Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15–20 | Psalm 111 | 1 Corinthians 8:1–13 | Mark 1:21–28
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. (1 Cor. 8:1-3)
As a child I was, for the most part at least, a well-behaved student at school. I would never dream of being intentionally disruptive. I was not rude, and I’d usually try my best to pay attention to the lesson. But there was one way I found myself consistently struggling: I had a really hard time, it seems, not shouting out the answers. Raising my hand and waiting my turn did not come very naturally for me. If I knew the answer, or thought I knew the answer, I’d want to let you know.
Eventually I gained a little humility and self-control, and as I grew up a bit I discovered how to be a better student; how to learn, not just the answers, but how to learn alongside others. How to wait, and listen, and leave room for those around me to share.
This struggle of my young student days is a fairly simple one; born of my immaturity, and eventually grown out of. But it highlights a more widespread temptation that many today find hard to resist: There is something enticing about knowing ‘the answers’… and showing that you know can be even more alluring, especially in a world that believes knowledge is power.
We can find all sorts of examples of this temptation at work today: from those touting the ‘secret insights’ of dark conspiracy theories… to those who shame and despise anyone not ‘up to date’ with the latest edition of what’s politically correct, and what’s not… to those who are always hungry for some juicy bit of gossip, tearing their neighbour’s life apart, all for the ‘inside scoop’. Of course, this is just a sample. But what all these examples have in common is their great potential to cause distrust, division, and destruction… of communities, relationships, and individual lives.
Yes, knowledge can be useful. Like all of God’s gifts, it can and does contribute to all kinds of goodness. But on its own, chasing knowledge can be quite dangerous too. If knowledge is a source of power, then how we handle it matters. What we do with what we know has real significance. Not only for ourselves, but for our wider world.
In our Scripture reading today from the Gospel of Mark, we heard the story of the first display Mark gives us of Christ’s power. In this part of the story the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, begins to reveal what God’s good Kingdom entails.
Mark focusses our attention at first on the way that Jesus taught: not like the other law experts, but with “authority”; as one speaking ‘with power’ about the ways of God. This in itself was enough to amaze the synagogue that day. From the very start, Jesus assumed the full weight of His mission as the One through whom the Good News of God’s Kingdom was to come. He was not offering opinions, or insightful advice, but teaching the very truth of the Living God.
This is all noteworthy, but then the story takes a startling turn. In the midst of this powerful lesson in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit interrupts everything. The term unclean spirit is another name for demon: a dark spiritual being estranged from the Living God, deceptively and destructively at work in the world. In the story, it is clear that this is not some form of natural illness. There is an evil will at work, in opposition to God. And so while Jesus was teaching this man with the unclean spirit cries out and says: “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.” (Mark 1:24). Which is… all true, of course. The unclean spirit gives the correct answer: understanding truly who Christ is, and what He came to do. Here we have a representative of the spiritual forces of evil, loudly telling the startling truth about this powerful teacher. As far as proper knowledge goes, the demon gets it right… but that in itself highlights for us the limits of knowledge. When it comes to sharing in God’s Kingdom, we need more than the right answers. True knowledge may be powerful, but it isn’t enough.
What’s missing then? What else is needed aside from knowing and sharing the truth?
One helpful response comes from a North African theologian and bishop, St. Augustine, who reflected on the nature of the spiritual forces being worshipped and served by non-Christians in the Roman world he knew. Commenting on our passage today from the Gospel of Mark, St. Augustine has this to say: “the demons had much knowledge, but entirely lacked love. They dreaded receiving their punishment from him. They did not love the righteousness that was in him.” They knew the truth about Jesus, but remained his enemies; opposed to God’s good will, and in dread of His coming justice. The forces of darkness did their damage through knowledge without love.
In our second reading today, from his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul the Apostle, writes to a Church community struggling with all sorts of disputes and divisions. One of these disputes, as we heard, involved the eating of meat. In Gentile cities like Corinth, meat that was sold in the markets would often have been prepared in connection with the idols in pagan temples. So Jewish Christians concerned with avoiding idols and following kosher traditions, as well as many Gentile Christians who had left their old religions behind, decided to refrain from eating meat at all.
Other Christians in Corinth, (as well as St. Paul himself), did not seem to see eating meat as a major problem. They knew that in Christ they need not fear the dark spiritual forces anymore, “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Cor. 8:6.) They also knew that the Living God didn’t command non-Jewish Christians to follow kosher laws. And so these Christians would eat meat… which then led to the problem: Both groups of Christians in Corinth were condemning each other over food, and causing harmful divisions within the family of God. They were using their ‘knowledge’ to tear each other down.
In his response, interestingly enough, even though St. Paul knows the answer… even though he is convinced of the truth in this dispute, he does not spend his time trying to convince them all to take his side, but rather he pleads with ALL OF THEM to live in line with the Gospel… that is, to follow the way of Christ, and stay united in His love. To sort out their disputes as beloved brothers and sisters, and fellow children of God which is far more important than what we put on our plates. Their sole focus on ‘being right’ was tearing down their Church community. So St. Paul called them all to prioritize ‘being love’ instead… to so that they could keep growing in understanding together. As one Church Father would put it in the centuries to come: “Arrogance causes divisions, but love draws people together and leads to true knowledge.” Or in the words of St. Paul himself: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Cor. 8:1).
This is the kind of love that God’s Kingdom is about, the love revealed and embodied by Jesus Christ: teaching us the way to build one another up, and to truly care for one another despite our differences. Christ did not come to stoke our self-importance or pride, but to lead us away from all the traps that turn us against each other. To lead us in the way of God’s own holy power: not through amassing knowledge, which, “without love”, makes us “nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2) … but through offering compassionate service; setting aside our egos, to support one another, so that together we can share in the New Life of God.
Christ came, as we read in 1 John 3:8, to “to destroy the works of the devil.” To set us free from the destructive spiritual forces at work in the world, keeping so many people trapped in fear, pride, and despair. And so, the Gospel tells us, Jesus silenced the unclean spirit, and cast it out of the man, freeing him from its vicious influence. Again and again, the Son of God put His saving love into action: putting back together lives shattered by darkness and sin… all leading to the cross, where He offered up His precious life on behalf… of everyone. The wise and the foolish, the weak and the strong, those who know and those who don’t. Christ gave His life for us all. This is the power of God’s Kingdom at work: when we start to share the amazing love of Jesus Christ together. So that, together, we can share it with the world around us.
So may we be built up together by the holy love of God. May we be freed from all the forces that fight against His gracious will. May we learn to handle faithfully the knowledge we’ve been entrusted with, so that our lives may truly make known the way of Jesus Christ. Amen.
 St. Augustine, City of God (9.21) in Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds., Mark (Revised), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 21.
 St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 20.2. In Thomas C. Oden and Cindy Crosby, eds., Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings: Lectionary Cycle B (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011), 56.