The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21), 30 September 2018
September 30, 2018 | by Jeanyne Slettom
|Reading 1 Alt
|Reading 2 Alt
|[Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22]
The Timeliness of James
The September lectionary readings focus on the general epistle of James, and the pairing of this book with our present socio-politico-economic reality could not be better timed. These commentaries will therefore focus on James, with occasional dips into the other readings.
Most of this month’s readings from James have elicited comparisons between the circumstances of the letter and the current political and economic crisis in the U.S., from the disparity between rich and poor, to the hypocrisy of false religion (i.e., not based on compassion) to factionalism and the plea for nonviolent resistance. But the case can only be made tangentially with the final selection from chapter 5, which focuses on prayer.
For James, prayer has two primary purposes: for wisdom and for healing. A prayer for wisdom is similar to the process preacher’s understanding of opening oneself to God’s ever-present guidance, or to the spiritual practice of attunement. A prayer for healing is more problematic, however, on two counts: first, not all illnesses can be cured, and second, at some point, we all die. No body is immortal!
It is likely that we all know people who have been wounded by the accusation that absence of healing signifies lack of faith on their part, or insufficient righteousness, or simply not having prayed “hard enough.”
The persistence of illness following prayer is a variation on the problem of evil. If God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there evil? The fault can’t lie with God; therefore it must lie with us. A person who believes in the unlimited promise of the gospels (“Ask and it will be given to you” [Matthew 7:7], “Ask and it will be done for you” [Matthew 18:19]), cannot fault the promise, so must find blame with the person asking.
In both instances, the problem is seen as an affront to the power and goodness—the very nature—of God. Both are attempts to defend a supernatural God who, it is assumed, could powerfully intervene in the world, but for reasons we cannot fathom, chooses not to. Process theology, however, shifts the issue from the attributes of God to God’s relationship to the world.
In the process view, God and the world—and we who pray for healing—are interconnected and interdependent. God’s power is not supernatural, operating outside of the world and separately from it. Instead, God’s power is constitutively present in the world, much like a flowing stream of water that “rushes to fill all the nooks and crannies available to it,” that “sweeps into every crevice.” It “touches everything in its path—changes all things in its path,” slowly, subtly, “through continuous interaction.” The power of water is pervasive and persuasive. It is, as Marjorie Hewitt writes in her magnificent book on prayer, “a power of presence.”1
In this interconnected understanding of God and the world, where God’s power is not unilateral but persuasive, power is shared. Every creature has some degree of freedom to choose, and this law of nature (which includes us) cannot be interrupted by God’s command. Similarly, we cannot command God to do any of these things on our behalf. Both are constrained by what is given in the moment, or as Suchocki succinctly writes: “God works with the world as it is in order to lead it toward what it can be.”2
Does this limit the unlimited promise of the gospel? Yes and no. It depends on what you expect. Do you conceive of God’s power as omnipotence or God’s power as omnipresence? An omnipotent God can, by definition (having all the power) intervene in nature whenever God jolly well chooses to. But a God who is omnipresent is already at work in creation persuasively, slowly and subtly bringing about what is possible, given the relevant circumstances.
Prayers for healing, then, “must take place in the full recognition of our mortality,”3 Suchocki writes. Does not that mean there is no point in praying, or that prayer has no efficacy? Suchocki encourages us to think of it in terms of energy. By praying, we open ourselves to God’s energy and offer ours to God. God pours that energy back into the world in ways that we don’t always feel, or see, or know, but what we can know is that God works transformatively not only through us, but through everyone around us and beyond us—through supportive friends and family, through medical staff, through scientists working on life-saving formulae.
Until 1996, the range of relevant possibilities for those stricken with AIDS was limited. Lovers and friends provided care, communities were inspired to create supportive housing and social services, but medical treatment was only palliative until the creation of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). Before then, the losses were many and heartbreaking. Some of us could not help wishing for a God who would just stop by the lab and write the formula on the whiteboard, but “God works with the world as it is in order to lead it toward what it can be.” And the prayers and energies of multitudes eventually transformed a diagnosis from a death sentence into a person “living with HIV” with a normal life expectancy.
All of which brings me to my tangential point about this text and our present national crisis. It is not reasonable to expect God to bodily remove anyone from office or to so change Congress that they hold hands across the aisle and sing “Kum bah yah.” As Suchocki writes, “Prayer is partnership with God, not manipulation of God.”4 As persons of faith, however, we are enjoined to trust that God is already at work in our situation, quietly and transformatively working within it for some resolution aimed at the common good.
The idea of partnership with God, and of shared energies, should encourage us to “open a channel,” so to speak—in other words, to pray wholeheartedly for the planet, for our government and our communities, and yes, even for our own or others’ health. We pray, pouring our energy into God, and we pray, opening ourselves to God’s energy, trusting that with it comes fresh ideas of what each of us can do, given exactly who we are and where we are at exactly this moment in time.
The issue of what we expect from God in prayer brings us ineluctably back to this month’s readings from the gospel of Mark, wherein Jesus tries repeatedly to temper the disciples’ expectation of what he means by the title “Messiah.” It does not signify a king with power such as the world recognizes. In his theology of reversal, the kingdoms of God and Caesar are reversed, social status is stood on its head, and those who want to be first will be last.
In the reading for today, I rely again on Ched Myers’ exceptional commentary on Mark, Binding the Strong Man. Myers approaches these verses as a dialectic between community exclusivity and inclusivity.
In the first instance, John wants to exclude someone for casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Significantly, his objection is that the person is not following “us,” that is, the disciples. The implication is that the disciples value their insider status and want to preserve it. As Myers writes, John “equates exorcism with the accrual of status and power, and wishes to maintain a monopoly on it.”5
But Jesus is willing to endorse the compassionate acts of outsiders, calling out especially the simple, hospitable act of offering water (9:41). In other words, not only can the disciples not control who does the offering, they must be prepared to have these outsiders minister to them. Writes Myers, “John is worried about those with competing power, but Jesus is welcoming all those who do the works of mercy and justice.”6 This message speaks powerfully to interfaith ministries!
In verse 42 the text shifts in subject and tone. Whereas initially Jesus speaks of including outsiders, he now appears to be addressing the exclusion of insiders. The NRSV uses the word “stumbling block,” but Myers points out that the original is skandalisē, and it is a technical term used in Mark to signify “rejection of the kingdom message (6:3) or desertion of the way” (14:27, 29). In other words, Jesus has now turned his attention to the problem of conflict within the community, and Mark, by implication, has done the same. Just as Jesus addresses the disciples on betrayal from within, Mark addresses his faith community on the volatile issue of apostasy.
Myers rejects the traditional interpretation of hand, foot, and eye as referring to personal moral lapses in favor of a socio-political reading. But assuming the text is not referring literally to amputation, what are we to make of these verses? Even figuratively speaking, the language is harsh. Myers, following Duncan Derrett, suggests that each “offensive member” correlates to crimes that in first-century law called for capital punishment (the hand to theft or fraud, the foot to robbery or fugitive slaves, the eyes to adultery). Thus, in this context, to call for maiming would be more lenient than calling for death.
But Myers takes it a step further, suggesting that Mark is rejecting the kind of “revolutionary justice” that demanded execution for betrayal (and is still practiced by some revolutionaries today). Instead, Mark metaphorically calls for the nonviolent approach of “expulsion but not execution,” toward apostates. Surely the idea of forgiveness is even floating in there somewhere.
The reading ends with the ambiguous verses on salt, Here, Myers defers to Harry Fledderman, who makes the case that to “have salt” is analogous to “be at peace.” Fledderman cites Hebrew Bible texts to demonstrate that salt is a symbol of the covenant, especially Numbers 18:19, which declares that an everlasting covenant is a “covenant of salt.”
Quoting Fledderman, Myers writes: “To share salt with someone is to share fellowship with him, to be in covenant with him.” Thus, in today’s text, “The discourse began with two situations of conflict and strife, the self-seeking arguing of the disciples about rank and the conflict with the strange exorcist. It went on to discuss the problem of scandal in the community. To all this Mark opposes the peace of covenant fellowship.”7
Mark was likely writing in times far more violent and contentious than ours. His appeal to “have salt in yourselves”—that is, to live in peace, is not a platitude but a radical call to the hard work of nonviolence resistance. Take up your cross, Jesus said—not a sword—and follow me.
- Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer. (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1996), 4-5.
- Suchocki, 57.
- Suchocki, 58.
- Suchocki, 65.
- Ched Myers. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), 261.
- Myers, 262
- Myers, quoting Fledderman, 264.
Jeanyne Slettom is a UCC minister whose primary interest is process-relational theology. A theologian and teacher, writer and publisher, she has taught at Claremont School of Theology and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cites and served churches in California and Minnesota. In addition to being the publisher of Process Century Press, she is theologian-in-residence at Macalester-Plymouth United Church in St. Paul and an award-winning preacher whose online liturgies and commentaries have been used by practicing preachers around the world. She is passionate about ecotheology, prophetic resistance, and a ministry of transformation and hope. A past director of Process & Faith, her PhD is in Philosophy of Religion and Theology from Claremont Graduate University. She lives and works on the banks of the Mississippi River.