On the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the title character emerges from an underground bunker after being held hostage for fifteen years by a man who has convinced her and three other women that the world has been destroyed, and they are the only survivors. When she is rescued, she learns that all the things she thought were gone forever were there, just over their heads, all along. Kimmy decides to move to New York City and throw herself into catching up on all the life she’s missed, and it turns out that not only has the world still been there, it has also changed in ways she could never have predicted. The technology, the culture, the clothing – everything is different than when she was kidnapped. For fifteen years, her only authority has been the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. He has filtered the information that came to her, and his version of truth is all she knows.
So when she moves out into the world, she’s left trying to figure out which parts of her experience are true, and which are false. Now that she’s not under the authority of the Reverend anymore, what should she believe? Who should she believe?
This is the question in both of the Scripture readings today, too. In Deuteronomy there is a promise of a prophet to come, who will bring God’s message to the people, but not much clarity about how the people will be able to tell who this prophet is or distinguish the real prophet from any false prophets who may be around and preaching contrary messages. A prophet in the biblical sense isn’t someone who tells the future, like we sometimes hear people refer to prophets now. A prophet is someone who tells the truth, about God and about the state of humanity. So the relevant question for the Israelites is, who is going to tell us the truth?
In Mark, the people in the synagogue think they already know who the prophets are, and what God’s message is; they’re reading it in the scrolls of the Torah and the Hebrew prophets. This is the authority they’ve been taught their entire lives, and because most people probably weren’t literate at that time, it’s been interpreted for them by the scribes. The information they have has been filtered through the perspectives of others, and it’s been told to them as the truth.
But one day, Jesus comes into the synagogue and begins to teach them, and there’s something different about what he says and how he says it. They notice that he teaches with authority, and not like the scribes – which kind of makes you wonder how the scribes are teaching and why anyone listens to them anyway.
And then the really strange part of this passage happens. It says that there’s an “unclean spirit” in one of the men there. Jesus seems to have been just going about his teaching and not paying any attention to the spirit, but the spirit freaks out a bit about Jesus. “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.” And Jesus commands the spirit to come out of the man, and it does, albeit with some crankiness on the way out. And the people respond with amazement for Jesus’ teaching: a new teaching, with authority.
And they begin to talk, and the word about Jesus begins to spread, and everyone has the same questions. How do we know who has authority? What is true? What do we believe? Who do we believe?
And are we really any different from those ancient people? With globalization and the prevalence of the internet, we are exposed to more perspectives and cultures than ever before. It’s extremely difficult now to get through life believing that what you’ve been taught is the only way – although, some people do seem to manage. We’ve watched things we assumed to be true be proven false and things we thought were impossible set into motion by science; it turns out Pluto isn’t a planet after all, and self-driving cars are already being tested. Childhood icons like Bill Cosby, and people who were supposed to be “safe,” like Olympic team doctors, have turned out to be entirely different people than we thought, and some of us wonder who we will find out about next. The media tells us that nearly everything our president says is false. The president tells us that everything the media says is “fake news.”
How do we know who has authority? What is true? What do we believe? Who do we believe?
Even within the church and in matters of faith, sometimes it’s hard to figure out who we should be listening to. There are just so many voices, saying so many different things. And it’s our task to weed through all of that and find the real gospel – gospel meaning “good news” – in a vast field of fake news. Today’s passages have some things to show us about how we figure out who to believe – what’s really good news in a fake news world.
First, good news will stand up to the standards you already have. In Deuteronomy, God is asking the people to rely on what they already know to figure out who the prophet is. They have already heard God’s message. They’ve already experienced God among them. They will know, if they’re paying attention. Even as Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue is new, it’s also not new at all. He’s teaching them based from the Torah scrolls that they hear every week. He’s teaching it in a different way than what they’ve heard, but it’s the same foundational material, consistent with who God has been all along.
God has given us all kinds of tools to help us ascertain what is true. A prophet – a truth teller – isn’t going to come to us with things that are completely alien to us, generally speaking. Truth will not be a bunker in the ground with one person echoing the same message over and over. Most truth is new-old; you use the other truths you know to get to it. So we don’t need to be afraid to run any message through all the other screens God has given us, and test it against standards of reason or experience, or values like love or compassion or justice. The key is not to just test it with one set of standards, which is an extremely human tendency – to go with the standard that is most comfortable and seems most reliable to us. Complex questions have complex solutions, and they can’t just be answered by “Yes, it makes rational sense,” or “Yes, it seems loving.” Truth when it comes to matters of faith may not be provable, but it will be testable. It will have coherency, and it will meet other standards of what is good.
Second – good news will be backed up with actions. Jesus’ teaching was important, but it wasn’t just words. Our attention in this passage in Mark gets drawn to the unclean spirit, but behind that voice is a human being who is chained by a force that has overtaken him. This is especially important for audiences in our time and culture to remember, because we get distracted by this demon thing that seems so peculiar to us, and we don’t realize that perhaps our demons just take more subtle forms. Before Jesus comes in and gets the spirit all upset, this is just Joe Schmoe in the synagogue, maybe not even knowing he’s inhabited by an unclean spirit. And I suspect he wasn’t all that different from many people today, maybe even us, who are possessed by forces that have grown beyond our control – unclean spirits of addiction or apathy or violence, or the big systemic unclean spirits of racism or sexism or heterosexism or ableism…all the isms that exclude and oppress people.
And when the people in the synagogue really know that Jesus has authority – that his teaching is good news – is when it actually does something for this guy who is inhabited by fake news. Jesus releases him from the voices that are destroying him, and allows him to be fully human again, and that means that Jesus can do that for every one of us – and that is very good news. The people begin to trust Jesus because there’s action behind his words, and that gives him authority.
Finally, good news is for people who need it.
I’ve studied the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures quite a bit; they’re some of my favorite books and characters in the Bible, and Jesus seems to run in their vein much of the time, so I think it’s important for us to look to them a bit. These were eccentric people. Many of them were cranky and difficult. Some were mopey, and some were even suicidal. They were all weird, and didn’t exactly make a lot of friends. We’d probably institutionalize them today – and maybe we have.
So when we look for prophets now, for people who tell us the truth, I think we need to keep this in mind, because we who are fairly comfortable have a tendency to look for prophets who are polite and well-spoken, who make us feel good about ourselves and tell us what we already believe to be true.
These are not the prophets you’re looking for.
It’s crucial that we ask ourselves, who is this news good for? If it’s only good news for those at the center or those at the top, it’s probably not really the good news.
Jesus and the biblical prophets didn’t only speak God’s message; they embodied it, sometimes in strange, humiliating, and painful ways, ways that made no sense to people in power, but that deeply resonated with people whose lives were already full of pain and humiliation. For people on the margins and at the bottom, a God who is with them in pain and humiliation is good news.
The prophets were obsessed with justice, especially when the wealthy and powerful were systematically oppressing and exploiting the vulnerable. So we probably won’t find a lot of truth tellers in the halls of power today, although we hope that our elected officials and influencers will occasionally have their moments. But more often today, you might find a prophet climbing a flagpole, or getting arrested in a street demonstration, or generally upsetting the powers that be.
Usually you can tell good news by who thinks it’s good news. The real prophets, the real truth tellers, are the people who draw the love and loyalty of those at the margins – the powerless, the underprivileged, those who have little or nothing to offer. And they’re often despised by those who benefit from the way things are.
In a time of fake news, who has authority? What do we believe? Who do we believe? In a world where the powerful wield secrecy and lies, we are charged with discerning the truth that will set all of us free. A truth that stands up to our testing. A truth that is backed up by action. And a truth that is good news for those who most need it.