Last Epiphany, Year B
2 Kgs 2:1-12
2 Cor 4:3-6
(2 Kings 2:1-12)
Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?" And he said, "Yes, I know; keep silent." Elijah said to him, "Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho." But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?" And he answered, "Yes, I know; be silent." Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not." As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
(2 Corinthians 4:3-6)
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
In our reflections on Mark so far this year we’ve seen that the theology of the cross permeates the gospel narrative beginning with the foreshadowed death of John the Baptist. We’ve talked about the importance of seeing Jesus’ baptism ‘from below’ and setting the recognition of Christ’s identity within a context of conflict with the “powers” and the struggle for their destruction.
Here, in the story of the Transfiguration (a narrative which does not appear in the Fourth Gospel), the same principle can be applied. This narrative is sandwiched between two passion predictions. This seems an apt signal to employ a theology of the cross when we preach this narrative, too.
As we observe in the Historical/Cultural section, this text has been said to be a resurrection narrative ‘‘in disguise.’ We do not think so, but even if it is, since it is framed by the passion predictions, it surely reflects on the vindication of the innocent victim who will suffer at the hands of humanity.
This ‘proleptic’ story of glorification forms an inclusio with the First Sunday in Epiphany, the story of Jesus’ baptism. In neither narrative does Jesus speak, in both narratives it is the ‘Bat Qol’, the voice of God, which speaks. In the baptism story, God speaks to Jesus (“You are my Son”), here to the disciples (“This is my Son”). In both cases, it is the Son “whom I love.” In the baptism comes the affirmation to Jesus that with him God is well pleased, and to the disciples in the transfiguration narrative comes the admonition to “Listen to Him.”
Listen to what? To what he says before and after this story about the suffering Son of Man! Since Jesus does not say anything here, we can safely conclude that the ‘Bat Qol’ is admonishing the disciples/readers for their failure to hear and accept what Jesus was talking about. We suspect Mark’s “disciples” were too caught up in their theologies of glory and exclusivist apocalyptic orientation. Ched Myers (Binding The Strong Man), with his usual wit, points out that Peter refers to Jesus as ‘Rabbi’ and that “at two later points in Mark’s story in which ‘Rabbi’ occurs, the disciples are standing over against Jesus: (1) their lament over Jesus’ repudiation of the Temple (11.21) and (2) Judas’ greeting even as he betrays Jesus to the high priests (14:45). Is this also such a moment? It seems so, for again instead of understanding the way of the cross Peter proposes a cult of adulation.
Peter is not alone at seeing the transfiguration event from the perspective that Myers attributes to him. William Lane (Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), e.g., sees the transfiguration as “a manifestation of the sovereignty of God in a triumphal unveiling of Jesus’ dignity.” This interpretation conceals the radical character of the revelation of the victim and sounds more like Calvinism than Mark. And again, “The transfiguration constituted a warning to all others that the ambiguity which permits the humiliation of Jesus and of those faithful to him will be resolved in the decisive intervention of God promised in Ch. 8:38.” What might be this intervention of which Lane speaks? In the typical Augustinian-influenced Christianity, it would be the deus ex machina who is coming to determine who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, (Do not pass GO, do not collect $200!). If this is what Lane means then we must part company.
We do not need to go that route however. Robert Hamerton-Kelly (The Gospel and the Sacred) puts it this way: “The disciples are represented by Peter, James, and John, and the message they hear is the message Jesus heard at the moment of his baptism. It links his messianic identity with the servant of Is. 42:1, and, by implication, with the whole of the portrait of the suffering servant (Mk 9:7). The glory of the Messiah, while unequivocal in heaven, is dialectical on earth, mediated through its opposite. The meanings of the titles ‘Christ,’ ‘Son of Man,’ and ‘Son of God’ coalesce into the figure of the humble servant of God willing to undergo the suffering required for the success of his mission. The transfiguration story, however, like the miracle stories, keeps vivid before the reader the true dignity of this humiliated one.”
Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) observe several important aspects of our text that we would like to expand upon. In a brief paragraph they state: “The assertion of Jesus’ sonship, stated programmatically in Mark’s opening words (1.1) and affirmed by the voice from heaven (1:11) is here (v. 7) recapitulated in a preview of the resurrected Lord. This is the ultimate honor status of Jesus, witnessed to by spirit beings (3.11; 5.7) and Gentiles (15.39) but questioned and denied by Jesus’ own people (14.61). The title is stated at the very beginning (by the author) and at the end (by the centurion) of the gospel story. Its assertion at the baptism, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is recapitulated as Jesus’ career draws to a close. The retrojected resurrection appearance functions to give the reader a preview of the final vindication of the claim.”
Several questions emerge:
1. What is meant by a ‘retrojected resurrection appearance?’
2. What is the relation of the title Son of God and Son of Man in Mark? (For Jesus?)
3. Why are the disciples and Jesus’ people so unable to see?
Since the advent of form criticism it has been thought that the transfiguration story is actually a papered over version of a resurrection appearance. It is a ‘legend.’ We grant this possibility, though we find scant evidence for it aside from traditional academic dis-ease with any image of Jesus that does not conform to certain minimalist standards. But even if this is so, it is all the more crucial that we do not ignore the Markan framework. Otherwise we shall have to account for this narrative in terms of an apocalyptic theology of glory. Commentators are divided not by exegesis but by their philosophical presuppositions. We do not believe that the transfiguration narrative is a retrojected resurrection story, although it most certainly is to be connected to the resurrection, either narratively or historically, as the vindication of the innocent messenger of God.
The excellent study of Jack Dean Kingsbury (The Christology of Mark’s Gospel) is extremely helpful to understanding the relationship of the titles Son of God and Son of Man in Mark. One of the major assets of Kingsbury’s work is to work within the problem of the so-called messianic secret and to observe that “the Son of God and Son of Man aspects of Mark’s christology also complement each other by treating such fundamental topics as the public activity, death, and vindication of Jesus from different perspectives.”
That is, (we would say) both titles can be seen in the light of mimetic theory. Regarding Son of Man, Kingsbury says, “the overall impact of this title upon Mark’s story is that it underlines the twin elements of conflict with the ‘world’ and of vindication in the sight of the ‘world’ at the Parousia.” This theme of vindication fits comfortabely within a Christian understanding of the resurrection.
And this connects us, according to Kingsbury, with our final question regarding the obtuseness of the disciples. The disciples do not “comprehend what they are taught or what is revealed to them. Nor could they in Mark’s conception of reality. For according to Mark, Jesus identity as the royal Son of God is inseparably bound up with Jesus’ destiny of the cross. Not until one sees the cross to be the ultimate goal of Jesus’ ministry can one see Jesus to be the royal Son of God (15.39). And not until one sees Jesus to be the royal Son of God can one ‘think’ about him normatively, that is, as God ‘thinks’ about him (1.11; 9.7; 15.39).”
We would also note Wolfgang Roth’s (Hebrew Gospel: Cracking the Code of Mark) observation that the ‘vision-audition’ stories may have as their background the similar visionary tales about Elijah and Elisha. This may well be true and Roth has shown many reasons to consider the influence of the Elijah-Elisha narratives on the Markan gospel. However one should deal with this, it is important to see that while the visions of Elijah and Elisha are both connected in some fashion with violence in the heavenly sphere, in Jesus vision, there is only the peace of God, violence has been expelled.
If, indeed, Jesus comes as a different figure than is expected it is little wonder that his person caused such confusion and consternation. Is it really any different today?
An anthropological reading of this text produces further evidence that the linkage between a theology of the cross and the mimetic theory can help us see the mistakes of our propensity to desire a theology of glory, to preach such a vision of Christ and to succumb to the mimetic powers.
The ‘critical’ world has long had trouble with a theology of glory. Luther despised its medieval form; Kierkegaard lamented it in Hegel and Nietzsche lambasted it as a ‘slave morality.’ Barth equated it with the anti-Christ and Bonhoeffer deplored it. Unfortunately, the current popular view of Jesus is still fueled by a theology of glory. That is why this current version of Jesus is so powerless in this world until he comes again riding the waves of God’s fury. This Jesus is exclusivist and resembles Zeus more than the Creator. The fact that Jesus has nothing to do with wrath or a wrathful God rarely seems to cross the modern mind. Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, for all of our modern achievements, many are still “primordial” in their religious views. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We believe that our repentance must include turning from portraits of Jesus that align him with theologies of glory. The author of the Markan gospel evidently felt similarly. Unless we repent of these false Christologies and turn to the Living Lord who has rejected violence and transformed mimesis we cannot begin to find our way to a gospel of real peace.
In our current situation in which God, more specifically the Judeo-Christian God of American civil religion, is invoked with more and more frequency, it is doubly important that those charged with preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ continue courageously in their affirmation of the God of Peace. America, once again, is seeing a mingling of theology and politics that is reminiscent of Europe before World War II. As the religious rhetoric is ratcheted up on all sides (Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu et al.) we can expect a competition of the gods worthy of a modern Olympics. The God of Peace does not play in these games. Neither should we.
Some sermon thoughts: Mark, always in a narrative rush, takes time to link the story of the Transfiguration with Jesus’ first prediction of the Passion. "Six days after this.." This sort of connector between pericopes is rare for Mark, whose favorites seem to be "And" or "And immediately." That Mark intends us to see this glorification of Jesus as incomplete can be seen in the number of days he cites. Six days are incomplete, lacking the perfection of the number seven or the days in a week. This is no misplaced resurrection appearance, but a foretaste linked specifically to the predictions of Jesus’ death.
We do well, as preachers, to pay careful attention to the introduction of our reading for today. "Six days after what?" is the first question to answer for our hearers. Without this, the Transfiguration collapses in a heap of glitter and shouts of joy. Instead, only eight words are needed. "This is my beloved son. Listen to him." Until we can see, and help our hearers see that the Cross is Jesus’ glory (as the Fourth Gospel insists, over and over again) we will have no real alternatives to offer the church from the ways of death and violence (hidden beneath myths of glory) that their world holds out to them.
Salvation is for those who believe. This is a truism throughout the history of Christianity. “Faith comes by hearing and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17) and “Whoever believes in him (Jesus) is not condemned but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:17)
How then are we to understand the destiny of those who do not believe? Are they consigned to some kind of eternal damnation, the fires of a raging hell as fundamentalists believe? What if the message we are proclaiming is not the gospel? Are those who do not believe condemned because we have failed to preach the good news given us in Christ? How shall we understand all this?
When I present this way of reading the Bible as I understand it, influenced by the Christian peace tradition and the use of the mimetic theory, people always end up asking about hell. Do I believe in it? Is it real? Will people be punished?
Our text today gives us a clue: the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not or cannot see. They have not chosen to be blind, they have been blinded, they are under the spell of the satan.
In mimetic theory, the satan is equivalent to the mimetic model-obstacle relationship which precedes the violence of the scapegoating process. In fact, the satan is a metonym for the entire process of victimage, the scandalous relationship. The god of this age, the satan is thus to be understood as that human mechanism of violent scapegoating.
In order for scapegoating to work in archaic cultures Girard observes that it cannot have been conscious, it had to work beneath the level of our awareness otherwise we could not have killed innocent victims and deemed them guilty. This non-consciousness is not to be confused with either the Freudian or Jungian unconscious, rather it reflects the blindness we humans have in the face of our own violence. In fact, Girard prefers the French term meconnaissance (or non-conscious) for this reason.
French Psychiatrist Jean-Michel Oughourlian has explored this development of the nonconscious aspect of mimetic model-obstacle relationships in his book The Puppet of Desire. In this seminal work he observes that when humans are caught up in the scandal of mimetic desire there is an impediment to the development of identity (pg 20). “Where there is a misconstruing and denial of the otherness of desire, the latter (i.e., the ‘other’) is condemned, pathogenic, evil and diabolical. The model is viewed as a rival. (142)” In other words, our misrecognition of our own mimesis leads to a break of the self with self, we are not ourselves when we are caught in mimetic rivalries.
“The origin of our own desire, the fact that its source is in that of the other, has always been misunderstood (meconnu), and it is by design that I have adopted the Girardian word meconnaissance. In this sense one might say, within the framework of my theory, that the origin of our desire is unconscious. But I refuse to speak this way because I am unwilling to hypostasize the unconscious. I say bluntly, and will say it again and again: the Freudian unconscious, that mythic hypostasis peopled with all sorts of occult mythical forces in conflict with one another, and to whose quarrels we have to submit as inevitably as bad weather, simply does not exist…The Freudian unconscious does not exist any more than the Demon that it succeeded as the mask of the Other. The Id, Superego, Eros, Thanatos, and the rest have no more not less actual existence than Asmodeus, Beelzebub, Leviathan and the various other demons.” (152)
What does this have to do with our passage? If with Paul, we are going to assert that the god of this age has blinded the eyes of “those who are perishing”, we must acknowledge that this perishing does not refer to some sort of eschatological eternal damnation but rather to the collusion of violence and its consequences. The refusal to acknowledge our own violence, our own scapegoating is precisely what is being spoken of here.
When Paul refers to the ‘god of this age’ the question must then be asked are we back to Flip Wilson with his “the devil made me do it?” The answer is yes and no. It is No if we mean that we are under the sway of some personal evil. It is Yes if we can see that that the satan is the way the New Testament writers speak of the entire process of negative mimesis. Girard observes this when he says, “Why do the Gospels, in their most complete definition of the mimetic cycle, have recourse to a figure named Satan or the devil rather than an impersonal principle? I think the principal reason is that human subjects as individuals are not aware of the circular process in which they are trapped; the real manipulator of the process is mimetic contagion itself. There is no real subject within this mimetic contagion, and that is finally the meaning of the title ‘prince of this world,’ if it is recognized that Satan is the absence of being” (I See Satan Fall as Lightning, 69).
The veil that Paul alludes to in the previous paragraph (prior to 4:1-6) is the veil of mimetic death, the condemnation that occurs when we justify our victimage (our violent religious zeal). This is underscored by the following paragraph in which the apostle points out that his ministry has caused him to be a scapegoat. The logic of being blinded in our passage is developed further in Romans 9-11 when the apostle asks about the salvation-historical problem of Israel’s rejection of Jesus and his message. The upshot there is that this blindness does not lead to some sort of eschatological retribution but that “God has bound all humanity over to disobedience so that he may have mercy upon all.” (Rom. 11:32)
It is the encounter with the Risen Christ, the vindicated victim that brings to light our violent tendencies and self-justifying rationale. It is the encounter with our own victims, our own mimetic model-obstacle relations and our repenting of such behavior that brings about both our enlightenment and our salvation.
Nothing of note today.
Someone once came to Rene Girard and said that after having read his work, they finally understood what was happening to them, that they were the victims of unjust scapegoating. Rene smiled and would later comment that it is easy for us to see when we are being victimized but far more difficult to see when we are scapegoating others because we always justify our own victimage.
The was the case for the apostle Paul who had every reason to justify his seeking out the early Christians and killing them thinking that in his religious zeal he was doing God’s will. Christianity has a horrid history of justifying violence from our pogroms to our Inquitions and Crusades, Holocausts and pre-emptive wars and all of the so-called “just wars” we have been involved in. It is time for us to recognize that we too have been complicit with the god of this world in our violence and to renounce violence and scapegoating in all its forms.