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Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

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Psalm 111
- link to BCP text
1 Corinthians 8:1b-13 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:21-28 - link to NRSV text

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice.

That's what how our Psalm for this Sunday puts it. The gospel demonstrates it dramatically. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, and is faced with a man “with an unclean spirit.” This was a man cut off from community because of his outbursts and antisocial behavior, but I often wonder whether there wasn't something else operating too in the ostracism of those “with an unclean spirit.” Such a person was at the mercy of a power beyond an ordinary person's ability to control, a power that no more cared about the individual it subjugated than about the community upon which it placed such stresses. That situation had to feel all too familiar to villagers in occupied Palestine, subject to Roman rule; perhaps communities that cast out the demoniac could be reminded less frequently of how many ways they too were subject to oppressive powers.

Jesus, however, isn't threatened by power plays, though he's confronted with them often. In the synagogue, the unclean spirit tries in effect to cast out Jesus, claiming power over him by naming the source of Jesus' power -- a potent maneuver in the playbooks of many magicians. Jesus doesn't play that game, though; he silences the spirit and defeats it.

One might think that the scribes would be pleased. If Jesus can defeat the power that had enslaved this man, then perhaps the time has come for God's people to be delivered from all the powers that oppress! There's a problem, though:

The system is working reasonably well for them as it is.

These scribes aren't low-status secretaries; they're literate men in a society in which very few are literate, and that puts them in a position of relative privilege. Those who could read and write well might have the chance to use those skills not only for Torah study, but for record-keeping and letter-writing for the wealthy, with power and comfort linked to their powerful employers'. We see this clearly in Mark 12 and 13, when Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalen, and says in verses 38-40 of chapter 12:

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widow's houses ...

And just then, in verses 42-44, we see it happen before our eyes.

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. ... A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he said to them: “ ... she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

But wait ... isn't this the story about how wonderful it is that the widow puts her last cent in the treasury upon which the scribes depend for their long robes? As often as it's told that way in “stewardship season” to inspire church members to pledge more, that's clearly not the point of the story in Mark, as the next verses make clear. When the disciples marvel in the opening verses of Mark 13 at what an impressive building one gets with such contributions, Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

And there goes the scribes' privilege. No wonder Jesus made them nervous. No wonder they saw Jesus' power as a threat, something dark. It's hard to work with all your heart for change when things are working out reasonably well for you in the world as it is, and the threat of losing privilege often works best with those who have just a little of it -- little enough to feel how precarious it is, and just enough to feel the potential loss as a serious one.

That's why “divide and conquer” often works so well keeping minorities in line. In the movement for women's suffrage, many activists abandoned black women for fear that continuing to advocate for them would result in none of them gaining the vote: racism trumped feminism. We could all think of more current examples. As long as we hold on to hope of coming out on top, it's all too tempting to think of our goal as getting a few steps further up the ladder, and that inevitably means ending up on top of a new set of people.

Or does it? The “way of the Lord” isn't shuffling rungs on a ladder; it's bringing the high places down and the valleys up. It's a whole new geography, and it's only the poverty of our imaginations that keeps us from seeing it. But Jesus had enough imagination to break through that, a vision so contagious that even Paul couldn't hold out against it on the Damascus Road, and he ended up spending the rest of his life trying, against all worldly odds and every worldly power and principality, to build communities living into Jesus' vision.

That vision is at the heart of our epistle passage for this Sunday. If the strong are constantly using their power to strengthen the weak, then the weak won't be weak long, and will be there to lift up their sisters and brothers when they're in need as well. I've said it before -- the kingdom of God is like a washing machine, sending what's at the center out to the margins and bringing what's at the margins in toward the center, transforming all in its motion.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice: none will be abandoned, and all will be transformed. Jesus was and is an agitator. Get ready for movement, and friction, and new life!

Thanks be to God!

January 25, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Epiphany, Justice, Mark, Year B | Permalink

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This one puzzled me, but how was the man restored into the community when he was already worshipping in the synagogue? Jesus makes no direct comment to the man, and no instruction to those around about welcoming him back or demonstrating his newly cleansed state.

Posted by: Howard | Jan 28, 2006 4:25:05 PM

I think that in Jesus' culture it went without saying that those posessed by evil spirits weren't part of the flow of village life; generally, people in this position lived on the outskirts, like the demoniac living among the tombs and cutting himself with stones. Mark's language doesn't suggest that the demoniac in this Sunday's gospel was worshipping in the synagogue, but that he burst in and interrupted the service -- "and immediately there was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit, and he shouted out ..." If the man were a leper, he would need to be certified in the Temple as having been cleansed, but there does not seem to have been a parallel practice for those who have had demons cast out; when the demon was gone and the antisocial behavior ceased, the person was again fit to rejoin village life.

Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Jan 28, 2006 4:41:54 PM

This is good.

And it sheds a little light on a verse in the Psalm that tripps me up.

"Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom." I have never known what this fear is. Is it the fear of transformation? Is it the fear of the loss of status?

I don't know. It's an interesting notion and this post sheds some light on it. Thanks.

Posted by: Tripp | Jan 31, 2006 1:32:25 PM

You've wrote a clear explanation of how a person may come trough the circle of life, returning back to village life. A the very first sight it seemed to me you were wrong, but having got deeper into the issue, i realized the issue.

Posted by: Michael T. Craddock | Apr 9, 2012 8:31:53 AM

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Dylan's lectionary blog: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

« Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B | Main | Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B »

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

Printer-friendly version

Psalm 111
- link to BCP text
1 Corinthians 8:1b-13 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:21-28 - link to NRSV text

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice.

That's what how our Psalm for this Sunday puts it. The gospel demonstrates it dramatically. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, and is faced with a man “with an unclean spirit.” This was a man cut off from community because of his outbursts and antisocial behavior, but I often wonder whether there wasn't something else operating too in the ostracism of those “with an unclean spirit.” Such a person was at the mercy of a power beyond an ordinary person's ability to control, a power that no more cared about the individual it subjugated than about the community upon which it placed such stresses. That situation had to feel all too familiar to villagers in occupied Palestine, subject to Roman rule; perhaps communities that cast out the demoniac could be reminded less frequently of how many ways they too were subject to oppressive powers.

Jesus, however, isn't threatened by power plays, though he's confronted with them often. In the synagogue, the unclean spirit tries in effect to cast out Jesus, claiming power over him by naming the source of Jesus' power -- a potent maneuver in the playbooks of many magicians. Jesus doesn't play that game, though; he silences the spirit and defeats it.

One might think that the scribes would be pleased. If Jesus can defeat the power that had enslaved this man, then perhaps the time has come for God's people to be delivered from all the powers that oppress! There's a problem, though:

The system is working reasonably well for them as it is.

These scribes aren't low-status secretaries; they're literate men in a society in which very few are literate, and that puts them in a position of relative privilege. Those who could read and write well might have the chance to use those skills not only for Torah study, but for record-keeping and letter-writing for the wealthy, with power and comfort linked to their powerful employers'. We see this clearly in Mark 12 and 13, when Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalen, and says in verses 38-40 of chapter 12:

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widow's houses ...

And just then, in verses 42-44, we see it happen before our eyes.

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. ... A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he said to them: “ ... she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

But wait ... isn't this the story about how wonderful it is that the widow puts her last cent in the treasury upon which the scribes depend for their long robes? As often as it's told that way in “stewardship season” to inspire church members to pledge more, that's clearly not the point of the story in Mark, as the next verses make clear. When the disciples marvel in the opening verses of Mark 13 at what an impressive building one gets with such contributions, Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

And there goes the scribes' privilege. No wonder Jesus made them nervous. No wonder they saw Jesus' power as a threat, something dark. It's hard to work with all your heart for change when things are working out reasonably well for you in the world as it is, and the threat of losing privilege often works best with those who have just a little of it -- little enough to feel how precarious it is, and just enough to feel the potential loss as a serious one.

That's why “divide and conquer” often works so well keeping minorities in line. In the movement for women's suffrage, many activists abandoned black women for fear that continuing to advocate for them would result in none of them gaining the vote: racism trumped feminism. We could all think of more current examples. As long as we hold on to hope of coming out on top, it's all too tempting to think of our goal as getting a few steps further up the ladder, and that inevitably means ending up on top of a new set of people.

Or does it? The “way of the Lord” isn't shuffling rungs on a ladder; it's bringing the high places down and the valleys up. It's a whole new geography, and it's only the poverty of our imaginations that keeps us from seeing it. But Jesus had enough imagination to break through that, a vision so contagious that even Paul couldn't hold out against it on the Damascus Road, and he ended up spending the rest of his life trying, against all worldly odds and every worldly power and principality, to build communities living into Jesus' vision.

That vision is at the heart of our epistle passage for this Sunday. If the strong are constantly using their power to strengthen the weak, then the weak won't be weak long, and will be there to lift up their sisters and brothers when they're in need as well. I've said it before -- the kingdom of God is like a washing machine, sending what's at the center out to the margins and bringing what's at the margins in toward the center, transforming all in its motion.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice: none will be abandoned, and all will be transformed. Jesus was and is an agitator. Get ready for movement, and friction, and new life!

Thanks be to God!

January 25, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Epiphany, Justice, Mark, Year B | Permalink

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