In an age when nothing is sacred nothing is more difficult to understand than violations of sacred space. Yet that’s precisely what Mark demands of us in his account of Jesus’ first public action, an exorcism in the synagogue.
From the moment Jesus sets foot in the religious and political center of Capernaum, he is engaged in a contest with the scribes over authority concerning that space itself and all that it represents. It’s clear from the beginning that his audacious move catches the attention of everyone. The people notice: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (1:22).
I should add, from a Christian point of view, liberty is neither a virtue nor an ideal. History is ripe with examples of how liberty may turn to tragedy for individuals as well as for whole peoples and civilizations. Nonetheless, there is, it seems, a stubborn fact: in the soul of one who is not free there can neither be reason, nor beauty, nor love. One could say that a man doesn’t really exist as a man without these, and can’t even begin to comprehend the divine. Shortly before his death Christ told his disciples: “Unless I go the cross, the Holy Spirit will not come to you.” And do you know why? Because as long as there is some higher authority, be it even God personified, from whom men simply take words as facts, as some kind of a command, then they are not acting according to their own free will. And community with the Holy Spirit is reserved for free souls. Without freedom, love is impossible.
The world is ever changing and God calls Christians of every time and every place to be a part of this change. While often misread as a call to abandon the world, this weeks reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one of many of these calls contained within Scripture — urging Christians who are in the world to change the way in which we interact with and thus influence the world.
The vision of God’s kingdom espoused in Isaiah 61 seems more “not yet” than “already.” Jesus identified the first two verses as a prophecy regarding himself, the Messiah, when he read from this chapter in Luke 4. In spite of Christ’s commitment to the least of these, large segments of the Western church insist on spiritualizing Christ’s mission so that it focuses on poverty of spirit or spiritual blindness—an interpretive move that allows injustice to persist unabated and unthreatened by prophetic witness.
It is unfortunate that the mainstream evangelical church owes its political stance more to John Stuart Mill than to Jesus. The members of many churches worship American individualism and the free market more than the ethical responsibility for the “other,” as encouraged by French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and ultimately Jesus himself. In On Liberty, Mill defends the rights of individuals to behave as sovereigns over themselves as long as others are not harmed. Unfortunately, many Christians have adopted this perspective, and the government is viewed as an oppressive behemoth bent on snatching away private liberties. What is not mentioned is that our individual economic decisions are often destructive to the overall well-being of fellow citizens.
The wilderness was not a place that good Romans went. In the view of Roman imperial cosmology, the wilderness was a place full of savage people to be subdued and conquered. The Augustus of Prima Porta statue, imaged here, shows precisely this view. The heavens come into alignment and the Gods look down in delight as the Parthian king surrenders to Rome. On either side, mourning barbarian women are curled in positions of submission. This is how Rome viewed the wilderness — the worlds of barbarian people and wild animals outside the boundaries of Roman control, and only fit into the Roman imagination once they had been subdued. This was the drama enacted regularly in the arena, where wild animals and foreign persons were slaughtered before adoring crowds.
It’s easy to read this week’s gospel as a warning of doom and gloom. It begins, after all, with this strict admonition, “Be Alert!” (v 23), and ends with the equally forceful command, “Keep awake!” (v 37). It’s as though Jesus has just shouted, “Watch out!” and thrown a ball of flaming fire into the crowd. But, of course, there is no fiery ball and so the question naturally is, “Watch out for what?” Within the pericope itself, the obvious answer becomes the awesome image that Jesus paints in verse 26: “The Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” And why should we be concerned? (Apart, of course, from the darkened moon and falling stars…) Because Jesus says the Son of Man is like a master returning and from there we write our own scripts of what wrath this master might bring. “Keep awake!” the Bible tells us, and we add, “Because if we sleep, we might be hit by that fiery ball!” And, indeed, for Matthew and Luke, who record this prediction as “a thief coming in the middle of the night,” rather than a master returning to his home, such fears may be warranted. But, for Mark, different dynamics are at play…
Political Theology and the lectionary for Sunday, November 20, 2011.
To be sure, some smart evangelicals like Chuck Colson have abjured Rand in toto for her atheism, but her basic premise that government is the root of all evil and that unfettered capitalism is the answer for everything is as true as Trinitarianism in most evangelical’s minds and hearts, a position all but unheard of in Christianity prior to the 20th century.
To think this way as a Christian, one has to do strange things with the Scripture, such as with this week’s lectionary gospel passage for Christ the King from Matthew 25:31-46. The obfuscation of what’s going on in the text is accomplished by diminishing one aspect of the text, while overemphasizing another.