A Highway to Seeing the Glory of the Lord

treespath1After her humiliating defeat by Babylon, Israel was broken. The movers and shakers who had kept the society going were taken to Babylon where they couldn’t move or shake any more. Then, fifty years later, the prophet known as Second Isaiah proclaimed comfort to Jerusalem: the exiles will return, travelling through the desert on “a highway for our God.” Jerusalem will be made whole once again! This return of the exiles is a new thing, at least as great a new thing as God’s delivery of the Jews out of Egypt. Not only that, but, like the earlier new thing, this deliverance is a re-creation of the world by the God who is now proclaimed to be the sole creator of the world out of nothing.

René Girard suggested that the levelling of mountains and valleys stood for the levelling of society that precipitates a sacrificial crisis. I have a counter Girardian suggestion: the levelling of the desert landscape is God’s removing of the obstacles that prevent us from seeing God. The obstacles here are the social tensions created through mimetic rivalry that tear a society apart. For Isaiah, this levelling is God’s work and removing obstacles is what God does. God does not create social crises; humans do that. Isaiah said that, with the highway smoothed out, “all flesh” will see the glory of the Lord.” Not only that, but if a Gentile king had made this return possible, how much greater would the outreach be from Jerusalem to all Gentiles once the Jewish nation was reunited?

But such was not to be. The Jewish nation broke again and this time it was the Jews who broke it, not the Babylonians. Denunciations of social injustice protested by the Isaianic prophets before the Exile were repeated by Isaiah’s successors after the exile. The movers and shakers who had returned from exile also returned to moving and shaking at the expense of their weaker Jews. An anonymous victim, known as the “Suffering Servant” paid the price for the nation’s brokenness. The mountains and valleys had been recreated and the glory of the Lord was hidden once again.

“The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” is the opening of Mark’s Gospel. The Greek word “arche” also refers to the ultimate beginning of creation and the two attempted re-creations in Jewish history. Mark quotes the words of Isaiah to announce that once again (or still) God is creating a highway for God. So it is that the subsequent appearance of Jesus and his baptism by John is yet a new beginning for humanity. Once again God is removing the obstacles and just as quickly, humans are putting the obstacles back in place, with the result that Jesus was left hanging on a cross.

By coming round every year, the Season of Advent proclaims God’s removing of obstacles so that all of us, together, can see the Glory of the Lord. Will we join God, at least a little, in the work of removing obstacles so that we can glimpse the glory the obstacles hide?

An Enemy Woman as Teacher

peacePole1The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus that includes three Gentile women and the story of three Gentile Magi coming to pay homage to the Christ Child. The Gospel concludes with Jesus commissioning the twelve disciples “to make disciples of all nations.” How did the life and teaching of this Jewish man Jesus of Nazareth lead to this framing of the Gospel? The enigmatic story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman gives us a clue.

Two things about the story are perplexing: 1) Jesus’ harsh words to a person in need, and 2) Jesus losing a verbal exchange with another and apparently changing his point of view because of that exchange. We are troubled by these points because we usually assume that the divinity of the human Jesus requires that he was sinless and omniscient. I would argue that being fully human means that Jesus was not omniscient but had to learn life skills and develop his understanding of life just like any other human. The ludicrousness of the notion that Jesus knew everything about carpentry as an infant and Joseph couldn’t teach him anything should convince of that. Since sin is not essential to human nature, Jesus could have been sinless and still been fully human, but being fully human would mean that he was born participating in the mimetic matrix of his culture with both its salutary elements and its unsalutary ones. This story helps us explore how Jesus came to terms with a problematic aspect of his cultural inheritance.

Calling the woman a Canaanite was an anachronism that recalled Israel’s historical relationship with this people in much the same way that calling a contemporary Danish woman a Viking would invoke ten centuries of history for us. Jesus would have grown up absorbing his people’s tradition that the Canaanites were the worst of enemies. They were enemies to be exterminated by the likes of Joshua and they were periodic oppressors in the period of the Judges. Worst of all, Canaanites were dangerous because they tempted the Israelites to forsake their God in favor of the idols and sacrificial practices they embraced. In the time of Jesus, the woman was a Syro-Phoenician, as Mark designates her, which is to say she was a member of the oppressing class of the Roman Empire which made victims of the Jews. Starting from early childhood, he would have taken in this adversarial relationship before he knew what had possessed him. With this cultural inheritance, it is understandable, if not commendable, that Jesus would speak to a Canaanite (Syro-Phoenician woman who came to her for help the way he did. Many commentators try to get out of this difficulty by suggesting that Jesus was just testing the woman. That is possible but I would like to follow up the ramifications of accepting the plain sense of this story.

The Canaanite woman’s retort is justly famous for its cleverness and humility, qualities that make her words subversive. Jesus seems as amazed by her faith as he is by the faith of the Centurion who asked him to heal his servant. That the woman asked for the deliverance of a daughter possessed by a demon may have aroused Jesus’ sympathy. The Gadarene Demoniac had shown Jesus how a dysfunctional culture can possess a person and need to be exorcized. That this woman wanted her daughter delivered of the “demon” possessing her own culture would alert Jesus of the need to eject the Canaanite “demon” that had possessed his own culture. This understanding of the story has Jesus modeling the ability and willingness to overcome an ancestral enmity by listening deeply to the reality of a person in need so that she ceases to be an enemy. We desperately need to learn to follow this kind of example offered by Jesus today.

Jesus’ subsequent feeding of four thousand people in Gentile territory suggests that Jesus had learned to give the “crumbs from their master’s table,” using the twelve baskets left over from the feeding of the five thousand in Israelite territory. In a stimulating article called The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus, Grant LeMarquand suggests that Jesus’ delivering the Canaanite daughter of the demon and then feeding her people in the wilderness is a transmogrification of the conquest of Canaan by Jesus’ namesake. Jesus “lost” his exchange with the woman but gained a multitude of people to welcome into His Kingdom.

Dispossessing a Town Possessed: The Gerasene Demoniac

peacePole1The story of the Gerasene demoniac and the herd of pigs running off a cliff bewilders modern readers. In his book The Scapegoat, René Girard offers an anthropological interpretation based on the concept of mimetic desire. According to this theory, the desires of all the people in any town, not just Geresa, are intertwined. That is all of the people are possessed by each other. If one person stands out as being “possessed,” that person is possessed by mimetic rivalries in the town that have reached (or sustain) a crisis level  that is pushed into one victim, the “designated patient,” to use the term of Ed Friedman.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive on the scene, they are not greeted by the mayor or any of the “normal” people; they are greeted by the demoniac who begs Jesus not to torment him (them). That the demon(s) gives its name as “Legion” confirms that this man is possessed by the community, including political possession of the Romans as possession by an invader increases the tensions within a local community. The demoniac is regularly chained but regularly breaks free in a pattern that mimics the repetition of ritual. That is to say, this pattern represents the town’s sense of stability, much as the incarceration of multitudes of black youths from the ghettos gives the US a similar sense of stability today. 

Jesus sends the demons into the herd of pigs that then runs off a cliff into the sea. We have here an interesting reversal of the scapegoating mechanism since usually it is the town that drives a single victim off the cliff, a fate Jesus has narrowly avoided himself. Upon seeing the formerly possessed clothed and in his right mind, the townspeople ask Jesus to leave. One would think that they would be happy to see a sick person cured and would ask Jesus to stay and cure everybody else of whatever ails them. But they don’t. Why? Because the people of the Gedarene region are not happy over being robbed of their victim. The demons requested that they not be expelled from the town because the people, possessed by their rivalries, wanted to remain possessed. When robbed of their victim, the possessed town implodes in its collective violence and becomes the sacrificial victim.

The anthropological dimension of this story can be seen more clearly by comparing it with the Samaritan woman at the well, which has none of these mythological trappings. It is the woman at the well, and not any of the other people of Sychar, who greet Jesus. The woman is alone at the most social place in town, an indication that the woman is the town’s scapegoat. There is no exorcism but the woman eventually becomes possessed by Jesus when she drinks the water he has to give, just as the Gerasene demoniac became possessed by Jesus. The woman goes to tell the townspeople about Jesus as the Gerasene demoniac was told to spread word of what Jesus had done in his own area. The story in Sychar has a happier ending in that the people come out to listen to Jesus, a mimetic process where they give up their collective victim in exchange for the water of rebirth that Jesus has to give. Perhaps this foretells a happier ending for Gerasa someday and a happier ending for our own society.