Proper 4B

Last revised: June 8, 2024
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PROPER 4 (May 29-June 4) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 9
RCL: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6
RoCa: Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 2 Corinthians 4:6-11; Mark 2:23-3:6

Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation

In 2024, we have been exploring God’s politics in Jesus the Messiah in order to seek guidance for the enormous political choices we face in November. This week we begin a new twist on the themes of the past several months. The basic insight has been that the Gospel is about God sending Jesus with an alternative politics than the typical human politics. The latter is based on military power. God’s politics are based on the power of love, the power that creates life itself.

This week we introduce a new perspective on why God’s politics are so different. It’s not completely due to the fact that they are from God. There’s a human element, because the God of Israel, and of Jesus, is a God on the side of the oppressed, on the side of the victims of imperial violence. For eight centuries leading up to Jesus, the Jews are an indigenous people living under other people’s empires. Jesus of Nazareth is an indigenous man.

This perspective has been building for me, as I’ve begun to read books like Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s Braiding Sweetgrass. Brian McLaren‘s brilliant new book, Life after Doom: Wisdom and Courage for a World Falling Apart, features indigenous wisdom, so I’ve begun to feature books in my reading list from indigenous people, such as Steven Charleston‘s We Survived the End of the World: Lessons from Native America on Apocalypse and Hope. But the more immediate inspiration for this sermon came several weeks earlier at our Greater Milwaukee Synod Assembly, when the keynote speaker on the theme of courage was Vance Blackfox, ELCA Director of Indigenous Ministries and Tribal Relations. He concluded his keynote with these words, “I think this is really cool: that I’m here tonight to proclaim to you that the one God sent to save you is an indigenous man.”

The resulting sermon, “What Does It Mean to Be Saved by an Indigenous Man? For One Thing, the Fourth Commandment is Anti-Slavery, Pro-Labor,” does what the lengthy title implies: introduces the theme and then applies it to Fourth Commandment. Here’s a sample:

What are the sabbath laws and sabbath politics from an indigenous perspective? Deuteronomy 5 gives us the perfect example: the reason given for keeping the sabbath is to not follow the empire of Egypt who had enslaved them, exploiting their labor. They had been made to work as slaves 24/7. Keeping the sabbath as a break from work gives them the constant reminder to not exploit the work of others. The politics of the sabbath are to respect the work of all laborers toward the furtherance of all life, not the diminishment of some lives in order to enhance the lives of those in power. The Sabbath commandment is an anti-slavery, pro-labor commandment. It is meant to enhance the lives of all, especially those on the margins of empire who are still exploited for their labor. . . .

Let’s briefly consider an example from our own time. In the past couple years, in both Florida and then Texas, the state legislatures have written state laws to preclude local laws around breaks for workers, especially the breaks crucial to working in such oppressive heat of their summer climates. City and county governments had responded to the situation of global warming by trying to protect workers from the increasingly dangerous conditions of hotter summers. The state legislatures undid their work. In the summer of 2023, the Texas Tribune wrote an article on this situation, beginning with these facts: “Heat kills more people annually in the U.S. than hurricanes, tornadoes or flooding. Texas has recorded 42 heat-related deaths on the job since 2011 — more than any other state, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.” The remainder of the lengthy article details the opposing views on the merits of overriding local laws with the new state law, which strangely places the burden on OHSA regulations. My question this morning is, ‘What if we evaluated the merits of such laws with the spirit of the Sabbath law?’ In other words, in the spirit of trying to resist the age-old exploitation of labor wrought by the typical politics of empire. I’m not saying we have to quote Deuteronomy 5 to State Legislatures — though if it seems that they’re predominantly Christian, it might be helpful to remind them of their own scriptures. But we can make the case without quoting scriptures. We can say something like, ‘Florida and Texas are two of the last slave-holding states. If we are mindful of that exploitation of labor — that theft of labor, really — how might we consider the arguments around these labor laws in light of that?’ Do you see what I mean?

In 2018 I am participating in William Barber‘s revival of the Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s “Poor People’s Campaign,” and I am teaching myself economics (for example, Robert Kuttner‘s Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, as well as studying perspectives on economics from the perspective of Mimetic Theory, especially André Orléan‘s The Empire of Value and Paul Dumouchel‘s The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays).

At the heart of economics in First Century Palestine was Sabbath practice, which had achieved a semi-divine status to the extent that the Jewish leaders shaped the practice as one of serving the Sabbath as if it were a lesser god. And who benefitted the most from this orientation, this economic faith? The leaders who sought to control the rules of the practice — such that what began as a divine economy of grace designed to benefit all of God’s children was turned into an unjust economy of oppression which disproportionately benefitted the wealthy. Jesus confronts this idolatry with the simple dictum, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Human Being [“Son of Man”] is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).

The heart of our Western economics has become the “free market,” which we likewise have mythologically exalted to a semi-divine status. We are asked to serve its invisible workings with a religious faith that it will in turn serve us. And who benefits the most from this “free market” economics? Those whose wealth controls the rules. In the history of our last 100 years of economics and politics, the “free market” approach (in the 1920’s and 1980-today) has always led to dramatically increasing inequality between rich and poor — even between rich and middle class. The outlier has been the Keynesian economics of managed markets in the aftermath of the market crash, and then especially as the heart of the global order established in the aftermath of World War II. 1945-70 was a period of unparalleled equalization of income, a shift of wealth from the top to the middle and lower classes.

It was also a time of managing markets to better serve all people, rather than a religiously economic faith that serves a semi-divine “free market.” From my perspective, Keynesian economics heeds Jesus’ simple dictum for our form of economics: “Markets were made for humankind, and not humankind for markets; so the Human Being is lord even of markets.” For more on this perspective, see my essay, “Opposing Faith: ‘Free Market’ vs. Easter.”

One thing is clear to me: an element of a New Reformation is to place economic justice near the center of our witness and practice. It means learning more about articulating the idolatries of “free market” capitalism. It means living into proclaiming Good News for the poor.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15


1. David Froemming, Salvation Story, pp. 25-28.

Reflections and Questions

1. The Third Commandment in its Deuteronomic form. The most interesting difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the Decalogue occurs with the elaborations of the Third Commandment. The Exodus version (20:8-11) highlights the priestly account of creation, with God’s work of creation on six days and rest on the seventh. The Deuteronomic version focuses on the issue of liberation from slavery. They are to remember their own slavery in Egypt, and God’s rescue from it, as they consider how they treat their own slaves and animals. This version fits more aptly, I think, with Jesus’ teachings about the Sabbath in today’s Gospel Lesson.

2 Corinthians 4:5-12


1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 177-179. For example: “Paul uses the two peristaseis lists (2 Cor 4:7-12; 6:4-10) in that letter to bracket the discussion of reconciliation, as if to say that reconciliation can take place only through knowledge of the mechanism of the scapegoat.” (p. 177)

2. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2018, “Let Light Shine Out of Darkness.”

Mark 2:23-3:6


1. James Alison, “The Man Blind from Birth…,” Contagion, vol. 4 (Spring, 1997), pp. 26-46; also published as chapter 1 in Faith Beyond Resentment. Alison provides a compelling account of the Johannine view of Jesus’ work on the Sabbath. Perhaps in distinction from the Priestly account of creation, in which the rest on the seventh day seems to be emphasized, John seems to emphasize the continuing work of creation, e.g., in John 5:17: “My Father is working up until the present, and I also work.” John 9 then begins with a reference to God’s continuing work: “He is blind so that the works of God may be manifest in him.” Alison beautifully interprets the healing miracle as a continuing work of God’s creation, as Jesus takes the mud, ala God in Gen. 2:7, and performs a continuing work of creation; he completes what had been unfinished for the man born blind, allowing him to finally see.

The question is whether or not the Synoptic Jesus expresses a similar sense of continuing God’s creative work in his healing on the Sabbath. Perhaps this might be posed in terms of emphasizing either of the two versions of the Third Commandment in Torah. The Deuteronomic version, with its emphasis on God’s liberating work, would seem to coincide better with the Johannine understanding. Is the same true for Mark? Does Jesus’ challenge to the Sabbath laws in Mark bear some of the flavor of emphasizing the call to share with God in the continuing work of creation? What should our understanding of the Sabbath be as Christians? Rest or work, or both? Do we emphasize the modeling of God’s rest, as in the priestly account? Or do we emphasize the continuing creative work of God to liberate creation from that which binds it? Or can we somehow do both, emphasizing the day of rest as a day to center ourselves with the call to God’s ongoing work of liberation?

2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 78-80, a section entitled “Ritual Controversies.” Hamerton-Kelly mentions that the center of this pericope (2:13-3:6) is Jesus’ saying about new wine in old wineskins (2:21-22). If we have framed the Sabbath work as a work of liberation (as above), Hamerton-Kelly specifies this as a work of liberation from the Sacred. He writes:

Jesus is “angered and saddened by their hardness of heart” (3:5), a hardness that is precisely the attitude that serves the Sacred at all costs and sacrifices the human individual to the system. The climax of the section introduces the prospect of Jesus’ death. He has challenged and exposed the victimage system and now he is to become its victim too. (p. 80)

3. David Froemming, Salvation Story, pp. 67-72.

4. Ched Myers, with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, chapter 3, “Jubilee!”, pp. 22-30. Myers explains how Sabbath began as and continued to be about the politics of food. It begins in the context of gathering manna in the wilderness and extends to Jesus’ time around issues of food production, gathering, and consumption. And a crucial development from the notion of Sabbath was Jubilee, a time of debt-forgiveness. In the theology of Sabbath and Jubilee is a divine economics of grace. See especially the overview on p. 24.

Reflections and Questions

1. Are there any modern analogues to what Jesus is doing in these Markan stories of challenging the Sabbath laws? These stories early in Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry even bring to issue our basic view of that ministry. Reinhold Neibuhr, for example, found it necessary to paint the picture of Jesus’ as a political quietist, so that we wouldn’t have to model ourselves after Jesus in our own political activities. According to this view, Jesus came as a spiritual leader only, leaving the door open for us in choosing our own politics. But in these Markan stories of Jesus challenging the Sabbath laws, aren’t we seeing a very political Jesus? Isn’t he making a direct challenge to the political control that the Jewish leaders claimed for themselves over the Sabbath? Isn’t this why the passage ends with the resolve already expressed by those leaders that they will need to destroy Jesus? If we accept Hamerton-Kelly’s take on this passage, then modern analogues would involve modern challenges to the GMSM. My choice these days is to challenge the current predominance of capitalism as the framework of control in our lives that most closely parallels that of the Jewish Sabbath in Jesus’ time. How do our current weekly lifestyles under the pressures of capitalism need liberation? I’ve heard of folks, for example, who observe the Sabbath these days by not going out shopping on Sundays.



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