“This is exactly what you requested of the LORD…”

I keep thinking about this part of the first reading from Mass this weekend (Dt 18:15-20 in both Roman Catholic and Revised Common lectionaries):

Moses spoke to all the people, saying:
“A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you
from among your own kin;
to him you shall listen.
This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God, at Horeb
on the day of the assembly, when you said,
‘Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’

And the LORD said to me, ‘This was well said.
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin,
and will put my words into his mouth;
he shall tell them all that I command him.
Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name,
I myself will make him answer for it.
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name
an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak,
or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.'”

The gospel reading we had (again in both lectionaries) was Mark 1:21-28, in which Jesus teaches in the synagogue in Capernaum and expels an unclean spirit (who fears him and recognizes him) from a possessed man, and everyone is astonished by his “new teaching with authority”. The immediate connection between the two readings would seem to be to see Jesus as the “prophet like Moses” raised up from among the Jewish people…

(The Jewish Study Bible, by the way, notes that Moses is using the singular term “prophet” in a “distributive sense”, ie, that God will always be raising up prophets from among the people. And indeed that’s what we see happen throughout the Shared Scriptures. The interpretation that Moses was speaking of a singular messianic prophet was a “much later Jewish interpretation that was accepted by the Christian church.”)

…but there’s something about that “this is what you asked for, you didn’t want to have direct access to God” that feels significant to me. Maybe because I’m studying the Holy Spirit this semester, but it seems to me that the distinctive characteristic of the church as portrayed in scripture is that all Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. How different could that be than the reaction of the people at Horeb (Ex 19-20)? The people all gathered at the base of the mountain so as to enter into the covenant with the LORD, but even that was too close for them — they were frightened, and withdrew to a greater distance than the LORD had prescribed for their safety. They were afraid that the sight or sound or proximity of the LORD would destroy them.

In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit (pneuma akathartos);
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!”

This is Mk 1:23-24. Jesus was just baptized, and the Holy Spirit (pneuma hagios) came to rest upon him thirteen verses ago.

And does Jesus destroy them?

Jesus rebuked him and said,
“Quiet! Come out of him!”
The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.

As the Girardian lectionary commentary points out for this reading, Jesus does not destroy either the man or the spirit. He heals the man, and expels the spirit. Or, one might say, rather than expelling the man from the community, in the usual scapegoating process, he expels the spirit from the man.

This commentary also points out that the Greek word used to describe the teaching “with authority” is exousia. I can’t help noting the etymological similarity to the words that later became the foundation of the Nicene expression of Trinitarian faith: that the Triune Godhead consisted of three persons (hypostases or prosopion) of the same (homo) substance, ousia.

This is almost an inside-out version of the events to which Moses alludes. At Horeb, the LORD came to the top of the mountain, and the assembled people gathered at the base of the mountain fled even further for fear they would be destroyed by the God who had just rescued them from bondage in Egypt – not out of malice, but because God’s Holiness was too much for mortals to bear. In Capernaum, the Lord — the one whom Christians would come to understand as the incarnate LORD, indwelt by the Holy Spirit — comes right in among the assembled people, and begins to teach and to heal them by means of the power of his Holiness.

Is this “exactly what we requested”? Or is it what we really wanted all along, without even having been aware of it? In Jesus Christ, God responds, with intimacy, compassion, and love, to the human desire for Godself that God evokes in us.

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