Last revised: September 2, 2012
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PROPER 26 ( Oct. 30-Nov. 5 ) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 31
RCL: Ruth 1:1-18 ; Hebrews 9:11-14 ; Mark 12:28-34
RoCa: Deuteronomy 6:2-6 ; Hebrews 7:23-28 ; Mark 12:28-34
1. Charles Mabee, “Text as Peacemaker: Deuteronomic Innovations in Violence Detoxification,” from Violence Renounced, edited by Willard Swartley. As the title indicates, he wants to present Deuteronomy as a text that can lead us into peacemaking. He begins by noting the prominence of the Decalogue and its movement from the exclusive sovereignty of Yahweh to stipulations concerning coveting and desiring in human community.
…In other words, the Deuteronomic prescription for social solidarity and peaceful coexistence begins at this crucial point of redirecting desire toward Yawweh rather than (things of) the other (personified as the neighbor’s wife) and the property of the other (house, field, slave, ox, donkey, and the like).Presupposed here is the anthropological perspective that human beings have the capacity to “choose” Yahweh, and that this choice breaks the back of misdirected human desire. In Deuteronomic theology, this capacity to choose Yahweh is based on Yahweh’s prior choice of Israel….
…In other words, Yahweh’s choice of Israel has theological priority over the “natural” human desire of its people, and thereby becomes the key to transform their human desire from an evil into a good, or into a choice for Yahweh…. In this way, Deuteronomy can best be understood as a catechetical handbook designed to instruct the community of faith in the fundamentals of life liberated from the drive of destructive coveting and desiring which always lies embedded in the soul of human society. (pp. 73-74)
The key movement which Mabee points to is the observation at the end of Deuteronomy about Moses’ death that: “no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deut. 34:6b). What an extraordinary contrast to the prominence of the tomb in primitive religion of the Sacred! It signals in Yahwistic religion the replacement of the tomb with the text as the new center of religion. The prophet and scribe replace the priest-kings as central figures. Mabee writes:
By eliminating the tomb of its “heroic” founder and opposing the mythological Anakim [Deut. 1:28], the Deuteronomic writers in effect propose the written text as a weapon of peace (replacing the weapons of war), as the new means to effect social change. The hero forces social change based on impostion; Deuteronomy relies solely on the catechetical tools of teaching and persuasion and places the fundamental motivation of war — vengeance — out of human hands and under divine control. (p. 77)
1. See the extensive bibliography on Hebrews for Proper 23B.
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 88. In a section “The Judgment by the Jewish Authorities,” he asks and offers an answer to the following question:
What role did the law play in the judgment against Jesus? W Pannenberg thinks: “The Jew faithful to the law was unavoidably inclined toward rejecting Jesus insofar as he was not ready to distinguish between the authority of the law and that of the God of Israel …. Jesus finally came to destruction not because of some inadequate individuals, but on the Jewish law itself, whose transmitted authority was placed in question by his style of public ministry.” This view starts from the presupposition that the Jewish law was of an unambiguous scope and Jesus consciously set himself against it. But both assumptions are wide of the mark. We have already seen that Jesus had clearly perceived tensions within Israel’s Holy Scriptures (sec Mark 12:35-37) and had also seen the contradictions in the interpretation of the law by his opponents (Mark 2:23-28 and parallels; 7:1-13 and parallels). He argued from the context of Scripture (Mark 12:18-27) and even asked about the most important of the many commandments. For him, the law was not of a fixed scope; he nowhere directly attacked it, but neither did he ever rely casuistically on the letter, nor did he ever begin an explanation like that of the later Mishna with its 4187 propositions. In view of countless prophetic utterances which condemn a cultist-legalistic piety and instead demand justice and love, an interpretation of the law which was entirely determined by the occurrence of the kingdom of God at hand was in no way in contradiction with Scripture. If we look at all the holy books of Israel which were acknowledged at the time, his interpretation was in fact easier to defend than his opponents’ casuistry. To that extent, it is not correct to say that Jesus failed because of Jewish law — unless one understands by the law that interpretation which was gaining ground in Jesus’ time precisely among the devout and which later came to dominate entirely. In order to avoid the coming judgment, people tried to be as just as possible, and therefore held on as faithfully as possible to the many individual laws. They failed to notice that in this way the basic questions of justice and love in practice lost their central place. To that extent the reason for Jesus’ failure was not “a few inadequate individuals” but a particular legal tradition, which, however, was not identical with the law as such, as it is presented in the whole framework of the books of Moses, the writings of the prophets, the historical books, the psalms, and wisdom literature.From Jesus’ interpretation of the law it followed necessarily that people have to give up passing judgment on one another, as, in view of the demands of true living, no one may count themselves among the just. Jesus expected this renunciation of judging not only of individuals but also of the new people which he wanted to assemble, and thereby of its leaders and of the High Council. But this “expectation” was too high, and they stuck by their “well-tried” practice, so that in fact they served as a clear negative model for what was set out in Jesus’ proclamation of judgment. The high priest and councillors — giving full expression to salvation history — played the part of those who judge, pronounce their victim guilty of death as a blasphemer, and thereby bring judgment on themselves. (pp. 87-88)
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp.30-34:
The Authority of Love (12:18-44)
Resurrection is the symbol of the new community. It points to a trans-historical, essentially miraculous event. Therefore, the new community of which the Gospel speaks is not the basis for a program of social meliorism in this world, but the ground for a miraculous hope. The historical dimension of the analysis is the exposure of the old order, symbolized by the cross. Conceptually, therefore, resurrection functions as an imagined ideal in terms of which we criticize the actual. The Gospel believed in the possibility of its realization, but, as we shall see from the enigmatic ending of the text (16:8), not in this realm of being.“You Are Completely Mistaken!” (12:18-27)
This strong refutation with which the pericope ends shows that something of major importance is at stake. The roll of official opponents is extended once again, this time to include the Sadducees, who deny the possibility of the resurrection of the dead. They are also the priestly aristocracy whose power is the hereditary prestige of the caste that maintains the sacrificial system. We have, therefore, a head-to-head confrontation between a society structured by the Sacred on the one hand, and the possibility of a new society based on the vindication of the victim on the other. This vindication is called resurrection, and the Sadducees seek to ridicule it by an artificial reductio ad absurdum based on the law of Levitate marriage.
Jesus refutes these antagonists in their own terms, and this is a new departure. We have just seen how in the questions of authority and taxes to Caesar he bypasses the opponents’ terms; the fact that he takes them up here shows that the resurrection is especially important. Other matters might be bypassed, but the resurrection must be established both by Scripture and the power of God. Those who deny the resurrection must be shown to be “completely mistaken,” because they deny the possibility of a new community based not on the sacrifice of victims but on their vindication.
Love Is More than Holocausts and Sacrifices (12:28-34)
The religious and the secular powers have been shown to be transcended by the new community of the victim called “resurrection.” What then shall be the power of the new community? How shall society be preserved from chaos if not by holocausts and sacrifices? And what shall be the basis of law (prohibition) in the new community?
A lawyer who has been impressed by the astuteness of Jesus’ answers asks him for the fundamental principle of the law. Jesus answers with the Shema,which is essentially a prohibition on idolatry. The love of God with all one’s powers leaves no love for other gods. If there is to be a new, community, it must be founded on the renunciation of idolatry, which is the worship of sacrificial violence in the guise of the deified victim. The renunciation of idolatry entails the renunciation of vengeance.
The demand for the renunciation of vengeance takes the positive form of the command to love the neighbor as the self. The full quotation from Lev 19:18 is, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” It is clearly a proscription of the fundamental principle of law, vengeance. The web of reciprocity must be broken and replaced by a network of love if there is to be a new community, and for that to happen the idol of the primitive Sacred must be forsworn.
Jesus rejects the whole panoply of sacred violence in its first principle as idolatry and its social manifestation as vengeance. The lawyer is the one who expresses this fact when he says, “You spoke elegantly and truly, teacher, when you said that Cod is one and there is no other besides him, and that to love him with a whole heart and a whole mind and a whole strength and to love the neighbor as oneself is more than holocausts and sacrifices” (12:32-33). Jesus did not speak the words about holocausts and sacrifices; the lawyer added them, and we can only understand them as a summary of all that has gone before in the section beginning with the incident in the temple and the ensuing questioning of Jesus. The lawyer had been listening to the exchanges and was impressed by Jesus’ answers. He is not far from the kingdom because he understands the import of Jesus’ teaching on the nonsacrificial nature of the new community.
The antagonists are silenced. “No one dared to question him any more” (12:34). It is now clear that a new society called “resurrection” is at hand, based on true transcendence and mutual love, and not on the law of vengeance and the order of the scapegoat. Jesus represents something more than the order of holocausts and sacrifices; he represents a new and different possibility of love. No one dares to question him any longer; now it is his turn to ask the question.
A Different Kind of Messianic Hope (12:35-40)
We are reminded, for the first time since the discussion about authority in 11:27, that Jesus is in the temple. Since we should understand all these debates to have taken place there, the fact that we are explicitly reminded tells us that what follows has special pertinence to the temple.
Psalm 110 testifies that Jesus is not the Davidic Messiah but represents a different messianic hope. The Psalm was widely used in early Christianity (Acts 2:34-35; 1 Cor 1 5:25; Heb 1:13, 5:6, 10; 7:1, 10-17) to present Jesus as transcending both the political and the priestly messianic hope. The location of this incident in the temple makes it likely that an allusion to the figure of Melchizedek the priest is in the background, and that the text is arguing that Jesus represents a possibility that makes both the religious and the secular political hope obsolete. The letter to the Hebrews spells out the theme of the transcendence of the cultus and the priesthood in terms of the Platonic world of ideas. Here that point is expressed in terms of a new nonsacrificial community in which the violence of the Davidic hope, and the political structure it supports, is transcended.
As David’s Lord, Jesus is to bring in a kingdom that is inspired by a different principle than the one that entitles the scribes to the privilege of position, “greetings in the market place, the foremost seats in the synagogue, and the choice places at banquets” (12:39). Such a system devours the weak and encourages hypocrisy. The new community is to be one in which the individual is affirmed. The violent political dreams of the messianic age, measured by the memory of the Davidic kingdom, are replaced by the nonviolent kingdom of the victim vindicated by resurrection.
The crowd seems to be on his side. “The whole crowd heard him gladly” (12:37). What has he said to evoke this positive response from the people? Why should the rejection of the Davidic version of the messianic hope cause such gladness? If we read the text within the context of the war against Rome, we might hear a sigh of relief on the part of those who did not want to be swept up in the violence of an armed resistance inspired by Davidic politics. We might, however, also hear an echo of the old ambivalence about the appropriateness of a monarchical form of government for Israel expressed in the accounts of the establishment of the monarchy in 1 Sam 8-10; and we certainly hear an echo of the humble Messiah of the opening scene who comes to the temple riding on an ass, in step with the prophecy of Zech 9:9, which, although it is not mentioned explicitly by Mark, is in the background and is brought to the fore by the other evangelists.
The monarchy and the priesthood are natural allies and mutually dependent. It was David who first essayed to build the temple, who purchased the threshing floor from Araunah the Jebusite, and who brought the ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam 24:18-23; 6:1-15). It was he who established the system of status based on sacred prestige that excluded the bulk of the populace from positions of power in the state. The message that the common people, the crowd, heard gladly was that this order was to be infused with a new spirit.
The Individual Is Worth More
than the System (12:41-44)
This pericope is an example of the rapacity described in 12:40. The docile contributions of the crowd show that it and the temple are in league. Then Jesus singles out one person from the crowd, a poor widow who gave her whole life (holon ton bion autes, 12:44). She is swallowed up by the temple and its supporting crowd. She is a scapegoat figure.
This text is usually read as a moral comment on the relatively greater importance of intention compared to action. Because of the total commitment of the gift, it is worth more than all the other gifts that cost their givers less. But we are left wondering about the fate of the widow, now that she has given her all to the system. How will she live? Is this sort of prodigality really being commended, or are we being shown an example of why the crowd heard with gladness the announcement of the end of the system? We think that the latter message is the more likely, even though the crowd does not understand how the system depends on its complicity. Despite its complicity, the crowd understands the scapegoating method of the temple system.
This story picks up the theme with which the section on the temple began, the theme of the faith of the individual over and against the barren system (11:22-25), and shows how the demands of the system make the life of the individual difficult if not impossible. It tells us that the intention of the individual, misguided and betrayed as it is, is nevertheless worth more than all the crowd’s participation in this oppression, and it presents the culminating indictment of the system as it prepares for the climactic announcement of its destruction.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 5, 2006 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
5. James Alison, Raising Abel, “Jesus’ Perception of God” (excerpt), pp. 34-41, uses Mark 12:18-27 as the starting point for his eschatology. If the preacher wants to keep the wider context in mind (Mark 12:18-27 is skipped over in the lectionary in Year B), then a look at this key section of Alison’s work is crucial.