Last revised: December 3, 2019
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PROPER 21 (Sept. 25-Oct. 1) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 26
RCL: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
RoCa: Numbers 11:25-29; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In this 8th week of a 2018 sermon series on the theme of healing tribalism (begun July 22), it is time to have a serious look at “hell.” Mark 9:38-50 has the most dense usage of Gehenna, the Greek word translated as “hell,” in the New Testament (3 times in 3 verses; more below). Here’s the bottom line in light of our theme of healing tribalism: the traditional view of “hell” as a place of eternal punishment in the afterlife represents an ultimate version of tribalism! The afterlife is seen as making the sorting of Us vs. Them an eternal reality. To this point in the series, we have characterized the conventional view of the afterlife as ‘not all wrong but rather limited.’ Our view of ‘going to heaven when we die’ is just a portion of the expansive Christian hope for New Creation. But this week we must confront the corollary of ‘some people go to hell when they die’ as not just wrong but counter to the gospel as the healing of tribalism. God cannot both be creating one new humanity out of two (Eph. 2) and then eternally separating two groups of humanity in the afterlife.
So then what does Jesus mean by Gehenna, “hell”? Our proposal is that Gehenna, as the infamous place of child sacrifice in the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Chron. 28:3 and 33:6; Jer. 7:30-32; 19:1-6; 32:35), names precisely the most terrible sacrificial consequences of our enslavement to tribalism. We might suggest Auschwitz or Hiroshima as equivalent places today. Jesus is saying, translated into a similar idiom today, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Auschwitz, to the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43).
Here, we walk a tightrope of Jesus opening the door to, in light of Mimetic Theory, a lesser form of sacrifice. It is better to cut off a hand if it helps you not end up with child sacrifice. Yet there is also a grotesqueness about this notion that suggests it is a hyperbolic way of saying we need to ultimately avoid all forms of sacrifice. This is more clear in the other most dense usage of “hell” in the New Testament:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matt. 5:21-22)
Here we are counseled not to a lesser sacrifice such as cutting of a hand or foot but to not even get angry at a brother or sister. How can we not even angry?! By understanding how the dynamics of mimetic desire lead us down the path to tribalism, to thinking constantly in terms of us vs. them, or me vs. him/her. The antidote? A spirituality of awareness of our fallen way of tribalistic thinking enslaved to envy and resentment.
In 2015 a quote caught my eye from the person who is arguably most responsible for reviving in our time ancient practices of spirituality that help redeem us fallen mimetic desire. Pope Francis visited the United States and gave an unprecedented speech to Congress, in which he quotes Thomas Merton whose use of the word “hell” fits Mimetic Theory’s reading of Jesus in passages like today’s Gospel:
I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.
Jesus is the Child of God who comes into this world able to defeat the fallenness of mimetic desire such that we now have a model for the redemption of our desiring and the hell of ensuing sacrificial violence. We don’t have to settle for lesser forms of sacrifice as we find ourselves increasingly able to live in Jesus’ Spirit of love.
The sermon for this day in 2018 followed this movement from reinterpreting hell to the hyperbole of lesser sacrifice to the antidote of contemplative spirituality; Proper 21B Sermon Notes (2018).
(Note: Proper 21B became the 8th week in the 2018 sermon series by virtue of a swap with the Proper 20B readings to make them the first week in a four week emphasis on stewardship — and thus the 9th week in the series on tribalism. In short, talking about hell was not a good start to talking about stewardship!)
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
1. The “seventy elders of Israel” who are gathered by Moses in Numbers 11:24 have already made an appearance in Exodus 24:9 — “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up” — the very important passage in which the covenant is ratified with dramatic blood sacrifices.
2. “had a strong craving” in verse 4. The translation does not convey the doubling up of a verb/noun of the same root in the Hebrew, awa. The original text, in other words, doubles the same word in its noun and verb forms. In English it would be something like “they desired a desire.” The LXX translation does follow the Hebrew by doubling one of our favorite Girardian verb/noun word forms in the Greek with epethymasan epithymian (see the comments on James 4:2 last week). awa is another word for desire in the Hebrew; the typical word for “covet” is hamad. Interestingly, both of these words appear in the Deuteronomic version of the last commandmant (Deut. 5:21). This same doubling technique of awa (and epithymia) is used in Psalm 106:14: “But they had a wanton craving in the wilderness, and put God to the test in the desert” — apparently referring back to this Numb. 11:4 passage. (For more on epithymia see Proper 18A.)
1. This story is sometimes cited as another example, in addition to Luke’s quote of Joel 2, of OT precedent for the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2). For more on this expanded sense of “prophet” from a Girardian — and, I think, Lukan — perspective, see Pentecost B.
2. I assume this lesson was chosen to go along with the first part of the Gospel lesson against exclusivism in using the power of Jesus’ name. But it goes just as well with the Second Lesson.
1. For the last segment in a serial reading, one would never know its selection is independent. It seems to have been chosen to go with the theme of the other two lessons, giving many examples of how we are called to be ministers to one another. It would be a good day to preach on the theme of “priesthood of all believers.”
1. Mark does not use the noun form skandalon (which otherwise appears 15 times in the NT) but uses the verb form skandalizo (29 total occurrences in the NT; 14 in Matthew; 2 in Luke) in the following 8 places: Mk. 4:17; Mk. 6:3; Mk. 9:42; Mk. 9:43; Mk. 9:45; Mk. 9:47; Mk. 14:27; Mk. 14:29. Our text for the day carries the highest concentration of Mark’s usage of skandalizo. The other three uses are as follows: (NRS Mark 4:17) “But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” This is Jesus’ description of the rocky soil in the Parable of the Sower, which in Mark’s gospel is epitomized by the disciples, especially Peter. This parabolic description essentially is fulfilled by the disciples’ own “falling away” during the passion, which Jesus predicts using the same term: (NRS Mark 14:27-29) And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Mark’s other use of skandalizo outside of today’s passage comes in 6:3: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
2. Some commentators say that the word group of skandal originally referred to a “trap” — more specifically, a trap’s tripping mechanism. skandalethron was the stick on which the bait was placed, that when touched, tripped the trap. This would go well with Girard’s notion of skandalon as both positive and negative. A trap is alluring before it snags its prey.
3. The word behind “hell” is largely “Gehenna.” In Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie notes that this is the Greek term translating the Hebrew for the valley of “ben-hinnom,” the place where idol worshiping Israelites had engaged in child sacrifice. In fact, his section on “The Fires of Hell” (which follows immediately after his excellent sections on “Satan” and “Scandal”) focuses on the parallel to this passage in Matthew 18.
Mark 43-47 is the most dense usage of Gehenna in the New Testament (3 times in 3 verses; most translations leave vv. 44, 46 vacant). The other most dense usage occurs in Matthew 5:22-30 (3 times in 9 verses); for much more on “hell” see the page for Matt. 5:22-30, Epiphany 6A.
4. V. 48: “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” The King James Version also places this phrase after the mentions of “hell” in vv. 43, 45. Many other translations (e.g., the NRSV) include it only at v. 48, leaving vv. 44, 46 vacant.
5. Salt was used on the sacrificial fires (Lev. 2:13).
2. The central reference, once again, is the final chapter “Beyond Scandal” in Book III on “Interdividual Psychology” in Girard‘s Things Hidden. And the last section of this chapter is entitled “The Skandalon” (pp. 416-431). Girard quotes the Matthean version of our Markan text after having said the following:
Children are particularly vulnerable to mimetic interference. The child’s confident act of imitation always runs the risk of coming up against the desires of adults, in which case his models will be transformed into fascinating obstacles. As a consequence, to the extent that in his naivete he is exposed to impressions from the adult world, the child is more easily and lastingly scandalized. The adult who scandalizes the child runs the risk of imprisoning him forever within the increasingly narrow circle of the model and the mimetic obstacle, the process of mutual destruction we have so often described. This process is directly opposed to the process of opening up, of welcoming others, which is lifegiving: . . . (Girard then quotes Matthew 18:5-9) (p. 417)
Girard goes on to say that this passage “contains the very best of psychoanalysis, while avoiding the main pitfall of psychoanalysis, which is to embrace the scandal: to assume that the individual being is rooted in scandal, according to an absurd mythic thesis that presents parricidal and incestuous desire as the condition for the development of any form of consciousness.” Girard is referring, of course, to Freud’s Oedipus complex which he regards as the re-mythologizing underlying modern psychology.
Mimetic theory explains the so-called Oedipus complex more adequately in at least two ways. First, it more generally explains the phenomena of rivalry without relating it always to rivalry experienced in childhood with one’s parents, while still recognizing the latter’s importance since parents are generally one’s first models. Second, it doesn’t embrace scandal. In other words, it doesn’t make the scandalous, rivalrous relationship between parent and child an essential part of our human nature as does the Oedipus Complex. Christian theology hypothesizes a state of original sin in which we perpetually have fallen into such rivalries and grow up in scandal, but mimetic theory shows how that is not an inherent part of human nature, because it is conceivably possible that someone, taking the right model for desiring (i.e., Christ) could desire without rivalry. Existentially, that has not been the case, until Jesus was able to grow up in relationship to his heavenly father without falling into the rivalry, the skandalon. And the promise of his Holy Spirit carries the promise of a sanctifying grace by which we might begin to fall back out of the rivalries that have been forged in our lives. “In Christ there is a new creation….” In the waters of baptism there is the daily promise of being reformed in the non-rivalrous desire of Christ.
“If any of you put a stumbling block (skandalizō) before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Does modern psychology qualify here by ’embracing the scandal’ through its founder Freud? His wrong steps in founding modern psychology have the effect of throwing fuel on the fires of mimetic rivalry and the ensuing violence. Jesus begins this section of the next several verses that ironically suggests the sacrificial path of lesser violence. I do not want to suggest a direct causal connection here, but whose work had more influence in Nazi Germany, Freud’s work on psychoanalysis or someone like Bonhoeffer’s on Discipleship? I dare say that following the latter’s would have afforded a much greater chance of avoiding the Holocaust. There were many, many more responsible for a Germany who scandalized the little ones than Freud. This is simply to lift up an example of what I think Jesus is saying: if we don’t find a way of following his path to peace — and, in fact, even work against it by scandalizing him among the little ones — we will continue to find ourselves heading into cycles of deepening conflagration, of worsening mimetic violence. Preferable to such apocalyptic violence are the old sacrificial substitutes of lesser violence in the hopes of warding off the greater violence. With terrible irony, Jesus is ‘recommending’ sacrifice over apocalypse. More below.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pages 108-109:
“For Whoever Is Not against Us Is for Us” (9:40)
The Gospel safeguards its nonsacral nature by the device of confession, which it effects by portraying the new community as still infected with the Sacred even at this moment of greatest insight. The circle of the disciples, recently agitated by the struggle for prestige, is silent but not convinced by the example of the child. Soon they are excluding again. John the disciple puts this gesture of inclusion in question by objecting to the unlicenced exorcist (9:38-41). The Gospel narrates this here to show the frailty of the new community even at the moments of greatest insight, and thus to undermine its claims to perfection and so help prevent its own deformation into scapegoating violence. Like the receivers of the word in the parable of the sower (4:1-9), many do not or cannot receive the simple message of the child. Jesus’ reply, “He who is not against us is for us” (9:40), expresses remarkable tolerance: All are to be included unless they take steps to exclude themselves. This is the “church” rather than the “sect” ethic, and it is a convincing rejection of sacred exclusionism.
How to Avoid Scandals
The extended warning against scandals (9:42-48) seems on the surface to be a stunningly sacrificial text. It commands one to cut off and throw away a hand, foot, or eye that causes one scandal, to expel the wrongdoer in sacrificial style. Cutting (apokoptō, 9:43 et passim) is the essential sacrificial act, and the skill of the sacrificial butcher is most evident in dismembering. Sacrifice is prescribed as the cure for scandal.
A metaphorical rather than a literal sacrifice is being prescribed. The deconstruction of sacrifice has proceeded so far that the Gospel can use it as an image to convey the moral injunction to resist envy decisively. Scandal, as we have seen, is to love the thing one hates and hate the thing one loves. Scandal is envy, a desire to be like the other that is so intense that it would destroy the other if it cannot be like him, and also if it can. The injunctions to sever offending limbs are hyperboles expressing the urgency of the need to avoid the envy that comes from what one does (hand), where one goes (foot), and what one sees (eye), envy exemplified in the behavior of the disciples just narrated, in their wrangle about who is the greatest, and their attempt to keep the privilege of being Jesus’ agents for themselves.
The sayings that close this section confirm the sacrificial metaphor. “For everything will be salted with fire” (9:49) is an allusion to the customs of salting the cereal sacrifice and offering salt with every sacrifice (Lev 2:13). The injunction, “Have salt in yourselves, and live in peace with one another” (9:50), applies this metaphor in a moral exhortation to behave so as to achieve the peace that the sacrifice achieved. We have, therefore, a good example of how the language of sacrifice can remain the same while its meaning has been transformed from the ritual to the moral domain. The efficacy of this metaphor depends on the knowledge that mimetic violence was traditionally controlled by sacrifice, a knowledge that Mark seems to have had either consciously or, more likely, subliminally.
In the pericope of the child at the center of the circle of disciples [see last week’s excerpt], the sacrificial structure of the poetics remains constant, in the sense that the circle is the sacred center. The nature and direction of flow of the energy within the structure is, however, different. In the same way, the structure of scandal is constant but the content and direction are different. One deconstructs scandal by recognizing its temptation and resists it by resisting envy. Sacrifice has become a metaphor for moral action. This expresses the insight that although there can be no alteration of the mimetic structure of human relations in this world, there can nevertheless be a new mode of mediation, through the divine rather than through the rival. Triangular desire can be delivered from scandal while remaining triangular.
4. Ched Myers, teamed with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, chapter 13, “In Defense of the ‘Least.'” Myers names the section of Mark 9:30-10:16 as focusing on Jesus’ call for solidarity with the Least. As usual they offer a perspective and reading that covers the range from interdividual to political:
The call to amputate the offending hand, foot, and eye in verses 43-48 are by any account strange and troubling. Mark seems to be combining the Pauline metaphor of the community as “body” (see “hand, eye, foot” in 1 Corinthians 12:14-26) with the Pauline principle of not causing the “weaker member” to be scandalized (see Romans 14). But think of the modern analogy of the struggle against addiction. The process of recovery often feels like part of oneself (the addicted, codependent part) is being amputated. “Any struggle with addiction . . . involves deprivation,” writes Gerald May in Addiction and Grace. “Every false prop is vulnerable to relinquishment.” Such “amputation” is life-saving surgery on the cancer of our illusions and appetites.
According to Mark, our greatest individual and social addiction is the will to dominate. Disciples are called to defect from what society may see as natural, such as all the ways “little ones” are routinely victimized by patterns of hierarchy and exclusion. But to do this is to be perceived as “defective” (like the amputee) by the dominant culture. These strange sayings, then, are arguing that it is better to be deformed than to conform to what oppresses more vulnerable members of the body politic.
In a world of violence and institutionalized inequality, the choices are stark. We either embrace the “fire” of recovery (9:49) or live in the “hell” of addiction (9:48 alludes to the very last line in the book of Isaiah). Salt, used medicinally in antiquity, suggests that the goal is healing (9:49), which must include reconciliation within the community of faith (9:50). (p. 118)
5. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Peace Is Worth the Sacrifice!; and in 2015, “Don’t Trip Up the Children.”
1. Discipleship of Jesus or apocalyptic violence; that is our only real choice. Two thousand years after Jesus it is now as Martin Luther King, Jr. says,
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.
It is either following in Jesus’ way of peace and justice, or we face ever growing spasms of mimetic violence spiraling out of control, with the knowledge that we now possess weapons with which to destroy ourselves. To the latter, even the old sacrificial violence — the substitution of lesser violence in the hope that it wards off the greater violence — is preferable. Ultimately, our only choice is discipleship. But I believe that Jesus in this passage (verses 42-48) is confronting us with the gruesomeness of our sacrificial solutions that we might choose the salt of Jesus’ way of peace.
I’m disagreeing with Hamerton-Kelly‘s suggestion (above) that, “Sacrifice has become a metaphor for moral action.” His reflections above are vital in understanding the nature of the sacrificial metaphors in this passage. But I think the simpler reading is to hear Jesus’ words as satirical capitulation to the sacrificial solutions. It’s like the old saying, “Cut off your nose to spite your face.” The gruesomeness of the metaphor points to seeking another solution to the problem. Jesus is recognizing sacrificial violence as better than the alternative of out-of-control apocalyptic violence, at the same time that the absurdity of the sacrifice points to better solutions, namely, not being scandalized away from believing in and following Jesus. See all the sacrificial solutions for the absurd dead-end that they are and follow Jesus. That is the overall message to would-be disciples in Mark 8-10. His disciples are having a hard time seeing that, so Jesus paints them a grotesque picture.
The perfect Flannery O’Connor quote for this section of Mark, and 9:42-48 in particular, is, “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.” Jesus is using the grotesque in this passage in the hopes of getting his deaf, dumb, and blind disciples to hear, see, and speak. Mark’s entire Gospel is structured around the metaphors of seeing and hearing, emanating from his quote of Isaiah 6:9-10:
And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'” (Mark 4:11-12)
The key word of the sermon in Mark 4 is, “Listen!”, and the key word in the sermon of Mark 13 and the action of Mark 14 is, “Watch!” In between he heals deaf, dumb, and blind people, but he cannot make his disciples to hear and see. I believe that Mark 9:42-48 is an example of Flannery O’Connor-like grotesqueness in an amped-up effort to get them to see and hear. In preaching this passage in the future, I would lead-off with the quote from Flannery O’Connor.
2. It is crucial to properly understand the “hell” metaphor in this passage. Countless generations of Christians have come to hear “hell” as naming a place of divine eternal punishment for unbelievers. Contemporary Christian writers such as Rob Bell (Love Wins) and Brian McLaren (The Last Word and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?) are urging us to question and alter this practice. Proponents of Mimetic Theory have also urgently called for hearing “hell” anew according to the Girardian insight of learning to see portrayals of divine violence in terms of human violence. Mark 9:42-48 doesn’t say anything about divine punishment! The word we translate as “hell” was not a place of divine punishment for Jesus. It first of all was simply the name of a place outside of Jerusalem. “Gehenna” in the Mark’s Greek rendering would have been “Ben Hinnom” in Jesus’ own Hebrew/Aramaic. It’s the valley referred to in Jeremiah 7:30-33:
For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the LORD; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire — which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away.
“Hell,” “Gehenna,” “ben Hinnom” is the place of human sacred violence that has never even come into God’s mind. It is our violence that we need to fear, not God’s. Jesus is speaking grotesquely of lesser sacrificial violence like cutting off one’s hand, as being better than amped-up sacrificial violence like the child sacrifice of Jeremiah’s day — or the Nazi Holocaust of our day.
3. Jesus speaks of cutting off your hand or foot before letting them pull you into the hell fires of our violence. In the end, he will let himself be used as sacrificial fodder in order to expose it. He will let himself be cut-off from everyone and from life itself, even quoting Psalm 22 in the Markan Passion story: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He trusted, of course, that his being cut-off would stop short of being ultimately cut-off from God. And he comes as the resurrected sacrificial victim with the forgiveness necessary to break the cycle by living connected with him in discipleship.
An imagery that is similar, but in a countering way, is that of John 15:5-6:
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
We see the similar consequences of being cut-off from God’s life-giving vine: withering up and becoming fuel for the hell fires of our violence. But here is the positive statement of remaining connected to Christ the vine. In our baptisms we are grafted to that vine and watered with God’s gracious forgiveness. At the table we are refreshed with the fruit of the vine to live lives as peacemakers, those who resist the temptations of continually falling into rivalry with others. Or, as Jesus puts it at the end of this lection, those who have salt in themselves and become the salt of peace for others.
4. In addition to the “priesthood of all believers” theme mentioned above, the second part of this lection provides the opportunity to have the Girardian anthropology shed some light on these “hard sayings” about skandalon. In 2003 my sermon spoke explicitly of Girard’s theory as shedding further light on the Gospel. I took Jesus’ words as humorous (“dark humor,” obviously) hyperboles that he used to get his point across (akin to O’Connor’s use of the grotesque), so I used some of my favorite comic strips to illustrate. See sermon entitled “Mimetic Desire: The Stumbling Block.”