Pentecost 3 (Proper 5/Ordinary 10): Year B

1 Samuel 8: 4-20

This passage depicts a time of turmoil in the life of Israel. Having endured Philistine domination for 20 years, the Israelites have managed to win back their independence by inflicting a decisive defeat upon the Philistines in battle. Yet the land remains insecure; external threats remain. The people look to Samuel for leadership, but unwilling to take on the burdens of office, he appoints his sons to lead Israel. However, like Eli’s sons, they prove unworthy of the task; desperate for someone around whom they can rally in these troubled times, the Israelites demand Samuel appoint a king.

Samuel is reluctant; he is aware that most of the kings of the ancient world are tyrants who exercise absolute rule for their own benefit, and not the well-being of the societies over whom they rule. The people are persistent. Samuel prays over the matter; and in a vision, God informs Samuel that this demand for a king is but the latest manifestation of the Israelites’ long-running faithlessness to God. For just as they have turned away from covenant relationship with God in order to serve false idols, so they have likewise sought the false reassurance of having a king in a time of trouble. The people’s demand for a king is itself a symbol of their loss of hope and trust; just as they turn to idols hoping for a quick fix to their problems, so they think having a “strong man” as king will provide them with security and peace.

But, God warns, their insistence is based on an illusion; an illusion that will deliver them into oppression and exploitation. Nonetheless, Samuel is to listen to the voice of the people – if, despite the warnings God tells Samuel to deliver, the people persist in their demand for a king, Samuel is to give them what they want. Samuel duly warns the people as instructed; and the people duly ignore the warning. And so Samuel in due course appoints Saul to be king over Israel – and Saul ends up being the very embodiment of the “strong man”, the tyrant who rules with a heavy, authoritarian hand.

This passage is an example of the old adage: be careful what you wish for – you just might get it. In a similar vein, it is said that there are three traditional Chinese curses, the most potent of which is: may your every desire be granted. Both warnings point to the fact that most “wishful thinking” is itself a sign of intellectual and moral laziness; instead of having to think and negotiate our way through and out of difficult situations, we want to take a “short cut”, an easy path to a “solution” that suits our preferences and prejudices. Such laziness might “pay off” in the short term; but its consequences are always bound to come back and haunt us.

A similar situation confronted the world economy in the mid-1970s. A series of artificial “shocks” manufactured by the OPEC cartel as it sought to maximise its profits from oil production, created havoc on financial markets and led to the hoarding and panic buying of petrol. The struggle between capital and labour seemed to have become bogged down in an endless round of industrial turmoil. The dreams for liberation and a new order generated by the counter-culture of the 60s had been reduced to a grey wasteland of unrealised hopes, violence, and poverty. In this midst of uncertainty, instability, and disillusion, people looked for a “quick fix”, a solution to all the world’s problems.

It was in this context that the proponents of neoliberalism saw their chance: extol the “virtues” of their economic theories as the “cure all” to the world’s ailing economy. And like the Israelites demanding a king, so the governments of the world lined up to buy the product the neoliberal economists were selling. First Thatchernomics, then Reganomics, then even allegedly left-wing governments were ditching redistributive forms of capitalism for the bright new shiny bauble of “economic rationalism”. And for a while things did seem to go well: the economy “boomed”. But soon enough came the scandals, the “corrections”, the “recessions”, the “bubbles”, the crises that destroyed entire communities and created the burgeoning gap between rich and poor that exists today.
How did this happen? Because politicians, focused on the short-term goal of re-election, saw neoliberalism as a “quick fix” to the problem of how to stay in office. And because electorates, sold on the “benefits” of consumerism and the appealing myth of the autonomous individual, saw neoliberalism as a “short cut” to prosperity and “self realisation”. No-one thought to ask whether or not reducing government to a kind of glorified national accountant was really in the public interest; or whether handing responsibility for education, health, and infrastructure over to the private sector would produce equitable outcomes; or if smashing organised labour in the industrialised west or offshoring work to impoverished nations with weak labour standards was conducive to human dignity. And no-one thought to listen to the few voices that did ask these questions.

Which isn’t to say that the redistributive (or Keynesian) capitalism of the post WWII decades was perfect, or didn’t have structural issues that needed addressing. But modernity’s misconstruction of work and economy, its co-option of the totality of human life, and the ravages upon both human life and the non-human ecology which have resulted, are all the consequences of our mindless adoption of neoliberalism as a “quick fix” alternative to doing the difficult “spade work” of sorting through the economic challenges by which redistributive capitalism was faced. And while there have undoubtedly been “winners” from the transformations which neoliberalism has wrought (as there were no doubt “winners” during Saul’s time as king of Israel) the cost of that “victory” may, in the longer term, be too great to bear. Like Samuel in this week’s reading, the burgeoning field of “zombie apocalypse” and post-apocalyptic literature may be presciently warning us of dangers about which, like the people of Israel, we would prefer to remain both deaf and blind.

Genesis 3: 6-13

The story of Adam and Eve is probably one of the most well-known and most misunderstood tales in the whole of Scripture. The stereotype of Adam being “tempted” by Eve and humanity’s “fall” occurring as a result is familiar even to those of an entirely non-religious background. It is, afterall, an “image” that has been appropriated by every medium from pop art to advertising. Moreover, in modernity, the story has become obscured by pointless debates about whether or not it “really” happened in the manner described in the text – that is to say, whether we should read the text literally, metaphorically, or disparagingly.

But what both the stereotypical image and the “debate” fails to understand is that within the surface details of the text lies, not just a deep cautionary tale against humanity’s propensity to overreach itself, but also how we tend to “blame the victim” when things go wrong, instead of taking responsibility for our own failures and oversights.

The story itself is simple enough. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden – which is not, as most people think, a kind of paradise in which they live in indolent bliss. Rather, they tend to the garden and nurture its plants and wildlife. This is not merely a reminder of our own responsibility to steward creation; it draws our attention to the fact that we are part of creation itself, we exist in a necessarily dependent relationship with the wider non-human ecology. What damages it damages us – we are not separated from, or above, the natural world.

God has pointed out a tree, the fruit of which Adam and Eve cannot eat. The text is slightly confused as to whether this is the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or some other tree; but the point is, the whole of the garden is for Adam and Eve, except that one tree. And, of course, this is precisely the one thing which, not possessing, Adam and Eve decide they want.

Today’s passage from Genesis picks up at this point. Now, take careful note of how the text describes Eve’s approach to the tree. She determines that the tree produces fruit that would be good for supplying food; she appreciates the tree’s aesthetic qualities; and she naturally desires the benefits that would accrue from possessing wisdom. In other words, Eve utilises her intellectual and emotional faculties to come to the decision that it would be a good thing to eat the fruit of the tree. She doesn’t just decide to be disobedient for the hell of it or because she can; she makes a reasoned and calculated decision that the pros outweigh the cons. She’s wrong; but in her wrongness she is neither irrational nor rebellious. She simply makes a bad decision.

By contrast, note what happens in Adam’s case. Eve gives the fruit to him and he simply eats. He makes no attempt to interrogate Eve and say “Why are you giving me this; God told us not to eat it.” He doesn’t even attempt to make the kind of assessment of the tree and its fruit that Eve made; she gives him the fruit and you can almost see him shrugging his shoulders and say “Oh, okay”, and eating the fruit without a second thought!

But look what happens when the consequences of their actions become known and they are confronted by God. Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. Neither takes responsibility for their actions; and Eve doesn’t even try to mount a defence based on her sequence of reasoning. Adam, of course, has no grounds for defence; he mindlessly did as he was told. But when push comes to shove, both try to deflect blame from themselves onto another party.

In the world of work and economy, modernity’s organisation of waged labour into hierarchies of institutional power militates against genuine cultures of responsibility and accountability. Rather, as each seeks to attain or maintain positions of relative power and privilege, blaming and blame-shifting is endemic. Likewise, in the marketplace, as corporations seek to maintain a competitive advantage over their rivals, dishonesty, evasion, and suppression of truths are all seem as legitimate economic strategies. Even within those organisations based on collectivist/co-operative principles, or social justice imperatives, the desire to “save face” and preserve one’s “reputation” from any possible critique trumps all other prerogatives. In very few organisations – including the church – is genuine transparency and accountability a cultural reality.

In the wider socio-economic context, how often – and how easily – do we “blame the victim”? In just the same way that, for millennia, stories like that of Adam and Eve were used by power hierarchies – both religious and non-religious – to argue the “inferiority” of women and the necessity for their oppression, so our own desire to maintain our own comfortable status leads us to blame the poor for being poor, the unemployed for being unemployed, the homeless for being homeless. “Lazy”, “shiftless”, “bludger”, “parasite”, “age of entitlement”, “leaner not a lifter” – all these pejorative epithets and more are applied to those whom we blame for conditions that might more properly be ascribed to structural injustices – but which we prefer to ignore, because doing so would raise uncomfortable questions about our own complicity in those injustices.

Injustices, moreover, which we defend with rationalising phrases such as “I worked hard to get to where I am today” – as if, for example, the “working poor” don’t work hard enough or long enough and are therefore to blame for their own poverty. We victim blame, not just because it’s easy to do so, but because it enables us to look away, to not examine to closely the uncomfortable truths by which we would rather not be confronted.

Today’s passage is a reminder that “naming and shaming”, that revenge and “outing” are not necessarily the same as justice, transparency, or accountability. This is especially the case when these activities are accompanied by ulterior motives designed to preserve hierarchies of power or positions of privilege. It is a reminder that, in the world of work and economy, getting away with “sharp practice” or making others “take the fall” is entirely contrary to God’s call to covenantal relationship; the “fall” is not so much humanity’s disobedience to God and our toppling from a state of grace, as it is our assessment that it is better to play power-games and blame-shift than it is to face up to our responsibilities and to thereby work a transformative change to human life.

Psalm 138

In some respects, this Psalm shadows the more famous Psalm 23 inasmuch as it looks to the faithfulness of God as a source of strength and resilience in times of hardship or suffering. Verse 7 especially evokes the “valley of dark shadows” and the host of “mine enemies” whom the Psalmist in Psalm 23 evokes as emblematic of all their troubles in life. Likewise, the “right hand that delivers me” are like the “rod” and the “staff” of the LORD which, in Psalm 23, are a source of comfort and aid.

Psalm 138 is both a hymn of praise to God for God’s majesty and sovereignty, as well as a prayer of intercession seeking God’s help in times of distress. The Psalmist expresses confidence in the faithfulness of God that endures beyond, and outlasts, all suffering – and yet, in the depths of their humanity, still concludes with a reminder to God to not forget the faithful who are “the work of your hands”. The Psalmist is still confident of God’s faithfulness; but still feels the need to prompt God to remember covenant!

Part of the Psalmist’s confidence in God stems from the fact that the Psalmist is aware that the covenant relationship between God and humanity is not like that of a king and their subjects. God may be sovereign and reign supreme, but God’s majesty and power are not exercised for the sake of some vested self-interest. The fact that God is ascribed as One who “regards the lowly” and who “perceives from far away” indicates that the relationship in play is not a power relationship, one in which one party dominates the other. Yes, there is a qualitative difference between God and humankind, but God does not deploy that difference as a tool of oppression; rather, it is a source of hope to those who suffer and struggle. God’s will is sovereign and God’s faithfulness enduring; God’s power is the power to live in hope, understanding that our experiences do not have the final say about us.

But neither is God paternalistic and patronising. Yes, the Psalmist looks to God as their source of redemption and hope; but the very fact that the Psalmist is able to include that last little reminder to God that God should not forget God’s own covenant – a reminder which, in a conventional power hierarchy, would be considered insubordinate or treasonous – gives an indicator of the dialogical nature of the relationship between humanity and God. Not only is the relationship into which God calls us a matter of invitation that seeks a response, but humans are, in fact, able to talk back to God. Humans are allowed to be a little bit cheeky; there is nothing blasphemous or impious about giving God a “bit of lip”. Covenant involves collaboration and conversation as well as call and command.

The dialogical nature of the relationship between God and humankind subverts the power structures of conventional hierarchies – especially those that apply within the worlds of work and economics. The fact that humans can “talk back” to God does not change or diminish God’s sovereignty by a single iota; but it does also demonstrate that God seeks genuine relationship with humankind, one in which we are free to make our own response to the possibility of God in human life – even if that means, on occasion, kicking sand in God’s face! Ultimately, in the person of Christ, God will lay aside that sovereignty in order to fully enter into human life and reconcile it to the life of God.

Imagine how transformed the reality of work and the operation of economics might be if conventional power structures were laid aside for the sake of relational engagements that served the cause of human dignity and the strengthening of solidarity between individuals and communities! Nor is this “pie in the sky” wishful thinking; we only assume it is because we have been enculturated into the uncritical acceptance of the assertion that nothing other than the status quo is possible or desirable. But the Scriptural witness says otherwise.

So just as the Gospel declares that alienation is not the normative condition of human affairs (contra both Adam Smith and Karl Marx), so this passage declares that sovereignty need not be a matter of overweening and oppressive power, that it need not exclude freedom and conversation and partnership, that it need not be a matter of asking “How high?” when the one wielding power commands “Jump!”. Indeed, it declares that power can and must be used in the service of those who are without power, for the sake of genuine relational solidarity – solidarity that even enables those without power to “kick back” against it, even while they look to it for hope and faithfulness.

2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1

This passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians points its audience toward the eschatological horizon upon which all Christian hope is focused: the final consummation of all things into the life of God. But even as it looks toward that horizon it does not neglect the present: the hope in which Christians live is not merely in some far-off event, but in the here-and-now. Grace, Paul writes, is being worked among us even as we look ahead to the fulfilment of God’s promise; in Christ, we are gifted with a solidarity with God that enables our lives to become a lived embodiment of the Kingdom to come. The Kingdom is not just drawing near – it is also here among us.

The sense of powerlessness and helplessness which pervades modernity’s construction of work and economics preaches a different story. In the face of the overwhelming forces of the globalised economy, in the face of the arbitrary power wielded by the owners of capital and the class of wealthy “super-managers”, under the crushing burden of demand created by the ever-increasing urge toward profitability and efficiency – we can feel as though not just our outer nature, but the very essence of our being is wasting away. The alienation – the sense of despair and crushing of our human spirit – that both Adam Smith and Karl Marx declared were the inevitable outcome of industrialised and corporatized labour, is encultured into our lives. We spend hours each day commuting to factory and office; we spend more hours in largely unfulfilling tasks under constant threat of disciplinary procedures or ever-increasing work demands, we return home too exhausted for family, friends, and even our own recreation. And we do it day after day after day – ad infinitum.

In other words, alienation has become normalised. The subtle yet remorseless message of the world seems to be: this is all there is. Yes, you may snatch moments of time – such as holidays, assuming you can afford them – in which you can briefly glimpse or enjoy the illusion of freedom, of something more; but the stark reality will always be here, waiting for your return. And you will return. There is nothing else, no other reality.

But Paul declares otherwise. He acknowledges the hard truths that often attend our physical existence – the “wasting away” of our “outer nature”, the “earthly tent” that is doomed to destruction – but he proclaims that these realities do not have the final say in human existence. Moreover, these realities need not have the final say in the present, either. Grace extends through the world through covenantal relationship with God and solidarity with the world’s suffering; and through this covenant, though this solidarity, human life is transformed.

The point of Christian faith is to see in one another that which the world’s standards and measures of worth and legitimacy cannot see: the dignity of the human being that God in Christ declares worthy of love. In other words, coming to faith is not a personal transaction between the individual and God, in which the individual says “I believe” and God replies “Okay, you’re saved”. Rather, coming to faith is a matter of transforming our vision of the world; it’s a matter of seeing the whole of creation the way God sees it. As good. As worthy of love. As possessing an inherent dignity pointing to the transformative fullness of human life.

And in the world of work and economics, it’s about not blinding ourselves to the harsh realities which our construction of these realms has imposed – we are not called to a mindless optimism, any more than we are called to internalised alienation. Rather, because we believe, we speak – we speak the Gospel declaration that alienation is not normative, that being cut off from our own selves and a true understanding of the place of work in human life is not what we are called to in our creaturely existence. And if faith can transform the individual, then it can transform systems and organisations, too. It can transform our understanding of what work and economy are, and what they mean in – and for – human existence.

Mark 3: 20-35

At one level, tribalism forms an important evolutionary purpose. Tribal identity helps provide a framework for understanding the world and developing self-meaning and self-understanding. Tribal affiliations provide us with a sense of companionship and support, a sense of belonging and place in the wider scheme of things. To feel part of a community is an important social and personal marker.

But the problem with tribalism is that it can also blind us to the wider reality, the wider connection and solidarity we share with others through our common humanity; and with the non-human ecology through our common creatureliness and dependence on the environmental web of which we are all a part. Separating ourselves from the “other” can lead to a process of dehumanisation; and once we reduce the “other” to an object, this can become the basis of hatred, victimisation, and inhuman brutality.

Today’s reading from The Gospel According to Mark touches on issues of tribalism and dehumanising the “other”. It takes place after Jesus has formed the core group of twelve disciples; the crowds, which had briefly dispersed, have come together again, clamouring for Jesus to work the miracles that have made him such an object of attraction. The commotion and hubbub are such that Jesus and his disciples are unable even to sit down to a meal; his family, startled by these events, and worried about the damage to their reputation within the community which might result, try to make him stop ministering to the people.

It is at this point that some scribes – Temple officials attached to the religious leadership in Jerusalem – make the accusation that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, and that it is only as a consequence of such possession that he is able to work miracles and give signs.

Now, the history of the name Beelzebul is interesting, and takes us back into the deep recesses of Hebrew sacred history. Scholars have identified the name of a god worshiped by the Philistines – Ba’al Zebub, which means “Lord of the Flies” – who was part of a cult centred around healing (ironic, in the context of Jesus performing healing miracles) and the driving away of flies that were seen gathering on corpses and human faeces, and which were thus associated with sickness and death. There was also another Philistine god with a very similar name – Ba’al Zebul, “Lord of the Heavenly Abode”. Also, it is worth mentioning that Ba’al (meaning “Lord”, and possibly associated with the Hebrew “El” or “God”) was the name of the Canaanite god whose worship was often blamed for the many occasions of apostasy, when the Israelites turned away from the covenant with YHWH. Over the centuries, the association of these gods with hated foreign enemies, sickness and death, the lordship of an otherworldly domain, and turning away from YHWH caused Ba’al Zebub/Zebul to become Beelzebul/Beelzebub, a demonic figure who was one of the principle rulers of hell. This transformation mirrors the same transformation that took place with the Satan, who went from being one of the “sons of God” mentioned in Job to “the devil” of the Gospels who tempts Jesus and turns Judas into a betrayer.

The point of all this is that when the scribes accuse Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebul, they are saying more than just that his power is derived from evil: they are saying that he is “foreign”, “other”, “not one of us”. They are associating Jesus with the taint of “not being one of our tribe”, not a member of the community of the righteous. If they were saying that Jesus was merely “possessed” (however we understand that term) there would still be the prospect of healing and release. But in associating Jesus with Beelzebul, the scribes are saying, in effect, that he is an outlier, one who is beyond the pale and thus beyond redemption. The scribes are saying that Jesus is an outcast and should be cast out.

Jesus responds to this attack by pointing out the absurdity of suggesting he is possessed by demons in order to drive out demonic spirits. But then he does two other things: he mentions the “strong man” and the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”. What does Jesus mean by these two things?

It seems clear from the context that the “strong man” mentioned by Jesus is Beelzebul himself and/or the devil. In just the same way that it is absurd to suggest Jesus is possessed by demonic forces in order to drive out demons – this would, afterall, represent the forces of hell being divided against themselves – so Jesus is also saying that a “domain” or “house” inhabited by a “strong man” cannot be subdued until the power of the “strong man” has been subdued. Jesus is saying, in effect, that his healing miracles are not the products of demonic possession, but because he himself is the one who will subdue the power of the “strong man” – Jesus is the one who comes to bind all the powers that disrupt and cripple human life, and to liberate those who are captive to those powers.

But what does Jesus mean by the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? This is a matter of ongoing debate among scholars; and the meaning of this passage remains essentially unclear. But it could be that Jesus is saying that those who seek to associate his spirit of liberation with the demonic spirit of bondage in order to protect their own privileged positions within power structures are, in effect, wilfully setting themselves against God. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were troubled by his ministry because it threatened to undermine their position, both within the Jewish community and with their imperial Roman overlords. To try and therefore discredit Jesus by suggesting both his demonic possession and his “otherness” was nothing less than an attempt to alienate the people from God – an act entirely contrary to God’s will for covenant relationship.

And this in turn leads to Jesus’ encounter with his own family. They come out of the family home and call out to him, wanting him to come with them so that he can be safely quarantined, and so their standing in the community can be maintained. But Jesus will have none of this; looking around at the crowds who have come to him looking for aid and comfort, he declares that they are his family – that they are his mother and brothers and sisters. Jesus rejects the shackling influence of tribalism in order to extend the solidarity of identity and association to all peoples. In the Kingdom of God there is no “us” and “them”, no “insiders” and “outsiders”. We are all Children of God, all brothers and sisters sharing alike in the covenantal relationship.

Modernity’s construction of work and economy is predicated on the principle of “competition”. Ostensibly, this principle is oriented toward encouraging people to “give their best” by committing themselves to the aims and objectives of their employer, or the surrounding culture of work, productivity, and efficiency. However, it is through this very “commitment” that the ideology of work co-opts human life and becomes its totality instead of an element within that totality. This ideology is perhaps the ultimate expression of tribalism, setting workers against managers, consumers against producers, government against industry. But this tribalism is, through the culture of competition, pared down to the individual level: workers struggle against one another to prove their productivity and thus enhance their prospects for promotion or job retention; managers struggle against one another to prove the efficiency of their respective jurisdictions and thus justify their further accumulation of power; departments and work teams and entire subsidiaries within overarching corporate structures struggle against one another to ensure the advancement of their particular agendas or concerns. Ostensibly, the culture is one of co-operation bent toward the success of the organisation; in reality, it is one of unending anxiety and struggle as individuals and groups seek either an advantage over others or the retention of the status quo.

But Jesus’ rejection of the both the attempt to alienate him from the people, as well as his family’s (his “tribe’s”) attempt to silence his ministry, culminating in his identification with the crowd as his “mother and brothers and sisters” cuts across the division and “othering” inherent in competition. Jesus recognises the shared humanity of those among whom he stands and who come to him looking for succour; it is the commonality of their status as Children of God that counts for the most, not whether they are from his “tribe” – whether family, village, region, race, or community of faith.

Which is not to say that competition per se is a bad thing, or cannot be a driver of creativity and innovation. But just as modernity’s construction of work has usurped both the proper place of work within human life, as well as shut out the possibility of other forms of work, so modernity’s notion of “competition” has reached the point where it has become divisive and dehumanising, a symbol of destructive “othering” rather than a stimulator of new ways of being. In other words, as with work and economy and our construction of power and relationality, “competition” has become an end in itself rather than a means to the end of abundant human life. It has become an idol with its own allegedly self-evident virtue than can neither be challenged nor re-imagined. It has become a demonic power of bondage alienating us from ourselves and our work and one another.

Today’s reading is a warning against the way in which tribalism limits and distorts our perceptions, enabling us to deny the humanity of the “other” while at the same time we lose contact with the humanity within ourselves. Jesus’ response to the accusations of the scribes and the anxieties of his family is a re-assertion of God’s “fatherhood” of all people, and of the common inheritance we share as recipients of divine grace.

 

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