Last revised: July 14, 2018
Click Reload or Refresh for latest version
PROPER 10 (July 10-16) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 15
RCL: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
RoCa: Amos 7:12-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:7-13
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
What is justice? Many Christians are fine with our culture’s definition, which focuses on retributive justice — punishment of crimes, even to the point of execution. When followers of Jesus alternatively champion justice as standing in solidarity with the marginalized, the least of Jesus’ family (Matt. 25), we most often point to his ministry and teachings, as well as to the Hebrew prophets in whose footsteps Jesus followed.
But advocates of a other-than-retributive justice might also consider that standing in solidarity with victims of injustice is a central meaning of Christ’s Passion. Sometimes, they might even seek to avoid a connection to the cross, because the popular meaning of the cross — substitutionary atonement — has made the cross be about crime and punishment, i.e., retributive justice. The most common teachings of atonement make the cross to be about a ‘just’ God killing all of humanity as penalty for sin except for the grace of Jesus standing-in to take the punishment for us.
The arguments against substitutionary atonement are rightly multiplying today, and at the heart of these arguments should be a more faithful Christian understanding of justice, rooted in the Cross. In a New Reformation, let’s not avoid the cross but put it front and center in interpreting justice to be about restoration and a prophetic standing with the marginalized against the powers of oppression.
Today’s Gospel is a crucial one for René Girard and his Mimetic Theory. He found it to corroborate his thesis that the Passion of Christ is not about something different than all the scapegoating events in human history. Rather, the cross is precisely about victims of collective violence past, present, and future. If we are not sure about that, the story of the scapegoating of John the Baptist provides supporting evidence that the Gospels view these events together. The Cross is about solidarity with all victims of every time and place (as depicted in Rev. 7:9ff.), exposing the mechanisms of collective violence and oppression. It ups the ante for the prophetic movement of justice for all victims of systemic oppression.
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 (RCL Continuous Option)
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, chapter 5, “Kings and Prophets: Sacred Lot and Divine Calling,” pp. 129-162, with pp. 130, 143, 148-149 more specifically on Amos. The chapter as a whole gives a great introduction to a Girardian reading of the role of prophet. In suggesting that the basis for Hebrew kingship and prophecy are essentially the same, Williams notices the similarity of Amos 7:15 to 2 Sam 7:8:
In Nathan’s oracle to David concerning building a “house” for the LORD (temple) and a “house” for David (dynasty), the LORD says, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel” (2 Sam 7:8). The wording is strikingly similar to that in Amos’s account of his calling: “and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel”‘ (Amos 7:15). From this standpoint, clearly the role of the king is a calling that closely resembles a prophet’s call. (p. 130)
Williams’ further reflections on the career of Amos are:
Amos (prophesied c. 760-750 B.C.E.) was the first of the great prophets whose names are attached to books in the Hebrew Bible. He deals with the very core of the meaning of Israel as a people. It is this core that exemplifies the model of the emerging exception and that enables us to understand prophecy and kingship. It is the basis of Israel’s existence as the people of the covenant witnessing to the revelation of the God of Israel. Amos’s understanding of the beginnings of Israel is the very foundation of what he has to proclaim.YHWH has elected Israel and led it out of Egypt: that is the basis of Israel’s destiny but also of the danger in which it stands. “Hear this word that the LORI) has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt: ‘You only have I known of all families of the earth; therefore will I punish you for all your iniquities”‘ (Amos 3:1-2). The people that is known, chosen, loved, has a heritage originally the same as the structures of sacred violence among all the peoples. The one crucial difference in Israel’s case is that in its witness to the God of the oppressed it could never be at ease with sacred structures of violence. In Israel’s tradition of the exodus a community does not converge upon a victim, but God guides the victim away from the collective structures that marginalize, exclude, or slay the victim. But of course the one who is “led out” is, or is expected to be, very sensitive to the way victimization works. The chosen one has a special sensitivity to violence and sacrifice. The precarious status of the chosen one is such that the temptation is great to use the instruments of former oppression for both survival and power in the world. But standing outside the circle of all the others whose existence is permeated with sacred violence means that Israel has a special responsibility to the God of Israel. If Israel forgets this in imitating other peoples, then it falls. into the danger of losing its own special identity.
So if Amos proclaims God’s judgment on Israel, this judgment of military defeat and exile is something Israel brings upon itself, for Israel misunderstands its very beginnings. “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?” (Amos 5:25). This rhetorical question concludes a well-known oracle in which YHWH says, “I hate, I despise your festivals,” spurning the outpourings from the sacrificial cult (5:21-24). It was not, implies Amos, God’s command to offer sacrifices in the wilderness. This is a remarkable insight. Amos is the first prophet or spokesperson of any sort in the scriptural texts who so unambiguously asserts this, although other prophets will reject sacrifice, and one, Ezekiel, sees the sacrificial cult in the wilderness as a kind of punishment of Israel (see below).
What was Israel supposed to do from the beginning? How was it to be constituted? Well, Amos is not very specific about that, although clearly from his standpoint it would have to do with letting “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:24). That is, the constitution of Israel has to do with concern for the victim. Not selling “the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (2:6), avoiding indiscriminate licentious sex at the cultic shrine, and not drinking in a cultic sanctuary the wine of those who have been taxed or fined — here we see moral and cultic concerns brought together in a vision of justice. Yes, Israel is exceptional among the peoples (3:1-2) but not so exceptional that it can pretend to be the only people that God has cared for and guided to a land of its own (9:7).
It is no wonder then that the high priest expels Amos from the royal sanctuary of Bethel! Even If Amaziah had agreed with Amos’s moral concerns and advocated reform, he quite rightly senses that Amos’s message subverts the foundations of prevailing Israelite social order. Charity and purification of the cult were not enough for Amos; he held Israel’s very foundations had been misunderstood. (pp. 148-149)
2. René Girard, Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky, p. 129. This passage from Amos helps set the stage for the Gospel lesson, in which John the Baptist is the last in a long line of prophets, leading up to Jesus, who are persecuted for bringing the divine message.
On the general topic of prophecy: the following passage from Girard’s book on Dostoevsky comes near the end of his discussion of the Grand Inquisitor Legend, where he suggests that Dostoevsky had come to the insight of our constant rejection of what Christ came to offer us, and he connects it with OT prophecy (p. 129):
Dostoevsky’s art is literally prophetic. He is not prophetic in the sense of predicting the future, but in a truly biblical sense, for he untiringly denounces the fall of the people of God back into idolatry. He reveals the exile, the rupture, and the suffering that results from this idolatry.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 27, 2003 (Woodside Village Church), 4th in a series of eleven sermons on the prophets.
Reflections and Questions
1. Also, on the issue of prophecy, see the brief bible study I passed on several weeks ago for Pentecost Sunday.
1. James Alison has a section on Ephesians called “Redeeming the Time” in The Joy of Being Wrong, pages 229-232. It is most helpful to read the whole of chapter 8 to get the full context, but this exposition of Ephesians can also stand alone and provide some help to the interpreter.
2. Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation I, ch. 4, “…And Abolished Emnity: Jesus’ Cross and the Peacemaking Vocation of the Church (Ephesians),” pages 82-118. The chapter begins:
The U.S.-Mexico border fence, erected the same year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, poignantly symbolizes the social architecture of division that defines our world. . . .The border wall reminds us that there have always been two Americas: one of inclusion and one of exclusion. The former has found expression in the ideal of liberty and justice for all, and has been realized whenever Indian treaties were honored, civil rights embraced, huddled masses yearning to be free welcomed, or child labor laws passed. The latter was articulated in a Constitution that originally enfranchised only white landed males, and has been consolidated through land grabs, Jim Crow segregation, Guilded Age economic stratification, restrictive housing covenants, and laws precluding gay marriage. These two visions of America continually compete for our hearts and minds, not least in our churches. The America of inclusion is the only hope for democracy; the America of exclusion, as. Lincoln’s ultimatum about a house divided warned 150 years ago, is unsustainable.
Section A is on Ephesians 1: “The Mystery of God’s Will Made Known: Paul’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech.” The reference to King’s speech was the seed to an idea for a sermon in 2009, “Dream God’s Dream.”
Reflections and Questions
1. I might, if choosing to preach on this text, focus on the nature of the graceful freedom proclaimed in this text. In his taped series on conversion (“Let This Mind Be in You”), Gil Bailie makes use of Simone Weil’s image of gravity vs. grace. Sometimes the gracious freedom of the gospel can be distorted into a free-floating lifestyle that thinks it can escape any and every gravity field. The results will be falling back into some other gravity field. Grace is not about escaping gravity altogether; it is about escaping the gravity field of the mimetic scapegoating mechanisms in favor of the gravity of life in Christ. (The preacher might extend the metaphor, talking about the training of astronauts to cope with zero-gravity.)
1. This is one of the passages that René Girard himself has written on the most, beginning with a chapter in The Scapegoat, ch. 11, “The Beheading of John the Baptist.” This has been followed with numerous references; several may be found in The Girard Reader, ch. 13, “Satan” (p. 196), and ch. 14, “The Question of Anti-Semitism in the Gospels” (p. 213).
The chapter in The Scapegoat is a rich 24-page treatment of this Markan text, full of insights. The latter two Girardian passages draw on one main theme from the treatment in “The Scapegoat”: i.e., that the importance of the beheading account in Mark is its role as a precursor to the passion, in which the reader can understand that the importance of the cross lies not in the uniqueness of Jesus’ death but in the uniqueness of it revelatory power to expose all such deaths, like that of John the Baptist. In short, the importance of the Passion is that Jesus stands in the same position as all scapegoated victims past, present, and future. The first essential insight is Jesus’ solidarity with the marginalized.
Girard does some excellent exegesis in his rich treatment. Among the insights is into the nature of the mimetic entanglement. Mark tells us that John the Baptist has inserted himself into the story of two enemy brothers, Herod Antipas and Philip, with Herodius the disputed object of desire who also becomes another player in the mimetic rivalry. Another key exegetical insight is the fact that Mark uses the diminutive korasion for Salome, which would indicate that she is a young, pre-adolescent girl, not some sexy young woman as she is often depicted. The child Salome simply does a dance pleasing and ingratiating to the crowd and then becomes victim to her mother’s desires. As a child, she doesn’t know what to wish, what to desire, when Herod makes his offer, so she quite naturally goes to an adult to mimetically acquire her desire and becomes part of her parent’s skandalon. (Girard also references Jesus’ warning about scandalizing the little ones.)
To get a flavor of Girard’s treatment of this passage, let’s look a section from chapter 2 of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning:
So it is necessary to interpret very concretely the statement of Jesus about the analogy between his own death and that of the prophets. To confirm the realistic interpretation that I propose, the Passion must be compared not only to the violence done to the Jewish prophets in the Old Testament but also to an event reported at length in the Gospels themselves, the execution of the one the Gospels regard as the last of the prophets, John the Baptist. If John the Baptist is a prophet, then to conform to Jesus teaching John’s violent death must resemble the violent death of Jesus. That is, we should find in Johns death the mimetic contagion and other essential features of the Passion. And indeed they are found there. We easily verify the presence of all the features in the two Gospels that narrate the death of John the Baptist. These are the two oldest ones, Mark and Matthew.
Just like the Crucifixion, the slaying of John the Baptist is not directly carried out by the crowd, but it is collectively inspired. In both cases there is a sovereign who is the only one with the authority to issue the decree of death and who finally decrees it in spite of his personal desire to spare the victim: Pilate on the one hand, Herod on the other. In both cases the ruler renounces his own desire and orders the execution of the victim for mimetic reasons, not being able to withstand a violent crowd. Just as Pilate does not dare confront the crowd that demands crucifixion, Herod does not dare confront his guests who demand the head of John.
In both cases everything stems from a mimetic crisis. Concerning the prophet, it is the crisis of the marriage of Herod to Herodias. John reproaches Herod for his illegal marriage to the wife of his brother; Herodias desires revenge but Herod protects John. To force his hand, at his birthday banquet Herodias stirs up the crowd of guests against her enemy. To whip up the mimetic contagion of this gathering and transform it into a bloody pack, Herodias resorts to the art that the Greeks took to be the most mimetic of all, the most apt at a sacrifice to motivate participants against the victim: dancing. Herodias has her own daughter dance. The dancer, manipulated by her mother, requests John’s head as a reward, and the guests unanimously demand the head of John.
The resemblances between this narrative and the Passion are remarkable and cannot be attributed to a kind of plagiarism. The two texts are not doublets of each other. Their details are quite different. It is their internal mimetic character that renders them similar, and this is represented in a manner as powerful and original in one case as in the other.
At the anthropological level, therefore, the Passion is typical rather than unique: it illustrates the major event of the Gospel anthropology, namely, the victimary mechanism that appeases human communities and reestablishes, at least provisionally, their tranquility. (pp. 26-28)
He concludes this discussion in chapter 2 with reflections on the Isaiah 40 passage always connected with John the Baptist. In I See Satan, Girard picks up his discussion of this passage one more time, on pages 122-136, concluding with an extended discussion of Herod’s false belief in the resurrection of his victim, John the Baptist (pp. 133-136).
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 97-99:
The folkstory of the murder of John (6:14-29) provides another example of the power of the crowd, and amplifies the point that Herod is the prisoner of the Sacred. As king within that realm, he is the least free and the least powerful of the characters in the story. He is in a classically scandalous situation with reference to John, whom he both hates and respects, wants to kill and protects. When he heard him he was very much disturbed, and yet he heard him gladly (kai akousas autou polla eporei, kai hedeos autou ekouen, 6:20). Herod loved to be upset by John! One could interpret Herod’s situation psychologically. He lives in an Oedipal ménage, lusting for his stepdaughter and incestuously married to his brother’s wife. His problem is not incest as such but incest with the wrong relative. John condemns Herod for the first incest, his desire for Herodias, and thereby gives energy to the second, his desire for Salome, provoking it by prohibition. Herodias hates John precisely for providing this incentive to transgression.
This kind of interpretation, however, does not take us as far as a mimetic one. We have three triangles: (1) Herod, Herodias, and Herod’s brother (Herod of Chalcis); (2) Herod, Herodias, and Salome; and (3) Herod, John, and Salome. Interpreting from only one point of view within each triangle, we find these dynamics: triangle 1 is in the background as the explanation of why Herod found Herodias desirable in the first place; having bested his brother, however, he lost interest in Herodias because the obstacle constituting her desirability was removed; in triangle 2, Herodias as the incestuous wife is both the model and the obstacle for the incestuous relationship with the daughter. John’s role is to provide the incentive for transgression with the daughter by reinforcing the prohibition against incest with the wife.
He does this in a subtle way. Herodias is Herod’s model/obstacle for the relationship with Salome. She models by being herself an incestuous lover, and she obstructs by being a demanding wife. John uses the model aspect to remove the obstruction; because the marriage is incestuous, he declares, Herodias cannot be a wife. Thus, in John’s hands, the model pole removes the obstacle and opens the way to a new triangle with Salome. This new triangle 3 comprises Herod, John, and Salome, a situation seen with dramatic insight centuries later by Oscar Wilde, and set to music by Richard Strauss.
We have no overt indication that Salome desired John, but John’s moralism has the effect of his desiring her. John by implication prohibits Herod from having her, and prohibition is always the sign that the prohibited is desired by someone else. Thus, John provides a strong obstacle, and there cannot be an obstacle that is not also a model. Herod would read John’s prohibition as saying that this girl is prohibited because God desires her, the ultimate source of prohibition being the envy of the gods. This obstacle would be the ultimate model and provocation, to be as God! That is why Herod loved to hear John preach the things that disturbed him greatly. Great prohibitions make great transgressions, and this kind of transgression, getting the better of a model one can never get the better of, is the essence of the erotic.
Herod is in thrall to his wife and stepdaughter and to John, but the clearest coercion comes from the crowd, represented by his guests. Having promised in the presence of this group of his peers to grant Salome’s wish, he is powerless to escape. He cannot break the unanimity of the mob in pursuit of the victim, even though he profoundly regrets the loss of his obstacle (6:26). The loss to individual satisfaction is great, but the power of desire to bind one to the group is greater. Herod sacrifices private desire to group solidarity.
The pressure of the group is a fine instance of mimetic contagion, provoked by Salome’s dance. The ritual of the dance recalls the sacrificial pole of the generative mechanism. Dance is one of the chief means for achieving the unanimity needed for the successful sacrifice. Here, it has been separated from its communal matrix and made into an opportunity for erotic display. Nevertheless, the undulating body of the young girl cathects all desire in the room, sweeping the group into a unanimous passion (6:22). She is the surrogate victim of the group’s desire, which comes to word in the king’s oath. He is compelled to substitute something for her because the mob now aroused will not be quieted without a sacrifice. So he sacrifices the thing unknown by promising in a solemn oath (omosen polla, 6:23) anything up to half his kingdom.
Herod is at a fatal disadvantage now because he has shown his hand. He has in fact fallen into the trap set by Herodias who, knowing his desire for her daughter, had sent her out to display herself and thus infect the whole gathering with that desire. We learn that Salome is herself only a substitute for Herodias when the daughter has to ask her mother what it is she should desires (6:24). She is a representative of Herodias’s desire to inflame the crowd so that it demands a victim, and then to give them John instead of Salome.
The party is transformed into a sacrificial mob by the erotic dance. The girl is the victim of the mob’s aroused desire. Then Herodias springs the trap by substituting John for Salome in the desire of the mob, and Herod is carried along by his own desire, now deflected from one victim to another. The murder of John is thus a foreshadowing of the murder of Jesus at the hands of a mob.
Herodias targets John with sure instinct as the source of her husband’s lust for her daughter, while inexperienced Salome thinks that John is merely an impediment to that passion. Both, therefore, have a reason for killing him, but only Herodias knows what she is doing. Girard makes much of Salome’s innocence in asking her mother what she should desire as a sign of the fact that desire is learned. It is in any case clear that Herodias is the genius behind the action, but in the end the real killer is the mob, which magnifies Herod’s passion by falling under its spell, sharing his lust for Salome, and thus fixing it as destiny.
Herod kills the victim under the coercion of unanimous desire in the mob, deftly deflected by Herodias from Salome onto John. As victim, John represents Jesus and foreshadows his death, just as the disciples on their mission represent his ministry. The section on the mission and the Baptist is therefore a presentation of the truth of Jesus through representatives. As the apostles return to tell of their experiences, Jesus himself reenters the narrative and takes them aside for rest and encouragement (6:30-32).
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 42 (ftnt. 22).
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2015 Theology and Peace colleague Tim Seitz-Brown shared his notes and plan for a sermon that compares this story of Herod and John the Baptist to Hans Christian Andersen‘s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I found beautiful illustrations by Roberto Weigand for a Brazilian published version of a children’s book to use for the Children’s Sermon. (For more of the illustrations see the bottom of page 2 and the top of page 3 of the web gallery of Weigand’s children’s illustrations.) I then prepared an extemporized sermon on PowerPoint slides.
2. Other preaching possibilities: one might want to explore the primary point of discussion that several of the Girardian references share, the issue of the uniqueness of Jesus’ death. One of the misunderstandings of the gospel, suggests Girard, is that Christians often think that the uniqueness of Jesus as the Son of God must mean that his death was unique. No! says Girard; to think that risks missing the whole point. Jesus’ death was not unique; it was the same as all the “prophets” who went before him. What was unique was the revelatory power it bore because of the total absence of complicity of Jesus in any of the events. Jesus neither succumbed to the perspective of the persecutor in any way, nor took a position of revenge. Rather, there are many passages that suggest that Jesus knew exactly what was happening to him and why. There are many sayings regarding the deaths of the prophets; there is a synoptic parable about them, i.e., the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in the Vineyard, who abuse and/or kill all the messengers before they kill the Son. And very significant for Girard is the gospel narration of the beheading of John the Baptist, the last of the prophets before Jesus. Here, we even see many of the scapegoating elements in their starkest relief, such as the dance of Salome that plays into the mimetic frenzy, making them ripe for Herodius’ suggestion.
3. Most important question to explore: What are the consequences of a Christian misunderstanding on this score? If we strive to make Jesus’ death unique, because he was the Son of God, what does that do to our theology? Doesn’t it separate it from exactly those whom the gospels seem to go to great pains to join us with, namely, the countless victims of the scapegoating mechanism? Doesn’t the cross mean to bring Christ and us into solidarity with those folks? But what happens to such a solidarity if we make the cross a unique death? Isn’t the gospel instead about the uniqueness of the cross’s revelatory power so that we might choose to join Christ in being in solidarity with victims?
4. A lead-in question for a sermon might simply be: Why does Mark choose to tell us this story? (And the corollary questions concerning its exact placement in the narrative, something which Girard addresses at the end of his chapter in The Scapegoat.) My 1997 sermon on this text, entitled “Sanctuary or Dining Hall?“, attempted to deal with this text in the wider context of Mark.