Last revised: February 20, 2018
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FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR B
RCL: Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
RoCa: Genesis 9:8-15; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15
The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together and do this.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter to his brother Karl-Friedrich, January 1935, shortly before launching an alternative seminary at Finkenwalde in 1935-37 Nazi Germany; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 13, pp. 284-85.
A pillar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s call of Christian resistance to evil, such as what he faced in the Nazi Third Reich, was a spiritual renewal which he envisioned as a “new monasticism.” A new way of being Christian must be founded in, and undergirded by, a new spirituality. For the students of Finkenwalde, the day began and ended with thirty minutes of silent prayer and contemplation. Practices of silent prayer are necessary for preparation to do battle against the violence of human realms (Reichs).
In 2018 I am imagining the scene of Jesus taking forty days in contemplative prayer akin to Bonhoeffer’s situation — as preparation to engage the violent reigns of human beings with the nonviolent reign of God. It will inevitably lead him to nonviolent resistance on the cross and the dawning of a new Way to be human on Easter with the pouring out of Jesus’s Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
In the sermon “Spiritual Hygiene” (pdf of PowerPoint slides accompanying an extemporized sermon), I begin with modern movements of “mindfulness” and meditation as “mental hygiene,” primarily through Dan Harris‘s book 10% Happier (who compares the need for mental hygiene with dental hygiene). The next move is to read this passage as the spirit moving Jesus into the wilderness to establish the spiritual hygiene he will need to undertake the mission of launching God’s realm in resistance to human realms. The backstory that helps us glimpse what this mission is about is not the First Reading of the day from Genesis 9, but the Fall into Sin in Genesis 3 (and the insights Mimetic Theory brings to reading this overview of human sin).
So how do we follow Jesus into a spiritual hygiene that prepares us for battle against the powers of sin? I use Bonhoeffer as an example, with his notion of a new monasticism, and close recommending a book by Girardian author Andrew Marr — Moving and Resting in God’s Desire — who is also a neighbor of the congregation (Messiah Lutheran in Constantine, MI, is only a few miles from St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, MI).
1. René Girard, Things Hidden, p. 143. Link to an excerpt surrounding this reference on “Similarities between the Biblical Myths and World Mythology.”
2. Walter Brueggemann‘s wonderful commentary on this passage, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 1982), pp. 73-88.
3. Paul Nuechterlein, in 2015 wrote the “Living by the Word” essay for the February 18, 2015 issue (Vol. 132, No. 4) of The Christian Century for Lent 1B and Lent 2B, involving both a published essay (accessible online with a subscription) and a separate essay as a blog. For Lent 1B both the “Living by the Word” magazine essay (subscription required) and the blog, “Making Violence False,” focused on a Girardian reading of the Flood story in the Genesis 9 and 1 Peter 3 readings.
Reflections and Questions
1. In an earlier version of my Contagion article on Holy Communion, I made brief comments (which I cut for the final version) on the flood story in sketching a view of sin in Genesis 3-11, which went as follows:
Girardian hermeneutics has come to support a lesser-known but traditional Judaic interpretation of sin which centers on Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel. According to this latter view, Genesis 3-4 belong together. Genesis 3 gives an account of the fall into rivalrous mimetic desire and the subsequent separation from God. The serpent succeeds in tempting the man and woman into a mimetic rivalry with God. But this is only half of the story as the mimetic rivalry leads to deadly violence with Cain’s murder of Abel in Genesis 4, and the violence continues in the downward spiral in the subsequent passages. In essence, “sin” is the violence. It is worth noting, I think, that the first time “sin” is used in the biblical narrative is at this point. Yahweh tells Cain that “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7). In the very next verse Cain lures his brother into the field and murders him. Here we have the Girardian anthropology in a nutshell: the rivalrous desire of the parents becomes a power of its own which comes to devour the son. God warns Cain, but it is too late. Rivalrous desire has become the power of violence that consumes us.The story of the great flood continues this emphasis on violence. It shows us a grieved and desperate creator who sees that “the earth was filled with violence” (6:11). Yet, at the same time, it is a story that gives us a look into the nonviolent, compassionate heart of God (6:6 and 8:21). God considered responding to our violence with divine violence and made a promise never to do it again. This perspective on sin looks at all of Genesis 3-11 and so views sin as more than just disobedience to God but also, and even primarily, as the forces of rivalrous desire and of violent domination that lead to death. The human enslavement to violence, and the divine commitment to abstain from it, are at odds from the beginning of time.
2. This is yet another OT text that seems to have two different Gods: the one at the beginning who attempts the age-old response to violence, using violence to attempt eradicating violence; and the God at the end who makes a covenant never to make such an attempt again. The change of mind or heart is projected into the Godhead. Does the Girardian interpreter instead read the change of heart and mind into us? Isn’t it our heart that needs changing to see that the true God appears only at the end to foreswear all violence, and that the God at the beginning is merely a god of our own making? This is why anthropology is so important as a compliment to theology. We need to know about the kind of gods we make-up in order to learn to better recognize the true God.
Readers might be uncomfortable with this approach to scripture, especially to the Hebrew Scriptures. It appears to be a form of Marcionism, of discounting the God of the Old Testament because he seems so different than the God of Jesus. But I am trying to steer a course between Marcionism and a literalistic approach that too easily assumes that the Hebrew authors could not have been mistaken about God. This anthropological approach to biblical interpretation begins, first of all, by taking very seriously the central movement of the Hebrew scriptures, namely, the move away from idolatry, the movement away from polytheism to the idea of one true Living God.
But, if a central theme of Scripture itself is the movement out from idolatry, dare we think that God’s people did so without continuing to make mistakes? Obviously, they were aware of many of those lapses, relating stories of God’s people lapsing back into idolatry. But couldn’t the authors of these stories still have fallen into persisting forms of idolatry without being aware of it?
Christians need to ask the same question of themselves. Yes, we have received the revelation of the true God in Jesus Christ. But has that made us immune from continual lapses back into idolatry? Girard has been bold at times to call Christian history a “colossal failure” (see the excerpt at Proper 13A) with the violence we have continued to justify in God’s name.
This can seem treacherous ground to tread since we might fall into a complete skepticism, beginning to doubt every experience of God that we have. But this is precisely why the incarnation is so important to the Christian faith, namely, that in the faith of Jesus Christ we have a measure for true faith in the true God. And an evangelical anthropology, rooted in the Christian revelation, can be a further measure by helping us to better understand the nature and shape of our inclinations to idolatry: we tend to create gods that mask our human violence against others behind a cloud of the sacred. Specifically, we learn to identify our sacred violence as pointing to idolatry. The true God in Jesus Christ suffers our violence — and never demands it.
So how does such an approach assess the Hebrew Scriptures? It must be forthright about the continuing idolatry present in the text. But it is also on the alert for the amazing insights into idolatry. Especially against the backdrop of archaic religion, the story of God’s chosen people of Israel on the way out of idolatry is the most remarkable story of human history. In fact, it is the only real story of history. Everything else is about the eternal return to idolatry. Only in the people of Israel does one begin to see a definite movement out from the eternal return.
This flood text is a case in point. It may be idolatrous in seeing the flood itself as an act of divine violence, but it is remarkable in its conclusion with a covenant from God never again to use such violence. Such a covenant helps pave the way for a Messiah who would suffer violence rather than ever resorting to it.
1 Peter 3:18-22
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. Alison treats the flood story through the 1 Peter 3 text. Let me place his comments on the flood in the wider context of his chapter on “Re-imagining the Symbol of Original Sin”:
In order to understand the positive sense of the self-giving up to death of Jesus, the apostolic witness makes use, in different places, of four quite distinct stories from Genesis, all of which are interpreted in the light of the Cross and Resurrection. To illustrate the sense of Christ’s death, he is shown as moved by a self-giving which is the undoing of Adam’s appropriation of divinity to himself (Paul’s argument about Adam’s desire in Romans 5-7, and the illustration of Christ’s self-giving in Philippians 2). He is shown as undoing the order based on fratricidal murder from the beginning (John’s reference to ‘Your Father…’ in Chapter 8, and the development of that in 1 John 3). Baptism into Christ’s saving death is shown to be the real sense behind the story of Noah’s Ark (1 Pet 3:20-1). Finally Christ is shown as undoing the scattering of all humanity following on the attempt to appropriate human unity by human effort alone at Babel (Luke’s presentation of Pentecost in Acts 2). That is to say that four quite distinct moments of Genesis, relating to desire, to murder, and to foundation of sociality, are shown to be capable of a strictly christological interpretation. Any symbol, then, of human origins that is capable of conflating these moments within a strictly christological interpretation has the advantage over other putative symbols of being exactly in line with the risen Christ’s own hermeneutic of scripture as explained on the road to Emmaus. It is precisely because it permits the construction of such a symbol that mimetic theory recommends itself in this context. (pp. 245-246)
What he says regarding the flood story, then, is as follows:
The story of Noah is less obviously a story of origins than either that of Adam and Eve or Cain and Abel, yet since it, too, is subjected to a christological re-reading in the apostolic witness, I beg indulgence for a quick glimpse at this story too. In the first letter of Peter it is pointed out that in the days of Noah “a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Pet 3:20-21). That is to say, the water of Baptism corresponds to the water of the flood. Yet Baptism, we know from Paul, is being immersed in the death of Christ, so as to be able to share in his resurrection, and that it is he, and after him, the Church, which the Ark prefigured. This implies a rather particular christological re-reading of the Noah story: the implication is that the Ark actually went under the flood rather than escaping it miraculously! In this re-reading, we would have all the violence abounding on the face of the earth, and, at a time of particular mimetic crisis of indifferentiation, symbolized by the Flood, the collective putting to death of someone (Noah) or a group (Noah and his family). It was this putting to death which brought about peace, permitting the re-establishment of order, the categorization of animals, and the setting up of a new, peaceful tribal system. There are of course many myths of this sort whereby a more or less hidden collective expulsion or murder is seen as producing a new social order, where fruit, or animals, or foodstuffs, start to abound as the result of a mysterious visitation in which it can either be the collectivity which perishes at the hand of a god, or a god which perishes at the hand of a collectivity, and as a prize, leaves behind the basis for the new culture. The Noah story as we have it could very well be a Jewish demythologization of just such a story in the light of their experience of salvation from out of Egypt leading to the setting up of the Covenant. Here, Noah is saved from out of the flood, and God makes a covenant with him never more to destroy all flesh.The Jewish re-reading already shows the Jewish tendency to tell the story from the point of view of the victim, the tendency which we have already seen with relation to their flight from Egypt. The partial de-mythologization has God rescue Noah and his family from out of the hands of violent men, so as to establish a new peaceful sociality. The Christological re-reading merely takes this tendency one vital step further back, by revealing the founding murder, and indicating that those who are prepared to share in the self-giving towards the founding death are those who will be brought to everlasting life. The new sociality is made possible because of the self-giving up to death, not a sociality derived from self-deceit following a collective murder, as in the myth behind the Noah story. Once again, the christological re-reading, already implicit in the use of the Noah story in 1 Peter, points to an originating murder at the base of human sociality. (pp. 250-251)
2. I cite these Alison readings of the flood story through 1 Peter 3 in my reading of Matthew’s take on the flood story in Matthew 24:38-41, “For as in the days of Noah….” — which does a flip on the “left behind” rapture theology popular today. See Advent 1A.
erēmos, “wilderness.” As an adjective, it means “empty,” “deserted,” “abandoned,” “lonely.” As a noun, it is a “deserted place,” a desert. In Mark’s Gospel, there are multiple renderings in English translations so that the connections are lost between the nine occurrences of the word. Mark uses Isaiah to speak of a messenger in the wilderness to set-up introducing John the Baptist as such a messenger. After Jesus’s baptism, the Spirit immediately drives him out to a deserted place as a forty day preparation to the launching of his ministry. In 1:35, he returns to a solitary place explicitly to pray. By 1:45, it is a place into which he is forced by the surge of the crowds. In 6:31-35, Jesus and the disciples are attempting to get away from the crowds to a solitary place, but it becomes the place of the first miraculous feeding.
In the Septuagint erēmos occurs 104 times in Exodus through Deuteronomy, primarily as the place of 40 years of wandering, the place that prepares the people of Israel to enter into the Promised Land. In the prophets of Exile in Babylon, erēmos is a word that marks the hope for a New Exodus (e.g., occurring 38 times in Isaiah, 26 in Jeremiah, 34 in Ezekiel).
In Mark’s Gospel there are definite echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus prepares for his ministry with 40 days in the wilderness. He also miraculously feeds God’s people in the wilderness. Overall, Jesus is presented as one leading God’s people into a New Exodus with a New Covenant (Mark 14:22-25).
1. René Girard, There are numerous discussions of Satan by Girard. His recent book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, as the title indicates, uses Satan as a central category of interpretation of the Gospel (see especially chapter 3, “Satan”). A recent compendium of those discussions appears in a shorter essay on “Satan” (see excerpts), included in The Girard Reader. Mark’s most crucial treatment of Satan comes in the “parable” of Satan casting out Satan (3:22-27; see Proper 5B).
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, p. 70. On p. 110, he also notes the places that Mark uses the word for tempted (Gr: peirazontes): 1:13, 8:11, 10:2, 12:15. In the latter three places, it is Pharisees who are tempting Jesus.
4. Ched Myers, with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Ch. 1, “The First Call to Discipleship.” A key to understanding Mark involves the symbolism of place:
Mark 1:3 now cites Isaiah 40:3, which announces a messenger in the wilderness exactly where John the Baptist shows up (1:4). Through this deft editorial combination of Malachi and Isaiah, Mark has introduced a major theme of his gospel. It is the tension between two archetypically opposite symbolic spaces: Temple and wilderness — center and margins.
On the baptism-temptation, Myers and his team write,
This heavenly intervention [at the baptism] is the first of many instances in which Mark draws upon the symbolism of apocalyptic literature. In Mark’s time, apocalyptic was the popular language of political dissent. It envisioned the end of the world — that is, the world ruled by the powers. Following his baptism Jesus is driven by the Spirit further out into the wilderness, where he engages in a struggle with the ruler of this world (1:12f). The struggle symbolizes the apocalyptic war between good (the angels and Jesus) and evil (Satan and the wild beasts). It is the first of many Markan allusions to the book of Daniel, a Jewish apocalyptic tract that exhorted resistance to Hellenistic imperialism two centuries before Mark. Daniel portrays oppressive rulers as beasts and speaks of angels contending with the princes of kingdoms (see Daniel 7:1-7, 10, 12:1).
But is there yet more to this strange temptation episode? Is it possible to interpret Jesus journey deep into the wilderness as a kind of vision quest? Among native peoples still today the vision quest is at once an outward adventure beyond the margins of society; an inward passage of purification and self-encounter; and a journey in the spirit to discover the identity and destiny of one’s people. Might Jesus be somehow interiorizing and reliving the experience of Israel? For forty days (1:13) is clearly meant to invoke Israel’s forty years of testing in the wilderness.
Israel’s identity commenced when it escaped from Pharaoh: I will bring my people out of Egypt (Exodus 3:10). Similarly, Jesus identity has just been confirmed at baptism: You are my son, the Beloved (Mark 1:11). Now he, like his ancestors, must struggle in the wilderness to discover what this vocation means. Jesus re-traces the footsteps of his people to their place of origins, the Exodus wilderness, in the hope of discovering where they went wrong. He faces again the forces that lured his people into idolatry and injustice, because to forge a different future he must confront the past. Jesus undertakes a radical quest to uncover the root-causes of his people’s problems. (pp. 7-8)
With Mark’s brief version of the temptation, Year B adds Mark’s summary of Jesus’ ministry as the coming of God’s sovereignty — which follows from the apocalyptic of the temptation:
Jesus begins preaching after John was arrested (1:14), a tale of political intrigue that Mark will return to later in the story (6:14-30; see Chapter 8). Jesus takes up John’s challenge to turn around and believe the good news, but adds something startling. He claims that the kingdom of God has arrived (1:16; we will use the less patriarchal phrase sovereignty of God in this book). Much has been made of this phrase by theologians over the centuries, but few have acknowledged its most obvious background: the anti-kingship traditions of early Israel. …
By reasserting the sovereignty of God, then, Jesus is taking sides in the debate within the biblical tradition between those who saw the monarchy as blessed by God and those who saw it as a step backward. He seeks a renewal of the confederate roots of free Israel (see Chapter 4).
But Jesus is not proposing a utopian dream that can be realized only in another place (heaven) and/or time (the afterlife). The gospel leaves no room for otherworldly religion: The time is now; the sovereignty of God is here (Mark 1:15). (pp. 8-9)
5. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 94-95, a section on “Baptism and Temptations”:
At his baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus heard a voice from Heaven saying: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt. 3:17) Jesus must have experienced these powerful words, proclaimed by his heavenly Abba, as an assurance of unconditional love. He was going to need the strength of this assurance in the trials immediately ahead of him.
No sooner had he undergone baptism than Jesus was thrown out into the desert by the Spirit and tempted by Satan, the stumbling block that comes from mimetic rivalry. The affirmation of Jesus at his baptism was purely gratuitous, totally beyond any entanglement of mimetic rivalry. However, even for the best of us, temptations to entangle ourselves in rivalrous relationships abound. The author of Hebrews says that Jesus is a high priest who has sympathy for our human weakness because “he was tested as we are.” (Heb. 4:15) The three temptations recorded in Matthew and Luke all have to do with mimetic issues. Turning stones into bread seems not to be a bad thing if you can do it, which Jesus presumably could. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been much of a temptation. But if Jesus had followed the devil’s suggestion, he would have been making bread on his own terms rather than on the terms of his heavenly Abba. The bread he later gave in the wilderness was a gift from the Abba through Jesus to the crowd. Throwing himself off the temple roof would have made a public spectacle of himself. He would have become quite a celebrity that way. That would have been quite the opposite of commending his spirit into his Abba’s hands on the cross. Attempting to rule the kingdoms of the world would, of course, entail entering directly into the entanglements of the principalities and powers on the terms of those powers. Jesus presumably could have used his charisma to take control of the known world, but the world would have no way out of humanity’s enslavements to empire if he had done so. The imperialistic rule of so many Christian powers proves this point beyond any doubt.
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, “How Jesus Was Tempted as We Are.”
Reflections and Questions
1. It is worthwhile to note the other places in Mark’s gospel where he uses the word “Satan”: Mk. 3:23-3:26, on Satan casting out Satan (Proper 5B and “My Core Convictions“); Mk. 4:15, the explanation of the Parable of the Sower; and Mk. 8:33, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter (next week! Lent 2B and Proper 19B). The latter might be especially pertinent to this passage. In a sense, it gives a specific shape to Jesus being tempted by Satan. He tells his disciples plainly how to understand Peter’s confession of him as the Messiah, one that Peter can’t buy, and prompting Jesus’ rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!” Against the idolatrous idea of a Messiah who carried out divine violence against God’s enemies, Jesus must resist that Satanic temptation and remain true to his mission: to suffer violence from God’s enemies and be raised as forgiveness for it.
2. Even before his ministry begins, must Jesus enter into it being able to resist the Satanic temptation to violence? From the very beginning, Mark shows us a Jesus who will cast out demons in synagogues. He will challenge the religious institutions from beginning to end. But these are nonviolent challenges that bring healing and life.
When I anticipate going into a situation of challenge, it helps to prayerfully prepare myself. Can I make the challenge in potentially life-giving ways? Or will I ‘lose it’ and find myself embroiled in a hurtful confrontation? Recently (2003), I found myself in disagreement with someone over the pending war with Iraq. I did pretty well in not letting my buttons get pushed so that I could carefully present my view in a way which didn’t push the other person’s buttons. The next day, in a similar situation, I let all my buttons be pushed and found myself in a confrontation which got us nowhere. Granted, there are situations in which the other person is not going to accept a win-win outcome. But, then, do I need to be prepared to lose in such cases for the sake of the Gospel, trusting as Jesus did in the God who can even bring victory out of the seeming defeat of death? That victory, of course, was not a reversal of the win-lose scenario; it was the persisting offer of the win-win scenario of forgiveness.
3. My 2000 sermon focused more on the baptism theme since there was a baptism that weekend, using a new hymn to develop the theme: “‘Join Us to the Tree of Life.'”
4. In 2015, our parish went off the RCL to use the lectionary suggested in Brian McLaren‘s book We Make the Road By Walking, where the season of Lent focuses on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. I applaud McLaren’s suggestion for a couple of reasons. One is that Lent was originally a time of preparation for those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, and there’s no better text for preparation of disciples than Matthew 5-7 — Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the same decision in his book Discipleship. Moreover, as such an essential text, it’s one of the biggest errors in the RCL that it falls towards the end of the Epiphany season in Year A — excerpts spread across Epiphany 4A-9A. In the years that Easter is early, we miss most of this passage. Following McLaren’s lectionary addresses this oversight.
For the 1st Sunday in Lent McLaren’s suggested portion is Matthew 5:1-16 (the Gospel Reading for Epiphany 4A and 5A) — Chapter 27, “A New Identity.” I took my sermon in a different direction from McLaren’s, using the Harry Potter series as an illustration, but borrowed the title: “A New Identity.”