Last revised: December 3, 2019
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PROPER 20 (Sept. 18-24) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 25
RCL: Prov. 31:10-31; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
RoCa: Wisdom 2:17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
This is the 9th week in a 2018 sermon series on the theme of healing tribalism. In the life of the congregation where this series was preached, it was also the first of a four-week emphasis on stewardship. In the context of the wider series, the first week of emphasis on stewardship begins with a return to the 2nd week, Proper 12B, on the theme of Scarcity Thinking vs. Abundance Thinking. When people are trapped in Scarcity Thinking, it is easy to fall prey to fear-mongering that leads a community deeper into tribalism — that our “tribes” compete for scarce resources. With the most oft-repeated story in the Gospels, the miraculous feeding of large crowds, Jesus manifests an Abundance Thinking that can lead to healing tribalism.
Today’s Gospel Reading brings us the next step to living out Abundance Thinking: by placing the concern for the most vulnerable among us. If the most vulnerable have enough, then everyone does.
Then Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:36-37)
By placing the most vulnerable in their midst, the middle of the circle, Jesus is turning inside out the usual human power structures. Instead of the most rich and powerful at the middle of things, with the most vulnerable on the margins, Jesus places the vulnerable one in the middle. It is a view of justice that follows the line of thinking that, “I do not have enough unless everyone has enough.” This requires Abundance Thinking, rather than Scarcity Thinking, and leads to responding to the concerns of the least in Jesus’ family as the ordering principle in a community’s politics (Matt. 25:31-46). The New Reformation advocates for a politics and economics that places the child, the most vulnerable, at the midst of our concern. See notes for 2018 sermon for Proper 20B.
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 75. In a section titled “The Son Man Who Is Handed Over,” Schwager goes over the OT background of “Son of Man.” He begins by noting an abundance of apocalyptic literature in which God will destroy his enemies at the coming of the Messiah. But then he turns to a surprisingly substantial tradition of one sent from God who suffers violence from God’s enemies. There are several psalms he cites, and then he says this:
In the last two centuries before Christ, at the latest, the hope became alive among the devout people of Israel that God would even rescue from death the just who have been persecuted and killed and give them heavenly glory. There is talk of a just man in the book of Wisdom who calls God his father and for that reason is persecuted by the evil-doers. They want to examine him scornfully, to find out if he is really “Son of God,” and to see if God snatches him from their hands (Wisd. 2:18). At the judgment these evil-doers discover to their horror that he whom they have persecuted is counted among the “sons of God” (Wisd. 5:5). While they themselves pass away “like the smoke which the storm dispels,” the just receive the “kingdom of splendor” (Wisd. 5:14, 16).
1. The Greek word translated as “selfish ambition” (NRSV) in 3:14, 16 is eritheia. It appears in five other places in the NT: Rom. 2:8; 2 Co. 12:20; Gal. 5:20; Phil. 1:17; Phil. 2:3. The NRSV translates the two Philippians occurrences also as “selfish ambition,” but translates the first three as “self-seeking,” “selfishness,” and “quarrels,” respectively. The RSV translates it most often as “selfishness” and the KJV as “strife.” It is a rare word with some debate over its origins. Some say it is from eris, “strife”; others think St. Paul mistakenly thought it derived from eris and used it in his lists of vices. The other candidate for derivation is erithos, meaning “common laborer.” In the latter case, it has the sense of “baseness,” a derogatory view of common people living basely for self. So the two translations, depending on choice of derivation, would seem to be “selfishness” or “strife.” It is interesting that with mimetic theory the choice isn’t so important because selfishness is the source of strife, covetousness the source of rivalry. Perhaps Paul and James (the two NT writers who used this term) understood the connection in using it.
2. zealos (3:14, 16) is not the more specific Greek word for “jealousy” and “envy,” which is phthonoi. zealos carries the more ambiguous sense of “zeal,” a strong desire that can be either positively or negatively regarded. It is translated negatively in the NRSV here as “envy.” In fact, most of the 24 occurrences in the NT carry the negative connotation.
3. hadona (4:1, 3), “cravings,” is, I believe, the Greek root for “hedonism.”
4. epithymeo (4:2) is perhaps the Greek word par excellence for mimetic desire. It connotates a strong longing and is often translated as “covet,” used in scripture for the tenth commandment. It is related to two other suggestive Girardian words: thyma is “sacrifice” and thymos is “anger.” For more on epithymeo see Proper 18A.
5. phthonoi which is more regularly used in the negative sense of jealousy and envy may have a positive sense in 4:5, one of the verses omitted from the lection. The ambiguous word order permits two very different translations: “God jealously (phthonoi) longs for the spirit that he made to live in us” or “the spirit God caused to live in us longs jealously.” The NRSV translates it in the former sense; the NIV in the latter. What a difference! And it would seem to be a key for translating this passage. The first option would seem to use envy or mimetic desire in a positive sense for God’s longing for us; this would be the mimetic desire that Jesus pioneered for us that we might have our desire turned in the right direction. The second option would seem to tell us what we already know, that we are mimetically desiring creatures; but is it also blaming God? Or could we put the positive twist that St. Augustine puts on it in the opening prayer of his Confessions: “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” The spirit which God made to live in us longs restlessly to dwell in God’s spirit — but until it does so we are creatures who long jealously.
Reflections and Questions
1. The week we began our reading through James, I commented, “The Epistle of James strikes me as intuitively understanding the workings of mimetic desire well.” This week’s lection is probably the prime example. James 4:1 gets right to the heart of the matter that mimetic theory puts before us: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” But this could still be taken in the wrong (i.e., romantic) sense of having these cravings within us that we only need to learn how to control. That’s why I see the translation of 4:5 as crucial (see #5 under exegesis above). It can be read as simply God making us as these bundles of cravings that get us in trouble. Or it can be read in the light of mimetic theory as God’s desiring that we can mimetically appropriate in order to extricate us from the situation of conflict. Again, though, James leaves out Christ (Luther’s chief complaint). Can we mimetically desire what God desires without Christ as mediator of that desire?
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 107-108 on “The Inclusive Circle Around the Victim (9:33-37).” Hamerton-Kelly infers a circle from the placing of the child “in the middle.” The following is one of my favorite passages in the book:
The poetics of place are essential in the communicative strategy of this determinative pericope. They take us to the sacred center and show us there that the Sacred has been dethroned by the Servant. Jesus and the disciples are in Capernaum, in a house, and Jesus takes his place as teacher by sitting down. The disciples have been engaged in the old argument of envy about who is the greatest in their little universe (9:34). Jesus calls them into a circle around him (we infer the circle from the placing of the child “in the middle”), and teaches by word and deed. By word he says, “If anyone desires to be first he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (9:35). Then he teaches by deed what it means to be the servant of all, first taking a child and placing it in their midst, and then taking it up in his arms, with the words, “Whoever receives one such little one in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives not me but the one who sent me” (9:36-37). To receive rather than to expel is the mark of the new community of the kingdom.The message in the symbol of the child is that preeminent dignity in the kingdom goes to the one who is “last of all and the servant of all” (9:35). Jesus’ dramatic gesture of taking a child into his arms says that the greatest in the kingdom is the one who can receive those who have no power or prestige as if they were Jesus himself (9:37). This humility is clearly an antidote to the mimetic rivalry present in the disciples’ argument about who among them is the greatest.
The poetics of place locate this act of inclusion at the center of space — in the town, in the house, in the circle, in the arms of Jesus. At the center, where in Sacred terms the holy absence skulks, sits Jesus with a child in his arms. The place at the center of the circle is the place of the victim during a stoning. Jesus and the child take that place. The gesture of taking the little one into his arms reverses the order of the Sacred. It dramatizes the inclusiveness of the new community by embracing rather than stoning or expelling the powerless one.
By means of this symbol and these poetics of space, the Gospel tells us that the new community replaces the conspiracy of the Sacred by neutralizing the power of envy. In the conspiracy of the sacred mob, envy binds the members to one another in the scandalous bonds of rivalry and desire. No one can be found caring for the victim or siding with the weak, because that would be surrendering in the battle for prestige. The Gospel declares that such defeat is not loss but real preeminence in the order of the new community. The pericope of the child at the center is the summary symbol of the church as the nonsacrificial community. (p. 108)
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 24, 2006 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
3. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Is There a Remedy for Rivalry?; and in 2015, “Welcoming the Vulnerable.”
4. 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, “Care for the Small Child.” Also related is a St. Gregory Day post on Luke’s version of this passage, “The Servant of the Servants of God.”
Reflections and Questions
1. I have come to see the scene of Jesus setting the child in our midst as Mark’s version of what we see in Matthew 25:31-46. Welcoming the child as welcoming Jesus is akin to feeding the hungry as feeding Jesus. It is about the turning inside-out of the human power structure, focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable rather than on the most powerful. Do we currently live in a Corporate form of capitalism that focuses on the needs of the most powerful?
2. In 2012 this text fell within a series on the theme of “Discipleship 101,” using the Gospels from Mark 8-10. I had also sent out a pastoral letter on centering our discipleship on God’s Way of justice and peace in Jesus Christ. My colleague had started the series on last week’s Gospel, where Jesus asks the crucial question of discipleship, “Who do you say that I am?” I began my sermon with that question as one that raises for our discipleship, “Which Jesus Do We Follow?”
3. Mark 9:30-31 is the briefest version of the passion predictions (cf., 8:31-32 and 10:32-34). But the most striking difference is in whose hands the Son of Man is betrayed. The first and third predictions emphasize the list of Jewish authorities. Here, the Son of Man is betrayed simply into the hands of anthropos, “humanity,” which could be read as the most universalized statement of Jesus’ betrayal. Or it at least makes it clear that Jesus’ betrayal is not by some demonic or divinized force. The responsibility lies in human hands.
4. As with both the other two passion predictions, it is immediately followed by an occasion of misunderstanding on the part of the disciples and a response from Jesus of giving instruction aimed at their misunderstanding. Interestingly, Luke repeats this argument over who’s the greatest immediately following the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Mark also amplifies it, following the third passion prediction with the vying for position by the Sons of Zebedee and then the reaction by the rest of the disciples. Mimetic rivalry among the disciples is a poignant theme in the synoptic gospels, a foil for our Lord who came to serve us. Serving one another would seem to be the remedy for mimetic rivalry.
5. Jesus uses the child as an object lesson for his disciples. Today, we often use object lessons to help the children understand, but here Jesus is using a child to help the adults understand. The familiar words about welcoming children, often quoted out of context, are about what the disciples need to do to stop their fighting about who’s first: they need to focus on the least of this world. Link here to a sermon on this theme entitled “Stop Fighting … by Welcoming Children.”