Proper 17B

Last revised: August 26, 2015
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PROPER 17 (Aug. 28-Sept. 3) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 22
RCL: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
RoCa: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8


1. Charles Mabee, “Text as Peacemaker: Deuteronomic Innovations in Violence Detoxification,” from Violence Renounced, edited by Willard Swartley. As the title indicates, he wants to present Deuteronomy as a text that can lead us into peacemaking. He begins by noting the prominence of the Decalogue and its movement from the exclusive sovereignty of Yahweh to stipulations concerning coveting and desiring in human community.

…In other words, the Deuteronomic prescription for social solidarity and peaceful coexistence begins at this crucial point of redirecting desire toward Yawweh rather than (things of) the other (personified as the neighbor’s wife) and the property of the other (house, field, slave, ox, donkey, and the like).Presupposed here is the anthropological perspective that human beings have the capacity to “choose” Yahweh, and that this choice breaks the back of misdirected human desire. In Deuteronomic theology, this capacity to choose Yahweh is based on Yahweh’s prior choice of Israel….

…In other words, Yahweh’s choice of Israel has theological priority over the “natural” human desire of its people, and thereby becomes the key to transform their human desire from an evil into a good, or into a choice for Yahweh…. In this way, Deuteronomy can best be understood as a catechetical handbook designed to instruct the community of faith in the fundamentals of life liberated from the drive of destructive coveting and desiring which always lies embedded in the soul of human society. (pp. 73-74)

The key movement which Mabee points to is the observation at the end of Deuteronomy about Moses’ death that: “no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deut. 34:6b). What an extraordinary contrast to the prominence of the tomb in primitive religion of the Sacred! It signals in Yahwistic religion the replacement of the tomb with the text as the new center of religion. The prophet and scribe replace the priest-kings as central figures. Mabee writes:

By eliminating the tomb of its “heroic” founder and opposing the mythological Anakim [Deut. 1:28], the Deuteronomic writers in effect propose the written text as a weapon of peace (replacing the weapons of war), as the new means to effect social change. The hero forces social change based on impostion; Deuteronomy relies solely on the catechetical tools of teaching and persuasion and places the fundamental motivation of war — vengeance — out of human hands and under divine control. (p. 77)

Reflections and Questions

1. Interesting are the omitted verses, 3-5, which include the following: (Deut. 4:3-4) “You have seen for yourselves what the LORD did with regard to the Baal of Peor–how the LORD your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, while those of you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive today.” The incident referred to at Peor is recorded in Numbers 25, when Phinehas does the Lord’s work by scapegoating Zimri and Cozbi, running them through with a sword. In other words, Moses backs up these commandments with a threat of sacred violence. (Gil Bailie has some good explications of Numbers 25 in several of his audio tape series.)

2. Moses says that nothing is to be added nor subtracted from these commandments. When Jesus speaks against the purity laws in Mark 7, is he adding or subtracting from the mosaic law? Or has the Pharisean practice of the mosaic law added things that Jesus is rightly challenging?


James 1:17-27

Reflections and Questions

1. The Epistle of James strikes me as intuitively understanding the workings of mimetic desire well. Unfortunate, perhaps, is that our reading of this epistle begins at verse 17. Here are the five verses which immediately precede it:

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved. (James 1:12-16)

Is this a summary of the Girardian anthropology? It counsels that we be aware of our tendency to project our misplaced desire onto God, i.e., false gods, and that yielding to these temptations leads to death. Having exposed our tendency to false gods the epistle carries on with a proclamation of the true God.

2. Already in 1:17-18 I think we have the demythologized experience of God as pure graciousness — “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Is this like 1 John 1:5 and its proclamation that God is light, with not darkness at all? I take it that way. And in 1997 I gave a sermon on these two verses, entitled “Being First Fruits, Giving First Fruits,” that gives a basic outline of why I think Girard’s work (without mentioning him by name) is so important to theology and the church.


Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


1. James Alison, Raising Abel. Mark 7 is cited in two different places, on p. 87 in talking about the weirdness of the kingdom, and on p. 103 in an extended discussion on the Peter and Cornelius story in Acts 10. The latter passage connects Jesus’ teachings about impurity from Mark 7 with what Peter had to learn again in his encounter with a Gentile. Does Mark make this same connection by placing the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile immediately following it?

2. One of my favorite treatments of this passage is David McCracken‘s in The Scandal of the Gospels, though it is quite different than most approaches. McCracken (in the first section of ch. 2, pp. 14-22) deals with the Markan parallel in Matthew 15 and reads the two adjoining stories together, i.e., the debate with the Pharisees over ritual purity and the jousting with the Syro-Phoenician woman that follows. McCracken begins with a Matthean addition to the Markan narrative: Jesus’ disciples raise the concern to Jesus that he offended (skandalizomai) the Pharisees (Mt. 15:12). We thus have two consecutive stories in which Jesus says things to offend his listeners (e.g., calling the woman a dog in the second story) but gets two quite different responses. The Pharisees do, in fact, take offense; but the Canaanite woman continues to respond with faith, for which her daughter is healed. Here is the core of McCracken’s argument:

The Pharisees are offended; the Canaanite woman is not offended. The stark contrast is revelatory, for the opposite of offense [skandalon] is faith, but the only way to faith is through the possibility of offense.The central issue of this passage is usually defined as the primacy of Jesus’ mission to the Jews and his struggle between that mission and a possible mission to the Gentiles. But this issue is an offensive vehicle for raising a large question about cleanness and defilement, and Jesus has been at pains, in spite of repeated misunderstanding, to redefine the distinction between cleanness and defilement on the basis of what “proceeds from the heart.” Jesus says of the Pharisees that “their hearts are far from [God],” but the Canaanite woman’s heart is with her daughter and with the Son of David, who can heal her daughter. The central issue of this passage is not Jesus’ mission to Jews versus Gentiles; it is not even cleanness versus defilement. The central issue is offense versus faith. And it is posed in a highly offensive way: pious and law-abiding Pharisees lack faith, and a Gentile dog has great faith. What Jesus said to John the Baptist’s disciples in Matthew 11:6 broods over this narrative as a kind of suspended challenge to characters in the text and to readers of the text: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (p. 19)

I think this reading works for Mark, too, even though Matthew heightens the tension by adding the word “offense” and making the meaning of the passage more transparent. I think that the basic contrast between these two stories still holds true in Mark.

3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 38. Schwager cites Mark 7 a couple lines before what I think is one of Schwager’s most important points about the distinctiveness of Jesus’ message: “In his basileia message, salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places.” It angered the Pharisees that Jesus so easily forgave sins without any apparent repentance as precondition for God’s granting of forgiveness. Jesus appears to have reversed the order: free granting of forgiveness creates the possibility of true repentance. Here’s the more complete context, the concluding paragraphs to a section entitled “God’s Turning toward His Enemies”:

In order fully to grasp the forgiveness of sins by means of the basileia message, a comparison with the temple cult is indispensable. Since the preaching of the prophets, particularly since the time of the exile, the Jews had an acute consciousness of sin and of the necessity for atonement. The latter was carried out in countless guilt and atonement sacrifices, but especially, as Leviticus 16:1-34 shows, in the celebration of the great Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when the high priest, the people, the temple, and the altar were purified by sacrifice and the rite of the scapegoat. In fact Jesus never attacked the prestige of the temple and he had a positive relationship to it as “house of prayer” (Mark 11:17). But there is nowhere any indication that he granted the sacrificial cult an importance for salvation. In his proclamation of the kingdom of God and his turning toward sinners he must therefore have claimed de facto those functions which up until then fell to the temple cult. Thus he extended reconciliation not only to those pious people who followed the many prescriptions of the law, but especially to those sinners who did not know or hardly knew the law.Something similar can be seen in Jesus’ position toward the law and the Sabbath command. The position that he consciously set aside the law and ignored or even eliminated the purity regulations must be viewed as an exaggeration, for the early Jewish-Christian community could not, as Bultmann remarked, “possibly have taken for granted the loyal adherence to the law and defended it against Paul, if Jesus had combated the authority of the law.” It would be most accurate to say that he introduced a significant shift concerning the law. He emphasized the inner sense of the law to such an extent that the external letter of the law, for example on the purity prescriptions (Mark 7:15-23), could fade into the background and practically lose its importance. Thus it became possible to take the step across the sacred boundary toward sinners. Neither did Jesus demand any spiritual practice of the law before he extended God’s mercy to sinners. In his basileia message, salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places. It is consequently not decisive for Jesus’ attitude toward the law that we answer the disputed question whether and how he was able to disregard this or that regulation. His interpretation of the law must above all be seen in connection with his turning to those without the law and with his proclamation of God, which distinguished him from the exclusive rigorism of the Qumran sects and brought him as well into difficulties with the Pharisees.

In the parables of God’s kingdom, in his dealings with the temple and the law, and in his relationship to sinners, Jesus gave expression to his heavenly Father as a God who turns in a new way toward sinners. Herein lay the deepest dimension of his message of the dawning kingdom of God, and it is from that point that his further proclamation and his life’s destiny should be interpreted. (pp. 37-39)

4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 100-101. Hamerton-Kelly has a good, summary introduction:

According to our theory, ritual distinctions are made by the violence of the Sacred, and are particularly violent when they define the group by exclusion of the scapegoat individual or the scapegoat group. The following pericopes proclaim the removal of ritual distinctions among peoples and the possibility of an inclusive community.

Most important to me, however, is his explanation of the parabolic ending that uses metaphors of in and out. The first thing that struck me from a Girardian viewpoint is that Jesus’ metaphors of in and out do not coincide with that of mimetic desire, which essentially blurs the boundaries between inner and outer. Our rivalrous desires reside in triangular relationships that do not fit strict spatializations between inner and outer (more below). But Hamerton-Kelly reads this passage as “a specific rejection of the Sacred in the form of food ritual” (p.101). Crucial are some of the verses omitted from the lection that speak about excrement, the digestive images making it clear that it is a matter having to do with food taboos. So, says Hamerton-Kelly,

to make the metaphor work, one must restrict its negative reference to ritual having to do with food. The point is not a universal one, therefore; it is specifically directed at food taboos. Food goes into the belly and not the heart and therefore it cannot defile. Bad intentions come from the heart and they defile. The implication is that the Pharisees and scribes who challenge Jesus on these ritual matters are defiled by malice, while he and his disciples are undefiled because ritually impure food cannot defile.

If one tries to generalize these metaphors, I think it can lead to some big trouble (see below under reflections).

5. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story, chapter 4, “The Symbolism of Power.” See Epiphany 5B for an introduction to this chapter, where Beck traces a basic challenge by Jesus against the powers in terms of purity rules. The climax, or most direct challenge to those rules, comes in this story.

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 this passage in 2015, “What Really Makes Us Clean?“.

Reflections and Questions

1. This text is one that Mimetic Theory sheds a great deal of light on. As evangelical anthropology, it helps us to understand the way in which the structures of human culture as mistaken as structures ordered by the gods of sacred violence. Jesus and his disciples disregard many of these human constructs, naming them as human traditions instead of God’s Torah.

I think we are at the heart of the matter that Jesus came to redeem us from, when he ushers in God’s Culture (or “Kingdom”) as distinctly different than all human cultures. In God’s culture, things are based on creation (nature, natural) and not humanly constructed differences — differences which we are relatively blind to as being our human construction. The central idolatry of human beings is such that we construct cultural differences and think they are made so by the gods. In short, we see them as natural, as god-created, blind to the fact that they are cultural. Every group of people thinks that they are made by god to be distinctive and superior to other groups of people — unless they have lived under the oppression of one group for so long that they have come to see themselves as inferior. This is the way human cultures have operated from the beginning. Only God’s Culture in Jesus the Messiah is truly different — and the prophetic anticipation of the Messiah that one sees summed up in a verse like Hosea 6:6: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Here’s the point: Living into God’s Culture is a long, yet unfinished process. It began with the prophetic anticipation of the Jewish prophets, came to full revelation in Jesus the Messiah, and is continuing to be worked out in history through the power of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit.

What about the earlier traditions of Moses? Do we see in this passage from Mark Jesus guiding us to see the law of Moses as fulfilled and even “abolished” (Eph. 2:15)? I think that in Leviticus and Deuteronomy we see, from the Chritian perspective, much of the Holiness Code as more of human culture than God’s Culture. And we become aware of a blindness to the fact that even the ceremonial and ritual aspects are of human beings and not of God. In light of the the anthropology of Mimetic Theory there is the recognition that all ancient peoples saw cultural order as given by god, so they treated all things cultural as god-made, making no distinctions between laws of human culture vs. God’s law.

Let me go to my favorite example once again (imitiating James Alison), namely, John 9. (For more on John 9 see Lent 4A.) The way that Jews of Jesus’ day treated disabled people, like the man born blind, was bound up with the ritual and ceremonial cleanliness of the Holiness Code (and the traditions Jesus is debating in Mark 7). The man born blind was shunned as ritually and ceremonial unclean. Their neglect of him was a cultural arrangement, not based on nature. But notice the moral overlay that Jesus’ disciples immediately place over this man’s disability: did he sin or his parents sin that he was born blind? They saw the cultural and the moral as completely bound together because they saw all things as god-given. God made both the ceremonial laws and the moral laws — God made the laws period — so even something that derived from ceremonial laws was mistakenly given a moral interpretation as part of the rightness or wrongness built into creation.

With the New Testament and Jesus (and with the Jewish prophets to some extent in anticipation of the Messiah’s full revelation) we finally begin to make more clear the distinction between cultural law and moral law based more truly in nature. That’s why we need to read Leviticus and Deuteronomy through the lens of Christ who came to teach us this distinction that had even been missing yet in his own people, the people which the true God was taking on this journey of discovery.

Does Mark 7 give us all the relevant information we need to know to make distinctions between human cultural laws and God’s moral universe? No. As I said earlier, this process of discovery is a long, ongoing one that began with the Jewish prophets in anticipation of the Messiah, came to full revelation in the Messiah, and is continuing to be worked out in the historical particulars of human cultures through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. Jesus gave us the basic principles, but he couldn’t yet give us every single application of the principles, largely because human history and culture is still unfolding. He couldn’t explain to us yet, for example, that the cultural invention of the airplane, and the kind of technologies which yield that, do not make one group of peoples superior to another, and so a justification for using those airplanes as weapons to oppress other groups. He couldn’t give us that application because airplanes hadn’t been invented yet, even though we desperately needed his Holy Spirit to get that through to us even today, since we clearly use our technologies as justifications to rule over other peoples that don’t have the same level of technological advancement.

Let me give several other examples. I brought up John 9 and the disciples’ moral reaction to the man born blind. The tragic thing is that disciples of Jesus have not stopped following in the disciples’ footsteps in this instance until fifty years ago!! It’s only in the last fifty years that Christian cultures have finally begun to treat disabled persons differently. Up until recently, we continued to see disabled persons as god-made, part of the moral rightness or wrongness of the creation, so we also saw ourselves as morally justified in continuing to neglect them, largely shunting them into institutions. We’ve finally, through the work of the Holy Spirit, been able to apply the principle Jesus is teaching in John 9 such that we finally see the improper treatment of disabled persons as part of our cultural arrangements instead of the god-made creation. We no longer see their neglect as morally justifiable by “orders of creation,” and instead make cultural arrangements to help them flourish as children of God equal to us, not as inferiors.

This is even more striking when considering disabilities such Down Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy. In each of these cases, until fifty years ago, they were allowed to die untreated; and if they survived for any length of time, they were terribly neglected in large institutions of human waste — a truly meaningful use of the word Gehenna, the landfill outside of Jerusalem which we translate as “hell.” I think of my colleague in graduate school at Michigan State with severe Cerebral Palsy. He had to hire people to feed him and bath him and take care of most of his bodily needs. He worked on inventing ways of communicating with others because he could not talk with recognizable words. In previous times, he would have languished in one of those institutions. In our day, cultural arrangements were made for him such that he could flourish as much as possible, receiving a Master’s Degree in Communication.

While I’m on a role with the last fifty years, let’s talk for a moment about sexism and racism. We are finally coming to see that the place of women and People of Color in our white male societies have been a matter of culture and not of god-given rights of one group being able to dominate the other group because they were supposedly made by god to be superior. Until the last fifty years, we were unable to distinguish our sexist and racist laws as cultural and not moral. We had to have what we considered a moral explanation or we couldn’t possibly have gone on treating people so horribly and unjustly. We white males told ourselves that god had made us superior so that we could go on taking our superior positions culturally while continuing to believe that such superior cultural positioning was ordained by god as part of the natural and moral fiber of the universe. We were still blind to such arrangements as cultural and not natural.

2. A final example deserves its own numbered paragraph. While the last fifty years has brought major movement with regard to sexism, racism, and discrimination against disabled persons, the nation has seemingly become stuck on issues of marriage for GLBT people. I see allowing gay brothers and sisters in Christ to marry is part of this ongoing process of discovery of what is cultural-based rather something justified by saying god made it that way. And in all of these examples, Scripture has been liberally quoted in support of the oppressive practice. We’ve had to let go of those parts of Scripture in order to let the Holy Spirit teach us another true application of the principles Jesus came to teach us, principles that finally help us to correctly distinguish human culture, which is a human creation, and God’s culture as based truly in creation.

That’s why I don’t see these issues as peripheral either, when some lament that they ‘get in the way’ of more important issues. I see them as at the very heart of the revelation Jesus came to reveal, and the truly inclusive Culture of God into which Jesus invites us.

3. What can happen if the metaphors about outside and inside are overly generalized or spiritualized? (See the Hamerton-Kelly piece above which resists this temptation.) I think one of the terrible dangers is to bolster the kind of doctrine of original sin that has given that doctrine a “bad name” in the modern world, leading to its wholesale rejection in many circles. What happens is the kind of discussion about sin that draws definite boundaries between inner and outer. Some want to ban the outer corruptions and temptations: alcohol and drugs, pornography, guns, etc. These things from ‘outside’ are the source of sin. Others respond with the ‘No, guns don’t kill people, people do’ sort of logic, placing the blame on our inner human nature. With this latter tactic one then hears statements such as “Within every human being is a cesspool of sin.” “It’s original sin,” they claim, “we’re all rotten to the core.” But I think Hamerton-Kelly is correct with his reading. Jesus does not generalize that the source of our sin resides inside of us, that it’s somehow part of our inner nature.

And here is where I think that a Girardian reading of original sin has great advantages. It works around the strict inner-outer sort of dialectic by making the fall into sin something that happens in the relationships between people. In this respect it is akin to gravity. In the Aristotelian physics, the property of falling to the earth was an inherent quality in each object as part of its Final Cause given to it by God. In the Newtonian physics, gravity becomes a forcefield that isn’t strictly inner or outer but resides in the relationships between objects. It surrounds them. I think that a Girardian view of original sin is more of this nature as it follows the nature of mimetic desire. The source of sin lies neither strictly in the objects of desire (e.g., alcohol, pornography, guns, etc.) nor in the persons themselves. It lies in the fallen nature of the relationships of desire between people. It lies in the fact that we model one another’s desires rather than God’s loving desire for all of Creation. And so we have mimetically fallen into desiring that is rivalrous, covetous, conflictual; and we can’t get out on our own. It takes the incarnation of the One who came to perfectly model the desire of his heavenly Father.

Most important is that mimetic theory gives us a picture of original sin that requires outside, gracious intervention, yet is not inherent to us. Original sin is not something internal, not something we are born with; rather, as we proclaim in our Lutheran Book of Worship baptismal liturgy (p. 121: “We are born children of a fallen humanity”), it is something we are born into (like we are born into the forcefield of the earth’s gravity). The mimetic nature of desire accounts for how it can be hopelessly fallen, save for a divine intervention into the fallenness. As fellow creatures, “peers,” we lack the proper ‘distance’ from the model, who thus always also becomes the rival. We have no models of a non-rivalrous desire until Christ enters the picture. In the special (Trinitarian!) relationship that Jesus had with his heavenly Father, we finally have a human (peer) model for us of non-rivalrous desire. Jesus perfectly acted according to his Father’s will without becoming his rival. Through the Holy Spirit this same non-rivalrous desire can be mediated to us, redeeming us from the fallen desiring of the “original sin” which has otherwise been mimetically passed on through the ages.

Here’s one more plug for James Alison‘s The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. It is a tremendously important piece of theologizing that can help clear up the kind of debate over the doctrine of original sin that I have alluded to here.


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