Welcome to the 17th Sunday after Pentecost. Here is the link to the texts....
ANd, away we go.
Isaiah 50: 4 – 9a
Today’s text is part of the third of four passages known collectively as the Suffering Servant Songs. Note: The contributors to the work that we know as the Book of the prophet Isaiah, did not have Jesus in mind when they committed ink to parchment. They were writing to the uncertain situations prior to, during and after the exile. However, the themes present in these Songs lend themselves well to the deeper themes of the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and mission, but, not in the more traditional/latter Western Christian sense. (The text from the Gospel of Mark will also provide some clarification).
And, what are those themes? The first part of this song takes up the theme of suffering violence rather than returning it; very much a foundational value of the teachings of Jesus. But, the second portion, which introduces the notion of vindication – something for which a long-suffering Israel waited – also finds its way into the Jesus tradition. Isaiah 50:8-9a: “he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”
These sentiments are echoed in both the book of Job and in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The notion of vindication that one finds here in relationship to Israel, also finds expression in the Christian notion of Resurrection, when it can be interpreted as God the Father’s vindication of the Son. But, that Christianized reading of the text makes little sense if Jesus suffering and death is seen as part of some divine plan to satisfy a need God has for some cleansing sacrifice for human sin. Rather, the connection to the Suffering Servant must come through that willingness to submit to the violence of the system. The cross is not the result of God’s judgement of us; rather, the resurrection is a judgement upon us and the system which regularly condemns the innocent. God vindicates the innocent victim.
James 3: 1 - 12
Watch your tongue, source of all violence… the ‘small fire that sets ablaze the entire forest.’
Although this might provide the basis for a sermon on gossip, at its heart this text deals with the root problem – idolatry, the making of false idols… including the ones we make out of ourselves, I reckon, over against others. Especially those whom we fear or who perceive as being a threat to us. (And, the lengths we will go to stop them).
Our tongues – what we say – become a potent weapon in a culture founded on what Rene Girard calls the ‘victimage mechanism.’ Our tongues come to play a key role in making the accusations necessary to – as our text puts it – to ‘feed the hell fires of our righteous and self-righteous violence.’ And so, we join in the cycle that continues to create the scapegoats necessary to keep the system primed and dangerous and we fall into the trap that James has already warned us against – that we create the tribe(s) of those who are blessed and favored by God, and those who are cursed.
But, as we already know from our encounters with James in previous weeks – God is only light and love and blessing. Any god that curses is the god of our own creation.
Mark 8: 27 - 38
Take up your cross and follow me.
When Paul writes about the scandal of the cross, the stumbling block, it is not simply because on it the innocent (see Isaiah) was wrongfully and shamefully killed – a quite similar theme is found in many religions. Below the surface, something much more profound is taking place. The Gospels go deeper, to expose the false foundations of the world’s systems, their forms of sacredness and all cultural meaning. Pretty harsh.
Rene Girard offers a great summary in Things Hidden: “The Cross is the supreme scandal…. It discredits and demonstrates all the gods of violence, since it reveals the true God, who has not the slightest violence in him. Since the time of the Gospels, mankind as a whole has always failed to comprehend this mystery, and it does so still. So no empty threat or gratuitous nastiness is involved in the text’s saying exactly what has always been happening and what will continue to happen, despite the fact that present-day circumstances combine to make the revelation ever more plain.”
But, like the disciples – Peter primarily in this passage – we do not want to hear or see this new reality. Nor do we wish to follow Jesus into it.