Last revised: August 4, 2018
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PROPER 11 (July 17-23) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 16
RCL: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
RoCa: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
Tribalism. The new darling word for what ails our culture-in-crisis. Yet while our current fascination with tribalism may be new, the reality of tribalism is anything but. In fact, it may be said to be as old as sin itself. It has become increasingly clear to me that the church’s recent teachings on salvation have acted to hide a more biblical account of God’s saving actions in Jesus Christ.
Case in point: my personal history with today’s Second Reading, Ephesians 2. Growing up Lutheran, we preferred the first half of Ephesians 2, especially verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Salvation by grace through faith; it doesn’t get any more clear. The part in verse 10 gets a bit knotty with its mention of being created for good works as our way of life. Some brands of Lutheran seem allergic to “good works” because one might be tempted to see them as the way to salvation. My brand of Lutheranism taught that you just had to be careful that the good works are the result of salvation by grace, not the pre-requisite.
What we Lutherans never seemed to get to, however, was the “therefore” in verse 11 and the ensuing verses that shows us the details of what salvation looks like. It’s a shame, really, because it’s a proclamation about the healing of that age-old sin of tribalism. Yes, tribalism! When St. Paul characterizes salvation by grace itself as God in Jesus Christ creating one new humanity out of two, isn’t that the healing of tribalism? All the ways in which the human family divides itself into tribes is now being healed through the blood of Jesus Christ, who on the cross let himself be considered as one from an enemy tribe, the outsider, the criminal. And God raises him up as the promise of healing our tribalism. One new humanity out of two.
The need for a New Reformation could not be more clear here. The Reformation not only got stuck on verse 8, but it proved its missing the point of salvation in verses 11ff. by practicing another deadly form of tribalism, namely, Protestant vs. Catholic — and the many splintering versions of Protestantism that followed.
In 2018 this passage fell on the first week of a new Interim Ministry assignment. It provided an ideal opportunity to introduce the theme of a New Reformation, and to do so under the banner of tribalism in our current climate of rising tribalism was timely.
In addition to working with Ephesians 2 in the 2018 sermon (extemporized; no text), I brought in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil of Genesis 2-3 as the symbol of our fall into tribalism. The common reading of the fall into sin that I was taught in Reformation theology sees only the disobedience of eating of the forbidden fruit as sinful. The knowledge of Good and Evil was presumed to be a good thing; the disobedience was presumed sinful. But this reading plays into the serpent’s injecting envy into the mix, persuading Eve that God is holding out on them with knowledge. A reading of this passage in terms of Contemplative Spirituality recognizes it as the beginning of dualistic thinking, the judging of everything as Us vs. Them — tribalism! Here, for example, is Richard Rohr in The Naked Now:
I call contemplation the tree of life, as compared to the other tree “in the center of the garden” of Eden, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9), because these two serve as ideal metaphors for the two minds. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents “either-or” dualism, which we are strictly warned against, and even told not to eat. The tree of life promises access to eternal things (3:22), grows “crops twelve times a year,” and sprouts “leaves that are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). It accesses the deep ground of God and of the self. The contemplative, nondual mind is a tree of continual and constant fruitfulness for the soul and for the world. (105)
And in The Divine Dance Rohr makes the role of love clear. No true knowledge can be gained without love:
You cannot know things if you don’t first of all grant them a foundational respect, if you don’t love them before you grab them with your mind. This is surely what Genesis warns us against from the beginning, in archetypal Eden: you’ll eat voraciously from that forbidden tree of knowledge before you know how to respect and honor what you are eating, which creates very entitled and proud people. All of life becomes a commodity for our consumption. (102)
Also fresh for me in 2018 was presenting on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the perspective of Mimetic Theory. I had given a PowerPoint presentation at the 2018 COV&R Conference in Denver (July 11-14) titled, “‘Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil’ and Tree of the Crucified Messiah: Symbols of Original Untruth and Its Healing.” Perhaps the Girardian who developed this symbol the most as the biblical symbol of untruth is Jean-Michel Oughourlian, in chapter 2 of his book The Genesis of Desire, a very close reading of Genesis 2-4. James Warren, in his incisive summary of Oughourlian’s reading of Genesis 3, gives a portrait of human history that is uncomfortably familiar in this age of Trump and populist authoritarianism, an apt description of tribalism:
Human history thus becomes the kaleidoscopic reflection of a thousand variations of this kind of ‘knowledge of good and evil,’ with human activity characterized by wars and interpersonal hostilities based upon each side’s claimed possession of the ‘good,’ along with a labeling of the other side as evil. Utopian schemes, dictatorships, and even democracies will distinguish their own brands of good and evil, and seek to create the good society by eliminating evil-doers who threaten to pervert the structure. All over the planet human beings will gather themselves into associations large and small, defined by their perception of ‘good’ and characterized by attempts, both crass and subtle, to exclude the evil other. All of this will be experienced as what we call ‘morality,’ which is a function of the fall into rivalrous desire. (Compassion or Apocalypse?, 47)
But the deepest theological analysis of this symbol takes me back 26 years to the first Girardian book I read, Robert Hamerton-Kelly‘s Sacred Violence, weaving Mimetic Theory in with St. Paul’s theological analysis in Romans.
Only after the serpent had persuaded her by this deception to imitate God’s acquisitive desire for the fruit did it become desirable to her; she learned rivalry from mimesis’s misrepresentation of the divine desire as envious. The moment of mimetic acquisitiveness has been reached and the train of events leading to the Sacred set in motion. Thus desire transforms God from creator, to whom one should be related in gratitude, into rival, to whom one is related by envy, and it does so by manipulating the prohibition (Rom 7:11). This is the act of sin as envy (phthonos). (93)
And so the envy and rivalry interact with the “knowledge of good and evil” in a way that leads to sacred violence, where even God gets caught up in the scapegoat mechanism:
This is the background of Paul’s statement that sin used the Law to deceive and kill Adam (Rom 7:11). According to the story they gained the knowledge of good and evil. According to our theory this “knowledge of good and evil” is acquisitive and conflictual mimesis with the divine. Before the transgression they knew only good — namely, that the creator is beneficent and generous, and free of envy. After the transgression they had imputed both evil and good to the creator in making God a rival. Thus faith as trust in the divine goodwill was at an end. Now the Law produced not faith but anxiety and rivalry with God and one another.” (96-97)
What does the Law ultimately produce? “For the law brings wrath. . .” (Rom. 4:15). Notice carefully, that Paul does not say “wrath of God.” He simply says wrath because he is trying to help us see that the reality of wrath is a human problem, not a divine one: “But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). I take this to mean a crucial contrast. Our wrath worked out against each other in tribalistic sacred violence is contrasted with the revelation of God’s righteous judgment of mercy, forgiveness, and love. (For more, see my essay on the “wrath of God” in Romans.)
How do we stem the current tide of a rising populist tribalism and its accompanying human wrath worked out against others? Will God’s righteousness truly be revealed in contrast to another ‘day’ of human wrath? The answer to both questions is forbearance. God’s righteousness, says St. Paul, is forbearance, a forbearance we can learn in obedience to Jesus the Messiah. The verse right before the cited contrast in Rom. 2:5 says so: “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). And a chapter later Paul tells us the meaning of the Messiah’s sacrifice on the cross as a revelation of God’s righteousness: “God did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed. . .” (Rom. 3:25).
I give the last word to Richard Rohr in this beautiful portrait of how forbearance can meet tribalism:
Jesus forbears our brokenness so that we can do the same — for ourselves and, finally, for one another. He knows, as only the mind of God can, that what we refer to as evil is really goodness tortured by its own hunger and thirst, goodness that has not been able to experience being received and given back. “Evil” is what happens when human beings become tortured with this desire for goodness that they cannot experience. And then we do the kind of horrible things we see on our televisions and social media streams: killing each other, humiliating each other, hurting each other in abuses of power and privilege, showing a complete inability to even recognize the imago Dei in other beings or in ourselves.
True seeing extends your sight even further: the people you want to hate, the people who carry out the worst atrocities, are not evil at their core — they’re simply tortured human beings. They still carry the divine image. Hitler and Stalin carried the divine image. Hussein and Bin Laden carried the divine image! I am not inclined to admit this, but it’s the only conclusion that full seeing leads me toward. The forbearance of God toward me allows me to see the divine dance in all other broken vessels.
If I’m honest, I have to acknowledge that seeing in this way robs me of a certain privilege I’ve allowed myself my whole life: I have always eaten generously from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The categories are clear in my mind, which makes judging come naturally. Kindness and forbearance? Much less so.
As I’ve entered this dance more and more, God has taken away from me the power to choose who are the good folks and who are bad ones; I no longer have the freedom to choose who I show respect to, which races I feel more comfortable around, and what religions — or religious subgroups — I don’t like.
“Those secular liberals!”
“Those Republican [or Democrat] idiots!”
But I’ve been dining my way through an alternative. Invited to a conscientious dietary shift, I eat instead from the Tree of Life, offered from the center of the archetypal Garden for all who enter the flow with bleeding and forbearing hearts. What a difference it makes: in this glorious, undifferentiated, freely-offered life, there is no longer a “they,” there.
It’s all “we.” (The Divine Dance, 176-78)
1. William Holladay, in his Hermeneia series commentary, says that Zedekiah was on the throne at the time of this prophecy. Zedekiah could be translated as “Righteous is Yahweh.” Jeremiah thus closes this prophecy with a play on the king’s name, suggesting that the name of the Messiah will be “Yahweh is our righteousness.” Not only is the order of the two parts of the name reversed, but, perhaps more importantly, the singular becomes a plural. Yahweh is our righteousness.
Reflections and Questions
1. Does the singular and plural make a difference for the Girardian reading? Human community is based on “unanimity minus one”; it is built on the singularity of the victim. Even if that singularity is represented in the name of a king, that might be appropriate since kingship is descended from the singularity of victimhood in the sacrificial cult. As Girard says, a king is a designated sacrificial victim with an indefinitely extended sentence. So if that king cannot keep feeding other victims to the sacrificial cult, he will become the next victim (e.g., Saul, Louis XIV). Perhaps that’s why it was difficult for the Israelite kings (or any conventional king) to rule as good shepherds; the system demanded that they continue feeding sheep to the sacrificial fires in order to avoid becoming one themselves. Yahweh’s Messiah, then, would not only need to be a different sort of person, but he would have to do something to change the system. He would need to base human community on something different. According to John 10, Jesus the Messiah was the Good Shepherd precisely by offering himself as one of the sheep (see my sermon from Good Shepherd Sunday 2000). And the effect of that offering, says St. Paul, is that God’s righteous becomes our righteousness (cf., Romans 3). The singularity of Christ’s sacrifice graciously became the plurality of a new righteousness for all those who are in Christ Jesus. Jeremiah was correct, “The Lord is our righteousness.”
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Reflections and Questions
1. The RCL serial option for the First Lesson actually fits quite well with the Second Lesson. Ephesians 2 is about the walls we put up that divide us. For the most part, these “walls” are meant figuratively, but often those figurative walls lead to literal walls. This is perhaps no more dramatically the case than for the Temple — or any of the many religious structures we build to house the Sacred.
In a 2000 trip to the Holy Land, I was struck by the literal building up and tearing down of walls at many of the sites we visited. Our guide gave us a building history that often went something like this: “This church started as one of those built by the emperor Constantine’s wife, Helena, back in the third century. It was destroyed by the Muslims in the seventh century, rebuilt by Crusaders in the 12th century, destroyed again by the Turks, and finally rebuilt in its present form in the 1920’s.” In the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, for example, there were walls from the previous buildings integrated into the lower levels of the present one. Many of the walls in the Holy Land bear the marks and traces of those figurative walls we erect due to the Sacred. The last and toughest point of Mid-east peace negotiations will probably be the Temple mount itself, currently occupied by two mosques. This passage helps belie the seeming hesitance to have built a Temple in the first place! Does our history confirm the rightness of this hesitance?
2. More recent history is not a whole lot better. Our parish of Emmaus in Racine celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2001. We think we’re the oldest Danish congregation in this country. But we didn’t start out as all Danish. The original name of the congregation was the First Scandinavian Lutheran Church of Racine, because it was comprised of both Danes and Norwegians. But they had a falling out in the 1870’s, and the Norwegians were forced out in a court case they brought to county court which back-fired on them. That was the first of several split-offs of other congregations from Emmaus. Looking at this history 150 years hence, it is difficult to even recover, or understand, what all these church fights were about. The figurative dividing walls between Danes and Norwegians — and then, later, even between factious groups of Danes — helped build a history of literal church walls to house the divided communities. Always, the power of the Sacred was claimed to be on each side of the dispute. The court case in the 1870’s began as a heresy trial.
3. At the moment Jesus dies on the cross, the great dividing curtain in the Temple is ripped open from top to bottom. The Sacred was exposed at the same time the physical dividing ‘wall’ came tumbling down.
1. este, “you,” in 2:8; “For by grace you have been saved through faith…” A feature of Greek grammar that is largely missing in English — unless you count the convention in the southern U.S. of “you-all” — is a clear indication of when the second person is plural. All the declensions in this portion of Ephesians 2 are second person plural. Paul is not speaking to them about their salvation as individuals; the wider context makes it clear that the salvation wrought in the cross of Jesus affects them as a plurality, as divided communities healed of their divisions: “that [Christ] might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15). This is a salvation of humanity — which can get lost if we are thinking about the salvation in 2:8 in the second person singular.
2. ergois agathois, “good works,” and peripateō, “way of life” (literally, “walk around,” metaphorically used to point to one’s entire way of walking through life), in 2:10. As clear as Eph. 2:8 seems to ring out a Lutheran doctrine of salvation, Eph. 2:10 seems to greatly backtrack. Created for good works as our way of life? That seems to mess up the clarity of grace in 2:8. It has been an unfortunate trend of the first Reformation to downplay the role of good works in distinction from salvation by grace, losing Paul’s notion that grace creates good works.
3. Dio, “therefore,” the first word in 2:11. This “inferential conjunction” is vital. The proclamation of salvation by grace in 2:8-10 is spelled out in 2:11ff.
4. akrobustia / peritomē, “foreskins” / “circumcision” in 2:11. I was a bit surprised to see that the English rendering “uncircumcision” does not reflect the Greek. In other words, the Greek words are completely different words, not simply the “un” version of the same word as in English. The distinction is more literally “those called the foreskins by those called the circumcision.”
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 B is on Ephesians 2: “Cross as Abolition of Emnity, Church as Reconciled Community.” The authors bring in Girard on p. 92:
There are two more remarkable notions here. One is an image fraught with irony. The cross was, in the first century, the symbol of Roman public terrorism, the executioners stake on which all political dissidents were hung. Yet the author claims that the cross itself put to death all these deep-seated hostilities (2:16b). This is tantamount to saying today that the electric chair killed the death penalty. It defies logic. Here, however, the work of René Girard is illuminating. In his comments on the parallel passage in Colossians 2:14f., Girard contends that the cross unmasks the scapegoat myth, which ultimately lies beneath every justification for officially sanctioned violence:
The Crucifixion reduces mythology to powerlessness by exposing violent contagion, which is so effective in the myths that it prevents communities from ever finding out the truth, namely, the innocence of their victims . . . Though ordinarily the accusation nails the victim to a cross, here by contrast the accusation itself is nailed and publicly exhibited and exposed as a lie. (2001: 138)
Then and now, the majority culture believes that the state’s use of violence when necessary is rational, noble, and just (think of the popular support today for the death penalty and foreign military interventions). But by depriving the victim mechanism of the darkness that must conceal it so it can continue to control human culture, the Cross shakes up the world; it discredits once and for all the untruth of the Principalities and Powers (ibid.: 142). The power of nonviolent love has undone the love of power in a world of domination.
3. N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, pages 168-175. Wright elaborates the point I make in Reflection #2 below (Wright being one of the sources of ‘my discovery’). Here’s an excerpt:
Here is the point large as life, in the pages of the New Testament that was one of James Dunn’s major breakthrough moments in the development of the new perspective. The works of the law against which Paul warned were not, he suggested, the moral good deeds done to earn justification (or salvation), but the particular commandments and ordinances which kept Jew and Gentile separate from one another. We do not need to study the various types of first-century Jewish attitudes to the law to see that here in Ephesians 2 someone at least thought that was how those commandments functioned and that the cross of Jesus Christ not only rescued sinful human beings from their eternal fate but also rescued fractured humanity from its eternal antagonism. And the author of Ephesians clearly thought that those two were part of the same act of redemption, intimately linked aspects of the single purpose of the one God, aimed at the healing of creation. The image of the dividing wall is, pretty certainly, taken from the Jerusalem temple, with its sign warning Gentiles to come no further. That has gone in Christ, because in him a new temple is constructed….Why? What’s the point? Yes, say the scoffers, ethnic divisions are broken down, we know that, but why make such a fuss about it? The answer is that the church, thus united through the grace of God in the death of Jesus, is the sign to the principalities and powers that their time is up. Ephesians is not about the ordering of the church by the gospel for its own sake. Ecclesiology may sound secondary and irrelevant to some ardent enthusiasts for the old perspective, but that could just be because they are unwilling to face the consequences of Paul’s ecclesiology. For him, the church is constituted, and lives its life in public, in such a way as to confront the rulers of the world with the news that there is another king named Jesus (Acts 17:7). Paul says it again: this was the grace given to me, this was the mystery revealed of which I became a servant, the mystery lodged since all eternity in the creator’s single plan: that now the many-splendored wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places, through the church, according to the eternal purpose which he has accomplished in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord (Ephesians 3:10-11). How can ecclesiology be a secondary topic, unworthy to be associated with the great doctrine of justification, when Scripture itself gives it this high a place? Why should not the point of justification itself be precisely this, that, in constituting the church as the single family who are a sign to the powers that Jesus is Lord and that they are not, it serves directly the mission of the kingdom of God in the world? It cannot be, can it, that part of the old perspective’s reaction to the new is the tacit sense that once we associate ecclesiology with the very center of the gospel we will have to go all the way and rethink the political role and task of the church? Surely the wonderful objective scholarship of so many old perspective exponents would not allow such a motive to affect exegesis!
Reflections and Questions
1. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” It is the “in his flesh” part which is often left out of the discussion of this oft-quoted, key verse. But it is crucial for St. Paul who sees the dividing wall precisely in the rite of circumcision. This passage begins with: “So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands….” Notice particularly the description of circumcision: made in the flesh by human hands. Circumcision is basically a sacrificial rite, in which just a tiny (but significant!) piece of flesh is substituted for the whole person. And as a sacrificial means for signifying membership to a community it is exclusionary. Inclusive human community can never be formed on such a basis. St. Paul won’t stand for it. Rather, baptism into the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is our peace; the dividing walls of hostility built up by our usual means, “made in the flesh by human hands,” are broken down by Jesus “in his flesh.”
2. I’m a Lutheran, and I have come to believe that a passage such as this one speaks the true heart of the Gospel, not the so-called justification by grace through faith. I’ve been critical for some time about elements in standard Lutheran justification theology that rely on bad translations of pisteos Hiesou Christou (see Reformation Day and “My Core Convictions,” IV.2), placing our faith in importance ahead of Christ’s. That’s the first major mistake of Protestantism.
The second mistake (in order of my own personal discovery) is overemphasizing justification by faith almost to the exclusion of what I think for St. Paul is the central point. I believe Ephesians 2 provides the clearest example of how Paul’s clear statement of salvation by grace in 2:8-10 is immediately followed by the true heart of the Gospel (2:13-15): “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” Isn’t creating one new humanity the heart of the Gospel?
Check out the the other two most clear articulations of justification by grace through faith. (1) Rom. 3:19-31. It is followed by Rom. 4 regarding Abraham whose faith in the promise is fulfilled through Jesus Christ such that Abraham is indeed the “father of many nations” — that is to say, creating one new humanity. (2) Gal. 2:15-21. It is followed once again by a passage on Abraham in Gal. 3:6-18, with the same basic point as Rom. 4 but stated even more baldly (3:8): “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.'” Paul explicitly names this as the Gospel, spoken proleptically to Abraham! And if we aren’t clear yet that this means one new humanity, here is Gal. 3:16: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring,’ that is, to one person, who is Christ.” This is the equivalent of Eph. 2 where two groups become one new humanity. In short, justification/salvation by grace is not the gospel itself, but might be said to be the means to the gospel, which is that humankind is made into one family. Here is Paul’s own summary:
But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:25-29)
3. Ephesians 2 just may be the most perfect biblical summary of Mimetic Theory. Eph. 2:3 pretty well describes fallen desire moving to “wrath” or conflict: “All of us once lived among them in the passions (epithymia) of our flesh, following the desires (thelema) of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” MT might quibble the “by nature” part; the mimetic shape of our desire is what’s “by nature,” which is why in Jesus Christ we can also be children of love, when we are redeemed by his loving, nonrivalrous desire. And the gospel of one new humanity (see #2 above) is the Good News of having our cultures, that were founded in the Scapegoat Mechanism, redeemed in the cross. The truth of the parable of Satan casting out Satan (Mark 3) — which is that we must always be a house divided against itself (Jew and Gentile, or however you want to slice it) — is subverted and redeemed such that we are created into one new humanity, a Holy Communion.
4. In 2006 I was finishing a six-year run of taking on Interim Ministries — filling in as pastor in congregations where they are in the process of calling a new pastor — and about to move into a regular call myself. The sermon offers some reflections on that moment in time, “What I Learned in My Time as an Interim Pastor.”
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 99-100:
Jesus in the Wilderness; Exodus and Creation (6:31-56)But there is to be no rest, because the mob follows along and is soon demanding not only attention but food. Jesus and the disciples are so busy that they do not have time to eat (6:31). When the crowd follows them even to their wilderness retreat, we expect indignation on the part of Jesus, but instead he was moved with pity for them because they were as sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things (6:34). This shows that there is also pity in Mark’s dark vision of the mob. At the point where, in terms of the poetics of place, they have just expelled the scapegoat into the wilderness and even harried him in his place of retreat, the goat turns a pitying eye on his sheepish persecutors. They simply do not understand the source of sacred violence in themselves. In their victimization of others, they are the victims of their own self-deception through the double transference.
Then follow the miracles of the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water (6:35-52), which attest Jesus power over nature but which the disciples did not understand (6:52) because their hearts were hardened. This information is an invitation to probe deeper into the meaning of these texts, and the deeper disclosure of these miracle stories is the Exodus/creation theme established in the introduction. The feeding in the wilderness recalls the manna, and the walking on the sea recalls the passage of Israel dryshod through Red Sea waters. The way of the scapegoat is the way of Exodus and new creation.
The section ends with the by now typical scene of the crowd thronging around Jesus to be healed and blessed, the pitiful multitude that was as sheep without a shepherd (6:53-56). We have been warned, however, that the hearts of the disciples are hardened. There is much more to come that they will not understand.
2. Robert Beck, Nonviolent Story, has an excellent piece on Jesus’ power of healing in this part of Mark’s gospel, pp. 85-91. At one point, he quotes Mary ouglas on magical healing by shamans as “an instrument of mutual coercion, which only works when common consent upholds the system.” I think that Girardian Jean-Michel Oughourlian (co-author of Things Hidden…) has an enlightening discussion on these matters in Puppets of Desire.
3. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” offered in 2018 these reflections on the strange snippet of verses from Mark, “Storms and Feedings.”
Reflections and Questions
1. I began my 1991 sermon this way:
As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)
…and Jesus began to teach them….Wait a minute! Teach them? Does that follow his having compassion on the crowd? But that’s what it says: Jesus had compassion on them and began to teach them. Let’s try to get this straight: The fact that Jesus had compassion on the crowd would seem to say that he recognized that it was a group of hurting people in front of them. Most were poor, the product of failed leadership, sheep without a shepherd. Many probably were sick, desperately seeking the kind of miraculous healing that Jesus was rapidly becoming famous for. So with all these hurting, needy people in front of him, what was Jesus’ compassionate response? Miracles of healing is what I would expect. Even uplifting, inspiring words I could see. But teaching? That’s not what I’d expect.
What does teaching have to do with healing? How can hurting people learn their way out of hurting? Is this a disjunction, a non sequitur?
Girardian psychology might give us a clue both to these questions and to this chapter in Mark. One of the key insights of Girardian psychology is how to understand the many ways in which we become scandalized (from the Greek skandalon). When embroiled in the entrenched rivalries of metaphysical desire, we cause one another a lot of pain. We can literally make one another sick.
I think it is this kind of hurt that Jesus came to heal: “Blessed are those who are not scandalized by me” (Mt. 11:6; Lk. 7:23). In Mark 6 we are shown scandal in the first couple episodes. The people of Nazareth are scandalized by their hometown boy, and Jesus can do no healing there. Scandal and wholeness are opposites. And, in what appears to be another non sequitur (John the Baptist’s death happens earlier, so why does Mark insert it here?), we are told about the scandalous relationship between Herod and John and how it leads to the latter’s sacrifice.
2. What will bring people flocking to someone? The chance to have their hurts made whole. Who do people flock to for healing today? Not to people of the church. A.A., for example, is a community of healing that makes good use of what I would consider evangelical teaching, but these folks felt forced to meet outside churches because there they only met condemnation, people who were scandalized by their illness.