrested, Jesus came proclaiming "the time has come" (Mark 1:14-15). John's arrest as a subversive is followed by Jesus' demonstration of solidarity by picking up the theme of John's message. The assault on the old order has begun: Repent and believe the gospel, declares Jesus. His strategy opens with the formation of a discipleship community who are to be fishers of people. The prophets Amos and Ezekiel refer to the "hooking of fish" as a judgment on the rich and powerful (Amos 4:2, Ezekiel 29:4). Those invited to "fish" will join the struggle against the powerful and privileged who oppress the poor and weak.

But first they have to repent. Fishers who could afford hired help (Mark 1:20) were relatively successful businesspeople. Jesus' invitation for the fishers to leave their nets and follow him is a call to repentance. They are challenged to break with social and economic security for a few, for the sake of all. Following Jesus is to break with "business as usual," and it creates an opportunity to become disciples learning to build a new social order.

Reflection and Action

How do you react to the idea that Jesus invited people to join the struggle against the powerful and privileged? Which people of faith do you admire and seek to follow in some way? Why? What would it mean for you in your situation to become "fishers of people"?

February 2
The Prophetic Word

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Authority can be imposed and submitted to, or it can be discerned and willingly accepted. The religious leaders of Jesus' culture imposed both authority and control, manipulating the life, death, health, and welfare of many. Jesus' first sermon made a deep impression on his hearers because unlike the scribes, he taught with authority.

The "spirit" of the authority of the scribes undergirded the prevailing social order. Challenged by Jesus the demon became infuriated, and questioned, Have you come to destroy us? That is, Have you come to destroy scribal authority and all that it means? The answer contained in Jesus' exorcism is yes.

The prophetic word needs to be spoken in each generation. Moses recognized that such a word (Deuteronomy 18) needs to be consistent with the God whose work is full of splendor and majesty, and whose saving justice stands firm forever (Psalm 111:3). Through his practice of saving justice, Jesus elicited praise for God from the common people. "Here is teaching that is new" (Mark 1:27) is the bittersweet response, a painful reminder that the truth understood by the psalmist—the deliverance God sends to his people—had long been neglected by religious leaders.

Paul continually speaks of freedom in Christ and encourages people to live in freedom (Galatians 5:1). At the same time he cautions against wounding vulnerable consciences (1 Corinthians 8:12). The chief reason for turning to God is to discover a love that transforms the whole world. True authority is discerned in discovering God as the root of wisdom (Psalm 111:10).

Reflection and Action

What structures might reasonably cry out, "Have you come to destroy us?" Where are the signs of the prophetic word being spoken in our generation? Who are those with "vulnerable consciences" that should not be wounded? How can you be sensitive to them?

February 9
Once Again: Listen

2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

People have often sought encouragement from God on mountains. The summit meeting of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus with God is no exception. Moses and Elijah both experienced discouragement in their ministry and went to the mountain (Exodus 33:18f and 1 Kings 19:11f). Jesus has been under pressure, gradually moving his ministry to the margins into Gentile territory. Facing growing hostility, he is now aware that the options are narrowing and the cross increasingly inevitable.

The core group of disciples witness the moment of reclothing. The "whiteness" symbolizes not only the presence of God in judgment (Daniel 7:9), but also the sign of the martyrs, or "witnesses" to hope (Revelation 6:11). Frightened and confused, they seek to create a memorial to the event (Mark 9:5). The voice from the cloud echoes the baptism command: Listen to him.

What a contrast Elisha is to the disciples! He has discerned that Elijah's ministry is about to end (2 Kings 2:1-12), and when asked by Elijah, "What can I do for you before I am taken from you?" Elisha answered, "Let me inherit a double share of your spirit."

It is easy to be blinded, like the disciples, by the "god of this world." Such people cannot see the shining light of Jesus' glory, the image of God. We are not invited to participate in a cult of adulation, but to receive the Spirit from God who said "Let light shine out of darkness" (2 Corinthians 4:4-5).

Reflection and Action

Where do you look for encouragement in your faith when things look difficult? What circumstances of facing hostility have made it essential for you to "Listen to him"? Are you blinded by the god of this world? How is God inviting you to "Listen to him"?

February 16
Signs of Promise

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

The ark, rainbow, and dove are symbols of promise, signs of ending and beginning. Whatever devastation Noah witnessed, it evoked a promise, a covenant that never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all living things (Genesis 9:15). Symbols marked the beginning of a new order. The ark, in which only a few were saved (1 Peter 3:20), spoke of salvation. The dove conveyed the promise of life (Genesis 8:11), while the rainbow reminded of the covenant faithfulness of God.

At the Jordan the Spirit, like a dove, holds the promise of new life. While the baptized Jesus carries in himself, like the ark, the hope of salvation, the voice from heaven expresses the covenant faithfulness of God. To these signs is added the heavens torn apart (Mark 1:10), a symbol of prophetic hope expressed by Isaiah (Isaiah 64:1-2). In the scriptures "heaven" and "earth" are themselves symbols for two dimensions of history, that which is hidden—heaven—and that which is apparent—earth. Isaiah's vision of God "tearing the heavens open and coming down" poetically acknowledges, in Pablo Richard's words, that "history is not simply what can be seen in the world of appearance, the empirical world. It also has a deep transcendent, hidden dimension."

Such symbols speak of the reality of God intervening in the human story, inviting us to live differently. The first letter of Peter, written to Christians deprived of citizenship and civil rights, reminds them that their baptism is not just a sign of the washing off of physical dirt but of their entry into a covenant relationship with the crucified and risen Christ, to whom the ruling forces and powers are subject (1 Peter 3:21-22). Outwardly, victory over the forces remains hidden in empirical history, but the signs and symbols retain the power to remind us of the final triumph.

Reflection and Action

What signs or symbols have you witnessed that speak to you of God's intervention into the human story? Who are deprived of citizenship and human rights who need a sign of hope? What will you do?

February 23
Deny...Take up...Follow

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

There is an awesome inevitability about the cross for Jesus. Mark's gospel has offered a raft of Jesus' encounters with the authorities where he has declared for justice over against injustice, demonstrating that through exorcism, miracle, and story. Predicting his condemnation, trial, and judicial murder at the hands of the authorities he has challenged, Jesus nevertheless presages the triumph of God's saving justice by announcing that after three days he will rise again (Mark 8:31).

Few who had witnessed Roman executions could do anything but turn cold at the thought of crucifixion. Peter's scolding reaction is as much born out of horror and fear as anything else. Jesus cannot now softpedal; he has asked the disciples for their perception of who he is (Mark 8:27-30); he has revealed the implication of being identified as the Son of Man, the figure in apocalyptic literature who will overthrow the powers (Daniel 7). Now, he must test who is for him—who will follow.

Calling the disciples and the crowds to listen, he publicly spells out the costliness of choosing the path of declaring the justice of God: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me. The remainder of the gospel is an account of how this choice was to impact upon Jesus—his refusal to compromise with the imperial and religious authorities; his loyalty to the call to seek first the rule of God and God's saving justice (Matthew 6:33). Here is one who has not despised or disregarded the poverty of the poor, nor turned away his face, but has listened to the cry for help (Psalm 22:24).

Reflection and Action

Why is crucifixion inevitable for Jesus? What has this to say about discipleship? In what ways have you denied yourself, taken up the cross, and followed? What has been the cost?

PETER B. PRICE is general secretary of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, an Anglican world mission agency based in London, and canon emeritus of Southwark Cathedral. He is the author, most recently, of Seeds of the Word: Biblical Reflection for Small Church Communities (Darton, Longman, and Todd; 1996).

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