Epiphany 4B

Last revised: March 5, 2015
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4TH 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

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Resources

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.

Reflections

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

Exegetical notes

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

Resources

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” (excerpt); in Faith Beyond Resentment, p. 85; and in a recent, as-yet-unpublished paper, “Contemplation in a World of Violence II: 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?


Mark 1:21-28

Exegetical Notes

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.” 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 (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 in1:8, 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).

6. Have you noticed the change in number in the voice of the unclean spirit (1:23 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.

Resources

1. 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’ counterresponse 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.

2. 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.

3. Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, Preaching Peace website, Epiphany IV. They have some key insights about Girard’s anthropological interpretation of language about demons and Satan:

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.”

4. 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.

5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from February 2, 2003 (Woodside Village Church).

6. Tom Truby, a member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer 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.”

Reflections and Questions

1. 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.

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. 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.]

4. 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?

 

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