Last revised: September 15, 2018
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PROPER 19 (Sept. 11-17) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 24
RCL: Prov. 1:20-33; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
RoCa: Isaiah 50:4-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35
1. This third of the four Suffering Servant Songs in Second Isaiah receives general mention in numerous places in René Girard‘s corpus; one of the places where the songs are elaborated on to a greater extent is Things Hidden, pp. 155-158.
2. Tony Bartlett, the tenth study in a series on Second Isaiah (on 50:1-51:23). These studies are among the finest examples of how Mimetic Theory is a key to opening the revelation of Scripture.
3. Raymund Schwager has a section on the Songs in Must There Be Scapegoats?, pp.126-135, emphasizing the turning around of the theme of vengeance which is otherwise prominent in the OT. Link to an excerpt of this section on “The Suffering Servant.”
5. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 112, 156.
Reflections and Questions
1. The first part of this song takes up the theme of suffering violence rather than returning it; but the second portion is also crucial: the notion of vindication. Isaiah 50:8-9a: “he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” I find these verses reminiscent of both Job 19:25 (and so Girard’s chapter on this in his book on Job, pp. 139-145) and Romans 8:31-39. The notion of vindication that one finds here is quite prophetic of the Resurrection when it is seen as God the Father’s vindication of the Son. Raymund Schwager’s dramatic presentation of the Christ-event (cited above) presents the cross, to which Jesus willingly submitted himself ala the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 50, as our judgment; and the resurrection is God’s judgment on our judgment, the vindication of the one we had judged.
1. Is James making too big of a deal here about the dangers of the human tongue? I don’t think so. And once again I think that the Girardian anthropology can help us to better understand.
Let’s begin by putting this in the context of the Ten Commandments. A common Girardian reading of the Decalogue (see, for example, the Mabee comments on Deuteronomy two weeks ago, Proper 17B) observes the dual importance of the first and last commandments: human desire falls into covetousness by taking one another as our models for desiring instead of God. The Decalogue directs us to image God’s desire, to love God, as the key to finding our way out of covetousness. At the heart of the Decalogue lies the eventual consequences of failed resistence to covetousness: murder. We hurt one another. We strive for our own brand of unity based on scapegoating, propped up with idols who demand our sacred violence.
Just ‘inside’ the first and last commandments are two other lynchpins of this whole process: the making of our false idols who justify our violence, and our false accusations against those who become our scapegoats. It’s this latter issue which is so intimately connected with the human tongue. Girard’s theory about the beginnings of human culture do not require language. Human culture can begin with merely “accusatory gestures.” But, certainly, once human language is born into the systems of culture founded on the victimage mechanism, our tongues come to play the key role in making the accusations necessary for feeding the hell fires (of which this passage speaks) of our sacred violence.
2. Have you ever given a sermon on gossip? This might be the ideal occasion. Gossip may not be identical with the accusations feeding sacred violence, but it surely is closely related. Gossip might best be described as that which feeds the accusations which feed the fires of sacred violence. When gossip reaches a certain level of unanimity against its object, scapegoating often follows. Link to sermons on this theme from 2000 titled “Breaking a ‘Cycle of Nature,'” and 2003 entitled “Keeping the Eighth Commandment.”
3. Blessing the Lord while cursing those made in God’s image. The duality of blessing and cursing comes from the mythological realm of the sacred: the gods who visit us sow first curses (the chaos) and then blessings (the order which emerges from the chaos). It’s only natural that we should follow in their footsteps, with tongues that sow both blessings and curses. Unless you begin as the author of James did by proclaiming a different sort of God who only sows blessings: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
The Girardian anthropology helps to more clearly reveal the nature of our idolatry, our false religion with its gods who sow both blessings and curses. Those false gods actually descend from the scapegoating events of human beginnings. The one who was made the victim is blamed for more than his or her fair share of the chaos, thus seeming superhuman, a god. But when he or she is collectively murdered, there comes an awesome peace, which again seems superhuman. The victim of scapegoating is ‘interpreted’ as a god who visited us sowing chaos and then bringing order. Thus, our false gods of sacred violence are gods of this same duality of blessings and curses, sacred and profane. And we are disciples of these false gods of our own making. We spew curses, as well as blessings.
Only the grace of the cross and resurrection can penetrate such thick idolatry, revealing the nature of our sacred violence through the One upon who we spewed curses and mockery, the same One who spoke the blessings of forgiveness even while we cursed him.
1. This is the Gospel Lesson for Lent 2B, as well. See previous resources and reflections for Lent 2B.
2. A favorite topic of Girard‘s has become the combination of New Testament terms: devil, Satan, and skandalon, of which this passage bears import within that wider discussion. When Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” the Matthean parallel adds the dimension of skandalon: “You are a stumbling block to me!” (Mt. 16:23) One can find a discussion of these matters in almost everything Girard has written since Things Hidden. There is a particularly poignant passage from near the conclusion of Things Hidden, pp. 416-431. On skandalon and the cross, Girard has this to say (after quoting 1 Peter 2 on Christ the cornerstone which the builders had rejected):
The Cross is the supreme scandal not because on it divine majesty succumbs to the most inglorious punishment — quite similar things are found in most religions — but because the Gospels are making a much more radical revelation. They are unveiling the founding mechanism of all worldly prestige, all forms of sacredness and all forms of cultural meaning. The workings of the Gospel are almost the same, so it would seem, as workings of all earlier religions. That is why all our thinkers concur that there is no difference between them. But in fact this resemblance is only half the story. Another operation is taking place below the surface, and it has no precedence. It discredits and demonstrates all the gods of violence, since it reveals the true God, who has not the slightest violence in him. Since the time of the Gospels, mankind as a whole has always failed to comprehend this mystery, and it does so still. So no empty threat or gratuitous nastiness is involved in the text’s saying exactly what has always been happening and what will continue to happen, despite the fact that present-day circumstances combine to make the revelation ever more plain. For us, as for those who first heard the Gospel, the stone rejected by the builders has become the permanent stumbling block. By refusing to listen to what is being said to us, we are creating a fearsome destiny for ourselves. And there is no one, except ourselves, who can be held responsible. Christ plays this role for all who remain scandalized by the wisdom embodied in the text. His role, though understandable, is paradoxical, since he offers not the slightest hold to any form of rivalry or mimetic interference. There is no acquisitive desire in him. As a consequence, any will that is really turned toward Jesus will not meet with the slightest of obstacles. His yolk is easy and his burden is light. With him, we run no risk of getting caught up in the evil opposition between doubles. (pp. 429-430)
I find this paradoxical distinction important: modeling Jesus, who himself offers not the slightest of obstacles, can free the disciple of skandalon in his or her own life; yet the cross itself, and Christ as the Crucified One, is skandalon by virtue of what it reveals to us, i.e., the very process of skandalon that we do not want to hear or see. Doesn’t this describe the disciples very problem in Mark 8-10 as Jesus predicts his passion and tries to teach them about discipleship in terms of the scandal of the cross?
3. Other references from Girard to these matters which specifically include this Mark 8 passage (and/or its parallel in Mt. 16) are: his chapter on Peter in The Scapegoat (ch. 12; e.g., p. 157); and two articles reprinted in The Girard Reader (chs. 13-14); see a condensed version of his essay on Satan (excerpt). For more on skandalon, see “Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon.”
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 46-49. Hamerton-Kelly makes a similar move as Girard, in his chapter on Peter in The Scapegoat, by treating this passage through the lens of Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial in Mark 14:27-31, where Jesus tells Peter and the others that they will be scandalized over him.
5. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, takes this passage in Mark 8 as the centerpiece for his entire reading of Mark’s gospel (pp. 188-194). I recommend reading these pages as a way of seeing its relationship to the whole of Mark and the matter of Jesus’ identity according to Mark.
6. For more on the Girardian reading of the devil, Satan, and Scandal, Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 202-210; the sections “The Devil and Satan” and “Scandal.”
7. David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels, p. 34ff. makes reference to the Mathean parallel; his appendix gives a complete listing of skandalon in the NT (pp. 194-197).
8. James Alison picks up two further elements in this passage. In The Joy of Being Wrong, he comments on the necessity (Gr: dei) that Jesus must suffer:
The key word in this context is dei. All four Gospels show a clear understanding that Jesus must suffer (Matt. 16:21; 26:54; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44; John 3:14; 12:34). We see two reasons behind this “must”: so that the scriptures be fulfilled, (the “theological” reason), and because of the nature of the human order (the “anthropological” reason). Where it might be possible to read the necessity of fulfilling the scriptures as suggesting that there is some divine plan to kill Jesus, the tendency of Jesus’ own interpretations of this “must” is always towards the anthropological subversion of this understanding. The Gospels do not attempt to attribute this “necessity” to anything in God: when Jesus in his apocalyptic discourse(s) indicates that “all these things must come about,” he is referring to the cataclysmic convulsions of the human order which must not distract the disciples from their attention to the coming of the Son of man precisely as crucified and risen victim. The word dei in these contexts has a quite specific meaning: it refers to the necessity to which the human order, based on death, is in thrall. What enables Jesus to point this out is the willingness of divine gratuity to allow itself to suffer the consequences of this human order precisely so as to free it from the realm of the necessity of death. (pp. 171-172)
And Alison also picks up on the ending of this passage, when Jesus talks about not being ashamed of him (quoting Mark 8:38 on p. 182 of Raising Abel), in the context of discussing our eschatological glory, i.e., the matter of “Reputation and Shame.” The Greek doxa, “glory,” could be translated as “reputation.”
9. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 13, 2009 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
10. 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 these reflections on this passage in 2018, “On Carrying Crosses and Renouncing Them.”
11. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Jesus’ Crying Tree“; and in 2015, “A Love You Can’t Escape“; and an updated version in 2018, “A Love You Can’t Escape.”
Reflections and Questions
1. The anniversary of the terrible events of September 11, 2001 will forever now fall within this day in the church year. What significance does the cross bear toward such acts of sacred violence — and the acts of sanctioned violence in response? Mimetic theory puts the cross at the very center of understanding human violence.
2. September 11 also raises difficult questions regarding forgiveness. How does one forgive such heinous acts? This is where I think it is helpful to understand forgiveness as radical nonretaliation. It is not necessarily an attitude of one’s heart, that one can now have warm feelings towards those who have hurt you. Forgiveness is, first of all, the decision to relinquish vengeance, to not retaliate. At the first year anniversary, we were confronted with one of the most basic passages on forgiveness in the gospels, Matthew’s parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35). See the sermon for Proper 19A, “The Parable of the Servant Who Chooses Hell.”
3. The “must” connected with suffering is very important to grapple with. How often do we connect with our suffering a “must” that comes from God? The Alison passage above seeks to help us be clear about the fact that Christ’s suffering connects to a “must” that comes from our fallennes into mimetic rivalry and skandalon, not from God. Does this help sort through general issues of human suffering? I reflected on such matters in a sermon entitled “Setting Our Minds on Divine Things.”