Last revised: January 31, 2021
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FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY — YEAR B
RCL: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; I Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
RoCa: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; I Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28
Opening Comments: Redeeming the Christian Religion
In 2021 this is the first week of writing Opening Comments under the banner “Redeeming the Christian Religion” in place of “Elements of a New Reformation.” This is a confluence of our historical moment and today’s Gospel, which I read as a sign of deeper healing. We often categorize such stories of exorcism as miraculous healings. John’s Gospel is the most clear in naming such events as “signs.” Jesus responded compassionately to the dis-eased people before him and offered them healing. But, again, it’s John’s Gospel in which Jesus clearly indicates that he’s doing something more. He’s doing the ‘work of his Father’ (John 5:17 in healing a lame man; and 9:3, in healing the man blind from birth), the work of continuing creation. On Good Friday, “It (Jesus’s work) is finished!”; and on Easter morning comes the dawn of New Creation, the first day of a ‘new week.’ Thereafter, Jesus breathes on his disciples so that they “will do greater works than these” (John 14:12).
Can we see such a “sign” in this story from Mark’s Gospel? It happens in the synagogue on the Sabbath, to a man that is considered “unclean” by religious categories. The man threatens, from the perspective of religion, to make the most “clean” time and place unclean. The appropriate response from that perspective was to expel the man. Jesus heals the man and expels the “unclean spirit.” I believe this to be a sign of a deeper healing offered to humanity — namely, the healing of our religions and their tendencies to divide us rather than unite us.
Modern science, especially its branch of medicine, have moved us forward a long ways by bracketing out the spiritual dimension of who we are. We don’t look for things like “unclean spirits” anymore. We examine bodies and brains for malfunctions or microscopic intruders. This has undoubtedly yielded significant advancements, especially for bodies through “internal medicine.” It is also helping with mental illness, to the extent that we find chemicals that help treat chemical imbalances in the brain. But I believe that it is time to open things up again and try a scientific approach to spiritual matters — focusing on them with a scientific methodology instead of bracketing them out. And I propose that Mimetic Theory, as a study of all that’s human, offers a more scientific approach to the spiritual.
What is the “spiritual”? It is the dimension of being human which is relational — relational to one’s environment on a more wholistic level, but especially relationality to other persons, including God (who might be said to be the pure relationality called Love). MT gives us a picture of the standard shape of relationships in interpersonal relationships as mimetic, but it also helps us to understands how those interpersonal relationships mechanistically create (i.e., not by anyone’s conscious choice) transcendency into social systems and cultures. Basic cultural realities such as language should also be counted in the category of “spiritual” — that of spiritual realities which are transcendent and antecedent to every person. We are born into these spiritual-cultural realities and nurtured by them. It is fundamental to being human that we are raised within the spirit of a culture. (This is what Walter Wink explored in his works on the Powers.)
A diagnosis such as paranoid schizophrenia, for example, can be enriched by understanding what is out of the range of “normal” in terms of the person’s mimetic relationships, the person’s spiritual health. Mimetic theorists such as Jean-Michel Oughourlian have already begun work on such linkages (e.g., The Mimetic Brain).
In terms of this Gospel Reading, though, I believe we would be falling short of its full meaning to simply translate it into the modern terms of healing what looks like a person stricken with something like paranoid schizophrenia. The narrative and the social context indicate a wider spiritual dilemma for which modern science typically refrains from widening its lens. We might begin with an exploration of Jesus not only healing this man but offering healing to his community — or, healing this man by healing his social relationships with his community. For more on this sort of approach, see Andrew Marr‘s essay on this text, “What Kind of Spirit Was Jesus Casting Out?.”
But the most global dimension of healing that we might be glimpsing in this passage is Jesus’ offer of healing to the whole human family. Since our origins as a species, human cultures have been infected with the dis-ease of the Scapegoat Mechanism, a systemic-cultural spirituality structured on the dualisms of us-them, good-bad, clean-unclean, etc. It is a ‘self-transcendent’ spirituality presided over by false gods who are merely the projection of the ‘self-trancendency’ in cultures which arise out of our solution to mimetic rivalry and violence. (See the work of Girardian Jean-Pierre Dupuy for the use of the term “self-transcendence” to name the mechanistic production of transcendence in human cultures, especially in The Mark of the Sacred.) Our original human spiritual condition is nurtured in a dualistically structured sacred violence that seeks to expel or destroy “them” — those who represent to “us” a profane violence.
“Have you come to destroy us?” the man with the unclean spirit asks Jesus. No, Jesus has not come to destroy him. A culture and community which marginalizes the sick is destroying him. So Jesus has come not only to heal him but to offer healing to us, by calling out the spirit of sacred violence which seeks to destroy those on the margins such as the mentally ill. Jesus has come to give us a recreated way of being human that is no longer based on destroying some Other. And, signaled by the setting of being in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus has come to heal what’s at the heart of our human relations, namely, our religiosity. Today’s Gospel Reading conveys a sign that Jesus came to do nothing less than redeem our religions.
How does this play in our 21st Century context? We’ve made some improvement on the front of mental illness; but there’s still a long ways to go, isn’t there? And our continued marginalization of the mentally ill is now seen as intersected with the many issues of greater justice (in the sense of equal opportunity, or even prioritized attention) for the various marginalized of our society. Our American religion has provided the justification for things like racism, sexism, and economic injustice. (For an analysis of the role of American religion in our imperialist oppressions, with Mimetic Theory in the background of the analysis, see Jon Pahl‘s Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence.)
Here is the 2018 sermon on the overall theme of “‘Miracles’ as Signs of Healing Humanity.” For more on Jesus’s healings as signs of a deeper healing of humanity, I highly recommend two essays by James Alison in Faith Beyond Resentment: on healing the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5 (similar to today’s exorcism), “clothed and in his right mind”; and on John 9, “the man blind from birth and the Creator’s subversion of sin” (more below under the Gospel Reading).
The most important verses are actually the two immediately following the lection:
You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it. (Deut 18:21-22)
For more, see the James Alison homily below under the Gospel Reading.
1. Charles Mabee, “Text as Peacemaker: Deuteronomic Innovations in Violence Detoxification,” in Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking, ed. by Willard M. Swartley, 70-84.
1. A question we’ve asked before: Does Jesus change the definition of “prophet” (see, for example, Pentecost B) from what is implied in this OT reading? Listen especially to Luke’s Jesus:
Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. (Luke 11:47-51)
In short, the prophets are the victims we kill. That Jesus’ list includes Abel particularly indicates expansion in this direction. In what other way could Abel be considered a prophet? This seems implied, too, in the finish to the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:11-12) Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem closely follows the passage quoted above (in both Matthew and Luke): “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Lk 13:34) Jesus himself will become the prophet par excellence, offering himself as the Lamb slain since the foundation of the world.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
1. 1 Cor. 8:9: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Liberty here is a translation of exousia, which is translated twice as “authority” in Mark 1:22, 27 (see below).
2. Also in 8:9, “stumbling block” is not the more frequent skandalon but a synonym, proskomma, “that which causes stumbling or offense.” One of the key passages from the Hebrew Scriptures for the idea of skandalon in the New Testament is Isaiah 8:14: “He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over — a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” — where the LXX for “a stone one strikes against” is lithou prosommati. 1 Peter 2:8 quotes Isa. 8:14, rendering “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall,” as lithos proskommatos kai petra skandalou, so that it is easy to see how synonymous these terms are. For more on a Girardian reading, see the webpage “Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon.”
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p. 86, pp. 179-182. In both these passages, Hamerton-Kelly is trying to weave together themes of 1 Corinthians as a whole, and the first passage (p. 86) looks forward to the second (pp. 179-182) in discussing the triad of faith, hope, and love. When faith is specifically faith in the Crucified One, then it is a basis for a community not constituted on exclusion. Members of Christ who are at different places in their faith must be careful not to exclude one another. And freedom from the law, and its exclusionary practices, must always be tempered with love (Gr: agape). As Hamerton-Kelly puts it: “To insist on the absolute freedom of conscience without concern for fellow members of the church is to practice the mimesis of sacred violence that is idolatrous.” He points out that these middle chapters of 1 Corinthians regarding community living are anchored in the metaphor of the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12) and the Hymn to Love (1 Cor. 13).
2. James Alison, several places: in The Joy of Being Wrong, in ch. 3 on “Creation in Christ,” quoting 1 Cor. 8:6 on p. 94 as an example of New Testament references to the pre-existent Christ as creator; and on p. 177 in a section on “The Pauline Ecclesial Hypostasis”; in Faith Beyond Resentment, p. 85; and in On Being Liked, chap. 9, “The strangeness of this passivity,” a talk for Thomas Merton Society, London, October 26, 2002.
In the latter 1 Cor. 8:1-3 plays an especially prominent role, as it is one of his main examples of his theme of being known by God (a “strange passivity”) that underlies all our true knowing. The other two Pauline sources of this theme are Gal. 4:8-9 and 1 Cor. 13:11-13. Here are several paragraphs elaborating a Girardian psychological analysis of being known by God:
One of the ways I knew about this strange passivity “intellectually” before knowing it “as finding myself swimming in it” was through the understanding of desire which I tried to set out for you last year when we met at Downside. This is Girard’s central insight, and to my mind the incalculably important philosophical insight which he has theorized for us. This is the simple, and never-sufficiently-to-be-meditated-on perception, that humans desire according to the desire of another; or, to put it in slightly more literary terms: we receive ourselves through the eyes of another. All I want to say is that this is not a metaphor, but, I take it, a simple and apt anthropological description of how any of us comes to be. Let me try and set the scene appropriately: someone important comes into the room, a room in which a group of people are gathered, among whom you are. This is someone important who you have been expecting, and for whose recognition you have been hoping. Now when that person comes in, your feeling, sense of worth and so on will depend entirely on her recognition of you. Will she notice me? If she does notice me, will it be with clear pleasure? Will she come over to me? Or will I be to her simply as another anonymous figure who happens to be present? This, I would say, is not something of which you are necessarily conscious, still less do you formulate it. In fact you will pick it up in your body. If her body language is clearly relaxed and pleased to see you, any smile she gives you will be picked up by your body as communicating that pleasure, and you will feel an uplift, your spirit will soar, and you will have the sense “Yes, I really am.” If, on the other hand, whatever her smile says, her body language indicates that she is going through the motions, being polite, wants to be somewhere else, that you are not really important to her, then your body will pick it up, and in the dawning disappointment, part of your self will slink yelping away like a wounded puppy, tail between the legs.
Now the way that our sense of self is given to us through the eyes of another is not simply a function of adult behavior, as I hope is obvious. It is what we are inducted into being from the moment we were conceived. The other is always massively prior to us, and we are always in fact being drawn in, from our vulnerable infancy onwards, as peripheral to something anterior to us, whether that other is physical existence, language, memory, or sense of self. We are drawn in through repeated infantile sound and gesture, and it is imitation gives us being. We always come to inhabit what is other than us, a health system, an education system, a country, a cultural and linguistic field of reference, as massively the recipient of something rather than its protagonist in any dramatic way.
If this is true, then in the case of any of us, our “I”, rather than being the fixed point, from which our desire and our understanding flow, is the malleable symptom of that which is prior to, and other than, us. We are participatory “symptoms,” as it were, who become what we are in the flow of what is prior to us and gives us being, and in both our receiving of that being and our denial of that reception do we come to be. Which is why any insistence on my originality, on the priority of my desires, or my ideas can in fact so easily cut me off from being a recipient, and turn me into one who reacts against, which is always the high route to smallness of spirit and weakness of creativity….
The point of this is that St Paul is not making some arcane or mystical point in talking about the essential Christian discovery as being one of being known by God. On the contrary, He is showing some of the first fruits of the extraordinary anthropological discovery about who we really are which came into our ken in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection. If the true other who is prior to all of us is absolutely not on the same level as all the rivalries, fears, acts of possession, and creations of identity over against each other, then the emergence of that other destabilizes what we took to be our self by making available to us a capacity to relax into being called into being without having to forge a being over against the other. We can be happy to ride being a “symptom” of another’s causality rather than fearing that unless we can somehow make it into being the cause, we will fall out of being.
In other words, the other who is prior to us [God] is not in rivalry with us, and we don’t need to possess who we are as though we would lose it if we didn’t grab it. There is not a scarcity of being or of regard from the other, against which we need to protect ourselves. And so we find ourselves being discovered and known in just the same sense as a really first rate impresario spots a talented future actor or singer long before the actor or singer knows that they are really talented, have what it takes. And it is in the impresario believing in them that they are able to be discovered. They were “known” before they knew it. And if we were to be such an actor or singer saying “I was discovered” we wouldn’t merely mean that someone with the right connections had simply lighted upon our talent which was already there. We would mean that their act of knowing, of discovering was actually creative of something into being. Our talent would be in some kind a symptom of their discovery of us.
So, the important person coming into the room turns out to be not on her way somewhere else, not harassed at having to deal with all the people who are seeking her attention, desperate for her acknowledgment; not miserly with her regard. On the contrary, she enters the room with full deliberation and has come in to stay, and her regard does indeed give you and me the sense that we are being discovered, that we are being invited to participate in something much bigger than ourselves, in which we will find that there is a real “me” there to be known, one that we could scarcely imagine before. The body language of this important person speaks as completely as her words, its relaxedness, unhurriedness and serenity are quite simply what real deliberateness and power look like, and are picked up as such.
To shift key slightly, but only very slightly: what would it look like to imagine the Eucharist as the body language of God come into our midst? Wouldn’t it be simply . . . accurate? (pp. 134-37)
1. Mark is famous for his bracketing technique in structuring his story-telling. This passage is an example on numerous levels. (1) Within the passage, the exorcism is bracketed by reactions to Jesus’ teaching, which would seem to say: Jesus teaches with authority because he liberates people from the demons of teaching according to conventional culture. (2) A first major section in the Gospel is often marked out as 1:14-3:6, the first week in Jesus’ ministry, literally, from a sabbath to a sabbath — in short, Jesus’ first week was bracketed by trips to the synagogue. (3) Finally, Robert Beck (Nonviolent Story) divides Mark’s Gospel in terms of rising action and falling action (see Advent 2B), namely, a build-up of conflict in 1-13 and its resolution 14-16. The building conflict in Mark climaxes with the “cleansing of the temple” (11:15-18). This passage describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a “cleansing in the synagogue.” Both episodes of cleansing (1:21-28; 11:15-18) stir up lengthy controversies over Jesus’ authority (exousia) which follow shortly after the episodes themselves in 2:1-3:6 and 12:1-37, respectively.
2. A word linkage in these bracketings is apollymi, “to destroy.” Jesus’ first week of ministry goes from the demons asking Jesus not to destroy them (1:24) to the Pharisees conspiring with the Herodians on destroying Jesus (3:6). (A Girardian might take note of the unlikely pairing of Herodians and Pharisees, uniting together around their scapegoat.) The cleansing of the temple scene ends on the same note: “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill (apolesosiv) him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18). Notice, too, the linkage here to 1:21-28 around Jesus’ “teaching” (didache).
3. As mentioned in #1, another key word is exousia, “authority,” though it is often translated simply as “power.” It also can have the sense of “capability,” or “freedom to act.” Of the ten uses of exousia in Mark, six of them are in connection with the two framing episodes of cleansing: twice in 1:21-28; four times in 11:28-33, as the “chief priests, scribes, and the elders” question Jesus’ authority to have disrupted their temple.
4. For more on the structure of these opening scenes, see last week’s comments (Epiphany 3B).
5. Mark 1:23-24: “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit (en pneumati akatharto), and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy (apolesai) us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God (ho hagios tou theou).'” Mark will begin using the word “demon” (daimonion) interchangeably with “unclean spirit” (pneuma akathartos) in the next story (1:34), but here, in this first story, he uses “unclean spirit.” This provides the starkest possible contrast to the words of John the Baptist in 1:8, that the one who comes after him will baptize with the “Holy Spirit” (pneuma hagios) — which the unclean spirit (pneuma akathartos) himself recognizes in calling Jesus “the Holy One of God” (ho hagios tou theou).
Akathartos, “unclean,” the opposite of karthartos, “clean” — from which we directly derive our English word catharsis, “cleansing” — has a heavy connotation of ritual uncleanness deriving from the sacrificial institutions. The book of the Bible that, by far, numbers the most uses of akathartos, is the Septuagint translation of Leviticus, numbering 72 uses. For more on Mark’s depiction of Jesus as questioning the very power-base of his world, in the struggle to define holy vs. unclean, see chapter 4 of Beck‘s book, “The Symbolism of Power,” or the commentary on the Gospel for next week (Epiphany 5B).
Notice, too, that it’s en pneumati akatharto — not “with an unclean spirit” but “in an unclean spirit.” See the James Alison homily below for more.
6. Have you noticed the change in number in the voice of the unclean spirit (1:24 above)? From “us” to “I”? It goes the opposite way with the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5, from singular to plural, from “me” to “My name in Legion; for we are many.” In the present passage I wonder if the “us” refers to the spirit and his host together, and the “I” to the spirit only. This fits what for me is the key insight of this passage, namely, that Jesus does not destroy, rather, he chases away the unclean spirit leaving the man intact. Where most people would expel the man and his demon, Jesus is able to distinguish.
7. V. 25, phimōthēti, “Be silent!” The word actually has more the connotation of, “Be muzzled!” — a word more typically spoken to non-humans. The only other time it is used in Mark is when Jesus ‘muzzles’ the wind in the stilling of the storm (4:39).
1. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment. In the Opening Comments above, I highly recommend readings two essays from this book. My thesis for reading this Gospel is that it conveys a sign of much deeper healing, a healing on the level of healing humanity of its ‘sinful’ way of being human. As such, it is in the category of similar ‘miraculous’ healings in the Gospels, especially in John’s Gospel. And there are no two better essays that help bring out this deeper reading than the following two essays from Alison.
“The man blind from birth and the Creator’s subversion of sin” offers a reading of John 9 that shows the healing to be about the sinful mechanism of expulsion which has enslaved humanity since our origins. John the Evangelist wraps an entire chapter’s narrative around the healing of a man’s blindness in order to begin to reveal the blindness that humanity has suffered since our evolution, a blindness to the sin that requires the Lamb of God to take away (John 1:29) by letting himself be expelled. The narrative which surrounds the healing of blindness from birth exposes the mechanism of expulsion when the Pharisees expel the man who was formerly blind. In a chapter that begins with the disciples asking, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2), Jesus enigmatically answers the question of sin at the end, saying to the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41). After an extraordinarily insightful close reading of the text, Alison brilliantly summarizes for us the beginning of deeper healing for humanity’s original sin:
The result is sin turned on its head. Sin ceases to be some defect which apparently excludes someone from the group of the righteous, and comes to be participation in the mechanism of expulsion. (p. 17)
“Clothed and in his right mind” provides another extraordinary close reading of a healing story, one from later in Mark’s Gospel, the healing of the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5, which also shares with today’s text the exorcism of a spirit who speaks as “us.” Alison riffs off of René Girard‘s brilliant reading of this passage (The Scapegoat, chap. 13), which interprets the “Legion” in terms of how this man was his town’s scapegoat — how the man bore the demons of his community. Alison adds the personal dimension of reading the story from the perspective of a gay man bearing the demons of human community in terms of false gods of human belonging — how marginalized persons in any community are the result of false religious ideas about created order. In short, this healing is once again about the redeeming of human religion by the true God being revealed through the Judeo-Christian revelation. Alison beautifully summarizes:
This is the real dynamic behind the story of the Gerasene demoniac. It is the story of what it looks like when the Living God, the utterly vivacious Creator out of nothing, draws near to the ersatz god of group being and belonging, and by gently taking the weakest member of the group, begins to collapse the group’s belonging, humanizing the “bad guy” and thus initiating the possibility of a quite different sort of social formation. It is only in this utterly Jewish perspective that we can begin to have access to the dynamic at work: God is the Creator God, quite outside the world of the gods, and it is the presence of the Creator in the person of Jesus, confessed as Very God of Very God in our Creed, who brings this dynamic to bear in Gerasa. Any attempt to understand the things of God which does not reach back into the astounding Jewish perception of the Creator, entirely without rivalry, who has a loving plan for humanization which involves the collapse of our idolatry, does not accede to the Gospel. The god of group-given being and belonging is only yet another form of practical atheism, whatever the language with which it is dressed up. (p. 131)
Finally, Alison also offers a video homily for Epiphany 4B (Ordinary Time 4); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. Alison begins his reading of this text by connecting the notion of “teaching with authority” to the day’s first reading in Deuteronomy — actually, the two verses immediately following the lection:
You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it. (Deut 18:21-22)
In other words, we’re talking about the word of the Creator who speaks things into being. We can know if the word of the prophet is true by seeing that it comes into being. We’re not talking about fortune-telling. We’re talking about a sense of authority that comes from the Creator who speaks what-is into being.
Next, notice that the text uses the strange phrase “in an unclean spirit” (not “with” as in the NRSV). What were the scribes doing about this? Let’s remember what the whole clean-unclean thing was about. In Leviticus 10, two of the sons of Aaron are consumed by the sacrificial fire, and God tells them that they need to be able to distinguish between the sacred and profane, clean and unclean, in order not to be destroyed by God’s holiness (Lev 10:10). So something has gone wrong in a synagogue where someone shows up in an unclean spirit.
The spirit speaks in the plural, indicating that this man bears the uncleanness of others — a scapegoat? But suddenly the spirit reverts back to the singular: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” So here’s upshot of Lev 10: if someone unclean is in the presence of the Holy One, they can expect to be destroyed. But ever since we learned from John the Baptist that the one who comes after him baptizes with the Holy Spirit (only a few verses earlier in Mark 1:8), the listener can expect the coming of One who keeps the ultimate source of uncleanness — death! — at bay. This will finally happen when the Holy One of God gives himself up to death on the cross and thereby detoxifying death. Here, only a few verses into the story, we have a recognition of this far too soon — by an unclean spirit, no less.
Jesus tells the spirit, “Be muzzled, come out of him,” and the spirit dramatically obeys. This amazes the congregation, perhaps reminding them of the LORD speaking to Moses, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak” (Exodus 4:11-12). In any case, they seem to be seeing the power of the Creator enacted among them. And the spirit jumps to conclusions too soon about what they are seeing — how it is that the Holy One is removing the source of uncleanness from among them.
2. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story. Of the framing of the rising action between cleansings, Beck says:
Destruction is unquestionably at issue in this conflict; violence is an indisputable concern of Mark’s plot. The events of the synagogue and the temple mark off a stretch of narrative that features the confrontational initiative of Jesus. By their privileged positions at the beginning and the end of it, they serve to characterize this time of rising action. As violations of significant sites they represent a challenge to honor in the manner of the agon. They demand a response. And insofar as they bracket the full time of Jesus’ initiative, they warn us that the entire trajectory of the rising action requires a response. We find that response characterized by the key phrase “destroy him.” This language puts us on notice to anticipate the quality of Jesus’ counter-response to his violent opponents.
While these framing actions can thus be read as key moments in the pattern of the agon, they also point to the ideological outlook of Mark’s narrative conflict (something we will explore more completely in the next chapter). We know this because these significant sites are “holy places” and Jesus’ actions are “cleansings.” This evokes the ritual language of the holy and the unclean, which sets the terms for the worldview that would find its center in Jerusalem. These framing actions show Jesus adopting a stance of trenchant criticism against the expression of the holy in his day, as epitomized by its holy places. The implied charge is extreme: they have become havens for the demonic.
Furthermore, insofar as many of the actions of Jesus bracketed by these events express God’s compassion for the suffering and marginal people of the land, a definite continuity between challenge and compassion emerges. Jesus’ critique of the holy is balanced by actions of liberation and renewal in God’s name. The release of the holy places is to be seen as a release of the liberating God restored to a needful people. (p. 48)
What does Beck mean by “agon”? In Greek culture, the agon “came to mean any contest between equals” (p. 4). Thus, in most conventional stories we have the protagonist and the antagonist, the hero and villain. Beck argues that Mark’s story is shaped as an agon, but with an unheard resolution, a nonviolent one, at least on the part of the hero, Jesus. At 3:6 already, as the Pharisees and Herodians begin plotting his destruction, we are faced with the usual three options to the presentation of conflict:
In the first scenario, Jesus could retreat from his challenge, explaining that matters are getting out of hand. He could tell his followers that he had not intended to place them in jeopardy and that now he feels he has no choice but to terminate the program. In this scenario the story would stop here. Again, he could respond in kind, destruction for destruction. This is a possible story, but not the one we find in the Gospel. This is the story I imagine as “Rambo Jesus.”
The third option, the one chosen, is to continue his original program, but at a heightened level. In response to the opponents’ consolidation of forces, Jesus consolidates his own following. He names twelve “to be with him and to be sent out” (3:14). He organizes his movement. This leads into the second act, in which this newly organized group is contrasted with the family of Jesus. (p. 52)
When Jesus’ opponents conspire again to destroy him (11:18), we are in the last week of Jesus’ life, with the “falling action” ready to begin, bringing a resolution to the agon. But, again, Jesus as the protagonist will not use force against force, destruction for destruction:
The language of destruction, which announced the beginning of the main conflict in Capernaum (1:24; 3:6), returns with the temple events (11:18; 12:9). It is the key motif of the plot’s conflict. But whereas Jesus’ opponents wish to destroy him (3:6; 11:18), and he is seen as a threat to the demons (1:24), he himself leaves the fate of his opponents to God (12:9). Jesus does not “destroy” persons in this story. (p. 59)
Beck’s best summary of this comes in a brief section, “Recapitulation: The Time of Rising Action in Mark’s Gospel,” which I give you as an excerpt.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 74-76. In a section entitled “The Two Ways of Conflict: Jesus as Outsider (1:21-45)” (excerpt), Hamerton-Kelly begins with the notion of the “community of the scapegoat.” Mark has set this up with all the wilderness imagery at the outset: John the Baptist in the wilderness and Jesus being immediately driven further into the wilderness after his baptism. This recalls the action of the scapegoating ritual. He says: “The scapegoat community’s real home is in the wilderness, outside of the normal commercial activities, and their authority comes from this transcendent place.” Jesus the Scapegoat’s ministry begins, then, with another scapegoat figure, the demoniac in the synagogue at Capernaum: “The forces that make him an outcast are the ones who recognize Jesus as their nemesis.” Yet the title “Holy One of God” is a priestly title that misidentifies Jesus as belonging to the sacrificial institution; thus, Jesus silences the demon.
Girard’s theory does not depend on any of the variations by which the devil is known. Mimetic theory can account for them all. However, the majority of Christians around the world have extremely superstitious views of evil and the devil. Most of what people believe comes from a combination of medieval Christianity and modern Hollywood…. Our concern today is the larger question of removing Satan from the locus of theology and placing him squarely in anthropology.
They also have an extreme helpful quote from Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers which helps to place the language of demonic possession in a modern context:
I have a nagging hunch that the gospel’s power in our own time is about to be manifested in a manner as repugnant to the sensibilities of the society at large, and all of us who have accommodated ourselves to it, as the early Christian message was to Roman paganism. Our society is possessed, Christians as much as anyone. We are possessed by violence, possessed by sex, possessed by money, possessed by drugs. We need to recover forms of collective exorcism as effective as was the early Christian baptism’s renunciation of “the devil and all his works.”
5. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 32, 45. On p. 32 he says:
The presence of salvation showed itself especially in the fact that as Jesus proclaimed his message, something actually happened. The effect he had was entirely different from that of other teachers: “for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). His message of salvation became a healing and liberating force. The sick became healthy; the possessed became free, and people on the margins of society experienced his loving attention. It was not the abstract content of what he said, but the total event of teaching, preaching, healing, and caring which affected people.
6. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on the text in 2018, “What Kind of Spirit Was Jesus Casting Out?” (recommended above in the Opening Comments).
7. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Teachings that Astound, Actions that Amaze!“; and in 2015 a beautiful and personal telling of a mother’s death, “Dying into the Arms of the Forgiving Victim“; Suella Gerber, a sermon in 2018 on healing social systems as well as bodies.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2015 this week in the lectionary fell on Super Bowl Sunday, and my colleague (David Dockweiler) had begun a tradition of showing previews of Super Bowl ads on these Sundays several years hence. I carried on the ‘tradition’ by showing four ads that I worked into a theme around authoritative teaching. Students of Mimetic Theory will recognize Girard’s take on things like the Ten Commandments (cf., the first pages of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning) Here are the PowerPoint slides for that sermon, including the links to YouTube versions of the ads.
2. In 2012 our congregation set the theme of healing for Epiphany, and I preached an updated version of the 2003 sermon (above). One major addition came from the insights of John Shea, whose comments in The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom (Mark – Year B), lend support to the theme of boundaries for a sermon titled “Crossing Boundaries.”
3. In 2003, Epiphany 4B fell the day after the Columbia space shuttle accident in which all seven crew members were killed when it blew apart upon re-entry. One of the crew members, Dr. Laurel Clark, was born and raised in Racine, WI, where I served. We were also beginning a four week emphasis on healing (see Epiphany 5B, Epiphany 6B, Epiphany 7B), including a service for healing with laying on of hands and anointing the third week. In light of Dr. Clark’s Hippocratic Oath, and the theme highlighted here of Jesus’ decision not to vanquish demons at the expense of destroying persons, I preached a sermon entitled “The First Step in Being a Healer: an Oath to Never Do Harm.” At the end of the sermon, as we are about to move to the meal, I pose the possibility that the “new covenant in my blood” is akin to a doctor’s Hippocratic oath: following Jesus means making the same decision to oppose evil in this world but never through the means of destroying persons but rather through a willingness to let oneself be destroyed if necessary.
Next week’s sermon, “Healing, Part II: Compassionate Challenging of Boundaries,” is as much on this week’s text as on next. It focuses on the expelling of demons as what separates Jesus as a healer. Jesus doesn’t expel or harm the person but rather expels the unclean spirits, the illness, freeing the person to be re-integrated into the community.
4. My 2000 sermon, “A Masterpiece of Understatement,” raised this question:
Did you notice the understatement in today’s gospel? The people who were there in the synagogue at Capernaum the day Jesus was the preacher — they make what surely must be one of the great understatements of all time. Jesus has just preached an unusually powerful sermon. Mark tells us that the congregation is “astonished,” but that’s not the understatement. It is the congregation who makes the understatement, and it comes in response to what happens next, the casting out of a demon. The people in the congregation, having witnessed a scene to rival anything in The Exorcist, look around at each other and say, “What is this? . . . A new teaching!”. . . A new teaching? If this had happened in any congregation I know, they may have sat for hours in stupefied silence, they may have rushed to the altar in sudden repentance, or they may have jumped out of the church windows in terror, but the last thing they would have done was to comment on how this casting out of a demon constituted an innovation in Christian education. A new teaching? Indeed. [Based on the sermon by William Willimon in Pulpit Resource.]
5. How significant is it that Jesus performed his exorcism of demons, both in 1:21-28 and 11:15-18, in the holy places of his religion? If we in the church are to discern and bind the demons of our age, should we, too, begin in our own houses of religion? What kind of demons would Jesus find in our churches of today?