Passion Sunday, 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

Liturgy of the Palms:
Mk 11:1-11 or Jn 12:12-16
Ps 118:1-2,19-29

Liturgy of the Passion:
Is 50:4-9a
Ps 31:9-16
Phil 2:5-11
Mk 14:1-15:47 or Mk 15:1-39,(40-47)

(Mark 11:1-11)
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’" They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

(John 12:12-16)

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord– the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!" His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

(Isaiah 50:4-9a)
The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are
my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

(Philippians 2:5-11)
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Mark 14:1-72)
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, "Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people." While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him. On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, "Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?" So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there." So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me." They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, "Surely, not I?" He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born." While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, "You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee." Peter said to him, "Even though all become deserters, I will not." Jesus said to him, "Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." But he said vehemently, "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you." And all of them said the same. They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And said to them, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake." And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want." He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand." Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard." So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, "Rabbi!" and kissed him. Then they laid hands on
him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, "Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled." All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, "We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’" But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, "Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?" But he was silent and did not answer.
Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus said, "I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’" Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?" All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, "Prophesy!" The guards also took him over and beat him. While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant- girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, "You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth." But he denied it, saying, "I do not know or understand what you are talking about." And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, "This man is one of them." But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, "Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean." But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, "I do not know this man you are talking about." At that moment the cock crowed for the
second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, "Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." And he broke down and wept.

(Mark 15:1-47)
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" He answered him, "You say so." Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, "Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you." But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed. Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, "Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?" For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, "Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?" They shouted back, "Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Crucify him!" So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, "Hail, King of the Jews!" They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, "The King of the Jews." And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!" In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe." Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "Listen, he is calling for Elijah." And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down." Then Jesus gave a
loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was God’s Son!" There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had
been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

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 acclamation of Jesus as the King of Israel by the mob will shortly become the rejection of Jesus. The juxtaposition of the entry into Jerusalem with the Temple story indicates the proximate cause: Jesus shuts down the sacrificial process thus necessitating an alternate scapegoat. Once again we see how, for Mark, the cross looms behind every aspect of his narrative.

Preachers invariably use this text to demonstrate the messianic identification of Jesus and confirm for themselves and their congregations that Jesus is the Victor. And he is! But as can be seen in the Historical/Cultural section, Jesus is not coming with mighty armies after a rousing victory to claim the city for his own.

Of all the texts in the gospels, the entry into Jerusalem and the Temple narrative present the interpreter with certain conundrums that cannot be avoided. Some have seen in these texts the ‘revolutionary Jesus.’ No doubt that there is something revolutionary occurring, but it has nothing to do with violence, warfare, or conquest of the human variety.

This is the triumph of one singular life. Jesus of Nazareth chose to acknowledge that he was the fulfillment of the promises made to the fathers, but the fulfillment of the promises did not come in the way they expected. Instead, they wound up participating in their fulfillment, as the mob that rejected Jesus and tossed him to the ruling Gentile authority. Jesus anticipated this. He could see the social and political ramifications of what he was saying and how he behaved. He did all of this in the name of the Creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and what he said about God did not please the ruling authorities. Jesus knew he was going to die in Jerusalem.

Still, he let the crowd exult in their accolades of him. It feels like the post-Series parade by the Yankees in the Canyon of Heroes. The city is alive and the powerbrokers have come out to play. Mimesis is also alive and well. In fact, it is thriving. Desire imitates desire imitates desire imitates desire until the whole cycle has spun its web again and again throughout the holiday crowds.

Tensions are also high. Roman occupation was bad enough. Pontius Pilate only made things worse. To him, it might have felt as though things were spiraling out of control. The crowd had brought a King into the city come to claim his rightful throne.

In the story we are clued in to a strange shift. Jesus of Nazareth does not enter Jerusalem in a chariot, or on a war-horse, but on a beast of burden. If Judaism did not have a peace tradition prior to Jesus of Nazareth then it certainly has one in him. Jesus never does anything that would indicate he was a warrior messiah. He does not bear arms. He does not lead armies. He exacts nothing from anybody. He comes in peace, bearing a message of peace and he will die in peace, forgiving.

He has demonstrated the power of the Creator’s peace with incredible healings and the liberation of lost souls from the powers of mimetic darkness. He both offers and teaches forgiveness, mercy and love. But he is no flower child messiah. With prophetic clarity he cuts to the heart of the systems that would put burdens on others, especially those that do so in the name of God.

The final act of the drama has begun. It has reached a fevered pitch in its intensity. The sacrificial victim has humbly taken a seat on a donkey. He knows where this will lead. Violence was about to accomplish its own demise. And that is the triumph of Jesus that day as he was led into the city. The God of Peace took a risk and put his neck on the chopping block. And humanity, poisoned by the darkness of the mimetic powers, swung away and killed Jesus.

On the third day…..but that’s for next week.

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Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions

There are several important elements to the Markan story of Jesus entry into Jerusalem that call for comment.
David R. Catchpole points out that the narrative structure of the triumphal entry conforms to a certain pattern for which he gives a dozen examples. Each of these stories contains 5 elements. They are:

1. A victory achieved and a status already recognized for the central person.
2. A formal and ceremonial entry.
3. Greetings and/or acclamations together with invocations of God.
4. Entry to the city climaxed by entry to the Temple, if the city in question has one.
5. Cultic activity, either positive (e.g., offering a sacrifice) or negative (expulsion of objectionable persons and the cleansing away of uncleanness.

“Mark 11 contains all these major and recurrent features…Mark’s story thus conforms to a familiar pattern in respect of both its determinative shape and some of its incidental points.” (Catchpole, Triumphal Entry)

Hamerton-Kelly observes that “the point of the pericope is the entry of Jesus into the temple, not his entry into Jerusalem in general. He is the victim coming to the place of sacrifice.” (The Gospel and the Sacred) This is significant for it signals that this event cannot be seen through the lens of theologia gloriae (theology of glory) but only through a theologia crucis (theology of the Cross.)

Indeed, C.F.D. Moule notices that this episode ends rather quietly with the retreat to Bethany. He wonders, “Can the explanation lie – though this is only a guess – in the fact that he deliberately led the triumphal procession into the temple (verse 11)? The way to whip up a nationalist mob might have been either to storm the Roman garrison or to go to some other corner where the Romans would not quickly be able to suppress them. But the temple was neither the garrison itself, nor yet out of reach of it; it was actually overlooked by the Roman garrison which, at dangerous times like Passover time, was always well-manned. Was Jesus, perhaps, saying by this, ‘Yes: I am Messiah; but not your sort of Messiah. I am leading a rebellion but not against the Romans; I am leading an attack on what is wrong at the very heart of your own religion.’” (Moule, "Mark")

Exegesis of this text would not be complete without consulting Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man). Myers refers to this text as “the second direct action campaign.” This is the language of social protest in its active non-violent form. “Jesus comes to Jerusalem not as a pilgrim, in order to demonstrate his allegiance to its temple, but as a populist king ready to mount a non-violent siege on the ruling classes. Mark now commences on his second direct action campaign narrative…Jesus has arrived at the heart of the dominant order, and the time has come for a showdown in the war of myths. The Lord is visiting his temple…and in his actions we will witness the one whom Gandhi referred to as “the most active resistor known to history – this is non-violence par excellence.”

Finally we observe that the foal is the stumbling block that subverts the narrative without stripping away the revolutionary action that is taking place. Humility is not a virtue in the domination system, but it stands at the heart of the Kingdom that Jesus brings.

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Gospel So What?

We are writing this Sunday March 16th, just days or perhaps weeks shy of war. Will there be a triumphal entry into Baghdad? Will it be on chariots and war horses or will it be a diminutive beast of burden? Will peace be established through strength or will there be peace found in forgiveness? How will the media report this event? Will we also find in their reporting any of the five elements identified by Catchpole? It all gets “curiouser and curiouser” as Alice would say.

There will be the temptation for clergy to use this narrative as a pretext to justify any conquest in this war on the ‘axis of evil.’ Some may see the conquering of Saddam Hussein as a Christian victory. Surely Jesus has nothing to do with this. If there is victory it will be because of the overwhelming force and capability of the coalition forces in the Persian Gulf. We already are aware that some elements in the Islamic world see this conflict in religious terms and long for the days of Saladin. For Christians, belief in the “Rambo Jesus” must be renounced. Christians who believe in the true divinity of Jesus will flee from any militaristic use of this text. The only purpose religion serves in this war is to (falsely) justify the coming conflict. Mimetic theory calls this “mythmaking.”

We bear witness to a humble God, to a Creator who loves us and has covenanted with us, who gives us life and breath. Mark’s gospel leaves no room for doubt: the militaristic use of Scripture is in direct contradiction to the story of Jesus. How then shall we preach?

Anti-war protests have begun a sifting process in America. Core values are being shaken out of us. Here in New York there is a high anti-war sentiment compared to much of the country. We think that this is likely due to having actually seen and heard and smelled the collapse of the World Trade Center. It was our first experience of a battle zone, and the shock of it continues to resonate in us. New Yorkers have seen enough of war to know they don’t like it. We don’t want war here, we don’t want war anywhere. It is a terrible thing to behold.

Right now, preaching the cross of Jesus Christ is foolishness to the world. Much of the world is not interested in forgiveness and reconciliation. Just like at so many other moments in human history, a blood sacrifice is demanded, and as happened to Jesus, the principalities and powers have engineered this crisis to quench their thirst for death, but the proclamation of God in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not charging us with sin, stands firm against all hate, enmity, bitterness and conflict. God’s grace in Jesus Christ crucified is and will always be the final and determining word. Hosanna to the Son of David!


How does it go? “The more things change…?” Three years later I live in Lancaster, among the Amish and the Mennonite, it is a very different world than Long Island. There is a clear understanding among the historic peace churches that Jesus’ death was both spiritual and political. Unlike the Lutherans or Calvinists, the peace churches have martyrs’ chronicles. They have a history of being persecuted and hunted by both church and state. In this sense, they are like the Hebrew people. They have been the outcast, the socially unacceptable for a long time. They have become a tourist attraction, civilized carnival gypsies, living a life long forgotten; quaint or stupid depending on your point of view.

But I am grateful this year for these folk. I am struck by how seriously they take Jesus as a community, not only as individuals. They live in peace to the best of their ability; it is a marvel to behold. They really get that Good Friday is about reconciliation. Jesus said that his disciples, the church, are ‘the salt of the earth.’ If so, then I would reckon the peace churches to be the ‘salt of Christianity.’

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Epistle Anthropological Reading

I have written on this text a bit extensively in an essay on the Occasional Articles page (GRASPING GOD: Philippians 2: 1-11 in the Light of Mimetic Theory).  I have simply cut and pasted from this essay today.  For references to the authors cited please consult this essay.

Phil 2:5-11 is a hymn. This may seem a trite observation as it is well recognized but it is very significant. The early church, in its hymnology, was already reflecting on the character of this Jesus whom they worshipped. More than simply a piece of tradition, the use of a hymn indicates the liturgical character of the passage. It is the gathered community that sings this song of praise. We are reminded that ‘the one who sings prays twice’ and so it is the context of Christian worship and community life to which this hymn belongs.  To limit our observations to dry and dusty exegetical minutiae deprives the text of its power. Certainly the Philippian Church did not spend hours and days debating Christological formulae, as do modern scholars. They sung this hymn as a gathered community. It had the emotional and spiritual component of worship to the living person of Jesus that is often lacking in modern commentaries.  Furthermore, this is a hymn sung in the context of the small nascent Christian community in Philippi, a community undergoing some sort of persecution. This fact is also of significance, for it underscores the perspective of the victim, the hermeneutic from below. To sing this hymn was an act of courage, an act of resistance. Ivo Lesbaupin observed that ‘persecution forms the backdrop of early Christianity’ and we would do well to remember this as we read the apostolic literature. With this in mind we can first turn to a number of important questions raised in the exegesis of the hymn.

Paul, or his tradition, uses the rare word (a New Testament hapax legoumenon) άρπαγμοσ, which some translate as ‘the object to be grasped’ and others as ‘the act of grasping.’ When put this way, the question tends toward asking if Jesus was equal with God; was equality with God something inherent in Jesus or something he lacked? But from mimetic theory we know that there is no desire without an external object ‘το ειυαι Ίσα θεω’, ‘equality with God’) and that the acquisitive character of mimesis stems from a previously desired valuation (what equality with God consists of).

We might inquire as to what significance this makes for our interpretation of Phil. 2: 1-11. We suggest that the text is making an anthropological statement. The introduction to the hymn is very strongly anthropocentric but the hymn (2:5-11) reflects something of the originary Human story in the book of Genesis. In other words, we cannot help but think of the original Adam who ‘grasped’ in light of Paul’s statement that the Christ of God renounced ‘grasping’.  Ralph Martin’s masterly survey of the research to 1967 (reprinted 1983) concludes with relation to the Philippian hymn and the creation account in Genesis that “the linguistic agreements between the LXX and the Greek text of Philippians 2 are impressive.” Martin tabulates the parallels:

Made in divine image
thought it a prize to be
grasped at to be as God;
and aspired to a reputation
And spurned being God’s
seeking to be in the likeness
of God;
and being found in fashion
as a man (now doomed)
He exalted himself
and became disobedient
unto death.
He was condemned &

Being the image of God
thought it not a prize to be
grasped at to be as God;
made himself of no reputation
And took upon himself the form
of a servant
was made in the likeness
of humanity
being found in fashion as a human
He humbled himself
became obedient
unto death
God highly exalted Him & gave
him the name and rank of Lord

These parallels are impressive. And whether one seeks the background of the hymn in some Primal Man myth, or a Heavenly Man myth or Adam speculation in Judaism, the fact remains that we are first of all dealing with something anthropological, the assertion of that which true humanness consists. In particular, we might observe that we are given virtual mirror doubles in Adam (Humanity) and Jesus, the one distinction being that Jesus disengages the process of negative mimesis and chooses the will of God engaging a new process, a process of positive mimesis.

This leads us to the difficult problem of έααυτου εκευωσευ. What does it mean ‘he emptied himself?’ ‘Emptying himself’ is the obverse of άρπαγμοσ. They are connected by the adversative άλλα, “but.” The act of emptying oneself is an act of ‘not-grasping’ they are, therefore, one and the same. It is the self-giving element that is being highlighted here. Grasping leads to rivalrous violence and sacrifice, non-grasping generates self-emptying which is self-giving. One recalls the Johannine words of Jesus, “No one takes my life from me, I lay it down on my own” or the use of fer- verbs in Hebrews, where Jesus ‘offers’ himself. There is no sacrificial language in the hymn itself, and in fact the logic leads to the cross, which is the end of all sacrifice.

Some scholars have noted that the addition of θαυατου δε σταυρου “even death on a cross” does not fit the alleged structure of the hymn and that these words are a Pauline addition. Even so if such is the case, Paul ties in more closely the sacrificial elements of the negative mimetic consequences, recalling the Passion of Jesus, the mob, the unjust verdict and the execution in this brief phrase. It would be Paul’s contention that something other than negative mimesis was occurring throughout the Passion. Death is penultimate in the hymn.  Life and vindication have the last word. The αρπογμου and the εαυτου εκευωσευ thus describe for us the double-sided valence of mimesis, negative and positive. While the former is the background presupposed in the hymn, it is the latter that is highlighted and emphasized.

Now the story of the Creation and the subsequent spiral into violence of the first Human (the grasping Adam/Eve) is not the only potential Semitic background that has been referenced for our hymn. Some have seen in the hymn language reflected from Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah, particularly that of the suffering servant.

There have been those who see the cosmic battle of Lucifer in Isaiah 14 reflected in the αρπογμοσ of the hymn. Christ vs. Satan. Once again it is difficult for a mimetic theorist to retain composure and not jump for joy, for Rene Girard has spelled out for us the demystification of the devil. The satan is in the Adam and derives from Adam. The downfall of the devil, the defeat of the satan, or the liberation of humankind, whatever is stressed, was a key component in early Christian atonement theory. Can this simply be ignored or can it, in fact, enhan
ce our broader interpretive strategy?
Some have turned to Isaiah 53, the Song of the Suffering Servant.  This servant is ‘figural’ and representational. It is the Suffering Servant, the people of God, the figure of desolation that inherits the new creation and is thus recapitulated humanity; first Adam becomes last Adam in the Isaianic songs.

Again this is not an either/or. The early Christian community was as creative in their songwriting and literature as a Bob Dylan or a William Shakespeare. Both the Adamic/First Human background and the Suffering Servant are behind this hymn, for both are the significant corporate figures not only for the early Christians but also for Jesus himself. Son of Man is not only an eschatological figure but a protological one as well, as F.H. Borsch has shown; there is a first Adam and a last Adam, or Adamic doubles. Both function as corporate figures.

This is important. Corporate figures underscore the insight that we are interdividual. We are interconnected on many levels. In corporate personality, the one can stand for the many (all). James Williams has shown us the mimetic value of this phenomenon particularly with reference to the kings of the Hebrew people. If the king was good, the people were blessed, if the king were bad the people were cursed. The one stood for the many. The high priest is certainly a figure of corporate personality. Corporate personality exhibits a mediating function or role.

Figures of corporate personality highlight the sacrificial mechanism in that they are substitutionary figures. They stand in on behalf of all the people. They are representative and representation plays a strategic role in mimetic theory, seen clearly in the pillars of culture and language as Eric Gans has shown. Our modern blindness to this is proportionate to the degree that we have succumbed or been seduced by the romantic lie, the myth of the autonomous self, the deception of the undifferentiated individual. Jesus represents the True Adam as the Suffering Servant. The One stands in the place of the Many/All. This is the point about positive mimesis being made in the Philippians hymn.

Yet a further background has been argued for this hymn. David Seeley has proposed, “these verses are based on Isaiah 45, but they resonate with ruler worship as well, and deserve analysis from that perspective.” Drawing upon Isaiah 45 and ancient texts on ruler worship, Seeley concludes that the Genesis background is unnecessary and speculative.

We think Seeley makes a good case that early Christians would naturally think of their current political ‘representatives.’ Since we posit that the early church thought in terms of what we now call mimetic theory, reflecting on both positive as well as negative mimesis and that they did this in the context of corporate personality (interdividuality,) then Seeley’s proposed background does not detract from reflections of both Genesis and Isaiah, it highlights them.  Jesus is as much an anti-model to Greco-Roman kings as he is to the Hebrew Kings. For the early church there was no distinction between spiritual powers and political ones. Jesus is “the name above all names” no matter where they reside.

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Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions

Having discussed the backgrounds of the hymn itself, its authorship and structure, scholars then move on to ask about its function in the text of the letter to the Philippians. For the past century there have been two ‘at odds’ interpretations: the hymn was either an ethical exhortation or a soteriological proclamation.

This question was first put by Lohmeyer (so Martin, 73) who asserted that Phil 2:5-11 ‘has to do with the portrayal of a divine-human event, not a representation of an ethical concept.’ This has been followed by both Kasemann and Bornkamm; the latter explicitly says, ‘in no way is this context only one of example and moral imitation.’ Now Bornkamm (112) is correct in saying that in ‘no way…only’ and he goes on to distinguish between a ‘disposition oriented toward the ideal of a virtue’ and a ‘self-orientation toward a given and fulfilled reality that is determined and opened in Jesus Christ.’ If Bornkamm is seeking to dismiss the secularizing of Jesus we couldn’t agree with him more. However, when Bornkamm separates Jesus from humanity, there is no existential leap to be made, no ethical consequence follows.

We assert that for Paul, the incarnation is not an ethical ideal toward which one can strive. Does this then mean that something cannot be said about the incarnation of Jesus in the life of the church? Does not Paul call the church ‘the body of Christ’ (I Cor 12)? And does he not say to these same Corinthians that the Spirit that indwells the believers is the Spirit of Jesus (II Cor 3)? Is not Jesus in some fashion en-fleshed in the life, indeed, the flesh of the believing church? Does Paul not depend on this logic when dealing with the problem of πορυεια in I Cor 6? Bornkamm, it seems to us, is right in saying that the incarnation is not an abstract ideal but a salvific event.  It is precisely salvific in the ethical soteriology/spirituality to which the hymn points us.

A further objection to perceiving an ethical interpretation of the hymn is offered by Martin (88) who says “there is nothing in the text which hints at the church’s glorification with her Lord, however well attested elsewhere this idea may be.”

It is our understanding that for Paul, the believer will be glorified, just as Jesus was, and is, glorified. Is it necessary for Paul to make this connection for the Philippians, or is it possible that even while quoting this hymn (in toto?) Paul lays stress on the first part of the hymn, that is, attending to the believer’s ‘self-orientation?’ Later in Philippians 3:10, Paul refers to himself and speaks of the relationship between glory and suffering in the same manner as the hymn of Philippians 2. As in the hymn where there is the order of preexistence in glory, incarnation, death and consummate glorification so also Philippians 3 evidences the chiastic order of resurrection, suffering, death, and resurrection (a-b-b’-a’). It seems to us that while the latter part of the hymn is not given a direct application by Paul, both the Philippians and Paul would have been aware that just as their Lord had suffered and was subsequently glorified they would be also.

We concur with Robert Hamerton-Kelly who sees the Philippians hymn as an example of ‘the moral significance of the cross for the life of the community’ (Hamerton-Kelly, 85). Does this mean that Jesus’ life (that is, the stories of Jesus passed on orally and textually) is somehow to be slavishly imitated? No, rather as Hamerton-Kelly puts it, “the summary act of the crucifixion, the crucified Christ in his act of self-sacrifice rather than any specific pattern of ethics drawn from the memory of his life” is the point of imitation. The “fact of the divine self-emptying is paradigmatic” (Hamerton-Kelly, 176). Further we feel trust and obedience are the keys here. (John 14:1 ff)

We will not separate the ethical from the soteriological, stripping the hymn of its true salvific importance, namely, the realized promise of a transformed humanity, a humanity grounded in Jesus, the True Adam who desires only the will of his heavenly Abba. A purely soteriological interpretation of the hymn might satisfy those who are happy living in the abstract but it provides no real enfleshment of that salvation. There is no subjective correlation to the objective process with those who strip the ethical from the soteriological. However, as we saw with αρπογμοσ and εαυτου εκευωσευ, the hymn itself is descriptive of the incarnational process. This is the τυπου of 3.17, “the pattern, the example” given by Paul to his converts. He exhorts us to become συμμιμηται “fellow imitators” of this type of nongrasping/ self-emptying. This choice, this spirituality is reflected autobiographically when Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the Resurrection from the dead” (3.10).

A mimetic reading of the Philippian hymn allows us to see many of the larger academic debates as an unnecessary splitting of hairs.  Insights previously at odds have been joined together, woven as a tapestry, by the logic of positive mimesis. In the light of mimetic theory, Philippians 2: 1-11 takes on strategic importance for Christology for it offers in a very brief form all of the elements needed to illuminate positive mimesis. Even beyond Christology, it just makes sense from the point of view of survival. It embodies and is entirely supportive of the incarnational spirituality of the gospels and letters of the New Testament and it has a function beyond religion and culture, it tells the truth about what we need to do if we are to live on this planet.

We part company with those who assert that an ethical interpretation of the text, and thus the church’s living in this mindset with her Lord, is not a real possibility. We further say that it goes to the heart of humanity both inside and outside the church. As we were composing this essay we happened to read an important contribution to this years 2005 COV&R meeting by Per Grande on “Girard’s Christology.”

Per has judiciously written that,

“the imitation of Christ is each individual’s response to the process of dissolving violence and sacrifice. In this respect imitating Christ is the individual’s continuation of Christ’s work. While the Passion was clearly a sacrificial phenomenon, imitating Christ can be seen as the ethical implication of the Passion. This also means that imitating Christ is the practical step forward, derived from a reflection on Christ. In this sense imitation is a response to Christology and, at the same time, ethically speaking, perhaps the most important part of Christology.”

Norman T. Wright finishes his extensive survey of the Philippians hymn summing up it’s meaning beautifully by saying,

“the thrust of the passage in itself is that the one who, before becoming human, possessed divine equality did not regard that status as something to take advantage of, something to exploit, but instead interpreted it as a vocation to obedient humiliation and death; and that God the Father acknowledged the truth of this interpretation by exalting him to share his own divine glory. This means that the passage is well able to fulfill the role, which it has in Paul’s developing argument, namely, that of the example which Christians are to imitate. God acknowledged Christ’
s self-emptying as the true expression of divine equality; he will acknowledge Christian selfemptying] in the same way.”

Paul writes to the Roman Christians that this is the only way to discover the will of God and know what is good, what God wants, what is the perfect thing to do (Romans 12: 2). It is with the new mind; that of positive mimesis where we can be compassionate, open to another’s pain, able to enter into the experience of the other who is not a rival but a fellow human being.

Paul is offering a profound expression of the truth that our real self is in God. Our truest identity is not measured against someone, it is not attained, not taken forcibly, acquired or grasped – but given.

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Epistle So What?

This is one of the most beautiful texts in the New Testament and deserves to be preached more as a poem than a prose sermon. 

While there are many ways one could preach this hymn, it seems to me that an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus and the exhaltation of Jesus the Human One as Lord is essential in our time when so many tend to think of Jesus in a Gnostic framework. 

Second, the element of surrender as the key posture of Christian spirituality might also be highlighted.  Surrender is a category that has ramifications on both an ethical as well as a spiritual level (not to mention an intellectual one).

Third, Jesus as the True Human who surrenders (does not mimetically constitute himself by ‘grasping’) can be underscored first as Savior, then as Example. Thus, we as the Body of Christ, surrendered to the will of God, also participate in the redemption of the world.

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