Last revised: April 29, 2021
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FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY — YEAR B
RCL: Isaiah 40:21-31; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
RoCa: Job 7:1-4, 6-7; 1 Corinthians 9:1-19, 22-23; Mark 1:29-39
Opening Comments: Redeeming the Christian Religion
Action and Contemplation. Richard Rohr, one of my primary mentors in working to redeem the Christian religion, emphasizes that the most important word in title to his Center for Action and Contemplation is the word “and.” The opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel could be titled “Action and Contemplation.” Mark portrays Jesus in a rhythm of seeking prayer/worship time to connect with his Creator but being met with human need that compels his action. In today’s passage he leaves the drama of casting out an unclean spirit in the synagogue on the Sabbath to find a more private time at Peter’s house but responds to the illness of Peter’s mother-in-law. Crowds assemble in the doorway until Jesus, when the Sabbath ends at sundown, comes out to attend to their suffering. The next morning Jesus again seeks quiet time of contemplation, leaving before sunrise for a deserted place. But his disciples find him with news that the crowds continue to seek his care and healing. A rhythm of contemplation and action.
In his most recent book Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It, Brian McLaren‘s relationship with Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation plays a prominent role in “What to Do About It.” When doubt threatens to paralyze faith-put-into-action, the importance of contemplative practices is offered as crucial for the cure — for being able to move more fully into living a faith in harmony, where contemplation and action are in harmonious rhythm.
Going forward McLaren recommends that we teach our children these practices as part of renewing our communities of faith (chapter 13, “Spiritualities of Harmony for the Rising Generation”). He writes,
Beyond discovering divine love in the natural universe and in relationships with others, we will help our children and students learn to encounter divine, transcendent, universal love in themselves, in the depths of their own being. This, I believe, is what contemplation means. We often say that contemplation involves stilling our thoughts and finding God in silence, and that is true. But there is nothing magic about silence itself. The magic comes as we experience our deepest selves in and with God, beneath our chattering thoughts, obsessive analysis, and noisy commentary.
When we are able to encounter our own vitality on a level deeper than all our internal noise, even imperfectly and for the briefest moment, we find in our own consciousness the presence of a deeper consciousness, so bottomlessly deep and wide that we might call it Consciousness itself. Similarly, as we accept ourselves as we are, we experience the presence of a deeper acceptance, so unlimited in its love that we can call it Acceptance itself. As we listen to ourselves, we find a Listener; as we behold ourselves, we find a Beholder; as we rest with ourselves, we find a Companion also at rest; as we feel at home in ourselves, we find a divine Host who welcomes us home; as we encounter our own creativity, we recognize the Creative Spirit; as we allow ourselves simply to be, we find holy Being. As Moses encountered God in the bush that burned and was not consumed, we encounter God in the unconsumed life-ember that glows deep in our own heart.
Children, I believe, would find it as natural as breathing to recognize and love God in creation, in their companions, and in themselves, if only faith communities would help them do so. But sadly, so many faith communities immerse children in books and doctrines rather than in life, as if God were more present in a man-made medium than in God’s original media of matter and energy, of time and space, of joy and sorrow and life itself.
Spiritual communities that create this kind of spiritual space will offer themselves as travel guides, not as the destination itself, helping all of us, young and old alike, wake up and slow down, so we can see the holy mysteries that hide in plain sight in nature, in one another, and in ourselves. (171-72)
He goes one to present contemplative practices as the key to action that works toward nothing less than the survival of our species, faced as we are with multiple global crises. He draws heavily on Richard Rohr and his center as a model, writing:
Contemplation, in this way, is the gateway to the most profound practice of activism. In one of my early presentations at the Center for Action and Contemplation, I reminded the audience that the organization was not the Center for Contemplation and Contemplation, nor was it the Center for Action and Action. Then I quoted the organization’s founder, who regularly reminds us that the most important word in the name is and.
. . . We see this integration powerfully in Thomas Merton. The deeper he was drawn into monastic silence and contemplative communion with God, the more outspoken he became about war, poverty, and other expressions of injustice. The more alive he became in God, the less he could remain a guilty but silent bystander.
Through the inner work of contemplation, we no longer see love for God and love for neighbor as separate things. They become inseparable dimensions of the same thing: we encounter and love God in our neighbors, and we are loved by God through our neighbors. (Similarly, we encounter and love God in creation, and we are loved by God through creation. The same is true of our own innermost bring. It is the organ through which we simultaneously give and receive the love of God.)
. . . What this vision means for organized religion, as I see it, is both unsettling and exciting. It invites individuals and congregations into a radical conversion from organized religion (religion organized institutionally for the self-interest of its staff and members) to organizing religion (religion organizing its staff and members as a spiritual-social-economic-political-ecological movement for the common good of all). (182, 183-84)
Mark, from the very beginning of his Gospel, portrays a Jesus who is the model of Contemplation and Action for the sake of the world.
1. For a general Girardian approach to Second Isaiah, see James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, & the Sacred, pp. 146, 157-162.
2. Tony Bartlett, Seven Stories, Lesson 4, “Wrath to Compassion,” is centered around the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah and its relationship to Jesus.
Bartlett also gave an in-depth study on Second Isaiah alone — the second study in the series on Second Isaiah (on 40:12-31; formerly available online but being incorporated into an upcoming book, the sequel to Theology Beyond Metaphysics). These studies are among the finest examples of how Mimetic Theory is a key to opening the revelation of Scripture.
3. 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 this passage in 2015, “Above the Circle of the Earth.”
Reflections and Questions
1. This is the passage President Bush quoted on the day of the Columbia space shuttle tragedy, February 1, 2003: “Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:26). It’s almost as if he (or his speech writer) were looking ahead a week in the lectionary.
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 180-182:
The Ethical Implications of the Mimesis of Love
What does human behavior look like when the divine agape becomes the apex of the triangle of desire? Mimesis as such cannot be avoided, because it is constitutionally human, but it can be nonrivalrous. The Christian community sounded on that possibility of nonrivalrous mimesis, and in two places Paul gives us a description of the behavior that should flow from it.
From the point of view of our theory, which links mimetic violence and idolatry, it is remarkable to see that Paul makes the same linkage in his argument that agape is the way to deal with conflict and rivalry. In 1 Corinthians 10 we have a midrash on the wandering in the wilderness, from a mimetic point of view. All the signs of mimetic violence are present under the rubric of idolatry — desire, sacrifice, and eroticism. These signs recall the current rabbinic analysis of the progress of sin from desire to idolatry. “Craving” (epithymia) leads to discontent with God’s providence, which leads to the testing of God, and finally to apostasy and idolatry. Paul’s aim in this passage is to warn against moral overconfidence in the controversy about eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8:1-13), but the deeper argument is against mimetic rivalry and sacred violence, of the kind exemplified in the story of the wilderness wandering. The moral point is that the “enlightened” ones should not idolize their freedom of conscience by treating it as an absolute right, but should curb it with respect to the demands of agape, which is the only absolute. In this case agape takes the form of the demand to “build up” the church (1 Cor 8:1). 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.
Under the rubric of Romans 13:10, that love works no wrong to the neighbor and therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law, there follows in Romans 14 and 15 a discussion that illustrates what this means in practical terms. Romans 14:13-23 is a good example of the structure of Paul’s good mimesis in the form of a nonlegalistic ethic. It begins by identifying the wrong form of mimesis precisely as a scandal (to me tithenai proskomma to adelpho e skandalon — Rom 14:13; cf. 1 Cor 8:9), and says that rather than condemn the other, one should resolve not to put an obstacle or a scandal in the way. The mimetic sense of scandal is precisely the model/obstacle of the triangle of rivalry. In our terms, therefore, Paul warns his readers not to become model/ obstacles to the desire of each other but rather to renounce rivalry, even if it means foregoing actions approved by one’s own conscience.
In historical terms the obstacle or scandal in this case is to eat nonkosher food because one’s own conscience allows it, in the presence of somebody who considers that to be a sin. The effect of this behavior is the activation of rivalry in its more obvious forms. The eating tempts those who do not eat for the sake of conscience to imitation, and they, in turn, mobilize the resources of resistance. The eaters display superior enlightenment that calls forth the superior piety of the noneaters. The community is wracked by mutual recrimination (Rom 14:4, 13) that threatens its unity. There is mutual scapegoating.
Instead of regaining unity through unanimous scapegoating, however, the eaters are in imitation of Christ (kai gar ho christos ouch heauto eresen — Rom 15:3) to renounce this right for the sake of agape. Jews and gentiles within the congregation are to accept one another as Christ has accepted them (Rom 15:7). In renouncing this right and accepting in effect the constraints of the Mosaic Law, the eaters will be imitating Christ specifically in his submission to Jewish Law, as a “servant of the circumcision for the sake of the truth of God” (Rom 15:8). Rather than defend their right of conscience, they are to forgo it for the sake of the unity of the community. This is agape as good, nonrivalrous mimesis, because it mimes the self-sacrifice and renunciation of Christ.
The position Paul takes in Romans 14-15 is the opposite of the position he took in Galatia. There he was adamant that his Christians not compromise with Jewish custom; here he actually urges them to respect the scruples of their Jewish fellow Christians in the matter of food, not just theoretically but actually by observing their taboos. This shows that Paul does not intend to erect a competing structure of sacred violence. This reversal of position is the ethical counterpart of the disclaimer with which he ends Galatians, that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is ultimately important, but new creation (Gal 6:15; cf. 1 Cor 9:19-21). This is what it means for agape to build up the community (Rom 14:19; 15:2; 1 Cor 8:1b), as a group in which there can be diversity of behavior and observance, and in which the mimesis of the divine love is the only ethical absolute.
Thus the transcendental fact of faith in Christ can have several different ethical outcomes in this world as long as they all can be fitted under the rubric of agape. Such faith renders the specific differentiations of culture and custom nugatory by comparison with the unifying imperative of agape, and undermines the possibility of the church being another closed sect.
Reflections and Questions
1. This passage is an example of what we were talking about two weeks ago (Epiphany 3B) with regards to God’s culture vs. human culture. Since Paul is in the process of being liberated from human culture to live in God’s culture, he is free to jump from culture to culture, placing himself into other people’s cultures so that he can speak the Good News of God’s Culture in Jesus Christ to them. Since those who hear him are still trapped in their own culture, Paul has to enter into and speak in its terms. Perhaps this is not so much multi-cultural as it is trans-cultural.
It also reprises last week’s theme of standing against the demons, the false transcendences of human cultures, but not in a way which would destroy persons. Since it is God’s culture that Paul is trying to make present for them, he cannot enter into their cultures as conqueror. He fully enters into their culture with the power of the Gospel, which is not the power of destruction, or domination, but the power of transforming from within, of making new. How many missionary attempts have come with the sort of power to destroy or dominate the others’ culture, thereby coming with the brand of power wielded by human culture, not God’s culture?
1. V. 31, “took her by the hand and lifted her up.” We see this same action in 5:41 with Jairus’ daughter, and in 9:27 with a boy who has an unclean spirit cast out.
2. V. 33, “gathered together,” episynagō, an intensive form of the root word for “synagogue.”
3. V. 35, “And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed.” Arising early in the morning on Sunday is what Jesus will do on Easter. And followers will search for him after Easter as they do here.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 74-77; see the excerpt “The Two Ways of Conflict: Jesus as Outsider (1:21-45).”
2. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story, chapter 4, “The Symbolism of Power.” The agon (see last week’s comments, Epiphany 4B) portrays a rising conflict between a hero and a villain and then a conflict resolution. This chapter moves to the theory of power implicit behind the conflict resolution. Beck writes, “Every genre has a tacit theory about the kind of power best suited for bringing its plots to satisfactory resolution” (p. 63).
In Mark’s gospel the symbolism of power revolves around holy vs. unclean. This opposition had begun more properly as holy vs. unholy and clean vs unclean, but as they both developed around the ritual purity the two were collapsed into holy vs. unclean. In this first chapter of Mark’s gospel, for example, John the Baptist procalims the one to come after him as baptizing with the Holy Spirit (1:8); and then Jesus in the first encounter related in his ministry is met by a man with an “unclean spirit.” Isn’t this an intentional juxtaposition — especially considering that Mark will begin to use the words “demons” regularly in the very next story?
Here are several key paragraphs in Beck’s presentation of Mark’s symbolism of power:
In the hieratic society of postexilic Judaism the ritual principles of the holy and the unclean were opposed to describe a social topography that found its expressions in many areas of life. Jerome Neyrey, basing his work on the studies of Mary Douglas and their application by Bruce Malina to the New Testament world, has explored the sacred topography of Judaism as it is reflected in Mark’s Gospel and in Judean writings contemporary to the narrative of the Gospel. (1) Neyrey shows how the religious imagination of the day had fenced the world of Judaism off into ritual zones, ordering all areas of Jewish life. A sacred topography rippled out in concentric zones from the Holy of Holies in the temple, through the courts of the temple to the Holy City, and then out to the Holy Land and eventually to the unclean pagan nations. This might be suggested simplistically by a diagram of concentric circles (see fig. 13).
This pattern was repeated in other dimensions of Judean life. A ritual calendar distinguished holy days from profane, and they were rated on a scale of relative holiness. Food was designated as either fit for the altar, fit for the table, or unfit for consumption of any kind. And persons were scaled in a social ranking as to their “holiness” — not so much a moral standing as a status in relation to the holy places. The priests stood at the top, the physically damaged, such as eunuchs, were at the bottom, while the gentiles were off the map entirely. This sense of “holiness” had earlier prompted the various genealogies of the Old Testament, useful for calculating one’s (or another’s) proximity to the holiness of Judaism. In other words, the ranking of persons according to holiness has to do with one’s standing in relation to the temple. In this regard, priests are counted as holier than ordinary Israelites; Israelites are holier than converts; and so forth. The map of persons replicates the map of places.
The topography of Palestine — with its towns and deserts, its synagogues and houses — and even the physical bodies of its inhabitants provide Mark with a narrative arena in which the contest of powers is played out, almost as on a playing field or a game board. In this chapter we will observe more closely the terms of holiness and uncleanness as they appear in the Gospel. Mark presents the Judean establishment’s system of barriers and preventions as ineffectual. The only effective opposition to the unclean power is the holy power invested in the protagonist Jesus. Jesus’ critique is condensed in the abrogation of food laws in Mk 7:15-19. For Mark, this would seem to stand as the emblem of the work of Jesus throughout the Gospel. (2)
In brief, we will see that holiness understood in a system of opposition to the unclean is rejected for its inhumane qualities and therefore rejected as an inadequate attribute or image of the compassionate God. Jesus will replace this image of holiness with one that privileges compassion and, concomitantly, displays a nondestructive expression of wrath as response to the violations of compassion. (pp. 66-68)
Jesus’ ministry will challenge the reigning boundaries of power by continually transgressing these boundaries. In the first act, 1:14-3:6, this will feature the “bodily gates” of hand and mouth, things like touching a sick woman and a leper, and eating with sinners as opposed to observing fasting rules like the Pharisees.
3. Ched Myers, with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Ch. 2, “Jesus the Healer.” After noting that Jesus’ authority is contrasted with that of the scribes in 1:22, 27, Myers and his team write:
The essential conflict is thus defined as the contest over authority between Jesus and the scribal establishment, a contest which will be central to the entire story.
Sandwiched in between is an “unclean spirit” who “protests” Jesus’ presence: “Why do you meddle with us?” (1:23f; see Judges 11:12; 1 Kings 17:18). However, the demon’s defiance quickly turns to fear: “Have you come to destroy us?”
Who is the “we” on whose behalf the demon speaks? The function of Mark’s framing device suggests that the demon’s voice represents the voice of the scribal class whose “space” Jesus is invading. The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where scribes exercise the authority to teach Torah. This “spirit” personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses (1:29ff).
To interpret this exorcism solely as the “curing of an epileptic” is to miss its profound political impact. In contrast to Hellenistic literature, in which miracle-workers normally function to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. Because Jesus seeks the root causes of why people are marginalized, there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression. (p. 14)
4. James Alison offers a video homily for Epiphany 5B (Ordinary Time 5); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. Mark’s Gospel always presupposes a “spiral reading.” The angel at the end of the Gospel tells them, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7). Here at the beginning in Galilee, then, we have the perspective of those in the story and their initial experiences, and those who are going back to the beginning with the knowledge of of the ending — a sort of “double vision.”
Taking Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifting her up is a precursor of resurrection. The one who will be raised has a mission of raising up others. And Peter’s mother-in-law responds by herself serving others. She becomes a deacon — a precursor post-Pentecost discipleship.
Casting out demons is unbinding people who are bound up with human patterns of desire. Jesus is the Holy One coming out from the holy space (coming out of synagogue at the beginning of the passage) and opening creation to fulfillment, healing the sick and unbinding those possessed with demons that dehumanize.
What do we do when we preach the Gospel? We go back to Galilee, watching the Holy One, and praying that we might be filled with the same Spirit to serve one another and help bring each other back to life.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2003 I continued the sermon series on healing (see Epiphany 4B, Epiphany 6B, Epiphany 7B) with “Healing, Part II: Compassionate Challenging of Boundaries.” The key Girardian insight is that the demons, or false gods, that possess us do so much more than individually. Demons have from the beginning of human culture possessed our institutions. Jesus’ ministry begins by casting out demons from individuals, but Mark also emphasizes that it is in synagogues, in the places of our religious institutions. Jesus has also come to challenge the boundaries that separate peoples in such a bold way so that by the end of his first week the leaders of those institutions are already plotting his destruction (Mark 3:6). Jesus can cast out demons from individuals more easily. It will take the cross and the resurrection to begin the process of exposing the demons that hold our human institutions of culture. By the end of chapter 3, Jesus will name these as not just any demons but as the power of Satan playing the age-old game of casting out Satan. (See Proper 5B.) Satan rules the world by the Satanic game of keeping us divided, a house which can never stand. In the Eucharist, the presence of the power of Christ’s death and resurrection in our midst, we have the advent of God’s institution of forgiving grace that can begin to redeem our institutions from the inside-out — the only way in which we can ultimately be healed from these demons.
2. In 2015, I extemporized a sermon with simple PowerPoint and a video clip (see YouTube version of clip, 16:00 to 19:47) from one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Joan of Arcadia. (See the PowerPoint.) We watched the second episode as a family — “The Fire and the Wood” — and my youngest son later asked about Jesus’ healing. Joan’ brother is in a wheelchair from a car accident, and in the video clip I showed she asked God to heal him. God answers that she (a female appearance to Joan in this scene) can’t show favoritism. My son asked if Jesus was showing favoritism when he healed people in the Gospels. Great question! I shared that story, and my answer to my son was the same to the congregation: Jesus’ healing wasn’t primarily about healing individuals; it was about healing our human politics of healing. (See, for example, Ched Myers above for the political dimension of Jesus’ healing.) In 2018, I offered a similar sermon using the video clip (this time from YouTube) and with a PowerPoint.
Notes from Beck
2. See D. E. Nineham, Saint Mark (London: Penguin, 1963), 191-93, for comment on how the evangelists seem to take a more radical stance than Jesus (in the belief of this commentator) concerning abrogating the old law, including the entire set of food laws in Leviticus. In the episode of Mk 7:1-23, what began as a clarification of the oral tradition becomes an erasure of sections of the written law and a general monitum about traditions as such.