Last revised: February 19, 2021
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SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY — YEAR B
RCL: 2 Kings 5:1-14; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45
RoCa: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45
2 Kings 5:1-14
Reflections and Questions
1. I suppose this story fits the gospel because of the healing of leprosy, but it goes even better with Luke 4:24-30:
And Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage [thymos]. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
2. The insider/outsider dynamic of the sacred is strong in all the relating stories: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Mark 1:40-45, and Luke 4:24-30. The king of Israel is reluctant to call upon God to heal this outsider. There is a strong element of insider/outsider connected with leprosy itself, in the form of clean/unclean, the ritual purity connected with the sacred. Luke’s story defines Jesus’ ministry as one to the outsiders, to which the insiders of his hometown Nazareth immediately try to make him the quintessential outsider, the scapegoat run out of town and off a cliff.
3. A twist to the dynamic here is that the leper, Naaman, happens to also be a person of high position, one who is normally near the center of the circle of insiders. His leprosy would normally make him automatically an outcast, but his high rank resists that expulsion. He is caught up in the games of mimetic rivalry, trying to hold onto and assert his rank. In fact, Naaman expects more respect from Elisha, thinking it beneath him to have to go wash seven times to be made clean. He becomes angry at Elisha’s command. His servants, those already of lower station, convince him otherwise.
4. If you make the connection to Luke 4, I highlighted above the Greek word for rage, thymos. The LXX word for “became angry” in 2 Kings 5:11 is the verb form, thymoomai; and “rage” in 5:12 is thymos. I did some digging about this word last year (see notes for Proper 18A). Here’s what I came up with then:
Girard himself also has some helpful comments on a root word, thymos, in Violence and the Sacred, pp. 154, 265. I decided to dig deeper for myself and was stunned by what I found in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the NT (TDNT). Here’s an etymology of words that could stand as solid corroboration of Girard’s theses! The two central themes of Girard, desire and sacrifice, are bound together in the etymology of the ancient Greek words, even more than of what Bailie and Girard had previously made me aware.Here’s an overview, before going a bit more in depth. The most common Greek words for “sacrifice” (including in the NT and LXX) are thyo (verb) and thysia (noun). Derived from this are thymos, most often translated as “anger” or “wrath” (often used interchangeably with orge in designating the wrath of the gods), and epithymia, or the verb epithymeo, meaning desire. Essentially, these are both strong desires (1) thymos relating especially to the sacrificial cult; and (2) epithymia relating to the sorts of desires which lead to sacrificial crises. epithymia can mean any strong desire or yearning, but very often has a negative connotation, sometimes translated as “lust.” … the verb epithymeo is what is used for the rendering of the tenth commandments prohibition against “coveting.”
A one sentence summary of Girard’s anthropology could be summed up in the relationship of these words: thyo (sacrifice) is what we humans resort to in order to keep in check our epithymia (covetousness), all the while hiding our problem with epithymia (mimetic desire) from ourselves by attributing the need for thyo (sacrifice) to the appeasement of the thymos (wrath) of the gods.
My digging in the TDNT suggested even deeper relationships among these words. The article on thymos / epithymia by Buechsel (Vol. III, pp. 167-172) is especially revealing. (It also points the reader immediately, in its heading, to the huge article on orge [vol. V, pp. 382-447], which has a section on the interchangeability of thymos and orge in translating the “wrath” of God in the LXX.) Here’s how the article on thymos starts (with a better etymology of thyo than the article on thyo [vol. III, pp. 180-190]):
“thyo originally denotes a violent movement of air, water, the ground, animals, or men. From the sense of ‘to well up,’ ‘to boil up,’ there seems to have developed that of ‘to smoke,’ and then ‘to cause to go up in smoke,’ ‘to sacrifice.’ The basic meaning of thymos is thus similar to that pneuma [‘spirit’], namely, ‘that which is moved and which moves,’ ‘vital force.’ In Homer thymos is the vital force of animals and men…. thymos then takes on the sense of a. desire, impulse, inclination, b. spirit, c. anger, d. sensibility, e. disposition or mind, f. thought, consideration. The richly developed usage in Homer and the tragic dramatists is no longer present in the prose writers, e.g., Plato, Thucydides. For them thymos means spirit, anger, rage, agitation. In Jewish Gr. thymos is common in this sense…. Everywhere in the NT it means ‘wrath.'”
I find this fascinating! Especially the comparison to pneuma as a vital force. Oughourlian has advocated for mimeticism as the universal vital force that animates living beings (akin to gravity which governs the movements of physical objects; see ch. 1 of The Puppet of Desire). From a biblical perspective, especially when informed by Girard’s anthropology, we might say that that vital force divides in two, blows in two different directions, thymos and pneuma. The first is mimetic desire fallen into rivalry and the descension into wrath, the wrath we ultimately project onto the gods through our sacrificial cults. The second is the true vital force of life, a loving, non-rivalrous desire, also known as agape, which only God truly originates, a Holy Spirit. We need to put on Christ to live in this pneuma, while “making no provision” for epithymia.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence. Paul’s mentioning of his body in 1 Cor 9:27 is part of Hamerton-Kelly’s discussion of how mimetic theory can help us better understand Paul’s understanding of the human subject, in a section entitled “The Mimetic Structure of the Pauline Subject,” pp. 115-118.
1. “Moved with pity” in Mark 1:41 is a rare Greek word, splagchnizomai, and seems to be a special Synoptic word for Jesus, meaning “moved with compassion.” This word first caught my eye in connection with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Proper 10C). Here is what I found:
The Greek word for “compassion,” splagchnizomai, has a very interesting history [consulting the article by Koester in Vol. VII of TDNT, pp. 548ff.]. The noun form splagchna was used in the earliest Greek literature to designate the inner parts of a blood sacrifice. If the heart was cut out during the ritual, for example, it was called a splagchna, not a kardia. Later, it became a generic term for the inner organs, including the womb. It also was seen as the seat for the impulsive passions, such as anger or anxious desire. It was never used in the pre-Christian Greek world to mean mercy or compassion as it came to mean in the later Jewish-Christian writings.The verb form in the earlier Greek literature is even more gruesome. splagchneuo meant to eat the inner parts at the sacrificial meal, or to use the entrails in divination.
In the Septuagint and other later Jewish writings, splagchna began to be used to translate Hebrew words having the sense of the seat of feelings, including more positive feelings like mercy and compassion. The middle voice form episplagchnizomai is used in Prov. 17:5 to mean “to be merciful.”
It is that middle voice meaning that came to have a specialized usage in the Synoptic Gospels, with that verb form found only there. It occurs twelve times: Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Luke 7:13; 10:33; 15:20. And it is only used either a) to describe an emotion of Jesus, or b) by Jesus in a parable to describe the response of compassion by a major character therein. Mark’s four usages all occur before miracles: Jesus is moved to compassion and heals a leper in 1:41; he is moved to compassion by the crowd before both feeding miracles, 6:34 and 8:2; and the father of a possessed boy beseeches Jesus to have compassion for his son in 9:22. The five occurrences in Matthew begins with a remark about Jesus’ compassion for the crowd, “like sheep without a shepherd,” in 9:36; which is a precursor to his repetition of Mark’s use of the term before both feeding miracles, 14:14 and 15:32; Matthew also uses to describe Jesus’ compassion before healing two blind men in 20:34. The fifth occurrence in Matthew is the first of the three synoptic occurrences in a parable of Jesus: the master has compassion on the “unforgiving servant” in forgiving his unpayable debt in Mt. 18:27. That leaves three instances in Luke: Jesus is moved by compassion before raising the son of the widow at Nain, 7:13; and Luke has Jesus use the word twice of the two most time-honored characters of his parables: the Good Samaritan has compassion when he sees the man lying half-dead in the road, 10:33, and the father of the Prodigal Son is moved by compassion when he sees his son returning home, 15:20.
I find this specialized usage to be remarkable! Is there anything behind it? And what about the roots of this word in the world of sacrifice? There is the Girardian notion that Jesus subverts the old world of sacrifice into the new world of self-sacrifice. Is the Synoptic use of this word — used only for or by Jesus — reflective of such a transformation? In Jesus Christ the emotions that make necessary the purging through the sacrificial institutions — anger, blood-lust for vengeance — are transformed into the emotion that underlies serving in the Culture of God, namely, compassion. The “impulsive passions” behind the making of sacrificial victims are transformed into a compassionate reviving of victims. The latter is especially true of Luke’s usage, i.e., compassion for the raising of a widow’s dead son, the return of a “son who was dead but now is alive again,” and a man violently beaten and left for “half-dead.”
2. splagchnizomai, fascinating as it is, may not even be the original word in vs. 41. Several sources read orgistheis, “being angry,” instead of “having compassion.” Quite a difference! And so the exegetical debate is an interesting one on which most commentators weigh-in. My favorite Internet commentators have interesting takes. Brian Stoffregen (Epiphany 6B, section entitled “Jesus’ Emotions”) gives a good selection of opinions: Metzger, R.T. France, Ched Myers, and Witherington. Harden and Krantz (Preaching Peace, Epiphany 6B, “So What?”) and Sarah Dylan Breuer (Epiphany 6B) reach similar conclusions. First, Harden and Krantz:
What stuns me is Jesus response of anger to the very suggestion that he might NOT will the man to be clean. Not that he is angry at the man himself, but at the system that has taught him that the servant of God might understand God as desiring his illness, that he might somehow deserve to have it continue….There is no mistaking it. Jesus is made angry, and what does he do? Does he condemn? Does he withhold? No… He heals.
…this is what I would have to say from the pulpit about the question of Jesus was moved with “pity” or “anger” to heal the leper: It just doesn’t matter. What matters is what he did. He gave everything he had to give, not to enhance his own power — he understood that true power comes from God, and he had no interest in gaining worldly power — but to empower the powerless. The leper that he met was an outcast with no voice at all in the community, and the man that went on his way after his encounter with Jesus was whole: brought back in to community, free to act in community to Jesus’ advantage or not. Jesus didn’t just give him a cure; Jesus gave him his voice.
And that’s what we are called to do. Redistributing food and money is a something — something important at that. But God is doing something even more profound in the world, and we are called to participate in it by using our power as Jesus used his: to empower the powerless.
Finally, I’ll add that this exegetical issue is similar to one in John 11. See the full discussion at Lent 5A. One of the words involved in John 11, embrimaomai, also appears in this passage (see next note) as “sternly warning” (Mark 1:43). But in John 11 Jesus is with Mary, Martha, and all Lazarus’ mourners. Translators cannot figure out why a word would be used denoting anger, so they change it to “deeply moved.” Unlike this case in Mark, where we have textual variants between anger and compassion, the John 11 case involves no variants, simply a choice to read a Greek word that means anger as compassion. We want to see Jesus as compassionate rather than angry.
The explanation offered for reading Jesus as angry in John 11, however, fits here, too: Jesus is angry at the reaction of those around him. In John 11, the ritual wailing of the mourners is a cause of Jesus’ anger. In Mark, we would need to imply the reason: those around Jesus recoiled at his coming near and touching a leper, and Jesus is angry at their reaction. This is a reasonable implication since touching a leper would most likely get the reaction of repugnance from most of Jesus’ day.
3. The choice of orgistheis in vs. 41 does seem to go along with Mark’s word choices in vs. 43 that have angry or harsh (violent?) connotations: (NRSV) “After sternly warning (embrimesamenos) him he sent him away (exebalen) at once…” embrimaomai implies anger or ‘sternness.’ ekballo is more often translated as “cast out,” as Jesus does with demons. “Sent away” is too mild a translation.
4. In Mark 1:23, Jesus was confronted by the man with the “unclean spirit,” pneumati akatharto. Here in 1:40-42, we have three instances on the verb katharizo, to make clean or cleanse. We noted at Epiphany 4B that we derive the English word catharsis from this Greek word, and that it has a heavy connotation of ritual cleansing deriving from the sacrificial institutions. As splagchnizomai, katharizo derives from the blood sacrificial rituals whose smaller dose of violence is meant to purge or cleanse the community from the conflict arising out of mimetic rivalry. Once again, Jesus is challenging the sacrificial institutions by touching this untouchable leper to make him clean. The community keeps itself clean by purging itself of this leper, and Jesus cleanses the leper with a touch that restores him into the community.
5. Mark 1:44: “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” The prescribed rituals from Moses regarding leprosy are among the most elaborate, taking all of Leviticus 14 (57 verses!) to detail.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 74-77 (excerpted the last two weeks). As the title of this section, “Two Ways in Conflict: Jesus as Outsider,” indicates, it very much raises the themes mentioned above in connection to 2 Kings 5 (i.e., the insider/outsider structure of the sacred, that comes to a head, btw, in the next passage in Mark, where Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic and scandalizes the Pharisees).
2. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story. Last week (Epiphany 5B), we began exploring Beck’s fourth chapter, “The Symbolism of Power,” which in Mark’s Gospel he especially connects with Jesus’ resistance to the dominant concepts of holy vs. unclean. In the opening week of Jesus’ ministry as depicted by Mark, this is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Jesus healing of the leper in today’s reading. Jesus is willing to risk crossing the boundaries of uncleanliness by touching the leper. Beck summarizes the significance of touch as follows:
In addition to the mouth, a “gate” of the body, the cure stories feature the hand, as a symbol of touch or contact. The cure of Simon’s mother-in-law (1:29-31), the single healing story without dialogue, features the helping hand of Jesus. No words are given in this episode, which follows immediately upon the celebration of his powerful word in the synagogue. The following cure, of the leper, has no shortage of dialogue, but here we are surprised by the manner in which Jesus effects the cure: “He stretched out his hand and touched him” (1:41). The leper, the most prominent victim of the system of preventions in these early chapters, typifies the untouchable. Touching the leper is Jesus’ risk and the leper’s greatest need. The risk is worth taking. While power flows out from one to the other, it is not the unclean power contaminating Jesus, but rather the power of wholeness healing the leper. Ironically, Jesus, though not contaminated, contracts the leper’s social isolation at the end of the story (1:45). (p. 74)
The latter point is especially important. Jesus effectively reverses the direction of the usual expectations of his day. In touching an unclean person, the expectation was that he would be made unclean. Instead, the unclean man catches his holiness and is made clean. In effect, Jesus is once again driving out an unclean spirit, leaving a healed man behind. Lepers were a prime example of people with unclean spirits who were driven out of town in order to preserve everyone else’s purity. Just as in his initiating act of ministry (1:21-28), Jesus does not drive out persons. He does not do harm to people. Rather, he casts out the unclean spirits.
3. Beck, continued: he closes ch. 4 with a section entitled “Bodily Healing as Social Metaphor,” pp. 85-91 — precisely the theme of my four weeks of sermons in February 2003. A key point of Beck’s discussion of healing is that a common approach to the healings by Jesus is to find a larger meaning behind them, but Beck suggests that this is the opposite intent of Mark’s stories themselves, which is to show us symbolic actions that create healing. He writes:
The symbolic character of the healings is easy to misconstrue, and so it is worth a further word. We commonly exploit the homiletic value of these stories, thinking of them as depicting physical cures with symbolic overtones — the leper as the social outcast, the paralytic as the spiritually stifled, the blind man as lacking faith’s insight. But this approach turns the narrative’s intent upside down. In the narration the symbolism lies at the very center of the healing actions. When Ched Myers calls the healing stories in Mark “symbolic actions,” he is not claiming them to be cures with symbolic overtones. Rather, he recognizes them as symbolic actions with healing intent and effects. (p. 85)
4. James Alison, a video homily for Epiphany 6B (Ordinary Time 6); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. What was leprosy in those days? Any skin disease, with fungal being the most common, that gave the appearance of death; so it is viewed not so much as a disease but as an impurity, uncleanness. This leper, then, doesn’t ask Jesus to heal him but to make him clean.
Possible background here is Moses in Exodus 4, given two signs to show Pharaoh: turning his staff into a serpent and back again, and making a hand leprous and then clean again. And then even more so, Numbers 12: Aaron and Miriam argue with Moses over leadership issues, and the LORD’s anger is kindled against Miriam — “When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow. And Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous” (Num 12:10). Aaron and Moses intercede for her, but she is still shut out of the camp for seven days before they move on.
This is also the first hint of negative reactions against Jesus, which he himself seems to be anticipating, showing anger toward the leper in “sternly warning” (embrimaomai) him to tell no one and sending him out (ekballō). The cleansed leper doesn’t heed the warning, ‘proclaiming it freely,’ and the outcome is Jesus being treated as unclean, needing to stay out in the countryside. The Holy One who is greater than Moses is coming into the world to create holiness where there is uncleanness, and it is not welcomed by everyone.
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from February 16, 2003 (Woodside Village Church); sermon from February 15, 2009 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. In addition to insider/outsider themes, I’m thinking about the significance of healing in Mark’s gospel. Jesus comes proclaiming the Good News of God’s culture coming near. And then immediately he begins driving out demons and healing everyone in sight. What is the connection? Here I would make the move of James Alison in the discovery of Jesus’ imagination that the resurrection brings about. I can’t recount all his moves here, but, basically, the resurrection begins to put us in touch with a different sort of God than we previously thought we knew. Eventually, the apostolic witness saw that Jesus was in touch with this different God even before the resurrection; it defined his ministry right from the start.
In Girardian terms, which Alison makes full use of, we come to discover the false gods of our making, whom we previously and mistakenly thought to be the true God. But the resurrection begins the unveiling of the true God to us, a God who has everything to do with life and nothing to do with death (certainly not the cultural experience of death which is our basic experience). Alison traces this re-discovery of God, for example, in chapter 2 of Raising Abel, “The Living God,” where the section headings are: “Jesus’ Perception of God” (stressing the God of Life), “The First Step: God Pruned of Violence,” “The Second Step: The Revelation of God as Love,” “The Third Step: Creation in Christ.” But another aspect of the apostolic discovery is to realize that this was Jesus’s perception of God from the beginning. Mark’s Jesus accordingly moves quickly from baptism to proclamation to healing. Jesus moves from proclaiming this God to acting on the basis of his proclamation: knowing a God who is effervescently about life means being in touch with this God’s power of life, a power of healing, a power of restoration, a power of calling all into the divine circle of insiders, a circle that essentially has no outsiders except those who resist this completely open circle and so place themselves outside its circle. The latter still operate according to the old gods of the sacred who insist on an insider/outsider structure. and they thus exclude themselves from the true God’s inclusivity. For those who accept Jesus’ invitation, there is healing of body but also healing of the old divisions and old idolatries. The leper is not only cleansed in body but also restored to community.
2. Jesus has been emphasizing synagogues, challenging the religious institutions by driving out unclean spirits there. His first action was to cleanse an unclean spirit out of a man in the synagogue. When he leaves Capernaum to spread the message all around Galilee, Mark once again emphasizes that Jesus “went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1:39). He has to be outside of town to meet a leper, but notice his instructions to the leper: “go show yourself to the priest.” Again, there seems to be an emphasis in confronting the religious institutions. But this cleansed man goes out telling everyone else, so that Jesus’ strategy will need to change. He will now stay more outside the boundaries.
3. My 2000 sermon, “Rewriting the Story,” was based on based on one by Ann Hoch, from Pulpit Resource, Jan.-March 2000 (Vol. 28, No. 1), edited by William H. Willimon, pp. 28-29. It focuses on the notion of choosing in the words of the leper and in Jesus’ response to him; and it has been modified with mimetic theory especially in mind: that the crucial choice is to live by God’s desires, not our own.
4. In 2003 my sermon continued the series on healing, “Healing, Pt. III: ‘Peace beyond Our Fear and Hope beyond Our Sorrow’” (borrowing a line from the chorus of Marty Haugen’s hymn “Healer of Our Every Ill”). If in the first two weeks (see Epiphany 4B and Epiphany 5B) it seemed like I haven’t talked much about healing — talking about casting out various demons, even institutional ones like racism, instead of talking about healing physical ailments — then I come clean this week on why: I suggest that Jesus’ program of healing goes far beyond our usual parameters by undergirding it all with the ultimate goal of healing humankind and creation. In the case of humankind, the Girardian anthropology helps us to see that our most persistent disease is that sacrificial one which seeks to bring healing to the majority in a community at the expense of the minority. We cast out an unclean man instead of, like Jesus, simply casting out the unclean spirit from the man (Mark 1:21-28). We cast out people with leprosy instead of learning to cleanse what is unclean.
The connection can then be seen to the advances of modern medicine, using Girard’s quotable quote about the dawning of modern science:
The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit … is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text. (The Scapegoat, pp. 204-205)
Hunting down and burning witches in order to halt bubonic plague, or a drought, is akin to casting out people with unclean spirits or lepers. Jesus’ alternate way of bringing healing is finally the Holy Spirit behind our repenting of such things as burning witches and instead killing things like germs and cancer cells.
If this seems an arrogant claim, that the Holy Spirit is behind the best of modern medicine, consider it’s opposite: that we should take credit for that positive turn. This is the other side of Girard’s thesis: that we think people stopped burning witches because some were finally smart enough to invent science. Because we arrogantly take credit for the good of modern medicine, our institutions of healing continue to be plagued by the same age-old sacrificial mechanisms. We sacrifice the minority who don’t have health insurance, for example, in order to ‘save’ the majority who do.
Ultimately, Jesus came to bring healing for that most persistent of diseases to plague the human body-politic: cycles of mimetic violence cured with the pharmakon (drug) of sacred violence. Next week will conclude this series on healing by drawing out these conclusions even further by using the Girardian insights into the pharmokos-drug (i.e., the human scapegoat) to cure our number one disease: violence.
5. Why does Jesus tell the man to show himself to the priest and perform the prescribed rituals? As mentioned above, these were among the most elaborate to undergo. The man skips them. I suggest in the 2003 sermon that Jesus is still waging a direct nonviolent challenge to the ways of the synagogue and temple, so he wants the man to present himself “as a testimony to them” (Mark 1:44).
6. Sometimes, I hear of Christians today who do not go to the doctor, saying that if God wants them to be healed then God will heal them. But what if a major part of God’s healing is to have brung about the best of modern medicine itself? Then, it’s like the man who prays to God to save him in rising flood waters. A rowboat, a coast guard cutter, and a helicopter come by offering to save him. He declines because God will save him. As he’s drowning, he cries out to God, wondering why God didn’t save him. God replies that he sent him a rowboat, a coast guard cutter, and a helicopter. Isn’t it liberating to think that the best parts of modern medicine are the work of the Holy Spirit? That much of our health care is the kind of healing that Jesus initiated when he cast out demons and diseases instead of casting out people?