Everyone needs an enemy! Mark 10:35-45 Ordinary 29B

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

(This classic conflict of interests reminded me of the phenomenon of scapegoating and how Jesus used the scapegoating dynamic for human transformation. One could say Jesus is saying to the disciples you , like me will be scapegoated)

When last did you scapegoat someone and feel so much better?
If you are human, it happens quite frequently. At least according to Rene’ Girard, Stanford University professor of sociology who was converted from atheism to Roman Catholicism by his study of human conflict and violence.
Let me illustrate his theory.

“Picture two young children playing happily, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy,” and grabs it.
The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to get it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummelling each other.
As the fight intensifies, the overweight child next door wanders into their yard, looking for someone to play with. At that point, one of the two rivals looks up and says, “Oh, there’s old fat butt!” “Yeah,” says his brother. “Big fat butt!”
The two, having forgotten the toy, now forget their fight and chase the other child back home. Harmony has been restored between the two brothers, though the neighbour is back indoors crying.”

There are two dynamics significant to this story.
The first is how imitative desire causes conflict. GI Joe increases in value because the other brother also wants it.

The second point is that finding a scapegoat helps reduce the conflict between the brothers.
If you have ever tried to calm domestic violence you will have experienced this when the fighting couple unite, and turn on you!
In these simple dynamics Girard explains the origin and process of all human conflict.
Girard’s research shows that whenever tension exists in societies, the community in the tension find release through some process of scapegoating.

According to Girard, this scapegoating has always been part of human life.
It is the origin of sacrifice.
The killing of an outsider, makes the community in conflict feel better.
But there remains an aftermath of guilt. “How could we have done that?”
To go back to the two boys. Imagine that, having chased off Fat-Butt, the brothers feel remorse about their bullying. One of them says, “You know bro, we had to do that because Dad says, ‘Blood is thicker than water’.”
Dad has become the authorization for their violence.
Girard discovered that religion plays a role in violence by encouraging and condoning scapegoating. Dad/God demanded the scapegoat.
The community that has sacrificed their child, their vestal virgin, their ox, their prophet, at some point feels remorse.
The priest then says, “Relax, God demanded it that way. We are merely being obedient.”
Girard’s conversion came when he saw how Jesus accepted being scapegoated, but for the first time in history, exposed the process to the perpetrators.
“Father forgive them…”

So next time we use our religion to scapegoat someone, let’s ask ourselves, “Is this truly the Spirit?”

Liberating a shadow legion

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

It is a tricky task when reading scripture not to force too much modern symbolism out of nor into the reading which, it must be acknowledged, comes to us across a twenty century cultural and historical divide. So having paid my dues to decency, that is exactly what I am going to do with this passage simply because it begs to be read at all its rich levels of meaning.

I am intrigued by the context of this miracle. Jesus has crossed over the lake of Galilee, and has entered the wilderness area of the decapolis (ten cities). We should not be surprised that Jesus has crossed over. He is the consummate, “fence jumper” isn’t he? Put a label, a prejudice, a social barricade before Jesus and before long he will, “cross over”. It is thus not surprising that in this wilderness area of the Trans-Jordan, Jesus encounters demons. This wilderness was after all the place where the scapegoats had for centuries been driven with their shadow burden of Israel’s sin. This wilderness was the place of Israel’s projections. Similar perhaps to how the continent of Africa has been scapegoated with all the shadow material of the Euro-American high priests placed on its people’s dark skinned shoulders?

Jesus goes to the repository of shadow material.

The fact that Jesus encounters a naked, demoniac (psychotic?) is not surprising. What is surprising is that the fence jumping Jewish Rabbi is not averse to an encounter with this frightened and frightening person. All the rules of culture and religion dictated that it would be best to ignore and avoid a person like this.

The demoniac on the other hand comes to Jesus and knows who he is. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” He also is reluctant for an encounter with Jesus. “I beg you, do not torment me” Here is a person robbed of dignity. Exposed and shamed, symbolised by his nakedness and excluded by reference to his location in the tombs.

Jesus’ response is to inquire as to the man’s real identity. By asking his name, Leslie Weatherhead suggests, Jesus is asking a question equivalent in the day to a therapist asking in our day, “How did it all begin? What power is it that is over you“. The insight that emerges in the narrative suggests that Jesus might have spent a long time in this conversation drawing closer and closer to this rejected and abused human being to get him to a place of trust where he could share his story (his name) with Jesus. Weatherhead goes on to speculate that perhaps the reference to the name “Legion” may be a pointer to the fact that the man was naming atrocities committed by the Roman Legionaires who controlled the Decapolis.

Whatever the illness of the man, Jesus sets him free and liberates him from the abysmal energies at work in his life. No wonder that the man deeply desires to stay with his divine therapist from then on, and how skilful of Jesus not to encourage that dependence but to set the restored man free to be himself, and not a slavish dependent disciple? I wonder if, in our ministry as churches, we are as generously skilful?

I suppose I really should stop here, with this psychological interpretation that would be acceptable to us as preachers, and our congregations. I really should stop, but there is a question haunting me in the right outfield of my mind. I have to notice it.

The question is, “In what form is this Demoniac representative of people haunted by legions of hurtful and abusive experiences from the Church?”  Is the church the demoniser?

If it is true that the demoniac symbolises the demonised members of society who have been stripped of their identity and clothing and who are living in the tombs, then it must be equally true that Jesus wants to encounter those very people and bring them back to healing and community.

Space and time does not permit me to begin naming the thousand and one members in this legion of abuse and shaming commanded and executed by the church. Let me begin the current  list and leave you to complete it.

Racism and slavery, sexism and patriarchy, homophobia, paedophilia,… The legion of fear based “tactics of exclusion” that has many living in the tombs having forgotten their identity as children of God to the extent that they beg Jesus to leave them alone.

Hear the good news, “Jesus is a fence jumper!”

He will go to the shadow wildernesses created by our fears and projections and liberate our scapegoated sisters and brothers from their abysmal exclusion. Having done this he will command us to continue this work in his name.

After all, was the heyday of the church not when we dwelt in the catacombs ourselves?

The call of the Slaughtered Shepherd

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

Once again I come to this passage from John’s gospel remembering that John never says anything that is not significant. Parchment was too rare and expensive to waste on non-essentials. Every word and phrase has power in John’s hands. It was John who gave us that chilling four word phrase just after Judas has departed the upper room, “… and it was night“. In that endline all the horror of what is happening is captured.

So I come expectantly, to this passage from John and he hits me with another of those phrases.

First he tells me that it was the time of the Festival that had been set up by the Maccabeans in 126BCE to commemorate the re-consecration of the temple in Jerusalem, the festival of the Dedication. He then hits me with, “It was winter”. A barren season when there is little sign of life. He is in the re-consecrated temple yet I wonder if John is suggesting that consecrating a building without consecrating one’s heart is a cold and fruitless ritual?

It is in this bleak architectural and calendar space that Jesus is questioned as to whether he is the Xristos, the Messiah.

I can almost hear the sigh in his voice as he replies,” “I have told you, and you do not believe.” Jesus has been performing many restorative acts of resurrrection, healing, forgiving. Restoring people’s food security, in raising men for vulnerable widowed homes. Countering bad shame blame theology by healing Canaanite children, Roman children, and even Synagogue leader’s children like Jairus’ daughter, to show that bad things do not only happen to bad people. If all of my works of restoration do not show you that God’s Xristos is here, then what will?

Remember, word economic John has located Jesus very precisely. All that is missing are the GPS co-ordinates and we could reference the spot on Google Earth! Jesus is standing in Solomon’s portico.

Solomon’s portico that abutted the court of the Gentiles, where all the sheep trading and money changing was going on.

  • Can you hear the haggling of the priests and the pilgrims?
  • Can you hear the clinking of the coins as they drop onto the tables that Jesus will overturn next time he comes to town?
  • I am sure Jesus heard all these sounds too.
  • But it was another sound that gave him the metaphor he needed for this Good News moment.
  • If we listen carefully you and I can hear it too.

Do you hear the bleating of the sheep and the silence of the lambs?

These are not calm and pastoral flocks, these are the fuel for the bloodthirsty religious machine that the temple has become, and it is the fear and dislocated cries of the scapegoated sheep that Jesus uses to teach us this Shepherd Sunday.

You don’t trust that I am the Messiah, because you don’t recognise my voice above the noisy screams of your own conflicted lives. If you were my sheep, this call to life, love, compassion and community would not be strange to you, and you would follow me. But as it is now, all you have is this beautiful building and a winter-blighted religion in which your frozen hearts cannot care less about the desperation of the pilgrims who need to know God’s life.

That is why I have come. I have not come for fancy porticoes and friezes, nor for festivals and feasts. Of all your laws I will keep only one rule, that you love God and each other. And of your rituals I will retain only a piece of broken bread and Elijah’s cup of wine from the Passover meal. The rest is as dead as these poor bleating sheep soon will be. There is no salvation in all this sacrifice. That is why I have never once spoken of myself as a sacrifice. No I am a Shepherd.

A shepherd whom your laws declare to be permanently unclean, because I work with blood and dung.

Yet, despite who you judge me to be, those who need life and love, compassion and community, come to me. Their belief is not some doctrinal and ethical veracity, it is simple trust. Trust that opens their eyes to glimpse God, in me and in themselves. In that union of my Father and me they come to share in a life that will last forever.

These sheep of mine will become, by grace, one flock with one shepherd. This flock will be struck and scattered across the face of the earth, for it is winter now, a cold and barren time.

But one morning the sun will rise, the hearts of ice will melt, and the Shepherd will repeat his eternal call once more. “Follow me.”

You may slaughter sheep but you cannot kill a shepherds love.

Not in winter, in fact not ever!”

Palming off the Donkey King

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

And so the climax of the incarnate life of God draws close.

Jesus has just told the parable of the nobleman who goes off to win power in a foreign land and leaves his servants with varied levels of resourcing and on his return exacts an account from them of their use of those resources.

Those who have been entrepreneurial are rewarded with power and authority over regions of the kingdom,but those who have been cautious and cowardly are stripped of even the little they have . The parable ends with Jesus saying I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.'”

Luke moves the action directly from that enigmatic saying to the arrival of Jesus at the Mount of Olives and his requisitioning of a colt.

There can be no doubt that Jesus is casting his actions with direct reference to the prophet Zechariah who was one of those killed in the temple. “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9

My laziness and thoughts of a whole week of Holy Week preaching that lies ahead, tempts me to go with the conventional themes of Palms Hosannas, the irony of a crowd that a few days later will replace adulation with the mob’s anger that cries for crucifixion.

But there is a question that keeps tapping at the window of my mind and it will not let me duck it by a flight into conventionalism. So as I open the window my mind whispers, Why does he accept the appellation as king now when Jesus has spent his public ministry avoiding it?”

So, on this Public Holiday celebrating Human Rights in South Africa, I have begun to dig around for some possible insights that may answer my tapping question.

This is what I have found and share as speculative explanations.

Jesus could not accept the association with Kingship and rule until he had opportunity to correct the popular experience and understanding of what that meant. Lord knows, the current exemplars of kingship and rule were far from Jesus’ concept. The two Herods in his lifetime, Quirinius, Procurator Pilate and of course the Caesars of Rome, modelled their leadership from the same Macchiavellian mud. (Yes I know Machiavelli doesn’t time synch, but what a fun alliteration?) Power, control and brutal consequences for those who dissented.

This was not what Jesus wanted to be associated with and so he avoids being proclaimed king until he had had a time to reorient his disciples understanding of kingship.

In three and a half years he has modelled what kings are intended to do for their people:

  • He has healed the broken and restored them to full participation in community
  • He has forgiven those who missed the mark of required ethical and religious standards and included them in his new community.
  • He has raised the dead so as to offer social security to those women who would be destitute by the deaths of the men (Lazarus, Widow of Nain)
  • He has raised and healed children to break the bondage of bad theology that blamed bad things on parental conditions and culture (Children of Jairus and the Canaanite woman)
  • He has been inclusive, unconditionally accepting, and restorative in his words and actions.

This is who kings and rulers are meant to be and now it is time for him to own the archetype and to associate with the kingship that the stoned prophets were trying to bring to the palaces of Palestine.(yes probably both meanings of “stoned”, they were high on God remember?)

There is another dimension to this parade that is a hard sell in a church that has invested so heavily in the “lamb to the slaughter” image of Christ.

It is that late in life convert to Christianity Rene’ Girard who reminded me, in a interview recorded in The Girard Reader , edited by James G Williams

R.G.: The Gospels speak of “sacrifices” only in order to reject them and deny them any validity. Jesus counters the ritualism of the Pharisees with an anti-sacrificial quotation from Hosea: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice'” (Matt. 9:13). The following text amounts to a great deal more than ethical advice; it at once sets the cult of sacrifice at a distance and reveals its true function, which has now come full circle: So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23—24)

Interviewer: Surely the crucifixion is still the sacrifice of Christ?

R.G.: There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that the death of Jesus is a sacrifice, whatever definition (expiation, substitution, etc.) we may give for that sacrifice. At no point in the Gospels is the death of Jesus defined as a sacrifice. The passages that are invoked to justify a sacrificial conception of the Passion both can and should be interpreted with no reference to sacrifice in any of the accepted meanings. Certainly the Passion is presented to us in the Gospels as an act that brings salvation to humanity. But it is in no way presented as a sacrifice, If you have really followed my argument up to this point, you will already realize that from our particular perspective the sacrificial interpretation of the Passion must be criticized and exposed as a most enormous and paradoxical misunderstanding — and at the same time as something necessary — and as the most revealing indication of mankind’s radical incapacity to understand its own violence, even when that violence is conveyed in the most explicit fashion.

If you are not familiar with Girardian thinking you may want to click through to The Girardian Lectionary

The crux of Girard’s insight for my thinking this week is simply that in the Palm Procession we do not have a Lamb to the Slaughter, pre-programmed robotic Jesus, we have a living, choosing, inviting Jesus making one of his final offers to the people and powers of Jerusalem. An offer they reject not because they are scripted to do so, but because the cost of compassion and inclusive community is far greater than the system of scapegoating shame and blame religion and power that is in place.

Jesus the Zecharian, “King on a Colt” comes with an offer of alternative living. An inclusive community of compassion and companionship. Where servants not swordsman have power,… the power of love. A kingdom of healing and restoration where humans blossom into fruitful beings. A kingdom which all the democrats and despots of this world even two millennia after the Palms waved, have yet to be able to bring to reality.

The offer still stands, and notfor a limited time only” as the End Time Enthusiasts would have it.

No it is an eternal offer, always available for any who can sing Hosanna and hold back on hatred.

Look! here comes the Donkey King again!