Epiphany V, 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

Is 40:21-31
Ps 147:1-11,20c
1 Cor 9:16-23
Mk 1:29-39

(Isaiah 40:21-31)
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God"? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

(1 Corinthians 9:16-23)
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

(Mark 1:29-39)
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do. " And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

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

It’s really pretty straightforward. Jesus goes to the home of Peter and Andrew, then proceeds to heal Peter’s mother-in-law. Healed, she takes care of the group of disciples and by night everyone is coming with their sick and possessed, and Jesus heals one after another after another.

The ministry of Jesus is suffused with the miraculous. But we wonder if this is the best term to use. There is a certain squeamishness when it comes to Jesus’ healing. The older liberal lives-of-Jesus writers did their best to find rational explanations for all the miracles (e.g., in the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus shared and that prompted everyone else to share). More recent scholarship has noted the parallels to other ancient healers, particularly those within Judaism (Vermes, Jesus the Jew). James Dunn has asked about the charismatic experience of Jesus; what we can reasonably know and what it can mean in Jesus and the Spirit .

However, while it may be difficult to believe in miracles, it is not difficult to suggest that another reality influences our known reality. We may take a cue here from contemporary research in quantum physics. First, quantum physics is the most frequently tested scientific hypothesis around. Every time you get your groceries scanned or turn on your computer, you are engaging quantum physics. Quantum physics, in order to account for the physical anomalies it records, posits influence from outside the realm of matter (our previously phenomenal world). Recent tests creating anti-matter simply bring the previously unknown into the world of the known. What was before simply sheer hypothesis is now demonstrable fact. As our knowledge of the physical universe expands, it is not a leap of faith to acknowledge that which has hitherto defied explanation except as a working hypothesis. It is facile to dismiss the healing character of God and folly to not acknowledge that it is our brokenness that needs healing.

Herman Hendrix: “In the ancient and medieval world view, God, and also good and evil spirits, were thought of as powers which constantly and immediately interfered – or at least could interfere – in the course of world events. The ancient did not believe in an anonymous nature, and consequently did not have to ask how God, or the gods, intervened in it. This outlook was replaced by a fundamentally different world-view at the beginning of modern times. It began with the researchers whose insights underlie modern physics and modern natural science: Copernicus, Galileo and Newton.” (The Miracle Stories: Studies in the Synoptic Gospels)

This transition to a ‘modern’ scientific outlook is long and complex history, but we simply note that the loss of the concept of ‘the powers’ in the modern view impoverishes our way of seeing the world. Jesus’ casting out of demons and his healing the afflicted are not two different realities, but flip sides of a coin of the ‘nearness of the reign of God.’
Much of Christian preaching has suffered because we have tried to limit our declarations about Jesus to those that would not “offend” modern sensibilities. The more we move beyond modernism, though, the more intellectually respectable it becomes to speak confidently about that which impinges on our world from regions unseen.

Mimetic theory also plays a role, letting us posit an anthropological reason for much that previously was “unseen.” Indeed, mimetic theory describes a process that had relied on its invisibility (the scapegoating process) to function at all. Perhaps this holds true also for the realm of healing. Jesus’ mastery over “Satan” is mastery over the realm of death. That this might extend over the instruments of death called disease seems no stretch at all. Our willingness to accept the reality of a physics that defies measurement suggests that we can also accept a Savior whose mastery over death and its minions also escapes measurement.

We make this observation about modern physics to point out that it is neither ludicrous nor credulous to believe that God is about the business of healing; of healing us and through us all creation. Mimetic theory in its positive christological orientation can take advantage of the real power that Love brings. Mimetic theory can profitably turn its eyes to the transforming power of Love when examining the miracles of Jesus.

It is important to take note of the marginalization of both the sick as well as the demon possessed. Michel Foucault has shown in Madness & Civilization that the modern hospital is derived from the ancient sanitarium.
Think about it. Why are people in sanitariums? To get sanitized? Why? Because they are ‘unclean.’ Reflect further: uncleanness can spread. Like a virus, it is contagious, always seeking out a new host. The same thing happens with what is perceived as a moral virus or a social ill. We do not wish to be around disease and death in its physical or mental forms.
We read all too frequently in the news of abuse in the case of the sick and infirm on an almost daily basis. We have virtually shut ourselves away from the sick who are elderly in our society. So, marginalization of the sick can be established in both Jesus’ culture as well as our own. Jesus’ miracles were accomplishing the re-socialization of the healed, taking them off the margins and giving them another shot at living.

More so than re-socialization, Jesus was effectively removing the scapegoats of Capernaum one by one. By healing the sick and the possessed Jesus forced a culture which depended upon strata and hierarchy to find an alternative outlet for their mimetic crises. His call to repentance was one such opportunity. Their choice to take his life was another.

A community effectively removed of its scapegoats will implode. We recall Jesus’ later lament over the unbelief of Capernaum. Ched Myers observes this same mimetic phenomenon: “From the moment he strides into a Capernaum synagogue, it becomes clear that Jesus’ kingdom project is incompatible with the local public authorities and the social order they represent. A ‘demon’ immediately demands that Jesus justify his attack upon the authority of the scribal establishment; Jesus vanquishes this challenge and commences his ministry of healing. He brings wholeness and liberation to the poor, and receives hospitality from the socially outcast, with whom his solidarity lies.” (Binding The Strong Man)

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Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions

A fascinating development with regard to these last two Markan texts is the archeological discovery of a synagogue in Capernaum, as well as the excavations of a first century house with a real claim to Peter. Both confirm an aspect of the historicity of the gospel tradition. The story of Jesus was not made up out of thin air.

Similar to last week’s lesson on the demonic, the theme of Jesus as Healer has become a common category in Jesus Scholarship. Borg, Vermes, Meier and Chilton, e.g., all deal with the significant aspect that ‘miracles’ play in the ministry of Jesus.

Theissen (The Gospels in Context) observes the miracle stories about Jesus were spread under certain conditions. These conditions are that:

1. It is taken for granted (in the miracle stories) that during Jesus’ lifetime people were telling stories about his deeds.
2. It was a general presupposition that miracles would be spontaneously recounted.
3. Knowledge of Jesus miracles is presumed (Mk 6.5, 6.14).
4. While the closing summaries of the miracle stories may not expressly indicate a large following, it is implicitly presupposed.

Further, Theissen argues that many of the Markan miracle stories come from outside the Markan circle and suggests that, at least with regard to miracle stories we should speak of a ‘miracle secret’ and not a ‘messianic secret.’ Theissen suggests that the admonition ‘not to tell’ arose as a rhetorical device to legitimate why the community has not heard this miracle before. Whether or not Theissen is correct on the latter, his point regarding miracles is helpful. The question of Jesus’ identity is more closely tied to what he is doing than to the expectations of the crowds. We suspect there is another reason to consider: ‘demonic’ blather is all around us, in many and varied media, in our relationships, and even when we are alone, our minds do not turn off. Jesus command to the demon to be silent is the most liberating word he could say to the one ‘afflicted’ with these other voices.

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Gospel So What?

This text has strong implications for clergy who often see the ‘black sheep’ of family systems. They also see what begins to occur within these family systems as the familial scapegoat no longer plays the role. We may be called to preach to people dependent on the scapegoating mechanism for their sense of order, or we may find ourselves preaching to the victims of the system, the marginalized. Often, in the business of “Preaching Peace” we think mostly of the prophetic, confrontational side of that equation. But the prophetic voice also cries,

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’S hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
(Isaiah 40)

Preaching Peace means speaking words of healing to the afflicted, giving hope with thanksgiving and nurturing the many troubled and anxious people we meet. In their lives are the microcosms of the larger world in which we live. In their lives we see mimetic desire trigger the sacrificial crisis and its often violent resolution. This is the place we are called to say to the demons of mimetic darkness, “Stop, be silent.”


I sometimes wonder if the so-called postmodern era has room for miracles. I suspect that we have become jaundiced by our intellectual prowess, that human reason can explain all phenomenon. As well, I appreciate all that the ‘critical’ thinkers (like D.F. Strauss) have done to challenge Christian suppositions regarding the miraculous.

On the other hand, I know that I (at least) no longer live in a world of absolutes, where the separation of the natural from the supra-natural is a sine qua non of intellectual thought. I live in a universe that is alive (I am a friend of the Gaia hypothesis) and always bringing surprises, and this I think is the point of the Gospel miracles of Jesus, they are indeed a surprise.

I would say to modern theology locked in an academic environment that those whose teach theology and religion would do well to share in the lives of regular people, for whom (apparently) Jesus still does surprise.

I would wish that theologians would pay more attention to the remarkable epistemology of the physical sciences instead of embedding themselves in arcane definitions of the human sciences as to what constitutes ‘reality.’ Personally, I am a fan of what is called ‘quantum theology’, theology that is not limited by epistemic criteria grounded in abstract reason. I find that the world is far more ‘open’ than closed and that the Creator is always working beyond the realms of our human constructs, challenging them and changing them to more approximate the gospel.

Do we believe in miracles? I guess it all depends on whether or not we trust our own ability to reason our way out of or through situations. But when push comes to shove even scholars are afflicted with things, diseases and situations beyond their control. At that point the question is: are they open for God’s Surprise?

Jeff adds:

For me, the modern problem with the miraculous boils down to one thing: personal freedom. The modern human no longer wants a God who will "meddle" in the world by changing things, especially in response to human intercession. We can explain away some of the offensiveness of the miraculous by means of the new physics, claiming unto ourselves all the power to heal, to influence, etc. by virtue of some unseen-but-nonetheless-real physical connection between us. That God has endowed us with such abilities is no doubt miraculous in itself!

But this misses the point of "miracle," which is about submission, a word that doesn’t go over well in present parlance. What we really don’t want is a God who heals those who place themselves most completely in God’s power, in perfect trust. If God is going to be a miraculous healer, it shouldn’t require that of me! We don’t want a God who is perfectly free, explaining to us that our freedom is best expressed in our choice to relinquish it to our Creator. (In spite of the fact that this Creator’s own freedom was best expressed in submission to us on the Cross!)

In the end, miracle offends because it upsets our dualism by claiming that God really does heal some who trust utterly, and not others. (Mind you, not all!) We don’t want this possibility, or this power. If it exists, then we are much to responsible for our own predicament. If it exists, then we might actually be able to do something about it, if we were only willing to place our lives in the hand of the One who created them. If it exists, then peace becomes a present possibility, not a dream.

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Epistle Anthropological Reading

Freedom is an abstract concept.  Christian freedom, on the other hand, is a specific way of relationship.  Freedom as an abstract concept means freedom from, freedom from the other.  Christian freedom is freedom for because it is grounded not in some abstract notion of the freedom of God from us, but in the eternal choice of God to be for us in Jesus Christ. 

For Paul, freedom is thus not a philosophical category, but a specifically Christian one; he has been set free in Jesus to be free for others.

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian (Luther Works vol 31, page 344)

“God in his own freedom bestows human freedom…Christian freedom is divinely bestowed upon humans despite their sin, despite their existence in the flesh, and despite their being threatened by death…Human freedom is the gift of God in the free outpouring of his grace.

It would be a strange freedom that would leave humans neutral, able equally to choose, decide, and act rightly or wrongly! What kind of power would that be? Humanity becomes free and is free by choosing, deciding and determining himself in accordance with the freedom of God.  The source of human freedom is also its yardstick.  Trying to escape from God’s own freedom is not human freedom…Sin as an alternative is not anticipated or included in the freedom given to humanity by God.”  Karl Barth, “The Gift of Freedom” in The Humanity of God, 75-77

Paul’s understanding of freedom is grounded in the freedom of God, a freedom manifested as graciousness turning toward us, liberating us from the false freedom of choosing between good and evil. As Barth notes, Christian freedom does not assume a neutral stance as though we are in the garden standing before the tree able to choose either good or evil.  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not the solution, it is the problem. Christian freedom is freedom that is manifest in the same manner as God acted in Jesus Christ.  Christian freedom is freedom to reconcile, freedom to liberate, freedom to forgive. 

Christian freedom is not simply a matter of being able to choose.  The sterile debates about free will and original sin have lost their influence under the determining reality that Christ has indeed set us all free to be for each other.  The question is not whether humans have free will, a debate that goes back in Greek philosophy a long way before it ever makes it way in the church (Gailann Rickert EKWN and AKWN in Early Greek Thought (Scholars Press, 1989).  The real question is what does the death and resurrection have to do with Christian freedom? The answer is everything.  At the cross we are shown our bondage to sin, death and the devil; in the resurrection we are given liberation, forgiveness and grace.  Thus we should rather speak not of free will but of freed will.  In Christ, we are set free from our mimetic tendencies to imitate one another and liberated to imitate Jesus.  In so doing, we are turned outward from ourselves and our fears and toward the other as life-giving agents of grace, liberation and forgiveness.

This is the logic behind the Pauline “becoming all things to all people.” For here, it is not the freedom to do as one pleases, thus pleasing oneself; what is given is the freedom to be for the other.  In Christian freedom ethics and theology are mirror sides of one another, we are thus imitators of God in this world.

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Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions

Nothing of note today.

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Epistle So What?

There are two opposing opposites of Christian freedom, libertinism and legalism.  The former is freedom from any constraint upon the self; the latter is the imposed constraint of the majority (the mob).  In neither case is there real freedom.  Real freedom consists of recognizing the boundaries of our social relationships, forgiving those who trespass our boundaries and respecting the limits of others. 

It is true that “Christ is the end of the law” or any thing that in principle would be a restraining factor.  It is also true that there is a new law, as Paul observes, an ennomos Xristi.  This is the principle or law of love.  This love will be further described later in I Corinthians 13 which is really a manifesto of Christian freedom.

Preachers must take care not to take the sting of revelation out of this text either by qualifying it with “buts” and they must also take care not to assume that Paul is thus saying “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” They should also not assume that Paul was thus advocating an existence without principle; for Paul the overriding principle is that of love for the other.

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