Last revised: January 13, 2013
Click reload or refresh for latest version
PROPER 24 (October 16-22) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 29
RCL: Job 38:1-7 (34-41); Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
RoCa: Isaiah 53:10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45
1. Girardian references to the Suffering Servant Songs, this climactic one in particular, are numerous and include the following: René Girard, Things Hidden, pp. 155-158; Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, pp. 126-135, an entire section on “The Suffering Servant“; James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, & the Sacred, pp. 157-162 on Second Isaiah (excerpt); Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, p 43 (as part of the Acts 8 story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch).
James Williams has an especially helpful exegesis of this passage in which he takes verse 53:10 as a key. Overall, he reads the Fourth Song as a dialogue between Yahweh, who speaks in 52:13-15 and 53:3:11-12, and the collective voice of God’s people in 53:1-10. From the point of view of the community in 53:10, then, it was Yahweh’s will to have the Servant bruised as a sin offering for us. But God’s perspective is voiced in 53:11: “Because he poured out his soul [or life, nefesh] to death.” Williams concludes: “The Servant willingly gave himself for his people. It wasn’t God who caused his suffering, it was oppressors.”
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 40, 96-114. The latter lengthy section provides an excellent walk-through of the arguments about Jesus’ own understanding of his death. Crucial to these arguments is the idea of vicarious atonement implied in the Lord’s Supper traditions and in two of today’s texts: Isaiah 53 and Mark 10:45. This portion of Schwager’s book would be good background reading for preaching on this set of lessons.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, p.71. One of the places that Hamerton-Kelly mentions the Suffering Servant is in connection with his discussion of this gospel text of Mark 10:35-45; see below.
4. Sandor Goodhart gives a Jewish-Girardian reading of Isaiah 53 in an essay entitled “René Girard and the Innocent Victim” [ch. 10 of Violence Renounced, ed. by Willard Swartley], pp. 205-213; Girard makes a response to this reading in ch. 14 of the same anthology of essays, pp. 315ff.
5. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, pp. 94-100. His discussion of the Suffering Servant anchors an excellent chapter on the Hebrew Scriptures in light of Girard’s insights into sacrificial violence.
7. Tony Bartlett, the eleventh study in a series on Second Isaiah (on 52:1-53:12). These studies are among the finest examples of how Mimetic Theory is a key to opening the revelation of Scripture.
8. See also Good Friday.
Reflections and Questions
1. It might be fruitful to interpret this passage in connection with the quote from Robert Hamerton-Kelly below on the Markan “ransom for many.” There is debate about whether this Servant is an individual or the collective ideal of Israel suffering at the hands of its enemies. From the Christian perspective, there is the potential for both. As Hamerton-Kelly points out below, if God’s people would have stood together in a covenant of nonviolence, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to stand alone. We are still faced with that same choice today as disciples of Jesus. Do we stand in a covenant with Jesus of nonviolence, of non-retaliation against the powers of mimetic rivalry? Or does Jesus continue to stand alone? Do we really understand that baptism with which we are baptized? The cup we are offered to drink? James Williams concludes his comments on the Suffering Servant with these words: “The Servant sees that it is not the will of God to bruise him, but it is the will of God to use him — to speak through the excluded one, who suffers on behalf of others. In understanding his suffering, in standing with him and not with the persecutors, those who are taught by him begin to transform the structures of sacred violence.” (p. 162) The bottom line is beginning to transform the structures of sacred violence.
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 200, 215. Schwager cites Heb. 5:7 twice in elucidating the doctrine of the Trinity. Here’s a paragraph that sums up his argument well:
Full reciprocity and commonality is revealed even more clearly in the last three acts of the drama. The Son gives himself to the Father in dying, the latter answers in the resurrection, and both together send out the Spirit. Thus the three different forms of bestowal are already repeated within each act, even if in a differing way. The Son can only entrust himself completely in dying because he is already gripped in his depths by the God who is not a God of the dead but of the living (Mark 12:26ff. and parallels). It is precisely in the act of surrender to the Father, which includes the Father’s communication to him, that the Spirit springs up for humankind (“streams of living water” [John 7:37-39; 19:34-37]). Even the resurrection is not a one-sided deed of the Father, for by it he answers the Son who “with loud cries and tears offered up prayers and supplications to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). The immediate common fruit of the request on the part of his Son become man and of the heeding of the heavenly Father is the pneumatic body of the risen one as “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:44ff.), which is communicated to humankind (Acts 1:2; 2:33).
The model of reciprocal bestowal proves, then, well suited to bringing out the innermost dimensions of the dramatic salvation event. At the same time it becomes clear how reciprocal love flows into such an event of release that we can no longer speak of two acts in opposing directions, from Father to Son and from Son to Father. Each one lets go of his love as his own in favor of the other, so that this love can be constituted as the one common love and can become a person.
Because the Son himself is, at one and the same time, receiving and actively letting go and because the Holy Spirit is pure letting go, the Father is able to communicate himself through them to creatures without the distinction between creator and creature being abolished. Communication takes place at the level of these persons and their free existence and not at the level of the one essential being. Since, further, the Holy Spirit according to his entire personal character is reciprocal love, letting go of itself, it is to him that the mission in salvation history falls: to unite people with Christ and with one another. This throws light on the statement that he creates the one body with many members (1 Cor. 12:4-13). His particular nature makes it also comprehensible that Christ can live as the most inner being in the faithful: “I have been crucified with Christ; no longer do I live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:19ff.). (pp. 215-216)
1. Who is Melchizedek? He is mentioned twice in the OT. Genesis 14:18-20: “And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him one tenth of everything.” Psalms 110:4: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.'” The name Melchizedek means king of righteousness; Salem (“shalom”) means peace. So Melchizedek, King of Salem, is a king of righteousness and peace.
The eternal high priest Melchizedek seems to have been a popular figure in first century Christian circles, akin to that of the Three Wise Men today, a blend of scriptural reference and popular lore. He was seen as a foreshadowing of Jesus, a king high priest of righteousness and peace who lacked the Levitical baggage. There was a rabbinical tradition that even said Melchizedek was without lineage because Torah mentions no parents; in this sense he was also timeless or eternal. Hebrews seems to be picking up on these traditions of Melchizedek as a foreshadowing of Jesus.
Hebrews will go on to greatly elaborate this figure of Melchizedek in chapter 7. The writer will argue that Melchizedek is even greater than Abraham because he blesses Abraham and the latter responds with a tithe. He will also make reference to the Psalm 110:4 passage to argue that there would be no need to refer to an eternal order of priests under Melchizedek if there wasn’t something wrong with the traditional, Levitical priesthood. In short, Melchizedek services Hebrews’ argument that the cultic priesthood was never an adequate solution to the problem. The order of Melchizedek foreshadows the great high priesthood of Jesus Christ, who brings the priesthood to its fulfillment with his ultimate sacrifice.
Reflections and Questions
1. Thomas Long suggests that this passage follows up the claim of Jesus’ priesthood in 4:14-16 with a standard “this is the right person for the job” speech. The audience may believe that the crucified Jesus shared in our weakness alright, but was he strong enough to help? How can someone who died on the cross be high priest? This passage begins the writer’s case for arguing that Jesus is strong enough, that Jesus is not just a priest, but is the great high priest. In chiastic form, he considers Jesus’ qualifications for high priest in terms of function (5:1, 9-10), person (5:2-3, 7-8), and appointment (5:4-6). And in each instance he argues that Jesus not only meets the qualifications but exceeds them all. (See Long, pp. 65-69.)
2. Consider 5:7: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” When was the time during “the days of his flesh” that Jesus offered such moving prayers to God? Some have said in Gethsemane; some say there is no specific time referenced here. Long suggests it might be on the cross with words such as those that Mark and Matthew record from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I find it helpful to see these words from the cross as part of Jesus’ priestly person, his compassionate lifting up to God our human condition.
1. N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, pp. 7, 181, 195, 206, 217, 227-228, 234. Right away on p. 7 Wright challenges attempts at making Mark 10:45 support the church’s long-time idea of “atonement.” It is doubtful, in Wright’s eyes, that atonement is a main theme of the gospels at all. He continues to bring in Mark 10:35-45 at crucial points in his argument. Here, for example, he poses his main theme of the gospels against two more traditional themes:
The baptism narrative, therefore, in all the gospels, is not simply about Jesus’s “divine identity,” on the one hand, or a particular program of “atonement,” in the sense of a rescue from the world of creation, on the other. Yes, the gospels affirm Jesus’s divine identity. Yes, they affirm his death on the cross as the climax of God’s age-old plan of salvation. But the purpose of God coming incognito in and as Jesus and the purpose of this Jesus dying on the cross was — so the gospels are telling us — in order to establish God’s kingdom, his justice, on earth as in heaven. As in Psalm 2, the point is that in this way the nations are to be called to account. This is how the creator is bringing his creation back into proper shape. (pp. 216-217)
A couple sentences later, he cites Mark 10: “I think of Mark 10:35-45, where the “servant” work of the “son of man” demonstrates the new kind of power that is to be unleashed in the world, confronting the rulers of the world with God’s new way” (p. 217). A few pages later, this passage takes center stage. After quoting 10:38-40, he writes:
The significance of this in our present discussion is massive. For Mark, it is clear that the two brigands on Jesus’s right and left, as described in 15:27, are the ones to whom “it’s been assigned already.” But that means, as we might have concluded from other evidence too, that Jesus’s crucifixion is the moment when he becomes king, when, as James and John say, he is “there in all [his] glory” (10:37). That is the powerful — if deeply paradoxical! — “coming of the kingdom” as spoken of in Mark 9:1. But the arrival of the kingdom in that way will not mean that James and John, and many others too, can look forward to an easy utopia thereafter. On the contrary, they will still have to drink Jesus’s cup and be baptized with his baptism, in other words, to share his suffering and quite possibly his death. (This happened to James quite quickly, as we discover in Acts 12:2.)
It is in this context, as we have already seen, that we find the kingdom and the cross in close juxtaposition. Jesus contrasts the normal practice of pagan rulers with his own vision of power and prestige: “Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant” (10:43). This is at the center of his vision of the kingdom. And this is not only illustrated, but instantiated, by Jesus’s own vocation: “The son of man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life ‘as a ransom for many’” (10:45). This saying, so far from being (as has often been suggested) a detached, floating nugget of “atonement theology” within early church tradition that Mark or his source has tacked on to a story about something else (the reversal of normal modes of power), is in fact the theologically and politically apposite climax to the whole train of thought. What we call “atonement” and what we call “kingdom redefinition” seem in fact to be part and parcel of the same thing. Ultimately, as we shall presently see in more detail, the cross is the sharp edge of kingdom redefinition, just as the kingdom, in its redefined form, is the ultimate meaning of the cross. (pp. 227-228)
I would be remiss if I didn’t also pass along a paragraph that brilliantly summarizes and climaxes his argument in this chapter:
All this, I submit, generates a vision of the cross and its achievement so large and all-embracing that we really ought to stand back and simply gaze at it. All the “theories” of “atonement” can be found comfortably within it, but it goes far, far beyond them all, into the wild, untamed reaches of history and theology, of politics and imagination. We have, alas, belittled the cross, imagining it merely as a mechanism for getting us off the hook of our own petty naughtiness or as an example of some general benevolent truth. It is much, much more. It is the moment when the story of Israel reaches its climax; the moment when, at last, the watchmen on Jerusalem’s walls see their God coming in his kingdom; the moment when the people of God are renewed so as to be, at last, the royal priesthood who will take over the world not with the love of power but with the power of love; the moment when the kingdom of God overcomes the kingdoms of the world. It is the moment when a great old door, locked and barred since our first disobedience, swings open suddenly to reveal not just the garden, opened once more to our delight, but the coming city, the garden city that God had always planned and is now inviting us to go through the door and build with him. The dark power that stood in the way of this kingdom vision has been defeated, overthrown, rendered null and void. Its legions will still make a lot of noise and cause a lot of grief, but the ultimate victory is now assured. This is the vision the evangelists offer us as they bring together the kingdom and the cross. (pp. 239-240)
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 71-73. Hamerton-Kelly deals with this passage more extensively at the point of commenting on Jesus’ baptism in 1:9-11, suggesting that these two baptism stories bracket the first half of the gospel leading up to the passion. (He begins his commentary on Mark’s gospel, in fact, with the temple narratives in chapter 11, with the open ending at 16:8 leading the reader back to the beginning, to deal with chapters 1-10 in light of 11-16.) On the interpretation of “ransom for many” (Gr: lytron anti pollon), he says:
According to our theory and in terms of the metaphor, Jesus went into captivity to the GMSM [Hamerton-Kelly’s nomenclature for the “Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism”] in order that we might be released from it. He gave his life as a ransom to the powers of mimetic rivalry, and because the mimetic rivalry is ours, strictly speaking he gave himself to us. By dying, he unveiled the mechanism of our mimetic rivalry and thus enables us to turn away from it. He also gives us the Holy Spirit to help us in that turning. The traditional idea that Christ dies as a substitute for us retains its validity, therefore, in terms of a nonsacrificial interpretation of the metaphor of ransom. He makes himself the victim of our violence instead of us.
That Jesus gave himself to the GMSM means that he was the one who dared to live in this world of sacred violence without the protections of sacrifice. He refused to use “good” violence to drive out the bad, or even to protect himself. If all of us had lived like that he would not have died, but he was left alone at the critical moment, when instead of standing with him all turned against him. At that moment, the violence of our transgressions fell on him; our rage and cowardice broke against him. If we had joined in a covenant not to inflict violence on the other and to bear the violence inflicted on us without retaliation, the wheel of sacrifice would have ceased to turn and he would not have had to give his life as ransom for many. The wrath that fell on him was human, not divine. (pp. 71-72)
2. Paul Nuechterlein, “Holy Communion,” Contagion, Spring, 1996, a section entitled “Mimetic servanthood as remedy to mimetic rivalry,” pp. 201-221. This passage plays a central role in my arguing for servanthood as the main theme in connection with the Eucharist. Luke moves the argument about greatness and Jesus’ response to it to immediately following the Last Supper. Even Mark’s account bears reference to both sacraments under the banner of the Lord who came to serve.
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 40, 96-114. As mentioned above for the first lesson, the latter lengthy section provides an excellent walk-through of the arguments about Jesus’ own understanding of his death. Crucial to these arguments is the idea of vicarious atonement implied in the Lord’s Supper traditions and in two of today’s texts: Isaiah 53 and Mark 10:45.
4. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred; pp. 222ff. mark out this passage as a key, carefully considering the meaning of lutron, “ransom” (and refering back to his discussion of this word on p. 202). On p. 224, for example, he writes:
I think Mark probably intends to say, in effect, “The human condition is such that only the price of the Son of Man’s suffering and death will have the effect of loosening the bonds of the sacred social structure, enabling human beings to see what their predicament is and the kind of faith and action that will bring liberation.” In other words, sacrificial language is used, necessarily, in order to break out of a sacrificial view of the world. In this sense, the Son of Man as “a ransom for many” is the Son of Man as a revelatory way, a means of access to community and nonviolence.
Williams continues this line of argument, with Mark 10:35-45 still crucial, in a section entitled “Violence and Sacrifice.”
5. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, pp. 241ff., on the rivalry of the disciples (the parallel in Luke 22).
6. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 228. Mark 10:35-45 is cited amidst the following positive elucidation of an “infantile morality”:
The approach to Christian morality that I am attempting to set out might justly be called “infantile,” for it suggests that, rather than the child being dissuaded from participating in a noisy gang of children by the threat that, if the child does not cease to participate in the noisy gang, then the ice-cream that the parent was going to give it back at home will not be given to it after all, the parent comes to the scene of the noisy gang, and starts to unwrap the ice cream in sight of the child. The child sees the ice cream beginning to be unwrapped. Desire is awakened in the child by the parent’s suggestion. The desire for the ice cream recenters the child’s behavior, and the child is able to leave the gang pretty painlessly.
Notice that what has happened, entirely in line with mimetic theory as set forth by both Girard and Oughourlian, is that an anterior desire, for the good of the child, has made use of an object, an ice cream, to suggest into being a new desire in the child that effectively modifies its behavior. Mutatis mutandis this model seems to be exactly what is at work in the way in which the New Testament appeals to the eschatological imagination as that which permits the modification of our behavior. It is worth stressing that it depends on an entirely positive view of desire: we can desire things that are good for us, and should, and that these desires will not be frustrated — rather than having us engage in any purely voluntaristic struggle with our desires, which very struggle remains within the mode of the desire that is to be overcome.
In the light of this understanding of the reality of the closeness and urgency of the new creation that is made available by our imaginations being nourished by the death-less creativity of God, it then becomes possible to see the dynamic behind much of Jesus’ teaching and practice with regards to the Kingdom. Jesus’ phrase about laying up for yourselves treasure in heaven, “for where your treasure is, there also is your heart” (Matt. 6:21), is manifestly not an exhortation to a self-denying asceticism whereby, if we were really adult, we would not be moved by treasures, whether here or anywhere else, but would, out of the very dignity of our adult sense of justice (or whatever) do the right thing. Jesus assumes that our need for treasure is not something which can be lobotomized by any amount of high-mindedness: we must have our desires re-formed around a more fulfilling treasure. If our eye (notoriously in Matthew’s gospel formed in mimetic rivalry, or not, as the case may be: Matt 7:1-5; 20:15) is sound (rests on the goodness of one giving, and is able to desire without frustration), then the whole body is sound; whereas if the eye is not sound (formed in mimetic rivalry) then the whole body (and thus all behavior) is full of darkness (Matt 6:22-23).
That this understanding is not unique to Matthew can be shown by the way in which Jesus’ pedagogy with his disciples in Mark’s Gospel has recourse to children. First, so as to give the disciples a new model for desire, in the wake of their dispute as to which of them is greatest, Jesus places a small child in their midst, and takes him in his arms (Mark 9:34-37). Shortly afterwards Jesus has to rebuke the disciples for hindering the access of children to him: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15).
Finally, James and John request places of honor, and the jealous indignation of the other disciples boils over (Mark 10:35-45). However, Jesus does not rebuke James and John for their desire — merely indicating to them the sort of tribulations they will have to go through before inheriting it. It is the other ten who are given a lecture presupposing the rivalistic nature of their own desire. James and John seem to have learnt from the child. It is not of course that children are ‘innocent’ in any way at all: it is just that they are less complicated and calculating about knowing what they want, running for it, and insisting on getting it. It is just such a pattern of desire that is able to receive the kingdom of God.
Did Jesus himself desire in this way? That is to say, was it the ability to imagine an urgent good for himself that enabled him to live as he did and give himself up to death? Apart from what we may deduce from the parables, there is at least one indication that the apostolic witness saw him as desiring in exactly this way, and in this being the model for our desire:
…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God. (Heb. 12:1b-2, my emphasis)
We cannot, it seems, run away from the fact that the apostolic witness presents Jesus as having, in fact, taught in terms of heavenly rewards, a superabundance of heavenly rewards indeed, and expected these to be a motivating factor in the lives of those who were to follow him, and a motivating factor without any sense of shame that one is following him so as to get something, and something good for me. I hope I have shown that this does not depend on a crude ‘pie in the sky’ theology, but is an essential part of the eschatological imagination that Jesus was opening up for the disciples, and the beginnings of the possibility of a morality based on the calling into being and satisfaction of real desires, rather than the castration of, or weird fencing matches with, the desires that already drive us. This eschatological imagination is intrinsically related to the opening up of the vision of God. There remains the question of whether or not this vision is automatically hostile to any serious participation in human history. (pp. 227-229)
10. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story, pp. 99-103, “Servant: A Nonviolent Christology.”
11. See the webpage I’ve put together on “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement.”
1. ‘The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.’ Almost everything about this statement is vague. “Son of Man” is controversial and has created much debate among scholars as to why Jesus apparently used this title as a self-referent. “For many” isn’t actually specific either. But the notion of “ransom” is the real troublemaker. Even if we take Jesus as the one who pays the price with his life, and humanity as the “many” whose lives he redeems, who is the ransom paid to? Doesn’t this leave the door open to filling in God as the one who Jesus pays the price to? The popular idea of atonement?
2. Hamerton-Kelly, in the above excerpt, gives the clear Girardian answer to the question of to whom the ransom is paid: “Jesus went into captivity to the GMSM in order that we might be released from it.” It might be helpful here, though, to use the more biblical terminology of “idolatry” — not just because it’s a less technical term, but because I think it comes closer to what’s at stake here. What’s at stake is being able to know the living God whom Jesus came to reveal to us, precisely as distinguished from the false gods of our own making. And our most persistently created idol is the one whom we so persistently plug into things like the doctrine of atonement, a god who demands that someone pay the price of his wrathful vengeance. We are in captivity to our idolatry without even knowing it because we have justified it to ourselves with our idolatry.
3. In a culture with increasing mimetic violence, are there many more pressing topics to preach on than our idolatry of gods who sanction violence? Are there many more pressing false teachings of the church to expose than the popular notions of atonement which make ample use of such idols? I think that this passage provides good opportunity to offer such proclamation. Here is my effort at it, a sermon entitled “A ‘Who Dunnit’ with a Gracious Twist.”
4. In general, I’m not sure Girardians have talked enough in terms of that good biblical concept of idolatry. It might be said that idolatry provides the overarching concern of the entire Hebrew Scriptures. Is this another mark of their uniqueness? Do other religions show signs of being so preoccupied with the notion of false gods? This is an unpopular topic in today’s climate of religious tolerance. We don’t want to talk about anyone’s gods as being false anymore. But I think this is scandalously at the heart of the matter of what Girardians talk about: it is deep in our very anthropology to create gods that cover our violence. In other words, as the Hebrew Scriptures struggle to make clear, we make idols. Mimetic theory finally gives us the anthropological clarity of insight into the very depths of this process. The most common word Girardians have used to name it has been the Sacred. Perhaps Idolatry would connect better with the biblical way of naming it.