IV Pentecost, Year B
2 Sm 1:1,17-27 or * Wis 1:13-15;2:23-24
Ps 130 * Lam 3:23-33 or Ps 30
2 Cor 8:7-15
(2 Samuel 1:1)
After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag.
(2 Samuel 1:17-27)
David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!
* (Wisdom 1:13-15)
because God did not make death, and he does not delight in thedeath of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal.
* (Wisdom 2:23-24)
for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.
* (Lamentations 3:23-33)
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him." The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope), to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults. For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.
(2 Corinthians 8:7-15)
Now as you excel in everything–in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you –so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has–not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’" He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
Our text today has two sides, a social-political and a psychological-spiritual. By two sides we do not mean two alternative interpretations (although we suppose many interpretations are possible). We mean that Jesus’ action in healing both the woman and the little girl directly challenges the monopoly of negative mimesis in its many manifestations.
Susan Sontag, in her books, Illness as Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphors has shown us in painful detail the way that “ill-ness” (She focuses on cancer and AIDS for the most part) are nothing more than social constructs, constructs that move persons from the center to the margin merely by virtue of a medical condition. (We note later the “purity” implications of the two women’s states.) This way of creating an “other” merely by the arbitrary selection by society of certain “pathologies” worthy of note facilitates the creation of scapegoats. (Consider our well-worn phrase, “Typhoid Mary.”) Sontag does not use this category, but notes the fatal consequences of this labeling. We continue to create modern colonies of lepers by our response to AIDS and quarantines. (While necessary, the fear accompanying the SARS quarantines recently shows us the power of the mimetic process in our own health care system.) Jesus crosses these boundaries as a means of brining his Peace. He calls us to cross them as well.
Unfortunately, Christian theology, having been influenced by conversations with ‘theologies of the marginalized,’ is only beginning to come to terms with the mimetic consequences of its violent theology. Particularly since the Holocaust and because of the radicalism of much theology that blossomed in the 60’s and 70’s theology today must be done in the genitive. Mainstream Christianity has resisted the reforming forces of these theologies both Protestant and Catholic, although there is much to be said for those within these communions who have the courage to speak the truth.
On the other hand, most radical theologies and theologies of the genitive most often share a prior commitment with enormous theological implications: namely, the justifiable use of force in the face of evil. In order to do this, these theologies cite the stories of God’s liberation of Israel where it appears that God uses force. In many of these theologies, Jesus is then turned into a social reformer with an agenda and an attitude. And it is not that this isn’t true, it is, but to miss the absolute restructuring principle of forgiveness (expressed in conflict as non-violence or non-retaliation) is to miss the gospel.
Thus, our social-political use of this text or any biblical text must take its cue from this all-important difference: how Jesus lives is how God is. This must be our starting point, as Christians, for any conversation we may have about God. Any talk of liberation must be talk of true liberation for it is the truth that will set us free. True liberation takes place on many levels, in fact, at all the levels in which mimesis operates (political, psychological, spiritual, physical, intellectual, etc). Jesus’ healings are a flip side of his challenge to the religious and political authorities. The peace he brings is a whole peace, not simply the management of mimetic crises. His peace does not come from the victimage mechanism which churns out deities at any ever faster rate. His is the peace of the Creator, living the harmony of human life, life as human life was meant to be lived. Big difference. We refer the reader to James Allison’s wonderful reading of the gospel and the God of life (Raising Abel).
Ched Myers, as usual, is on the money to observe that “as in the story of the cleansing of the leper (1:40-45), the purity code is very much at issue.” (Binding the Strong Man) Myers argues this with reference to the woman, we would think it is possible that the issue extends as well into the next narrative, for death was the highest form of defilement (a 6 on a one out of six scale). Jesus’ may in fact be speaking tongue in cheek here; he alleviates the potential problem of uncleanness and also downplays his skills (like any respected shaman) by declaring the dead girl asleep. At any rate, the purity code is also problematic in this narrative. If the girl is dead she is unclean, and anyone who comes into contact with her is also unclean. On the other hand if she was just sleeping there is no concern over uncleanness.
It is significant that Jesus heals at the extremes of the social margins, a wealthy synagogue leader and a ritually unclean woman. All people are important to Jesus. The synagogue leader and the unclean woman may have never met in real life but they meet here in this sandwiched narrative. And Jesus extends to both of them the healing power of the Creator.
Whether this sandwiched narrative came from the pen of Mark or from the tradition, its beauty can also be appreciated when this narrative is juxtaposed to last week’s lesson on the stilling of the storm. When we also factor in that the lectionary skips the healing of the demoniac, we see a cycle of stories here in Mark where Jesus is taking on the powers of darkness in each of its manifestations. Jesus has already challenged the religious authorities (2-3), he has challenged reigning ideologies and theologies (4), he successively commands nature, conquers demons, heals disease and brings life from death (4-5).
Later this Pentecost we shall also see the ways in which Jesus challenged the power of negative mimesis in the sphere of the mighty, the powerful and the political.
Now sometimes Jesus is looked at as a magician. While understandable, this is not the most appropriate context to place Jesus. The trend to explore this sociological element in Jesus’ life is laudable but does not make some important and crucial distinctions between Jesus and ancient magicians.
There is an excellent summary of the history of the research on magic and Jesus as magician in Susan Garrett The Demise of the Devil. We wish to underscore this because “the attractions of magic – promises of power, protection, love, health, and knowledge – often appeared great enough to outweigh its disadvantages.” We must take note of this because it explains the marginalizing of Jesus. Social perception was forced to align his power with something greater. The woman and the synagogue elder believe his power comes from the creator, Jesus’ enemies are certain it comes from the devil and the disciples well, they don’t have a clue. Jesus’ reputation as a healer and an exorcist is an essential component of the dawning of the reign of God in him.
The problem with magic is that it is self-centered. In Garrett’s definition above people use magic and seek magicians to bring about self-gain. In the study of shamanism it is seen that the opposite is true, power is given to meet needs of the other, a shaman can never use their power to heal themselves (or even their families; their healing is for the community). This is a key distinction between true shamans and magicians. This is why Jesus quoted back to the crowd the proverb “Physician, heal yourself.’ It doesn’t work that way. If it does it is not healing but magic.
It makes sense that in a world full of superstition, Jesus and his followers would be perceived as ‘magicians’ (something Morton Smith and others have noted), and that this would affect them inasmuch as this would only have added another dimension of ‘deviance’ to their roster. Therefore, just like his mamzer status, and his reading of Torah, Jesus ‘magical’ deviance, contributed to his experience of social marginalization.
It ought not to surprise us, therefore, that Jesus works on the margins of his culture. (It should be noted that in cultures that have shamans that the shaman will live at the boundary of the community or even further away. The shaman is thus ‘holy’ because he/she exists away from the community and close to the earth.) When Jesus healed, he was not simply healing a physical ailment, but the whole person. His healing is a true shalom, a whole peace.
One of the more beneficial movements that has swept through the church from time to time is social reform, the bettering of the community. The creation of hospitals and schools, shelters and food kitchens, recovery centers and so much more can be found throughout the history of Christianity.
But the church can quickly become just a social center, particularly when it abandons it calling to bring spiritual healing through the preaching of the gospel. Just so, many modern pastoral counseling situations have become amateur psychology hour when the issue is really far deeper than that. There is a reason that churches across America are powerless. They call upon God to use God’s magic to meet their perceived needs, which are all about themselves.
Those in church may criticize those outside who are superstitious, watch the X-Files and read horoscopes, but they all believe in a deus ex machina, a Superman God. Churches measure effectiveness in numbers, number of people and $$$ given. The more people, the more money, the more money, the more property and lavish buildings, grandiose music ministries, social, community and education programs. And this is called God’s blessing. Right. Now that they’ve spent all of this money on these buildings they need to get as many people as possible to fill them to keep it supported. And you are exhorted to be there. The more programs you become involved in, the more time you spend ‘in the building.’ The more time you spend ‘in the building’ the more spiritual you are. The pastor with the most people spending the most time ‘in the building’ wins. Uh Huh. “Not!”
We believe there is a healing power in the gospel. We believe that God wants us free. As long as we understand that the freedom we speak of is a complete freedom from negative mimesis and a freedom to follow Jesus. We do not get to pick and choose our freedoms. This is the political illusion of modern consumerism. The apostle Paul put it this way: we are either slaves to Jesus or slaves to mimesis, there is no in-between. Or as Bob Dylan said, “it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Both the woman and the synagogue leader and his family experienced the liberation of the Creator through Jesus. Neither healing is done based upon any merit but rather, upon need and need’s response to God, i.e., faith. Like the synagogue leader and the woman, the church has an extraordinary need to be healed. But we still must learn the first lesson: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? This was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s important question in 1944 and it is just as important almost 60 years later. Is the Jesus we know and worship in the church the Lord of all creation or an assimilation to the gods of the victimage mechanism? If it were the former don’t you think the Christian life would look more like Jesus? Can we honestly look out across the Christian landscape and say we see a healthy vibrant church? Christianity in America, at any rate, has succumbed to the power of patriotism and has begun merging faith in God with faith in so-called American values. (Lest we forget our history we can see this over and over again, it is the post-Constantinian problem, it is the true Babylonian captivity of the church).
May the church recognize her plight and call upon Jesus to be healed. And may she in turn freely share his healing power with all the world.
Some sermon thoughts:
It isn’t difficult to help our congregations see the way that we employ illness as a means of creating a sub-class in culture. We can help them see the arbitrariness of the decision, and the social implications of it. What does it mean to be “sick?” Does it mean having bacteria or viruses in your body? We all have them all the time. Does it mean having abnormal cells growing in us (cancer)? We have them every day too. It is just that in most of us, those abnormal cells are dealt with by our immune systems.
Michael mentioned the category above, “Typhoid Mary.” Think of the way that we use “sick” to name persons as “other.” When we see behavior that we don’t understand, that goes far enough outside our norms, we say, “Oh, look at that, he’s so sick!” That doesn’t just impact the one about whom we speak, but speaks volumes about what we mean when we say anyone else is “sick.”
Jesus doesn’t just heal, he ends the category of sickness. His healings aren’t (only) for the sake of the one healed, but for all of us, as a sign of the end of the category of “sick-ness” under God’s reign. There will be those of us affected by colonies of small microbes, but this does not render us “other,” render us “sick.”
How much more likely to seek treatment for communicable diseases might we be if doing so didn’t render us “other?” How many deaths might be averted if we could count on the compassion, not the diagnosis of our sisters and brothers?
I can remember clearly the way that if felt to learn that I had to take daily medications for cholesterol. I was no longer a healthy person, and I suffered a period of depression that lasted until I’d adjusted to my new (social) status. No wonder I hate to go to the doctor!
One of the reasons for this goes back to our language. We use language to describe disease that also describes our being. We do pretty well avoiding this when we say “I have thus and so a condition,” but then we complicate things enormously by describing ourselves, “I am sick.” If we can learn to do the first without suggesting the second (a truly huge undertaking, I’ll grant you) we can also escape the power of “sickness” over us.
I do not know a way out of that trap aside from the encounter with the Jesus who ends “sickness” forever. He doesn’t end germs, but he ends the otherness that comes with hosting them. The personal experience of this kind of healing breaks the power of the vicitmage mechanism into which we have been inducted.
As preachers, I encourage you to lead your congregations to the hem of Jesus’ garment, or, if they’re too weak to get to him through the crowd, go, grab him by the hand and drag him to the house, over the laughter and derision of the grieving. Show him those who are lying “dead” and beg him to end their imprisonment.