God’s Kingdom in Two Small Coins

widow's miteThe widow who put “two small copper coins” in the temple treasury, all she had to live on, (Mk. 12: 42) has been held up by many preachers as a touching example of heart-warming generosity. Those of us who have come to notice the social and economic issues in the Gospels have seen some concerns that are rather chilling.

Highly troubling are the preceding verses where Jesus denounces the scribes who “devour widows’ houses.” The scribes of today wear state-of-the-art business suits, sit on prestigious boards, and make a great display of their almsgiving after defrauding vulnerable people with such practices as predatory loans. Although using economic power to defraud the vulnerable is not the same thing as passively receiving a penny from a poor widow, the juxtaposition of these references to widows raises questions. The questions become more worrisome when we recall how the prophets denounced those who oppressed widows and orphans almost every time they spoke out on social issues.

The very next verse on the other side of the story of the widow and her two coins raises even more urgent questions. In response to a disciple’s commenting on the great stones of the temple, Jesus says: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mk. 13: 1) This suggests that the poor widow is giving her last two coins for a bad cause. The Epistle to the Hebrews drives home this point when he says: “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” (Heb. 9: 24) Jesus himself has become the Temple and there is no need for any other.

Is this poor widow a bad example, then? By no means. This poor widow reminds us of the widow who gave Elijah some of the last grains of meal that she had after which she expected to die with her son. (1 Kings 17: 12) Moreover, the poor widow’s generosity in giving everything she had echoes the story of the rich man who was also asked to give everything but went away sad because of his great wealth. Since giving everything is a sign of the Kingdom of God, the poor widow is a sign of the Kingdom while the rich man who went away sad and the rich who contributed lavishly to the temple treasury are not. On the other hand, the woman who poured a jar of ointment over Jesus’ head (Mk. 14: 3–9) was also giving most, if not all, she had. Another sign of the Kingdom.

The matter of a bad cause reminds us that generosity is required of those who depend on alms. We must be good causes. In a time when many “scribes” of today create charitable scams, it is important to use charity money in a charitable way. I feel this responsibility as a member of a monastic community as I remember where the money we spend comes from.

The Jar of meal from which the widow baked a cake for Elijah did not run out in spite of the long famine. Jesus, who also gave all of himself on the Cross, rose to new life, a new life of endless abundance that the widow who gave two small coins surely shares along with the woman who poured out a jar of oil over Jesus’ head. Will we be signs of God’s Kingdom like these two women?

On Carrying Crosses and Renouncing Them

sideAltarsIcons1Jesus’ insistence that we deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him (Mk. 8: 34) jolts us into thinking about what our priorities in life should be. Without being so jolted, we tend to deny other people, take up our favorite pastimes and follow whoever takes our fancy. However, we encounter a serious problem if and when we do take Jesus’ words to heart. We tend to get muddled over what constitutes a “cross” and how we should carry it. Because of this muddle, there is the danger that the cross will be trivialized. Carrying our own crosses is not about being a good sport if we catch the flu.

Fundamentally, the cross is about persecution. Jesus is telling his disciples that he expects to be crucified for the way he is confronting the religious and imperial authorities. The Servant in Isaiah was also persecuted by people who smote his back and plucked out his beard. (Is. 50: 6) More importantly, the cross is about not retaliating if one is persecuted, so being patient with Great Aunt Hattie who complains about every act of service is not so trivial. The combination of not retaliating and setting our faces like flint (Is. 50: 7) is precisely what Peter missed when he called Jesus the Messiah. That is why Jesus shut him up.

The biggest problem of waxing eloquently about carrying our crosses is that we overlook the danger, the likelihood, of being crosses for other people. We easily fool ourselves into thinking we are not persecuting others as long as we aren’t pulling beards or driving nails into someone’s hands and feet. But, in his epistle, James shows us how easy it is to be a persecutor. He says that the tongue, small as it is, is a fire that can set a whole forest ablaze and it even “sets on fire the cycle of nature.” (Jas. 3: 5–6) We both bless and curse others with this little member. (Jas. 3: 10) James is warning us how the contagion of collective violence such as that afflicted on Isaiah’s Servant and Jesus can afflict anyone by the agency of anyone through such use of the tongue. Language, the sign of civilization, is compromised from the start by its role in persecution. The more “civilized” we become through writing, the printing press, newspapers, the Internet and Twitter, the more quickly and efficiently peoples’ reputations are destroyed by firestorms set off by the tongue and its extensions the pen and the computer keyboard.

Instead of boasting about carrying crosses, we most need to busy ourselves with relieving others of the crosses we lay on them. Manipulating others into persecuting us to make them feel bad while making us feel good is really another way of persecuting others. As Isaiah’s Servant and Jesus show, crosses can come to us quickly if we speak out against persecution, since that is everybody’s favorite blood sport. Jesus warned the people of his time and us of our persecutory tendencies with his parable of the evil workers in the vineyard. (Mk 12:1-12) and by driving the money changers from the temple whose officials were exploiting the poor. (cf. Mark 12:41-44)

Following Jesus, then, is about both taking up our crosses and renouncing them. We take up our crosses by doing everything we can to stop persecution even if we suffer for it. But before going after other persecutors, we need to take the logs out of our eyes before taking the splinters out of the eyes of others. (Mt. 7: 5) Otherwise, our witness against persecution is likely to turn into persecution of the persecutors. This is why we can only take up the cross if we renounce using it as a weapon but rather use it as a Tree of Life for others.

Storms and Feedings

eucharist1For Proper 11 in Year B, the year of Mark, the Gospel has only two snippets. The first has Jesus taking his disciples to a deserted place only to be followed by crowds of people. Jesus has compassion on them “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mk. 6: 34) This reference to shepherding echoes the reading from Jeremiah where the prophet rails against the shepherds who destroy and scatter God’s sheep. (Jer. 23: 1) The other snippet comes at the end of chapter 6 where Jesus heals many people who are being brought to him.

Passed over are the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the stormy crossing of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walks on the water and calms the storm. I can understand why the lectionary compilers made these cuts. There are six narratives of Jesus feeding a multitude in the wilderness in the four Gospels and many stormy crossings of the Sea of Galilee. These repetitions give us a sense of been there done that and there is only so much a preacher can say about them. I’m not going to say all that much about these stories, either. Rather, I’m going to use this week’s scattered Gospel as an opportunity to look a bit at the bigger picture in Mark’s narration.

In his pioneering study of the literary patterns in Mark, the great English theologian Austin Ferrer noted many doublets among other patterns in the Gospel. In Mark 6, we have the first feeding in the wilderness and the second stormy crossing. A second feeding of a crowd in the wilderness takes place at the beginning of chapter 8. Why these doublets? Ferrer notes that the first mass feeding takes place in Jewish territory and the second in Gentile territory. That is, Mark is foreshadowing the union of Jew and Gentile in the Christian missions that take place after Jesus’ death. Given this appearance of peaceful unity, I was startled that Robert Hamerton-Kelly said that these doublets are a multiplication of mimetic doubles that move towards the crucifixion of Jesus. Hamerton-Kelly is applying Girard’s thought to the Gospel where mimetic rivals become mirror images of each other. But when I thought further on the matter, it made sense to me. First, the two feedings happen separately. Jews and Gentiles have not yet been brought together. Second, preceding the first mass feeding is the first stormy crossing of the Sea towards Gentile territory. The second stormy crossing in the same direction occurs before the second mass feeding. The intertwining of stormy crossings with the two feedings suggest that uniting Jew and Gentile does not come easily. The episode with the Syro-Phoenician woman who Jesus curtly tried to dismiss precedes the second feeding, suggesting that Jesus may have had his own struggles in the matter. The disciples, of course, don’t understand the feedings at all.

In Ephesians, Paul writes about the union of Jew and Gentile as a done deal. He writes to the Ephesians that they are “no longer strangers and aliens” but are “members of the household of God.” (Eph, 2: 19) This union sounds easy and peaceful until we note that Jew and Gentile have “been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph. 2: 13) That is, the storm of Jesus’ crucifixion brings the two peoples together. In Mark, along with the other Gospels, we see that the act of crucifying Jesus banded the Jews and Gentiles together for the first time. In Acts, Jews and Gentiles are again brought together through repentance and forgiveness. All this time, Jesus has been gently shepherding two separate flocks into one flock.

What may have looked like a pedantic look at literary structure in Mark actually leads us deeply into the midst of the storms that keep us humans apart from other humans. We live in these tensions as we seek to let the Good Shepherd lead us from far away to near at hand where we will feed each other in one great multitude.

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?