Last revised: October 14, 2015
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PROPER 23 (October 9-15) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 28
RCL: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
RoCa: Wisdom 7:7-10; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30
1. The Letter to the Hebrews has been one of the most controversial books of the Bible in Girardian circles. Its heavy orientation around sacrifice appears suspicious in the face of the Girardian analysis of sacrifice. René Girard‘s own first assessment of it was negative in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (written in 1978), pp. 227-231. He retracted these criticisms in an interview with Rebecca Adams in November 1992 (“Violence, Difference, and Sacrifice: A Conversation with René Girard,” in Religion and Literature 25, no. 2, 1993, pp. 9-33). Here’s a portion of that interview:
RG: I say at the end of Things Hidden — and I think this is the right attitude to develop — that the changes in the meaning of the word “sacrifice” contain a whole history, religious history, of mankind. So when we say “sacrifice” today inside a church or religious context, we mean something which has nothing to do with primitive religion. Of course I was full of primitive religion at the time of the writing of the book, and my theme was the difference between primitive religion and Christianity, so I reserved the word “sacrifice” completely for the primitive.
RA: So you scapegoated Hebrews within the canon of Scripture.
RG: So I scapegoated Hebrews and I scapegoated the word “sacrifice” — I assumed it should have some kind of constant meaning, which is contrary to the mainstream of my own thinking, as exemplified by my reading of the Judgement of Solomon in the book [pp. 237-245]. This text is fundamental for my view of sacrifice.
2. Other Girardians have thus made more positive uses of the Letter to the Hebrews. James Alison makes plenty of positive use of it in Raising Abel, quoting it numerous times throughout and even giving it the last word. He closes with a quote of Heb. 12:18-24 (pp. 196-97) as a way of summarizing his entire argument in the book.
3. Raymund Schwager offers an extensive exposition of Hebrews in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 182ff. In a major “Systematic Consideration” entitled “Redemption as Judgment and Sacrifice,” Schwager basically uses Hebrews to anchor his argument. The concluding section of this part is “The Sacrifice of Christ and the ‘Conversion’ of Evil,” and Schwager uses Hebrews to show how the Cross works that transformation.
4. In Violence Renounced, there are two articles with a Girardian perspective on Hebrews: “Sacrificial Language in Hebrews: Reappraising René Girard,” by Michael Hardin, pp. 103-119; and “‘A Better Sacrifice’ or ‘Better than Sacrifice’? Response to Michael Hardin’s ‘Sacrificial Language in Hebrews,'” by Loren L. Johns, pp. 120-131.
5. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, pp. 156-160, a section entitled “Sacrifice to End Sacrifice.”
6. I recommend Thomas Long‘s commentary on Hebrews in the Interpretation series (John Knox Press) as a standard, i.e., non-Girardian, commentary to consult for preaching. Long considers Hebrews to be a sermon, not really a letter, and so his rich homiletic exposition of Hebrews also includes wonderful commentary on the art of preaching itself. Moreover, Long himself is an artful preacher and brings a beautiful flare for language and metaphor to his commentary.
1. The Synoptic parallels to Mark 10:17-31 are Matthew 19:16-30 and Luke 18:18-30. Luke’s story with the Good Samaritan in 10:25f. begins with a “lawyer” asking the same question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke 18 places this parallel to Mark between the blessing of the children and the third Passion prediction, like Mark, but shifts and transforms the Sons of Zebedee episode (Mark 10:35-45) to immediately after the Last Supper in 22:24-27.
2. Luke specifies Mark’s generic person (heis, “one”) as a “ruler” (archōn) in 18:18 and “exceedingly rich” (plousios sphodra) in 18:23. Matthew follows Mark in giving us no clue as to his identity at the outset simply calling him “one” (heis) in 19:16, and further telling us in 19:22 (again, following Mark) that he “had many possessions” (echōn ktēmata polla). But Matthew also makes a significant change from Mark, specifying in 19:20 and 19:22 that he is a “young man” or “youth” (ho neaniskos). This is a definite change since Mark (followed by Luke) implies an older man in the man’s response to Jesus’ naming of commandments, saying that he has kept all these “from my youth” (ek neotētos mou). When referring to the Synoptic story, one sometimes hears a hybrid of “rich young ruler,” but we need to be careful of Mark’s designation: an unspecified “one” whose youth is in his past and we find out “had many possessions.”
3. “You shall not defraud.” (Gr: apostereō) Which commandment is this? Matthew and Luke must have also been puzzled, because they parallel Mark’s list of commandments, except for this one “commandment” which they omit (Mt 19:18-19; Lk 18:20). (Note: Matthew also adds one to the list, Lev. 19:17, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) The only other occurrences of apostereō in the NT are 1 Cor 6:7-8; 1 Cor 7:5; 1 Tim 6:5; James 5:4. Lev. 19:13 does list a commandment about defrauding: “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer.” (The LXX, however, does not use apostereō in Lev. 19:13 but a more generic term for ‘wronging’ someone, adikeō.) Why does Mark add this to his list of commandments?
4. Jesus “loved” the wealthy young man. (Matthew and Luke both drop “love” in the parallels.) This is the only place in Mark where Jesus is said to have “loved” someone. The only other occurrence of the verb agapao in Mark’s gospel is in discussing the greatest commandment in 12:30-33 (where loving God and neighbor is said to be far above any burnt offerings and sacrifices). The noun agape never appears in Mark. Is Mark implying that the challenge Jesus is about to set forth was the loving thing to do?
5. ktēmata, “possessions.” Myers notes that this word can also mean “properties,” which means that he could have been the type of landowner who preyed on poor farmers needing loans and took their land — ‘defrauding’ them from Jesus’ perspective.
6. zōēn aiōnion, “eternal life.” The man raises the issue of inheriting “eternal life.” For a long time, Christians have heard this as a question about the afterlife. This is being challenged today by many New Testament scholars — such as N.T. Wright in the note below. Jews didn’t think about the afterlife as something discontinuous from this life, like Christians today. They thought in terms of a break in time that changed life. That’s why they believed in resurrection, which they saw as an opportunity to come back and enjoy the new eon of God. We get our English word “eon,” in fact, from the Greek work aiōn, meaning an indefinite period of time. So aiōn probably should be translated something more like “age to come,” and zōēn aiōnion as “life in the age to come.”
1. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, ch. 9, section C, “Economic Power and Community Practice,” pp. 271-276; and “Say to This Mountain”, ch. 14, “Repentance as Reparation,” pp. 124-131. [more to come]
2. Rob Bell, Love Wins; chapter 2 on heaven, “Here Is the New There,” is basically an extended reflection on Matthew’s version of this story. He uses it to demote the traditional ways in which we’ve thought about “eternal life” as going to heaven when we die — and how Protestants typically have thought about that process as one based on faith. If a modern Protestant was asked the question this man asks Jesus, it’s the perfect opportunity for us to first “correct the man’s flawed understanding of how salvation works” and “show the man how eternal life isn’t something he has to earn or work for; it’s a free gift of grace.” Then, we would “invite the man to confess, repent, trust, accept, and believe that Jesus has made a way for him to have a relationship with God.” (p. 27) But Jesus doesn’t come close to any of that. In fact, he begins to talk about commandments and then invites the man to give away his possessions — sounding very much like “works righteousness.” This entire exchange doesn’t fit Reformation theology at all and should be a good clue that we have been way off track. Bell does an excellent job of explicating N.T. Wright‘s alignment of Jesus with the Hebrew prophets (see more below) rather than the our heaven-oriented theologies as getting to somewhere else other than Creation. Jesus offers us a heaven that is here not there.
As far as Bell’s take on this particular passage, he uses one of the Matthew’s differences from Mark, the fact that Matthew drops the odd ‘Don’t defraud’ commandment. But Bell doesn’t mention Mark’s version, so instead of highlighting what is missing from Mark, he highlights what is missing in Matthew from Jesus’ list of the Ten Commandments, namely, the commandment on coveting. Bell writes,
To covet is to crave what someone else has. Coveting is the disease of always wanting more, and it’s rooted in a profound dissatisfaction with the life God has given you. Coveting is what happens when you aren’t at peace.
The man says he’s kept all of the commandments that Jesus mentions, but Jesus hasn’t mentioned the one about coveting. Jesus then tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, which Jesus doesn’t tell other people, because it’s not an issue for them. It is, for this man. The man is greedy — and greed has no place in the world to come. He hasn’t learned yet that he has a sacred calling to use his wealth to move creation forward. (p. 41)
3. N.T Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, pp. 42-46, a section titled “Going to Heaven,” within a chapter where Wright is taking on misunderstandings of the Gospel. If you have not yet read this book, I highly recommend that it zoom to the top of your reading list. It is that important. It articulates the perspective on which people like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren are basing their very important writings. It is the perspective on Jesus that changes everything. Many centuries worth of imperialistic cultural overlays are peeled back to better glimpse Jesus as a First Century Jew who saw himself as a pivotal embodiment of the Hebrew prophecy, God’s counter-movement to empire.
The most common misunderstanding is the Jesus who “came to teach people how to get to heaven” (p. 42). Two expressions in English feed into this: “kingdom of heaven” and “eternal life.” Wright cites the Lukan parallel to this story in Mark as one of the main examples of “eternal life” (John 3:16 being the other). Wright writes:
The second expression that has routinely been misunderstood in this connection is “eternal life.” Here again the widespread and long-lasting assumption that the gospels are there to tell us “how to go to heaven” has determined how people “hear” this phrase. Indeed, the word “eternity” in modern English and American has regularly been used not only to point to a “heavenly” destination, but to say something specific about it, namely, that it will be somehow outside time and probably outside space and matter as well. A disembodied, timeless eternity! That is Plato, not the Bible — and it’s a measure of how far Western Christianity has drifted from its moorings that it seldom even realizes the fact. Anyway, granted this assumption, when we find the Greek phrase zoe aionios in the gospels (and indeed in the New Testament letters), and when it is regularly translated as “eternal life” or “everlasting life,” people have naturally assumed that this concept of “eternity” is the right way to understand it….
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.
If we reframe our thinking within this setting, the phrase zoe aionios will refer to “the life of the age,” in other words, “the life of the age to come.” When in Luke the rich young ruler asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (18:18, NRSV), he isn’t asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people. And he is asking, in particular, how he can be sure that when God does all this, he will be part of those who inherit the new world, who share its life. This is why, in my own new translation of the New Testament, Luke 18:18 reads, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?” …
Among the various results of this misreading has been the earnest attempt to make all the material in Jesus’s public career refer somehow to a supposed invitation to “go to heaven” rather than to the present challenge of the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. Time would fail to spell out the additional misunderstandings that have resulted from this, but we might just note one. Jesus’s controversies with his opponents, particularly the Pharisees, have regularly been interpreted on the assumption that the Pharisees had one system for “going to heaven” (in their case, keeping lots of stringent and fussy rules), and Jesus had another one, an easier path altogether in which God had relaxed the rules and made everything a lot easier. As many people are now aware, this does no justice either to the Pharisees or to Jesus. Somehow, we have to get our minds around a different, more challenging way of reading the gospels. (pp. 44-46)
Wright’s translation has been published as The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation [HarperOne, 2012]. This passage can be found on pp. 87-88.
4. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 94-100.
Jesus’ response, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor . . . and come, follow me,” is not simply about a problem with materialism in the privacy of “his heart” that might keep him out of heaven, as is so often preached. Instead, it’s an electrifying call to defect from the imperial narrative and join Jesus in serving those who suffer under it. (p. 96)
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from October 10, 2009 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
Reflections and Questions
1. Some commentators have combined the above two exegetical facts to say that Jesus’ love for the rich man must mean that he didn’t see him as a dishonest wealthy person. There was a view of rich people as having gained their wealth basically by defraud. These commentators think that Jesus mentions this otherwise stray commandment to indicate that this wealthy young person wasn’t in the category of those who gained their wealth by defraud. For Jesus loved him.
I disagree. Jesus is faced with a wealthy person, and he is about to expound on the treacheries of wealth, so he adds this commandment about defraud with the implications that wealthy people gain their wealth by defraud. Therefore, it makes sense that the way in which this man can make restitution is by giving his wealth to the poor. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, says point blank, “As far as Mark is concerned, the man’s wealth has been gained by ‘defrauding’ the poor — he was not ‘blameless’ at all — for which he must make restitution.”
This issue of whether the man is truly “blameless” is perhaps answered by Jesus’ off-handed, seemingly throw-away response to the man’s address of “Good man.” Jesus states that no one is good except God alone. I would suggest that Jesus adds this commandment with the implications that this man is not blameless; he is wealthy, and wealthy people gain their wealth at the expense of others.
2. Yet Jesus loved the man. His love is opposed to what motivates the man’s life. Jesus is exemplifying the great commandment (Mark 12:30-33), while the man is exemplifying the thorny soil (from the Parable of the Sower, 4:18-19): “And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares (Gr: merimna) of the world, and the lure (apate) of wealth, and the desire (epithymia) for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.” Jesus’ entreaty for the man to sell his wealth is also a loving one, for the man can only attain the godly desire of agape by letting go of the objects of his epithymia.
3. What do we say to today’s typical mainline congregation of mostly middle and upper class people? Can Jesus’ words to this man help clear away our thorny surroundings? Is the average person in the pew (and the pulpit!) challenged by these words when they realize that they also have many possessions? Or is the state of our desire such that we can always point to someone who has many more possessions, so therefore we are exempt? Can the preacher lovingly suggest, as Jesus did, some practical steps for reforming our desire in God’s love?
For we who have many possessions this Gospel might not sound like Good News. But there have been those who actually took Jesus’ words literally, selling everything and giving it to the poor, and truly experiencing it as a liberation, as Good News. A recent example which comes to mind are Millard and Linda Fuller, founders of Habitat for Humanity International. Couple such examples with the idea that has helped me in recent years, the idea of “Affluenza” from the PBS show of several years ago, and maybe Jesus’ words truly are a cure for what ails us in our modern situation of rising mimetic rivalry and the accompanying resentment. Link to a sermon on these themes entitled “Maybe This Is Good News, after All.”
5. For me the ultimate in grace is that Jesus loved this man who was the walking epitome of our sacrificial human institutions. It is, in the end, the power of this love which can reform our desire in directions other than our possessions. Jesus, the One who was sacrificed to these same institutions, has been raised to speak to us a word of forgiveness and agape. He looks us straight in the eye, with all our possessions, and loves us. How shall we respond?