XVII Pentecost, Year B
Est 7:1-6,9-10;9:20-22 or * Nm 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
Ps 124 * Ps 19:7-14
So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me–that is my petition–and the lives of my people–that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.
Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.
* (Numbers 11:4-6)
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at."
* (Numbers 11:10-16)
Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the LORD became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the LORD, "Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once–if I have found favor in your sight–and do not let me see my misery." So the LORD said to Moses, "Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you.
* (Numbers 11:24-29)
So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, "My lord Moses, stop them!" But Moses said to him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!"
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. "For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."
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.
Immediately following in Mark’s narrative, Jesus leaves Capernaum and goes south. The throngs are there along with the Pharisees. After a bit of exegesis and halakic ruling, people bring their children to Jesus. One of the disciples (who?) tries to play celebrity bodyguard and stops this but Jesus seeing it becomes indignant. Like 9:38-50 never happened. Another example of the disciples incomprehension.
Verses 38-41 are ‘inserted’ or sandwiched in this first taking of a child episode. Verse 42 naturally follows on verse 37. But this leaves the question: what do the narratives have in common that the one is sandwiched in the other? Are they not both about welcoming? And is not the judgement contained in verses 42-49 a judgement on not welcoming or discrimination? Jesus confronts here one of the most powerful and dramatic influences of negative mimesis in each of us and all of us: our tendency to discriminate and not welcome others.
When we recall that in the process from mimesis to scapegoating a lie is created, we can see what Jesus is getting at here. The disciples were making decisions about who was part of Jesus’ entourage and who wasn’t. They may as well have been deciding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. In short, they looked for reasons in the other to negate the other’s value. Well, where did they get this attitude of discrimination? They sure didn’t get it from Jesus. Girard in many places observes the crucial connection between the marks of the victim (e.g., a physical handicap) and their status as designated offering. It is that which differentiates the victim from others that is used to create the lie that the victim is guilty and deserves what they got. What the disciples were doing was bringing another element of the scapegoating mechanism right into Jesus’ ministry. Children didn’t belong, non-sanctioned folks didn’t belong, and let’s see who else? Jesus absolutely forbids such practice. And he does it in the strongest terms possible.
In their discriminating, the disciples were effectively deciding who would get to receive the blessing of God in Jesus. They started ‘doing’ for Jesus. They tried to help him out. They were making choices about who got in to see him and who didn’t. They acted like bad priests, priests of a god who discriminates. (We recall our discussion a few weeks ago on the Syro-Phoenician woman that Jesus does not discriminate but crosses boundaries to get to people.) If in Mark 10:13ff Jesus gets ticked off about this kind of social structuring, in our reading for today he lets us know that if we discriminate, we will teach our children to do so as well. They imitate us. And when our children turn out just like us, things will be so bad for us, hell would seem like a Bermuda vacation. Discriminating and being inhospitable and unwelcoming is behavior that will land you straight in hell. There are no little people in the kingdom of God.
How seriously do you think Jesus took the consequences of negative mimesis? Enough to use apocalyptic imagery? This is the whole point of the skandalon. The use of apocalyptic with its fearful and horrifying portrait of the afterlife is because there is no more serious issue to be dealt with in our relationships than that of model/obstacle.
Now remember several things:
1. This entire discussion takes place in the context of the disciples’ rivalrous discussion about who was the greatest.
2. The little child and the non-groupie miracle worker, those who had been rejected by the disciples, are affirmed as those accepted.
3. The importance of the skandalon is emphasized by the use of apocalyptic language.
Now here is Jim Williams : [By scandal] Girard means specifically a situation that comes about when a person or group of persons feel themselves blocked or obstructed as they desire some specific object of power, prestige, or property that their model possesses or is imagined to possess. They cannot obtain it, either because they cannot displace the model and acquire what he or she has or because the rivalry with others in the group is so intense that everyone prevents everyone else from succeeding.” (Foreward to I See Satan Fall as Lightning)
Doesn’t this sound an awful lot like what had been occurring in the disciples’ conversation? Not only do the disciples have arguments about why each should be sitting as Jesus #1 main man, but each of them is also pointing out the reasons why the other cannot be the greatest. They had begun a vicious inter-mimetic competition, they would need a scapegoat. How did they do this? If no one of them could have special access to Jesus, as a group they could exercise special power of access by being the ones through whom everyone else was given the right to see Jesus. They get to decide who the outsiders are. Can you see why Jesus rejects scandal with the most vivid language possible? He is trying to get our attention here, unfortunately, we have read and preached this text with just the opposite message, actually the message of the skandalon and when we do this we certainly are not preaching gospel.
Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) are moving in the right direction when they say “These verses are a parable on recompense for moral behavior. Should one’s previous activity (hands and feet) or one’s preferred way of thinking and judging (eye) cause a person to succumb in tests of loyalty to God (temptation), one must put an end to such behavior.” This is good as far as it goes but it is the specifics of mimetic discrimination that are missed here. More than ‘moral behavior’ is at stake.
Ched Myers (as usual) Binding the Strong Man has a reading congruent with that of mimetic theory. His commentary observes 1) the use of apocalyptic to ratchet up the consequences, 2) the severe conflict between Jesus and the powers (in the disciples!) and 3) he identifies the new center that is informed by the positive mimesis of welcoming those outside, in.
Robert Hamerton-Kelly (The Gospel and The Sacred) spells it out this way in terms of the ‘poetics of place’: “The message in the symbol of the child is that preeminent dignity in the kingdom goes to the one who is ‘last of all and servant of all.’ Jesus dramatic gesture of taking a child into his arms says that the greatest in the kingdom is the one who can receive those who have no power or prestige as if they were Jesus himself. This humility is clearly an antidote to the mimetic rivalry present in the disciples argument about who among them is the greatest.”
Finally there is a good discussion of the ‘paideia’ sayings in Bruce Chilton and J.I.H. McDonald Jesus and the Ethics of the Kingdom . See Jeremias’ Theology of the New Testament. He also sees the ‘paideia’ sayings as central to Jesus’ message.
Lest we miss the point Mark is trying to make, it is this: the disciples really didn’t get it while Jesus was with them. The proof is that neither do we. Until he comes in the power of the Spirit (but that is next year in Luke). Christians must begin to confront their scandalizing activities of discrimination and non-hospitality where we are no more than a christianized version of the satanic mechanism or else we may as well be salt that has lost its saltiness.