Last revised: March 31, 2016
Click Reload or Refresh for latest version
PROPER 9 (July 3-9) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 14
RCL: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
RoCa: Ezekiel 2:2-5; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, chapter 5, “Kings and Prophets: Sacred Lot and Divine Calling,” pp. 129-162, with pp. 145-146, 156-157 more specifically on Ezekiel. The chapter as a whole gives a great introduction to a Girardian reading of the role of prophet. Of Ezekiel’s call, Williams says:
Ezekiel’s call to prophesy is evidently connected to his throne vision (Ezek 1). This is a vision of God coming to be with his people in exile in which the divine is revealed in likeness upon likeness: “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking” (Ezek 1:28). The voice of one speaking commands him to speak to a people who will resist the divine word. Ezekiel’s call to prophesy includes the symbolic action of eating a scroll; on the scroll are written “words of lamentation and mourning and woe” (2:10). When he eats it, he says, “It was in my mouth as sweet as hone” (3:3). The prophetic word involves speaking of what is bitter to the community addressed but sweet to the prophet. This again indicates the prophet’s sense of being an exception, of being singled out, of being unlike all the others. Ezekiel is to serve in the role of watchman for the house of Israel (3:16). Undoubtedly, the role of watchman was already well known in the prophetic tradition (see Hos 9:8). What is new here is the understanding of the responsibility of the prophet, whose blood will be required for those who have not been warned of God’s judgment. The concept of exchange, the life of the prophet for the life of those in the community whom he does not warn, is quite striking. It shows that although Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, has begun to think in terms of individual moral responsibility, he is still very much immersed in the language of the sacred, which is at bottom the language of the sacred as violence. I will comment on this further in the next section of the chapter.
2. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, ch. 5, “Moving On: The Exilic Transformation of Anger into Love.” The second major section, “Jewish Hints,” is an exposition of the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a priest who found the exile and destruction of the temple devastating. He was coaxed to gradually “move on.” Alison summarizes:
How Ezekiel has moved on! He has moved from a man of spurned love, to a man who, from within the whirlwind of that anger, has begun to see glimpses of a hard-won love, the breakthrough into his heart of the breath of Yahweh. Little by little it has been that love that has turned out to be what the breath of Yahweh was all about, until slowly, oh so slowly, there has emerged the tone of a strong but gentle voice which builds up, bringing into life, loving people, re-creating, and tending towards catholicity. Ezekiel’s journey brings into focus a number of milestones in the much huger journey that is the Yahwist revolution. His life is a magnificent example of the dislocation and recreation of being which began when Abram left behind the city of Ur, the city of his father and his idols.The point that I have wanted to drive home is that it seems fair to inscribe Ezekiel’s journey within the three stages of (1) spurned love, pierced by a vision of God which it is as yet unable fully to take on board. This is followed by (2) a long process of working through the spurned love, and beginning to glimpse what I have called hard-won love, a non-reactive love which tends to bring together. This yields finally to (3) the relaxing into a gratuitous upbuilding, creative love which empowers the imagination to project and work towards building a huge catholicity of life: the discovery of God as creator and lover of all humanity with a project of bringing people into mutual rejoicing. (pp. 117-118)
Reflections and Questions
1. “…they shall know that a prophet has been among them.” See the reflections on “prophet” from Pentecost Sunday.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
1. William L. Lane’s article on this passage in Volume XI of The New Interpreter’s Bible (pp. 161-168) is quite helpful. He notes that there is a “strong association” in Paul’s thought between God’s power and human weakness (p. 166). He continues:
The notion of God’s power being perfected or brought to its fullness (teleo, 12:9) in weakness is also a fundamental Pauline conviction, though nowhere else [than 2 Cor. 12:2-10] said so poignantly or forcefully. Faith’s beginning is precisely an exercise of God’s power in weakness (Rom. 5:6); what people cannot achieve is given them freely as a gift — in other words, as grace. The gospel is defined as “God’s power” to those who believe (Rom. 1:16; cf. 1 Cor. 1:18). . . . The paradoxical (God’s) power through (human) weakness frees, even compels, Paul to boast of his weakness. Now, to boast of his weakness gives the glory to God, whose power after all is the only effective power in his life — indeed, in the world. Paul focuses on “the power of Christ” (12:9), probably because it is Christ, in Paul’s gospel, who suffers the ultimate helplessness in his crucifixion and is himself the hallmark of God’s power, effective in his being raised from the dead.
He also makes a number of helpful remarks on background and on the Greek text which help a Girardian reading, and inform the following exegetical notes.
2. Lane is among the many scholars who believe that Paul’s third person account of a vision of the third heaven is a third person rendering of a vision that Paul himself experienced. Telling of a personal experience in the third person softens the kind of boasting which Paul is contesting in his opponents. He could join their chorus of boasting with a good story himself, but the point is that these stories of dramatic religious visions are not what the Christian faith is about. He leads carefully to the point that Christian faith boasts in its weakness.
3. 12:7: “a thorn (skolops) was given me in the flesh, a messenger (angelos) of Satan to torment (kolaphize) me, to keep me from being too elated.” Of skolops, Lane notes that:
According to certain texts, the term refers to sharpened wooden stakes (1) that form a palisade for defensive purposes, (2) that are placed in a pit or depression on the hopes that opposing soldiers might fall upon them to their great distress, or (3) that are used to impale an enemy as a means of torture.
The latter meaning actually fits much better with kolaphize, which has more of a connotation of physical torture than of psychological torment. A better translation than “thorn” might thus be something like “bamboo shoots.” Paul seems to be interpreting a point of physical suffering in the context of a the more cosmic battle between the angelos of Satan and the angelos of Christ. He, as an agent of Christ, is being tortured by the enemy.
4. 12:9: “so that the power of Christ may dwell (episkenose) in me.” episkenose has more literally to do with tenting, indwelling, as used in 2 Cor. 5:1.
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 175-176, in a section entitled “The Pauline Ecclesial Hypostasis,” which gives a Girardian reading of how St. Paul sees the church as a means of grace into God’s gift of live through Jesus Christ. See more below under reflections.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 174-179. Hamerton-Kelly cites 2 Cor 12 in a section very close to the Alison section above; his is entitled “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified” — a crucial portion of Hamerton-Kelly’s book.
A “structure of agape” is close to what I think Alison means by “ecclesial hypostasis.” It also might be close to a phrase that Gil Bailie uses often: “learning to live in the love of God.” The Church is a place that God has given us where we might learn to live in the love of God.
3. I offer a sermon from Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, delivered at All Saints Church on March 6, 2016, “You’ve Got to Be Brave, Brave, Brave” (available on YouTube). It is a sermon that challenges us to be with the vulnerable and broken, risking our own brokenness, based on 2 Cor 12:9-10 (‘strength in weakness’) and Micah 6:8 (‘doing justice’), while confronting the issues of racism and mass incarceration in our time.
Reflections and Questions
1. “but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses”; “for power is made perfect in weakness”; “for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Power in weakness. Talking about being in a place of weakness almost reached scandalous proportions at the 2000 COV&R conference in Boston. It is difficult to speak in such paradoxes. But if we do find ourselves urged to talk in such a fashion we can certainly take our cue from St. Paul, who does so quite often, this passage in 2 Cor 12 being a prime example.
I think I’ve discovered that James Alison might have been leading us into such risky talk about weakness under some prompting from the book that Andrew McKenna had us both reading (James during the conference and myself in the aftermath): Belief, by Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo. It is a marvelous little book, written in the first person, that offers a glimpse of Vattimo’s personal journey as both a philosopher and as a Christian. He cites his encounter with Girard’s work as the turning point for both those aspects of who he is. It is Girard’s notion of the sacred, and thus of the desacralizing work of the Paraclete, that has provided a key for his notion of secularization as a “weakening of Being” that both Nietzsche and Heidegger stumbled onto and tried to respond to. But whereas those two philosophers intuitively felt Christianity to be part of the problem and thus sought a different answer (which took them back into new forms of the Sacred?), Vattimo sees the secularizing work of the Christian gospel as something to be embraced. He instead proposes a philosophy of Being which he labels “weak ontology,” based especially in the Christian concept of kenotic (self-emptying) love as found especially in Phil. 2:5-11.
2. In 2003, the fifth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, had been released two weeks before, as an immediate number one best seller. Our family had been digesting its 870 pages (both in print and by audio tape version) for much of those two weeks. This book has some of the strongest hints yet of a Pauline theme of power in weakness, and, in general, the story fleshes out much of what Paul is talking about in 2 Cor. 12. I can identify three:
(1) Harry is troubled when he finds out — magically, of course — that his father was a braggart at age 15 (Harry’s age in this book). His father was the best at everything he did and sometimes even used the teasing of others as a way to show off. His mother hated Harry’s father at this age, because she was a compassionate person who always took the side of the victim. Paul is struggling against those who use religious competence as a reason to boast, or to assert their authority in competitive ways.
(2) Lord Voldemort, the Dark Lord (and Satan figure), is afraid of death and thus uses his magical competence to wield death over others. Voldemort cannot understand why Dumbledore — Harry’s headmaster, and the only wizard Voldemort fears — doesn’t try to kill him. To Voldemort, “There is nothing worse than death!” “You are quite wrong,” says Dumbledore, “Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.” To be on the side of Satan means to wield death upon others out of fear of death. In Christ’s resurrection we know that we need not fear death. We may even appear weak in giving ourselves over to the satanic powers of death in this world.
(3) Thus, the theme of power in apparent weakness. On the cross, Jesus appears to lose out to the power of death and of Satan. But there is a power more powerful than death — a theme that Dumbledore is also trying to teach Harry. After a showdown in which Voldemort finally flees — presumably to fight again another day — Dumbledore tells Harry that he possesses a power more powerful than Voldemort. Harry does not yet understand that he has a good dose of compassion from his mother, and so he protests, “I haven’t any powers [Voldemort] hasn’t got,” says Harry, “I couldn’t fight the way he did tonight, I can’t possess people or — or kill them —”
“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries,” interrupts Dumbledore, “that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there [in the Department of Mysteries]. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it . . . was your heart that saved you.”
I will be very interested to see how author J. K. Rowling will bring this all to a resolution in the seventh and final book planned for the series. The first book opens with the victory of Harry’s mother’s compassionate heart. Voldemort has killed her in trying to get to Harry, and her sacrifice leaves a charm on Harry that causes his death curse to rebound, nearly killing Voldemort. In the fifth book, Harry learns that he and Voldemort have a destiny, “that he must be either murderer or victim, there was no other way.” Will the series end as it began, but this time with Harry making the sacrifice to save someone else? With Harry sacrificing his life in a way so that the power of such compassion rebounds Voldemort’s own death curse upon him? Thus, just as with a Girardian interpretation of the Gospel, the judgment upon Voldemort will be a self-judgment. His own murderous ways will ultimately bring his own death. Link to the 2003 sermon on these themes, “Harry Potter and Power in Weakness.”
I have since written a lengthy essay on these themes, taking Book 6 in the series into account, entitled “Harry Potter and the Power of Love.” (Spoiler warning: don’t read on if you don’t want to read a crucial detail.) Added to the self-sacrifice and apparent weakness of Harry’s mother is the death of Dumbledore at the end of Book 6. Is his also a self-sacrifice for Harry to model? At stake with Dumbledore’s murder is also his steadfast belief in the power of love as the greatest power in the world. I believe that the end of Book 6 is a situation akin to that of the disciples on Holy Saturday. Is the death of Jesus also a mocking of his steadfast belief in the power of love? Easter brings resolution and impetus to the Christian story. What will Book 7 bring in the Harry Potter series — a more conventional falling back into Sacred Violence as the answer, or the Christian answer of self-sacrificing love? I welcome your feedback on my essay, “Harry Potter and the Power of Love.” See also my resource page, “Harry Potter and the Christian Faith.”
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 95-97. Here are two paragraphs on the first several verses of this passage:
The theme of the unbelief of the crowd becomes even more negative in the account of the rejection of Jesus in his home town of Nazareth (6:1-6). The hometown crowd recognize his wisdom and miraculous power but are unable to believe it because of their preconceptions. They have him embedded in their mimetic network. They know his family and therefore it is impossible that he could be what he appears to be. Their ambivalence is well-described as “scandal” (6:3), because the dynamics of scandal are the dynamics of mimetic rivalry, of the model that both attracts and repels. Scandal begins with the assumption that we are potentially our model’s equal and can always be the same as he. We want not only to equal but also to surpass the model; if we achieve that, he ceases to be a model. We do not want that, however, because the tension of our desire depends on his modeling, and so we desire a contradiction, to surpass and to be surpassed by our model. We attack and cherish, hate and love, diminish and exalt him. This is scandal, and it is the essence of anxiety (and addiction) because it is the love of what one hates and the hatred of what one loves. Mark tells us it is the state of the hometown crowd in Nazareth with respect to Jesus. The proverb that a prophet is honored everywhere except in his own home sums up the scandal. Envy is the power of the model/obstacle to attract and repel at the same time. The crowd wants to be like the other and to destroy him, because he is so pleasing.
The scandal of the hometown crowd makes it impossible for Jesus to work a miracle there. A miracle requires faith and he could find no faith in Nazareth. There is a progression in the treatment of faith — from the bleeding woman, who exemplifies it as the act of the single individual called out from the crowd, to the family of Jairus, which emerges from the crowd, to the crowd at Nazareth, which absorbs Jesus into itself and refuses to recognize any power outside itself. “And he marveled at their lack of faith” (6:6). Violence thus conceals the true distinction between God and the world by means of the false distinctions of the community of the double transference. The social role of Jesus makes it impossible that he could be anyone other than the son of their neighbors, despite the fact of his wisdom and power. This is the scandal of violence, which substitutes false distinctions for true.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 6, 2003 (Woodside Village Church).
3. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Authority Over Unclean Spirits“; and in 2015, “Jesus Is Cast Out and the Disciples Cast Out.”
Reflections and Questions
1. “And they took offense at him.” The Greek here skandalizai, one of the gospels’ many uses of this term, which Girard has helped to thematize. James Alison, for example, cites this verse in discussing “The Skandalon Revealed” on p. 141 of The Joy of Being Wrong. Many Girardian books deal with this theme of skandalon. There is even an entire book on it: David McCracken‘s The Scandal of the Gospels. For a more complete exposition, see “Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon.”