Last revised: February 23, 2021
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SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR B
RCL: Genesis 17:1-10, 15-19; Romans 4:16-25; Mark 8:31-38
RoCa: Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Romans 8:31b-34; Mark 9:2-10
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
This week’s element of New Reformation is a Post-Christendom reading of Scripture that leads to renewed engagement with the politics of the day.
We live in a time of being church when nothing less than a New Reformation is called for, much more radical than the first. When the church entered into partnership with Empire, beginning under the reign of Constantine, the strident anti-imperialist message of the New Testament could no longer coexist with Empire. Fortunately, the Bible was considered sacred text at that point, and so the text itself was left alone. But the manner of reading it had to change. It needed to be about something else less worldly than that of real-life politics and history. And so the shift began in reading the Bible as a text about enduring suffering in this life on the way to a rewarding afterlife.
The 16th Century Reformation did not really reform this most unfortunate lapse in reading. If anything, our reading of the New Testament became even more otherworldly, leaving Christendom intact for 500 years of even more brutal conquest, the era of European Colonization over much of the rest of the world. And the deep structure of what in Mimetic Theory is called the Scapegoat Mechanism has been White Supremacist Racism. Protestantism never protested the Doctrine of Discovery of several 15th century papal decrees, instead launching its own versions of white people armed with the true religion taking lands all over the globe in God’s name.
What the first Reformation did accomplish was the further splitting of Western life into a bifurcation: the secular life of being a good citizen of Empire in one’s earthly history, while relegating any religious life to a personal decision focused on the afterlife. Eventually, after the apocalyptic violence of two World Wars and the Holocaust, our entire Western culture has become secular at its base, and increasing numbers of people are either leaving religion behind altogether or at least pursuing spiritual matters on their own.
The good news is that this turn in history has opened the way for a Post-Christendom church and a gradual process of recovering a more faithful reading of the New Testament as anti-imperialistic — and thus as deeply political and historical in its Good News. The day’s Gospel Reading provides a prime example. I especially recommend Ched Myer‘s reading in the resources below.
Genesis 17:1-10, 15-19
1. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 140-143, on “Abraham and Isaac” (excerpt). Bailie’s treatment of the Gen. 22 story might also be appropriate in connecting to the idea of what it means to be a descendent of Abraham. Bailie suggests that moving away from sacrifice is what it means (see below).
Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
1. I consider this one of the most important passages for fresh interpretation through mimetic theory. The god (elohim in Hebrew) at the beginning of the passage who asks Abraham to sacrifice his son is a classic god of sacrificial violence. The God at the end of the passage (Yahweh in Hebrew) is the God who calls us away from such violence, the God of the prophets who desires mercy not sacrifice. I have extensive resources for this passage at Proper 8A, including an important sermon “Binding and Releasing.”
2. William Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, pp. 80-83. In the title sermon, Willimon ends up with basically a sacrificial reading of this text. But he tells some interesting stories along the way. One is of a time he showed a movie of the Abraham Isaac story in class and asked the children if they knew what sacrifice meant. They immediately started talking about how busy their parents were taking care of other people (as doctors, etc.). Willimon thought they were talking about the self-sacrifice of the parents helping others. But as they continued to talk, it was evident they were talking about being neglected because their parents were never with them. They related to the experience of child sacrifice in one of its modern forms!
3. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 140-143 (above).
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence. There are several brief mentions of this passage. Perhaps the most fruitful would be in the context of Hamerton-Kelly’s discussion of “The True Triangle of Desire: Faith, Hope, and Love.” He writes, for example:
Faith is the trusting acceptance of the primal prohibition as part of God’s order for the well-being of Adam in paradise. As long as Adam observes it, he has access to the tree of life and is beyond the reach of death. The one requirement for this observance is that desire trust God and accept the prohibition without question, resisting the temptation to deform itself by acquiescing in the possibility of envy that arises along with its freedom. Faith is thus the opposite and antidote to envy, because it assumes that the desire of the other is innocent, not deceitful; to benefit, not to best, the self. Faith is freedom from envy, especially with reference to God, and joyous obedience to the divine command (Rom 5:19). It is the opposite of deceit because it assumes that the prohibition is beneficent and not a ruse. Abraham’s trust in the promise of God is the exemplar of this faith (Rom 4).If we are confident that there is no envy in the divine, then we may trust that whatever God does will be for our benefit even when that is not immediately evident. This is the attitude of confident dependence appropriate for the relationship between the creature and the creator, not only here but also in eternity. The gain in knowledge that occurs (1 Cor 13:12) does not reduce the need for faith, because faith is not a substitute for knowledge but a fundamental attitude of trusting dependence that defines creaturehood. The creature is not and never will be self-sufficient, and faith accepts this fact without anxiety. Faith accepts the mimetic nature of the self and affirms the good mimesis of the imitatio Christi (cf. Phil 2:6-11). (p. 171.)
2. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #4.
Reflections and Questions
1. In recent years, the promises to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis and St. Paul’s use of it has moved to a central place in my faith. My own life experiences — including things like the centrality of anti-racism work and an international adoption of two boys from Africa — plus reading new perspectives on St. Paul (e.g., N. T. Wright in his New Interpreter’s Bible [vol. 10] commentary on Romans) have helped me see the way in which Jesus is the Messiah by virtue of fulfilling the promise to Abraham of being blessed to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). Romans 4 is often skipped over or barely touched on when Christians study Romans. But commentators are increasingly coming to see that, in a letter so rich with theological insight, Romans 4 might be the main point for Paul through which all others can be read and understood. Jesus Christ is Lord of all, he is the Messiah of Yahweh, because in the cross and resurrection he brings the salvation that is the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and Sarah.
1. Vv. 35-37, “life” is a translation of psychē, which can be translated as “soul” or “self,” but is translated as “life” in all four instances in these verses. How do these verses relate to Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”? What if we used “self” in translating these verses?
For those who want to save their self will lose it, and those who lose their self for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their self? Indeed, what can they give in return for their self?
I am reminded of a scene near the beginning of the movie Gandhi, where Gandhi is trying to help others understand nonviolent resistance:
I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger, not to provoke it. We will not strike a blow. But we will receive them. And through our pain we will make them see their injustice. And it will hurt, as all fighting hurts. But we cannot lose. We cannot. They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then, they have my dead body. Not my obedience.
1. Ched Myers, with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Ch. 11, “The Second Call to Discipleship”:
Peter, like most of Christendom after him, refuses to accept this clear revisioning of the meaning of Messiah. . . . The problem is that Peter remains loyal to the traditional Messianic script that affirms the “myth of redemptive violence,” in which the hero prevails over the enemy through superior and “righteous” force (see Wink, 1992; Bailie, 1995; Beck, 1996). With this oldest lie Satan rules history, as nations and peoples invoke God while they destroy their enemies through “just wars” and crusades. Against this is pitted the Human One’s strategy of nonviolence, which understands that the enemy is violence itself. (101-02)
Behind a revisioning of Messiah must be a transformed experience of the cross:
The cross was not a religious icon in first-century Palestine, nor was “taking up the cross” a metaphor for personal anguish. Crucifixion had only one connotation: It was the vicious form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissidents. Crosses were a common sight when Mark wrote, since there was a Jewish insurrection under way. In contrast to Judean nationalists who were recruiting patriots to “take up the sword” against Rome, Mark’s Jesus invited disciples to “take up the cross.” The rhetoric of “self-denial,” in turn, should be understood not in terms of private asceticism but in the context of a political trial. Under interrogation by state security forces, admitting allegiance to “Yahweh’s sovereignty” would result in charges of subversion in a world where Caesar alone claimed lordship. Self-denial is about costly political choices. (102)
And to understand the shape of the politics, we need to understand the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7 that shaped Jesus’ self-understanding (from which he borrowed his self-designation):
Apocalyptic visions, commonly misconstrued by modern readers as predictions of the future, instead involve opening up another dimension to history: God’s point of view. Apocalyptic dualism requires us to have a dual vision of reality in order to criticize “this age” from the perspective of “the age to come.” Yet these two realms actually co-exist; we need only “eyes to see” them both.
The prophet first “sees” oppressive rulers (the “beasts” of Daniel 7:2-8) who persecute the Jews (7:19-25). But the eyes of faith reveal what is really happening (“As I looked . . .” 7:9). At the center of the vision is a courtroom scene in which the “Ancient of Days” judges the beasts (7:9-12, 26f) and hands over true authority to the “saints” (7:18). Judgment is rendered on behalf of a “Human One” who makes an entrance “on the clouds of heaven” (7:13). This is the image Mark employs in his gospel (see Mark 14:62).
Daniel’s apocalyptic visions assured persecuted Jews who were defendants in Hellenistic courts that there was a “higher court of true justice” in which they were being vindicated even as they were being convicted by Antiochus. Mark adopts the “bifocal” apocalyptic perspective of Daniel: There is not one courtroom in which the believer stands, but two. To be acquitted before the powers is to be “ashamed” in the Human One’s court, and vice versa. This explains how Mark can present the Human One simultaneously as both defendant (8:31) and prosecutor (8:38)! Apocalyptic faith gives not only meaning but a mysterious efficacy to nonviolent suffering: To die (rather than to kill) for justice in history somehow advances the vindication glimpsed in the heavenly court.
This also helps us understand Jesus’ concluding promise that “this generation will see the sovereignty of God come in power” (9:1). As we shall see (Chapter 24), it alludes to Mark’s “third apocalyptic moment” of Jesus’ crucifixion. Only apocalyptic faith can help us see that at the very moment the powers appear to have triumphed, Jesus’ nonviolent power has begun to unravel their rule of domination. (103-4)
2. As last week (Lent 1B), René Girard‘s significant work on Satan. I passed along a condensed version of his essay on Satan in The Girard Reader. Here’s another portion from the section on skandalon that refers to this week’s text [Matthew’s version inserts “scandal” into Mark’s]:
Just before his Passion, Jesus warns his disciples that he is about to become a scandal to them. As a group, the disciples do not behave as badly as Peter but at the time of Jesus’ arrest, they all scatter ingloriously and they do not reappear until after the resurrection. Whereas Peter, at least for a while, becomes an active persecutor [by denying Jesus and joining the crowd around the fire at the high priest’s house], the other disciples are passive accomplices of the persecutors. This passivity is a limited form of participation in the Passion, but it is participation nevertheless. It is fascinating that the word “scandal” would apply in this case. It truly applies to all degrees of participation in the Passion.
Scandals, we found, are permanently conflictual relationships in our individual lives. Now we see that the word also applies to the participation in the mimetic consensus against Jesus. This use is disconcerting. We tend to feel that our private rivalries, our intense conflicts, do express something genuinely personal and unique in us. The conflictual nature of scandals seems to guarantee that they are what the existentialists would call an authentic modality of human existence, that they cannot turn gregarious at the drop of a hat.
We feel this way because, as a rule, we are scandalized. Jesus is not and he feels differently. He knows that scandals are mimetic from the start and they become more so as they are exacerbated. They become more and more impersonal, anonymous, undifferentiated, and therefore interchangeable. Beyond a certain threshold of exasperation, scandals will substitute for one another, with no awareness on our part.
If we look carefully at the operation of scandals in the Gospels, we will have to conclude that they are very much the same thing as demonic and satanic possession, which is also characterized by a process of transference, as in the case of the Gerasa demons, for instance. Jesus, I believe, prefers to speak the language of scandals, whereas his disciples feel more at home in the language of Satan and his demons.
Once again, Peter is a good example. When Jesus first announces that he will suffer at the hands of the people, Peter is scandalized. His ideal is the same as ours, worldly success, and he tries to instill it into his master. He turns his own desire into a model that Jesus should imitate. This is how Satan operates, of course. Hence the famous words: “Move behind me Satan, because you are a scandal to me.” If the scandalized disciple had succeeded in mimetically transmitting his own mimetic desire to his master, he would have scandalized Jesus straight out of his divine mission.
Peter’s behavior is the combined effect of his preexisting scandal, which is mimetic, and the additional mimetic push provided by the crowd.
All those who join a belligerent crowd act more or less like Peter. They all transfer their private scandals to some public target. Men become so burdened with scandals that they desperately, if unconsciously, seek the public substitutes upon whom to unburden themselves. As they become more numerous, the target’s attractiveness as a target increases, and the process becomes irresistible.
The notion of scandal bridges the gap between individual and collective violence. The mobility of scandals, their tendency to unite around a common victim, provides a mediation, a communication between the two levels.
The violent unanimity of the Passion results from a massive transference of scandals, a snowballing so powerful that its effects become inescapable. (pp. 199-200)
For more on skandalon, see “René Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon.”
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 103-106. For example:
The confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27-9:1) is a classic example of “knowing but not understanding” (8:17). Through Peter the disciples acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, and through Peter they refuse his definition of the role in terms of suffering and rejection (8:31-32). They represent Satan, the closed circle of violence in which Beelzebub casts out Beelzebub. They cannot conceive of any other way of controlling violence than by violence itself; for them, the Messiah cannot be weak. They have entered the heart of the secret of the kingdom, yet at this moment of deepest intimacy they are farthest removed from the truth. The irony of the outside insider is at its most acute. In response, Jesus summons both the disciples and the crowd and teaches the way of the cross (8:34-9:1). The disciples are no longer different from the crowd; they are equally uncomprehending, and equally inclined to be ashamed of the Son of Man and his nonviolent way in this violent generation. The redefinition of the concept of the Messiah that is going on before the eyes of the reader is opaque to the participants ill the narrative. The crowd is innocently uncomprehending, the disciples mysteriously so. They are a foil to Jesus and the comprehending reader in a narrative marked by dramatic irony. (p. 103)
4. 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 2B both the “Living by the Word” magazine essay (subscription required) and the blog, “The Son of Man Must Be Killed by Humans,” focused on a Girardian reading of covenant and the Mark 8 reading.
6. Fritz Wendt, “Following the Crucified One,” weaves together the story of Endo‘s novel Silence with the work of Ched Myers on Mark.
7. Sarah Dylan Breuer, sarahlaughed.net, page for Lent 2B. Breuer challenges us to go deeper in our understanding of the taking up our crosses as standing against the usual way of human beings using power as a means of dominating others. The power that Jesus brings from God offers a way of power which turns human power arrangements upside-down and inside-out. Speaking to a congregation of means and wealth, here are the last three paragraphs:
This is a powerful congregation. We have power by virtue of our education, our relative wealth in the world, our privilege in society, our voice. It can be very tempting — all too tempting — to seek nothing more than charity. Charity is a start, but it can take us to a dangerous place in which we release some portion of our resources in order to get more power. We maintain a death grip on the unjust privilege that makes us wealthy, that gives us the illusion of control, and then we give away just enough to feel generous without seriously compromising our privilege. The way of the Cross — Jesus’ way of life — calls us to let go of that. Jesus’ way calls us to be honest about the power we have — both the worldly power we’ve got because of our skin color, our gender, our social class, our education, our birth in the most powerful nation in the world, and the spiritual power we have as a community upon which God has breathed the Spirit — and then to let all of that pour out — “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) — to empower the poor.
We are called not only to make sure that the most marginalized have a place at the table, but also to recognize whose table it is. The table around which we gather belongs to Jesus the Christ, who saw, as Peter in this Sunday’s gospel did not, that true power is made perfect in self-giving love, that the way of abundant life leads to the Cross. And the symbol of humanity’s brokenness, of power corrupted to become domination, becomes a sign of peace, and freedom, and life.
Thanks be to God!
8. Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, PreachingPeace.org, page for Lent 2B. An example of commentary according to Mimetic Theory:
Peter is limited in his thinking, no matter how high a Christology he may have. He has yet to realize “the secret of the kingdom.” And this failure is named quite clearly, “Satan.” Strange, don’t you think? To call such a miscue “Satan?” We are reminded of our studies in Epiphany on Satan, where we discovered the fruitfulness of considering the “Satan” as an anthropological category. That anthropological category has a specific theology of a retributive god, in short, a god like Satan, the Prosecutor, the Grand Inquisitor. Jesus rejects such a role for himself because God is not like that.
In the “So What” portion, they have added a 2006 commentary that makes some good arguments defending “pacificism” from “Just War” critiques.
9. Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes, page for Lent 2B. He begins with two valuable looks at the larger picture. In Mark’s gospel as a whole, there is a pattern of following a declaration of who Jesus is with temptation. Lent began with that last week. This week we have the same pattern: Peter making a declaration and then playing the role of Satan in tempting Jesus. He also comments on the middle section on discipleship between the two healings of blind men. On the relationship of today’s passage to the first healing, he writes:
The “Healing of the Blind Man” in 8:22-26 is the only miracle story that is found exclusively in the Gospel of Mark. (Unfortunately, it is not an assigned text in the lectionary.) It serves as a good illustration of what I believe is the key theme in this gospel, which is summarized by the father’s cry in 9:24: “I believe. Help my unbelief.” In his story of healing the first blind man, Mark suggests that there are three groups of people: (1) those who are blind, (2) those who have received one touch and see partially, and (3) those who have received the second touch and can see clearly. It seems to me that most of the characters in Mark are either type 1, those who don’t believe; or type 2 people, such as the man who believes and needs help with his unbelief and Peter who is both a confessor and Satan in chapter 8. Perhaps the only one who sees clearly in Mark is the Centurion who sees Jesus die and says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39). In our text, the disciples see, but only partially.
10. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from March 16, 2003 (Woodside Village Church).
11. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Sibling Conversation“; a sermon in 2015, “Promises, Promises“; a sermon in 2018, “Jesus Teaches His Disciples Something Totally New.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 1997 I gave a very ‘Girardian’ sermon with a development of the doctrine of election along with reflections on Satan: “Satan the Accuser and God the Chooser.”
2. In 2012 our Lenten theme was Covenant. A crucial question for me has become: If we human beings have this habit of projecting our wrath onto our gods, then how can the true God of love ever get through to us? How can our deafness and blindness ever be healed? The answer: Covenant. God begins somewhere with someone to carry a conversation with God’s people over centuries, because it takes centuries for God to get through to us. See the sermon “Covenant: God’s Commitment to Conversation.”
3. 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 2nd Sunday in Lent McLaren’s suggested portion is Matthew 5:17-48 (the Gospel Reading for Epiphany 6A and 7A) — Chapter 28, “A New Path to Aliveness.” I took my sermon in a different direction from McLaren’s, but borrowed the title: “A New Path to Aliveness.”