Whirlwinds and Storms

Cemetary2In the readings from Job and Mark huge storms break out. Storms are chaotic, but they follow the laws of nature, curiously now called “chaos science.” Just before the stormy voyage on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus had pointed out that plants grow from seeds by the laws of nature and that the Kingdom of God is like this natural growth. But what does the storm at sea have to do with the Kingdom of God? Since it is also by the laws of nature that storms destroy crops, are there storms that can blow away the Kingdom of God? The frightened disciples in the boat seem to have thought so and they feared that Jesus didn’t even care about it. Out of the whirlwind God says a lot about throwing oceans around but doesn’t say anything about caring for Job’s excruciating sufferings. Being a puny being in a vast universe doesn’t cheer up a suffering person.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul doesn’t write about any storms at sea (although he was to endure one later on) but he writes of his apostolic life as one big storm. Many of the hardships are human-caused such as “ beatings, imprisonments, riots.” Paul goes on to say that he and his companions are “treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed.” Paul could be forgiven for wondering if God cared about him. Job also complains about human storms. In addition to the torment from his so-called “comforters,” he bemoans that “my adversary sharpens his eyes against me. They have gaped at me with their mouths; they have struck me insolently on the cheek; they mass themselves together against me.” (Job 16: 10.) René Girard has demonstrated that human behavior also follows natural laws, particularly in the chaos of mob violence such as described by Job and Paul. Far from thinking God cares about him, Job charges God with handing him over to the ungodly and casting him into the hands of the wicked. Three chapters later, Job cries out with the hope that his Redeemer, or vindicator, lives and will stand up for him, even if his own flesh has rotted away by then. Paul, though thrown into the hands of the ungodly at least as much as Job has a different reaction. He describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Paul doesn’t say anything explicitly about God’s providential care for him, but his sense of having everything in the midst of deprivation and rejoicing in his sorrow witnesses to a bounty of God’s grace in the midst of the storm.

The storms on the Sea of Galilee may remind some readers of human storms such as the meltdown of human evil that led to the Flood, or perhaps was the flood, from which Noah and his family was delivered by God. (1 Pet. 3: 20) It is worth noting that natural laws provide consequences for irresponsible use of the environment that bring on storms and more intense storms at that. As the political storms in our country and elsewhere in the world continue to escalate with an immigration policy that has become a huge atrocity and the heartless neglect of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, one wonders if God cares. Obviously a lot of humans don’t. This sort of neglect on the part of people who claim to be Christian sets the kind of obstacles in the way of others that Paul himself says he tries to avoid. From the whirlwind, God says to Job that God “shut in the sea with doors when it burst out of its womb” and then prescribed boundaries. So, God did not just let the sea run wild but put limits to its chaos. On the Sea of Galilee, Jesus topped that act by calming the sea entirely. Curiously, calming the sea seems to have intensified the human storm as the disciples became more afraid of Jesus than ever. This fear spills over to the next story when the Garasenes drive Jesus away for healing the demoniac.

Storms are scary but we have to face the question of whether or not we are even more scared of God’s peace, the vindication from God that Job longed for. Storms are chaotic, but social change that brings people at enmity together feels more chaotic and is scarier still. Why else should there be so much talk about walls at our borders? Note that the boat carrying Jesus and his disciples was heading from Jewish territory to Gentile territory. Was the whole idea of bringing peace across the dividing sea more frightening than the storm? Paul’s confidence in rejoicing in the midst of sorrow and possessing everything in dispossession is scary too. What a way to calm human storms! For Paul, God has not calmed the human storm that brought him persecution; God has calmed Paul himself in the midst of the storm, a powerful indication that God cared for him and for all others still caught in the storm. The image of Jesus sleeping through the storm at sea indicates that Jesus, too, had this calm in the midst of the storm. But Jesus did not calm the human storm that nailed him to the cross at Calvary, and Jesus himself cried out with fear that he had been forsaken. As soon as this storm started to break at Gethsemane, the disciples fled. When the women came to the tomb where a young man dressed in white told them that Jesus was going before them to Galilee, they were even more frightened by the calm after the storm and they fled. Are we willing to follow Jesus in the way that leads us, with Paul, into the teeth of the storm with rejoicing and hope for social change that does not require others to be dispossessed, or do we fear more the calm after the storm where we confront the God who cares about those we don’t care about and also those we fear and hate?

How Jesus Was Tempted as We Are

field1Mark tells us that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness where he was tempted, or tested, by Satan.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark tells us nothing else about the testing so we do not get a set of three drawn-out temptations to analyze. We are left with the bare fact of testing. What night the testing have consisted of in addition to, or underlying, the longer accounts?

René Girard has given us a new and profound way to understand “Satan” in scripture by noting that the word skandalon (the Satan) literally means a stumbling block. Girard has demonstrated the ways humans become stumbling blocks to one another when they become conflicted. (Satan is well known to be a sower of discord.) In this model, it takes at least two to have a stumbling block, so how could Jesus, alone in the wilderness, have dealt with conflict unless he was fighting a supernatural creature? I, for one, know that when I am alone, many other people are still with me, particularly anybody with whom I happen to have a conflictual relationship. In fact, being alone during a time of conflict is a great way to become obsessed with a rival—OR—to let go and listen to a deeper voice free of scandal, such as Jesus’ heavenly Abba.

As soon as Jesus began his public ministry, it was immediately clear that he knew scripture and the tradition of his people very deeply. Many biblical scholars suggest that Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness recapitulates the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Surely Jesus would have been deeply mindful of that journey: his people’s gratitude for the escape from slavery, their hopes for the future, but also their violent social conflicts and rebellions. These events in the journey would have given him much to reflect on as to how humans make themselves stumbling blocks to others.

Jesus also demonstrated from the start an acute awareness of what many of the Jewish leaders were like, surely enough to give him strong premonitions of how they might react to the religious vision inspired by the heavenly voice at his baptism and strengthened in the silence of the wilderness. He was most likely tempted to rehearse his arguments with the elders and think of ways to get the better of them. To overcome this challenge, he would need to find a way to interact with these leaders in a non-rivalrous way so as to embody the non-rivalrous character of his heavenly Abba. More important, he would have to begin facing possible outcomes of his ministry in the face of the Jewish and Roman leadership in Palestine. Since all of us have to deal with the small and great conflicts that tempt us to become stumbling blocks to others, Jesus was himself, as the author of Hebrews said, tempted in every way as we are. The uncanny way Jesus managed to deflect conflicts with the Jewish leaders away from escalations and, at the end, his willingness to die rather than use violence to save himself, show us that the Spirit, after driving Jesus into the wilderness, had indeed strengthened him to absorb the nonviolent ways of his heavenly Abba for the sake of our salvation.

For an introduction to René Girard, see my essay Violence and the Kingdom of God.

The Blind Man Who Could See

Bartimaeus

The story of Jesus healing the blind man Bartimaeus is considered by many Bible scholars to be the closing bookend of what is called an inclusio. An inclusio is a literary device where two passages echo each other in such a way as to create bookends for the material in between them. In this portion of Mark, the two echoing stories involve the healing of a blind man. The material between these two stories is the journey to Jerusalem. The first healing (Mark 8: 22-26) takes place at Bethsaida. The second takes place as Jesus arrives at Jericho, the last stop before arriving in Jerusalem. In the intervening material the journey is punctuated by Jesus’ three predictions of his passion coupled with the incomprehension of his disciples. Each of these predictions is also accompanied by disputes among the disciples as to who is the greatest.

The blindness of the two men who need healing is often thought to represent the blindness of the disciples which also needs healing. With the man in Bethsaida, Jesus needs two tries to get the healing right, suggesting that the blindness of the disciples is difficult to heal. The much easier healing of the man in Jericho suggests hope that the disciples, though still blind, will also be healed.

I agree with this interpretation of the inclusio but there is something else that has caught my attention. This is the different ways the crowd acts in these two stories. At Bethsaida, the people in the crowd bring the blind man to Jesus and ask Jesus to touch him and give him back his sight. At Jericho it is a very different story. When Bartimaeus cries out, the people in the crowd rebuke him and tell him to be quiet. Far from helping Bartimaeus in getting a healing, they try to hinder him. In this, they act the apostles who just a short time ago had tried to keep the mothers from bringing their children to Jesus. Moreover, the crowd has shifted its focus from Jesus to Bartimaeus and in an adversarial way at that. Again, this matches the disciples who focused on each other in their altercations rather than on Jesus. If the crowd at this point is an extension of the disciples, then they badly need healing and yet, the more healing they need for their blindness, the more resistant they are to healing. Baratimaeus, in calling out to Jesus by his Messianic title shows that he sees more than those who theoretically have eyes.

Jesus’ calling out to Bartimaeus makes it clear that it us his desire to heal the blind man. The crowd is thus convicted of being contrary to Jesus’ desire. They might be surrounding him but they are not following him. We could say that the crowd at Bethsaida was a community in that they brought the blind man to Jesus. The crowd at Jericho is a—well—a crowd acting in the persecutory way that a crowd tends to act out. The contrast between these two echoing stories in the inclusio present us with the fundamental choice as to whether we will join a community of healing or fall back into a crowd that fights healing. Will we look at the blind person and at Jesus or will we fail to see either of them?

Care for the Small Child

HolyFamilybyGutierrezIt is well-known that humans can be competitive, sometimes just for the sake of being competitive. Competition tends to draw rivals close together, even if, and perhaps especially if they really hate each other. People who are close to each other to start with are often competitive just because they are close to each other. Sibling rivalry is an old story as the story of Cain and Abel tells us. René Girard attributes this phenomenon to mimetic desire. The reason for the rivals’ competition is because they want the same thing. This does not happen by chance. The desire of one person inspires the desire of another. Often the mutual desire is instantaneous, or at least seems so. In any case, when two or more people fight over who is the greatest, each person thinks it is the others who are copying him or her and never the other way around. Girard further suggests that when this kind of rivalry spreads through society, it leads to a social meltdown that is usually resolved by the mimetic desire focusing on one person who is blamed for the crisis and who becomes a victim of collective violence. We see all these elements in a nutshell in today’s reading from Mark. Jesus tells his disciples that he will be betrayed “into human hands” and put to death. And then the disciples fight about who is the greatest, the very thing that has been happening on a broader scale in first century Palestine and so has made Jesus the designated victim of the social tensions around him.

All of this suggests that mimetic desire is a bad thing but that is not so. Mimetic desire is built into humanity by our Creator and therefore, in itself, it is good. It is good because it is the basis of deep connections between people. It is through mimetic desire that our parents and other caregivers initiate us into the world by sharing their desires for certain foods and learning to share desires for the well-being of other people. This is the significance of what Jesus does when confronted with the tense silence that greets his question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus places a child in their midst and tells them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus doesn’t reprimand his disciples as we think he should and as most of us would in his sandals. What Jesus does is very simple. Caring for a small child is the deepest manifestation of positive mimetic desire. Jesus subtly breaks up the closeness among the disciples that is brewing through their discord and instead unites them in their desire to care for the small child. This story puts before all of us the choice of how we will connect with the desires of other people: Will it be in rivalry or in nurturing others?

What Really Makes Us Unclean?

AndrewPreaching1Jesus pleaded for understanding when he threw out the words: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7: 15) He has just been debating with the Pharisees and lawyers about what is clean and unclean. He and his disciples had been accused of being unclean because they were unwashed, something that would make them unclean in today’s polite society as well. However, Jesus may not necessarily have been unwashed by our standards. The Jewish Law as understood by the Pharisees required a specific way of washing right up to the elbow and no other way of washing counted.

In a follow-up discussion with his disciples, Jesus shifted to the intake of food and said the food we take in does not defile us or make us unclean, but actions and attitudes that come out from the human heart can defile us. Mark adds that with these words, Jesus had declared all foods clean. Jesus is suggesting that certain foods had been scapegoated when they were declared unclean, with the foods being blamed for uncleanness regardless of what is in the human heart. Perhaps rejecting some foods as unclean is no big deal but Jesus is calling attention to our tendency to consider other people unclean, polluting.

With our mimetic resonance with the desires of other people, we ingest the desires of others just as we ingest food. If we experience desires that make us uncomfortable in any way, including those that should, we blame other people for arousing the desires in us and we protect ourselves by expelling them. Jesus is telling us that just as foods do not make us unclean, other people do not make us unclean either. It is what we do with the desires of other people that make us clean or unclean. We can indeed be corrupted by bad company but if we spew out the envy and slander and pride we ingested from others back at them, or, more likely, at others with fewer defenses, then we ourselves are bad company threatening to corrupt others.

This gives us another angle on Jesus’ famous warning that if we judge, we will be judged, because when we judge, we see the speck in the eye of the other but don’t see the log in our own. (Mt. 7: 1-5) We think that any envy, deceit or licentiousness we experience in ourselves comes from the other, and maybe we do catch these traits from another, like catching a virus. But a virus caught from another only hurts us if our own bodies react in destructive ways to make us sick. Likewise, the envy, deceit and licentiousness of another only make us sick if allow them to flare up inside of us. If we then expel them in the direction of others, they become the victims of what has come out of us. Even when defiling desires really are coming out of other people, our own defiling desires in response only magnify the impurity in the social atmosphere. That is, the uncleanness is neither in ourselves nor in the other. Defilement occurs only in relationships built upon projecting and expelling the perceived defilement of others.

If we should pull the logs out of our own eyes rather than judge others, then a strange alchemy can take place where what we take in from others becomes pure, or at least becomes a lot less impure than it was, and the social atmosphere becomes better. When the social atmosphere gets better, we can all breathe in the Holy Spirit.

Running Away from the Resurrected Life

yellowTulips1The ending of Mark’s Gospel is abrupt and enigmatic. So much so that the early Christian community added a “completion” that doesn’t connect well with what Mark wrote. There has also been speculation that the ending broke off from the manuscript or that Mark was nabbed by the Romans and thrown to the lions just before he could quite finish it.

The conclusion where the women run away because they are afraid is so strong that it is enough to make us forget that it is preceded by a ringing proclamation that Jesus has been raised and has already arrived in Galilee where he is waiting for them and the disciples. When we remember this proclamation and let it sink in, we realize that this enigmatic ending is not pessimistic or skeptical about the risen life about Jesus, but perhaps it is pessimistic, maybe even skeptical, about the ability of human beings to come to grips with the risen life of Jesus. After all, Mark’s Gospel was pessimistic about the ability of anybody to understand Jesus throughout, not least the closest disciples who made an especially poor showing of themselves with their obtuseness and in-fighting.

Mark is not unique in saying that the women at the tomb were afraid when they found the tomb empty. All of the Gospel accounts say as much. Moreover, whenever the risen Jesus appears to someone, he has to tell them not to be afraid once they recognize him (which they usually don’t at first.) What is unique to Mark is that he only says that the women were afraid as they ran off while Matthew says that the women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy” (Mat. 28: 8). Moreover, in Matthew they did tell the disciples. What were they afraid of? What are we afraid of? Usually fear is our response to a threat. If I think a big dog might bite me, I am afraid of it. If someone drops some bombs over my house, I am afraid of being blown up. But what about Jesus who never bit anybody or blew anybody up? Well, we can be afraid of having our understanding of the world turned upside down and that is precisely what the Resurrection does. With Easter well-integrated into our yearly cycle of Christian worship, it can seem to be business as usual, but that is an illusion. The great value of Mark’s blunt proclamation followed by women the running off in fear like Goldilocks in triplicate is that it reminds us that the Resurrection is not business as usual; it is the bankruptcy of everything we thought kept us in the business of life.

But the Resurrection is a good thing, isn’t it? What is there to be afraid of? If the Resurrection is just a happy ending to a story we celebrate and then move on to the business of living, then the Resurrection isn’t much to worry about. But then it isn’t much to celebrate, either. There are other excuses for having a party. The women ran away from the tomb, not to have a party, but to get away from what had just broken apart their worldviews. And ours. So what worldview might we run away from? There is over two thousand years’ worth of theology to draw on to answer that question but the women at the tomb didn’t sit down and do a seminar on worldviews. They ran. What was so frightening was that they simply didn’t know what this new meant to them except that all bets were off. Remember, in Mark’s Gospel, nobody understood Jesus and the misunderstandings of him only got worse as the Gospel got on until the story ended with Jesus hanging on a cross. So, how could the women or the disciples understand what was happening to them? Maybe the disciples, maybe even the women who remained faithful to the end in tending to Jesus’ body, were relieved that the man they did not understand was gone. At least they could understand grief and resentment over what had happened. But Jesus wasn’t gone. They were going to have to go back to Galilee where the whole story started and try again.

Being sent back to the beginning suggests that God was giving them, and us, a second chance. They and we have the advantage of knowing the end of the story and we can use that as a key to what led up to it. We learn that the world was broken apart by a God who would choose to die on a cross rather than start a violent revolution but who remains alive in the face of such an appalling event and thus is a God who remains alive in the appalling events we face today. Worse than that, Jesus has broken the cycle of resentment and rage that, though painful, was tight and cozy and predictable. This means we havae to redefine the ways we relate to one another. Worse yet, we are threatened with the challenge of life that just isn’t going to let up now that death is broken apart. This Eastertide, let us go back to Galilee and see what else we can find.

Above the Circle of the Earth

treespath1The Babylonian exile was traumatic for the Jews. Those who were taken to Babylon had to live in an alien environment quite contrary to everything they believed in. But an interesting thing happened during this exile. The sages and prophets who were living in exile came to close quarters with the mythology and sacrificial religion of their captors. When the Jews had come close to the Canaanite religion earlier in their history, the clash had taught them a few things about what the God they worshipped was all about. When the prophets saw the sacrifices of children to Moloch, they knew that this was not the kind of sacrifice Israel’s God wished and they protested these sacrifices with all their might. In Babylon, they came up against a mythology of a violent creation that took place with the dismemberment of Tiamat who, of course, was the deemed the cause of all the problems among the deities and who had to be punished. Moreover, the reason for creating the world was to make servants who would serve the gods. The sages and prophets learned from this mythology that this was not what their God was about. The God who had delivered them from the Red Sea was freeing slaves; not making them. This God had created a people by delivering them from violence and from a violent culture. They were hoping their God would do it again, and God did just that when the Persians defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their home.

The Creation narrative that begins the book of Genesis can easily be read as a refutation of Babylonian mythology. Far from creation emerging from violence, creation emerges from the Word of God which allows creation to be. The prophet we call Second Isaiah also proclaims Israel’s God to be far different, fully Other, than Marduk and his pantheon. “With whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?” asks Israel’s God in a question so rhetorical that it stops all human mouths (Is. 40: 25.) The violence in Babylonian mythology mirrors the violence of Babylonian culture and other human cultures as both deities and humans live in the same system of retributive violence. But Israel’s God “sits above the circle of the earth” (Is. 40:22.) That is, God is outside the system. From God’s vantage point, we are all like little grasshoppers. This God is the creator “of the ends of the earth.” Not only that, but God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Is. 40: 29.) Far from creating servants, God serves the creatures God has made and God serves most especially the powerless, like a rabble of slaves in Egypt and an exiled people in Babylon. Grasshoppers may be small in size but they are great in God’s care.

This vision of God as one who serves is embodied in Jesus as presented by Mark. Coming from outside the human system of violence, Jesus exorcises those who are possessed by their violent culture. Jesus serves Peter’s mother-in-law by healing her of a fever, thus allowing her to imitate Jesus by serving him, the disciples, and her family. Meanwhile, Jesus goes on to serve the many people who come to be healed of sickness and violence. Now God has come from “high above the circle of the earth” to serve us grasshoppers size.

Both Isaiah and Mark are showing us that creation is not a one-shot deal. Creation is a continuous process. God renews the strength of those who wait on God so that we can “mount up with wings like eagles.” Jesus uses the same creative power to heal sicknesses and drive away the violence that possesses us.

The question then is: Will we allow Jesus to bring us out of the exile into which violent human culture has captured us so that we can return to the world God created from the beginning—outside the System—or will we prefer to stay in exile?