Lectionary Commentary

September 13, 2009
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 19

Commentary by Russell Pregeant

See also: [Year B Archive]

Proverbs 1:20-23
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

The gospel reading stands in a pivotal position in the structure of Mark. The central section of the gospel is defined by two stories in which Jesus heals a blind man. The first of these (8:22-26) comes immediately before this week’s lesson, and the second comes in 10:46-52. Between these two incidents, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times, and after each prediction he teaches about discipleship. The entire section thus constitutes what is known in Greek rhetoric as an “inclusio,” a thematically unified body of material marked off by similar phrases or stories at the beginning and end. In this central section, Mark defines both the nature of Jesus’ messiahship and what it means to follow a messiah whose role is defined in this way. The first of the healing stories is striking: after Jesus’ first attempt, the anonymous man can see only partially; but after a second effort, his sight is fully restored. In the second story, the man has a name, Bartimaeus, and his full healing is immediate; and this time the narrator notes that he follows Jesus “on the way.”

In the first segment of the reading (8:27-30), Jesus asks his disciples who they understand him to be. When Peter answers, “You are the messiah,” the reader would naturally expect approval on Jesus’ part. Jesus answers, however, with a rebuke—a point that is obscured in most English translations. The Greek term that the NRSV renders as “sternly ordered” is epitimao, the same word that Jesus uses earlier when he commands the demons to keep silent (1:25; 3:12) and the wind to subside (4:39). In the second part (8:31-33), he teaches the disciples that he must be put to death and then be raised. And the term epitimao reappears, first on Peter’s lips and then on Jesus’. Peter’s response to Jesus’ teaching about his death is to reject it by rebuking Jesus; and Jesus’ retort is to once again rebuke Peter, calling him Satan. Then, in the final section (vv. 34-38), Jesus teaches about discipleship: those who want to follow him must be willing to take up their own crosses, for those who seek to save their lives will lose them, whereas those who lose their lives for his sake and for the gospel will save them. Both messiahship and discipleship are thus defined in terms of paradox and irony. The Messiah will not be a victorious leader who triumphs in a worldly way, but one who suffers and dies; and a faithful disciple will not be one who follows the Messiah on a path to worldly triumph but one who suffers as he does. Normal human expectations are thus reversed. True life is not to be found as one would expect, through self-protective action, but rather through pouring one’s life out for the sake of the suffering Messiah and the paradoxical gospel he brings.

This is precisely what the central section of Mark is designed to teach, and the two healing stories that bracket the section function metaphorically, as symbols of levels of understanding. In the early chapters of Mark, Jesus appears as a powerful miracle-worker, thus raising expectations of worldly triumph in accordance with the hope for a victorious messianic figure. The section defined by 8:22-10:52, however—a section in which Jesus devotes his teaching specifically to his disciples—undermines these expectations and teaches the reader that Jesus’ messianic role is the opposite of what one might expect. And, in doing so, it also teaches that to follow him means a willingness to suffer as he did. But with Jesus’ prediction of his death comes also the promise of his resurrection, and with the call to suffering comes both a promise of life and ultimate vindication. This a point that is made mostly clearly in Mark 13, the “little apocalypse,” where Jesus foresees persecutions but also his return in glory, when “he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (13:27)

There is an ominous quality to Mark’s gospel, which lacks an account of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance. In keeping with the solemn call to discipleship as suffering, the story ends when the women flee the tomb in terror (16:1-8), telling no one what they have seen. Mark is also a gospel of promise, however. The reader who comes to the end of the story has “heard” Jesus’ teaching and his promises and “seen” his wondrous works. The question Mark’s readers face is thus whether they are willing and able to follow the crucified Messiah in those treacherous times between his resurrection (of which they have only heard) and his return (which they know only as promise).

The paradox of finding one’s life through losing it is central not only to the gospel Mark, but also to the Christian message itself. To be a Christian is abandon narrow self-seeking in order to live on God’s terms rather than one’s own. And process thought is well-equipped to serve as a philosophical/theological elaboration of what this means. Charles Hartshorne’s panentheism describes God as the transcendent self of the universe as a whole, parallel to the human self that transcends all the parts of the body. Just as cells in the body have their own integrity and a measure of self-determination, so the creatures of the world are genuine individuals. Yet just as the cells are also parts of the body, worldly creatures are also parts of the universe. And if this is so, then to live an authentic human existence is to live on behalf of the whole, or God; it is to define one’s life-project in terms of the common good, understood in the broadest possible way.

The call to self-sacrifice—to carry’s one’s own cross—has a powerful force, and it has enabled many a Christian to live heroically in the face of great danger and suffering. It has also, however, been misused in extremely destructive ways. When such a call is issued to persons of power and privilege, it can liberate them from the self-seeking that often attends such status. But when it is issued to persons oppressed because of race, gender, ethnicity, or economic status, it can become a tool for perpetuating the oppressive system. This is clearly a misuse of the words of Jesus, who stood consistently on the side of the poor and the outcast; but it has in fact been and continues to be used in such a way. A logical analysis of the text, however, can help to avoid such misuse. There is actually a paradox within the paradox of finding one’s life by losing it, since any attempt to lose one’s life in order to find it would also be a kind of self-seeking. It is, it would seem, quite impossible to avoid the quest for self-fulfillment. But this does not mean that altruism is impossible, for there is a great deal of difference between seeking such fulfillment in a narrow, selfish way, and seeking it in a way that enhances the common good.
This is a point that another aspect of process thought can help to clarify. For Whitehead, the basis of reality is aesthetic—that is, it is based upon enjoyment, broadly uunderstood. This in no way diminishes the importance of morality, since as a part of the whole we are all responsible to enhance the enjoyment of all creatures, not just ourselves. But it does mean that there is nothing wrong with seeking to enjoy one’s life, as long as we understand enjoyment not as the experiencing of shallow pleasures but as participating in the richness of life that God offers. Indeed, the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines “the chief end of [humanity]” as “to glorify God and enjoy [God] forever.” And we may understand this definition as a restatement of Mark’s paradox.

The book of Proverbs belongs to the genre of wisdom literature, which Israel shared with surrounding cultures and which appeals to human experience generally. The main tenets of such literature, generally produced by social elites and reflecting their world-view, have no essential connection to distinctively Hebrew notions such as covenant and God’s choice of Israel. The common-sense insights, however, are accommodated to Israelite covenantal thought in various ways, such as identifying wisdom with Torah and understanding the patterns that make for success or failure in human life to be grounded in God’s creation of the universe. This particular reading employs the figure of Wisdom, personified as a female, who is sometimes portrayed as present with God at the creation (Proverbs 8:22-31) or pervading all things (Wisdom of Solomon 7:24). On one level, she is simply a literary personification of a wise approach to living, but the personified figure also takes on qualities and roles associated with God. The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.-40 C.E.), used two terms—Sophia (Wisdom) and Logos—for an aspect of God’s being that helped form the world and was manifest in natural law and virtuous human lives. The masculine term, Logos, plays a central role in the Christology of the Gospel of John, and some scholars have suggested that Jesus and John the Baptist were understood as prophets of Sophia (Wisdom). In any case, the broad notion of an aspect of God reaching in to the world, whether known as Logos or Sophia, played some role in the development of christology.

In Proverbs, wisdom is typically contrasted with folly in order to give instruction on how to live a sound life.  In some ways, Wisdom’s instruction is an articulation of conventional wisdom, but her words can also take on a prophetic quality. Some of the teaching is merely practical, but there is considerable moral content as well. In the reading for this Sunday, Wisdom cries out in the streets and at the city gates—that is, in the midst of human social activity—pleading with the people to abandon foolishness and follow her ways. In vv. 29-33, she describes the consequences of one’s life choices: foolish living will ruin one’s life, but those who listen to her “will be secure and will live at ease, without disaster.”

It would be easy to draw a sharp contrast between the counsel given in Proverbs 1 and Mark’s paradoxical message. The gospel reading certainly does not promise that those who follow Jesus “will live at ease, without disaster.” However, one could relate the two readings by allowing Mark to redefine what a successful life really is, and the attempt to avoid disaster in one’s life is consistent with the notion that reality is aesthetic at its base. There is nothing wrong with the quest for self-fulfillment, as long as this quest is qualified by Mark’s counsel that it is only in losing our lives that we find them. Nevertheless, it would be extremely difficult to find a place in a sermon focused on the the Markan passage for the promise that one can live “at ease.”  The conventional wisdom of Proverbs has its place: foolish life choices do in fact undermine happiness and social well-being. The devastating effects of various addictions are well-known in our society. But Mark’s wisdom probes deeper into the human condition, reminding us that what seems prudent to many people is not necessarily what makes for the most meaningful life.

The passage from James also offers rather conventional wisdom, but the counsel to tame one’s tongue could be connected to the theme of losing one’s life in order to find it. Spreading gossip, putting someone else down, passing on juicy tales—all of these are standard ways human beings build themselves up and find a place for themselves in the world, at the expense of others. For some people, to give up the role of the conveyor of juicy information could be quite a sacrifice and a challenge.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana Univesity (B.A., 1960).