Epiphany IV, Year B

Main Text

Gospel Anthropological Reading
Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions
Gospel So What?

Epistle Anthropological Reading
Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions
Epistle So What?

Main Text

Dt 18:15-20
Ps 111
1 Cor 8:1-13
Mk 1:21-28

(Deuteronomy 18:15-20)
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: "If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die." Then the LORD replied to me: "They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak–that prophet shall die."

(1 Corinthians 8:1-13)
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge." Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one." Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as in fact there are many gods and many lords– yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. "Food will not bring us close to God." We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

(Mark 1:21-28)
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus ofNazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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.

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Gospel Anthropological Reading

The element of the demonic in the gospel text disconcerts some readers. Many prefer to see the demonic as an expression of physical or mental illness; e.g., it was some form of epilepsy or schizophrenia. Others choose a more literalist rendering and see evil spirits everywhere. Most people are just plain mystified. “The cultural chasm between the 1st and 20th centuries yawns especially wide when we touch on the question of exorcism” (Meier, A Marginal Jew, Volume 2).

Today’s gospel text immediately places us in a world that is foreign to us. In order to understand Jesus power over the demonic we must first understand the power of the demonic over the human. To do this we turn to mimetic theory and its explanation of the power generated by the scapegoat mechanism through the process of sacralization.

According to Mimetic Theory, we sacralize our victims when we create a lie to justify our violence; this lie is the determination of guilt we attribute to the victim. In addition we also attribute to the victim the end result of our social violence which oddly enough is social cohesion or peace. Our unity against a common victim is the violent ground upon which we as humans can build entire worlds, complete with competing deities of good and evil.

The gospels do not sacralize Jesus, they do not make him sacred in the way myths make sacred their victims. His life story is told so that it can be clearly seen that he was not guilty of the judgment he was given. His innocence is vindicated in his resurrection. His life, death and resurrection expose and disempower, once and for all, that God has nothing to do with violence, that violence is a purely human phenomenon. And when violence is desacralized down comes the house of cards built by the deceptions and lies of the Powers. Satan is stripped of the divinity with which we have clothed him. He has fallen like lightning to the earth. He is of human origin, but has superceded humanity and twisted humanity in his grip. And what does he do? He lies and murders, from the beginning.

The Satan, this heavenly prosecutor, is for us, both big and bad and scary as well as defeated and transformed. We know that Jesus overcame the Powers of darkness in his cross and resurrection but most of us frankly don’t want to get near others who even approximate someone who acts demon possessed. Visions of ‘The Exorcist’ fly around our minds.

The Satan is a vision of horror and terror. The Satan is our Frankenstein, the monster created in us and by us and we are “all of our father, the devil.” Perceiving the Satan as an anthropological category does not diminish evil, rather it demands we examine all of the blood on our own hands, it thus personalizes evil. Some may think, “well, if you anthropologize Satan, then you depersonalize him and make less of evil than it really is.” The opposite is the case. When mimetic desire is exposed it is seen for all of its emptiness and darkness. It reeks of the smell of death and lies. And it reveals to us the many times and ways we have indeed been the Satan to each other. Who amongst us can lift up guiltless hands?

Further, the great theodicy questions are actually not all that great when Satan is demystified, when he is cast from heaven to earth. The question is no longer “why does God allow suffering?” but becomes “why do we cause each other to suffer?” It places the sin where it belongs, on the sinner, not on some sentient being outside of us. There are many benefits to the demystification of Satan. An excellent example of hundreds of implications of this demystification can be found in Walter Wink’s trilogy on the Powers, especially the third volume Engaging the Powers.

Jesus’ encounter with Satan actually means something in human history. It is his encounter with the dark side of humanity, of our choice to have knowledge of both ‘good and evil.’ Jesus is able to free others from the mimetic darkness and bondage to ‘evil spirits’ because he has in himself already overcome them (the temptation narrative).

What then of demonic possession? Demonic possession can be described as what occurs when one is completely overwhelmed with the demands and prohibitions one encounters in any culture. The internal mimesis, the desire for differentiation, becomes so acute that the “I” is completely sublimated to imitation of all other “I’s.” The person ceases to exist, they are purely in imitation of all others. When Jesus heals the demoniac, the person is often said to ‘be in their right mind.’ That is, Jesus loosens the bond between the powers of darkness and our sense of self and liberates us from our self-destructive tendencies.

Demonic (mimetic) possession is very real, very terrifying and often very deadly. We do not minimize the affliction of the demoniac nor the wondrous power of Jesus when we anthropologize the Satan. Instead we can take ownership of the Satan, acknowledge his conquest over us and gives thanks for Jesus’ conquest over the reign of death and darkness.

A Bibliographical Note
Much has been written on the devil. Girard’s theory does not depend on any of the variations by which the devil is known. Mimetic theory can account for them all. However, the majority of Christians around the world have extremely superstitious views of evil and the devil. Most of what people believe comes from a combination of medieval Christianity and modern Hollywood.

I have benefited from the four books written by Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Devil , Satan , Lucifer and Mephistopheles .

Girard’s observations on the Satan can be found in Things Hidden, Job and The Scapegoat. The Satan as ‘skandalon’, while central to mimetic theory, will be discussed in another place at a future date. Our concern today is the larger question of removing Satan from the locus of theology and placing him squarely in anthropology.

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Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions

From a historical perspective, it has been difficult for scholars to understand the place of exorcism in Jesus ministry. The vast majority of the educated prefer to think in terms of modern medicine. And they are quite right to do so. Health specialists have long been aware of the connection between a healthy psychology and a healthy body. We cannot agree with the judgment of Theissen and Merz (The Historical Jesus) that “we do not have an exorcism if a disease is attributed to a demonic cause (e.g., the bent back of the woman in Luke 13:10-17). The mind/body and mind/brain discussions of the last fifty years have shown that we are what we think as much as what we eat. On the other hand, to reduce Jesus’ exorcisms to healing narratives misses the larger point of the downfall of the mimetic powers in Jesus’ ministry. “Perhaps in no other aspect of Jesus’ ministry does his distance from modern Western culture and scientific technology loom so large and the facile program of making the historical Jesus instantly relevant to present day men and women seem so ill-conceived” (A Marginal Jew).

As we have seen in the Anthropological Reading, it is neither facile nor ill-conceived to try and understand Jesus’ exorcisms. It is only difficult to conceive of exorcism because most of us do not perform them on a regular basis. For most, the realm of the demonic is the realm of the unknown. This is because we are blinded to the ways in which we all have been brought into bondage by mimesis. We cannot liberate others when we are not free ourselves. We cannot help the dysfunctional regain their ‘sanity’ when we do not live congruent lives but continue to entrap others with our own double binds as well as be entrapped by the double binds of others.

The congruency between Jesus’ actions and teachings has been the subject of many modern studies on the Kingdom of God. We have learned that we cannot separate Jesus’ table fellowship or his healings or his exorcisms from his teaching on the reign of God in love, peace and forgiveness. So intimately connected are they that after World War II some scholars could refer to Jesus sayings as ‘speech-events’ (Gerhard Ebeling and Ernst Fuchs), words that accomplish what they say. The converse is also true: Jesus’ actions are those that liberate with healing words. G.R. Beasley-Murray has well said “the believers experience of grace is determined by the totality of Jesus’ actions as the Son of Man” (Jesus and The Kingdom Of God).

Monika Hellwig points out the value of this line of thought: “Whether or not particular stories of encounters, miracles, conversations or sermons, are chronicles of actual events or constructs giving a broader interpretation of the meaning and impact of Jesus, the testimonies of the gospels and the life-style of those who subsequently lived as his followers, give eloquent witness to these as the characteristics that people most clearly saw and most eagerly admired in Jesus. But all of these characteristics also speak very clearly of a life lived as though God reigned and none else had power” (Jesus: The Compassion of God).

Marcus Borg offers a helpful analysis that has suggestive implications for a mimetic theoretical approach to these narratives. Speaking of Jesus as Exorcist, Borg says, “Cross-cultural studies of the phenomenon indicate a number of typical traits. ‘Possession’ occurs when a person falls under the control of an evil spirit or spirits. Such people are inhabited by a presence which they (and others) experience as ‘other than themselves.’ In addition to having two or more ‘personalities,’ they exhibit bizarre behavior and are often destructive or self-destructive.” “Exorcism is the expulsion of the evil spirit, driving it out of the person and ending its ownership.” (Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, New York: Harper & Row, 1987) In mimetic theory it is possible to recognize that each of us imitates multiple rivals, so Borg’s observations on the consequences of such undefined multiplicity of desires rings true.

Jesus’ identity and the Exorcism.

Looking at this passage again, there is one last thing worthy of note. Mark’s gospel is primarily concerned with two conflicting christologies, the Davidic warrior king of the apocalyptic movement (which the crowds believe John to be preaching) and the crucified Son of Man that Jesus turns out to be. This exorcism is described as a “teaching,” a rather strange thing. “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27) His exorcism is a teaching, one about his identity. (This is another similarity between Mark and John, the way that Jesus’ miracles, or signs, are first and foremost signs that point toward his identity.)

If this is then a sign or teaching about his identity, then his very essence (at least for Mark) involves the freeing of the victim from the madness of the mimetic system. And that thought leads us directly to “So What?”

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Gospel So What?

“I have a nagging hunch that the gospel’s power in our own time is about to be manifested in a manner as repugnant to the sensibilities of the society at large, and all of us who have accommodated ourselves to it, as the early Christian message was to Roman paganism. Our society is possessed, Christians as much as anyone. We are possessed by violence, possessed by sex, possessed by money, possessed by drugs. We need to recover forms of collective exorcism as effective as was the early Christian baptism’s renunciation of ‘the devil and all his works.’” (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers)

It is not too much to say that in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we all have our own mimetic demons called out of us. Until we acknowledge our own ‘possession’ by mimesis and our own need to constantly challenge our own negative mimetic tendencies and resolve them in a non-violent fashion, with no scapegoats, we will not be a healing church.

As followers of Jesus, we have the opportunity, even the obligation to continue Jesus’ ministry of freeing the possessed (including ourselves!). The “insanity” (Michael Foucault) of western culture possesses most of us to one extent or another, as reflected in the myriad of addictive behaviors and aggressive outbursts we see around us. The recognition of Satan as one who afflicts all of us helps us with two things. First, it keeps us from identifying the sisters and brothers around us with their affliction, and second, it keeps us from scapegoating the victims of Satan. We need look no farther than ourselves to find the next victim.


First, I would recall The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson. I thought this was as fine an exploration as one would see on the relationship between Jesus, Satan and the question of violence. Every single temptation is oriented to get Jesus to choose violence, judgment, justice. Even Mary is tested to see if she could manipulate Jesus. Virtually every flashback was oriented to Jesus’ teaching on non-violence and love. It is exactly nonviolence and love that is being tested.

Second, I would also want to observe that folks with a Newtonian worldview are the ones who have trouble with the so-called supernatural; those of us with a quantum theology have no such trouble. A lot of moderns need to take their heads out of the sand of ‘the absolute’ of philosophy and physics. Become postmodern already for crying out loud. The satanic while immanent to humans, and experienced as such, is also perceived as transcendent, that is, more than human, and so it can be said. God created the heavens and the earth and all that dwells therein, humanity, human beings, created the satan, the psycho-social-spiritual power that rules us.

Third, in assuming our humanity, Jesus also confronts ‘our’ Satan, this is why the temptation narratives are important. Jesus experienced the reality of this personified violent mimesis, but did not acquiesce or listen to that voice. Jesus does not engage in the use of force to achieve his goals and commands his followers to do the same. In so doing, we resist the Satan and break down the satanic energizing of sinful structures.

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Epistle Anthropological Reading

“All of the signs of mimetic violence are present under the rubric of idolatry – desire, sacrifice, eroticism.”  Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, 180

Key to interpreting the letter of I Corinthians is to distinguish when Paul quotes from the Corinthians and when he is speaking.  Dizdar Drasko has shown the importance of this in his exegesis of I Corinthians 5. (http://www.uibk.ac.at/theol/cover/contagion/x1.html).  In our text today I take vs 1b, 4b and vs 6 as coming from the Corinthians. 

“We know that we all possess knowledge” is the epistemic starting point from the Corinthians.  This knowledge includes the belief that “idols are nothing in the world at all” and the opening portion of the Shema “there is no God but one.”  This is followed by the confession that “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

It would appear that in justifying their approach to the problem of eating meat offered to idols, the Corinthian ‘know it alls’ appeal to a creedal formula they have learned from Paul, namely that God created all things through the agency of the Son Jesus, therefore, knowing this, idols have no real reality, hence, eating meat offered to them is really not eating meat offered to another ‘god.’

Paul agrees but observes something more fundamental.  The problem is that gnosis creates the potential for mimetic conflicts; some people are not at a place where they have deconstructed the world around them.  For them, eating meat offered to an idol is tantamount to worshipping the ‘god.’  When they do eat meat, their consciences are defiled. 

It would appear that some of the Corinthians church were celebrating pagan meals in the temples that dotted the Corinthian central city (see Wendell Lee Willis Idol Meat in Corinth, Chico: Scholars Press, 1985, 7-64 for a discussion).  They felt the freedom (exousia) to participate in such activity because to them, it meant nothing. For Paul, their freedom was to be circumscribed by agape for the brother or sister who might witness them in such festivity. 

Contemporary preaching, aware that the world has been desacrazlized, might use this text to say that any behavior that offends other Christians ought to be avoided.  Some might even use this text to say that any ecumenical or inter-faith conversation should be out of bounds as it might bother the conscience of the weak Christian.  In either case a hermeneutic leap is made that misses the mark.  Paul is not admonishing Christians to avoid the world (see 5:9ff).  His concern is the recognition that for some, the world and it’s false gods (gods who require sacrifice), are still very real, and in the case of the Corinthians, those who eat meat offered to idols are willing to engage that sacrificial mechanism, by sacrificing their brother or sister “for whom Christ died” (8:11). 

It is a question of scandalon, of presenting oneself as a model/obstacle; of requiring those who are ‘weak’ to have the same deconstructed faith as the ‘strong.’  The obverse of this scandalous behavior is agape, the willingness to remain faithful to the Christian community even though one has the freedom to be completely secular.  Some within the Christian community have not yet found the freedom given them in Jesus.  Those who have discovered this liberation are not to use it in such a fashion that by implicitly or explicitly enjoining others to imitate them, they cause their brother or sister to engage behaviors that they have not yet deconstructed.

The Corinthians who ate meat did so in a public venue where they could be seen.  This is not about purchasing meat in the marketplace and taking it home to eat.  It is about the public display of freedom from social and legal taboos, that have ended with Christ (“Christ is the end of the law”, Rom 10:4).  Christian freedom is not freedom at the expense of the Christian community.  Paul’s admonishment for agape means that the entire community is to grow together; it is the responsibility of the ‘strong’ to work with the ‘weak’, to bring them along so that they may all together discover what this liberation means.

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Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions

See the commentaries for a discussion of issues relating both to the cultural context and when and where Paul may be quoting the Corinthians.

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Epistle So What?

“Christians aren’t supposed to…….” (fill in the blank).  I live in the midst of one of the most conservative counties in the US, Lancaster PA, home to many conservative and old order groups.  Filling in this blank would include (depending on the group): wear belts, drive cars, use electricity, drink, smoke, use foul language, dance, engage in any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, disobey the bishop, go about with one’s head uncovered or one’s knees or elbows showing.  The list actually becomes endless as different groups identify themselves with various rules and regulations (known as Ordnungen).  I have friends who are quite liberal and some who are in the ‘plain’ culture.

It is true that I behave differently depending on whom I am with (next week’s lesson on I Cor 9).  It is a choice I make in order not to offend anyone I am in conversation with.  This does not mean that my ‘plain’ friends are unaware that my lifestyle includes choices they would not make (after all I wear a belt and have long hair); it means that I do not engage them socially the way I might if I am hanging out with my more ‘liberal’ friends for whom a Scotch and a cigarette are perfectly fine.

Preaching this text today requires hermeneutical finesse inasmuch as we do not have temples dedicated to idols lining our grocery stores or farmer’s markets.  The point of the text is to be sensitive to each person we come in contact with; it does not mean that we change our lifestyle to suit the most conservative among us.  It means not boasting of the freedom we have in Jesus; it does mean that the principle of agape is paramount in Christian relationships.  It calls us to be careful about the public display of our Christian freedom; it is not meant to circumscribe our private life.

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