Next to the Chocolate

Week of Sunday July 5 - Pentecost 6
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Gospel: Mark 6:1-13

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief. 

Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

The chocolates at the checkout are surrounded by gossip magazines. I've seen our local supermarket almost run out of milk, but I can't recall empty spaces in the magazine racks.

Look at the gossip magazines. They idolise and they hate. They invite readers into in a vicious cycle which goes nowhere. They encourage prurient, bitter envy— even hatred,  which nonetheless copies the hairstyles and the clothes. They invite us to be trapped in a cycle of pettiness, a diminished life which allegedly finds some meaning in "being famous for being famous." And there's even magazines for we also-rans: "My mother stole my boyfriend," screams the headline for some poor kid in suburbia whom the magazine invites us to despise for her neediness, and yet envy for her front cover.

 We all want a model. We want someone to show us how to live, how to make sense of this crazy world; someone to help us feel safe, to help us feel like maybe we even count for something, and are not just the useless nobodies we so often suspect we are. (Often we feel useless because that message was drummed into us by someone else who felt useless, and solved their problem— for awhile— by projecting it onto us:  "You are utterly useless, so I'm not so bad." Or, "Yes, I'm useless, but you're worse.")

If this is not a world and an existence where we are beset by demons and sickness from which we need healing, I'm not sure what is! The gossip magazines are the shameless face of the social pages and the shallow end of our cultural ideals. They are the brazen preachers of salvation by consumption.  The glossy pages barely seek to hide the violence of envy.

Writing from a Girardian perspective, Robert Hammerton-Kelly said

Scandal begins with the assumption that we are potentially our model's equal and can always be the same as [they are.] We want not only to equal but also to surpass the model; if we achieve that, [they] ceases to be a model. We do not want that, however, because the tension of our desire depends on [their] modeling, and so we desire a contradiction, to surpass and to be surpassed by our model. We attack and cherish, hate and love, diminish and exalt [them]. This is scandal, and it is the essence of anxiety (and addiction) because it is the love of what one hates and the hatred of what one loves. Mark tells us it is the state of the hometown crowd in Nazareth with respect to Jesus. [They were scandalised by him. (6:3)] The proverb that a prophet is honored everywhere except in his own home sums up the scandal. Envy is the power of the model/obstacle to attract and repel at the same time. The crowd wants to be like the other and to destroy him, because he is so pleasing. (Quoted by Paul Nuechterlein)

We see the modelling and envy in the power plays in Corinth. Boasting is all part of the love-hate relationship Paul's competitors have with him. Like today's celebrities, they think that life is a competition on the red carpet. Church still too often has its own version of this, bitchiness and all.

But power, says Paul, that ability to live a life which is whole, and secure, and in a state of shalom— power is perfectedin weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9) Years later, Mark repeats the same insight. Jesus sends out the disciples in weakness. They become dependent locals like him, rather than being supermodels.  They live intimately with the people until they "leave the place." (Mark 6:10) Paul's competitors were experts— people a long way from home, as they say.

This is, on the surface, a dangerous strategy. We don't like hometown heroes, as Jesus found out. For every AFL footballer in the grand final parade, there are the real locals from his school or his first footy club, who are happy to tell you what he was really like. It's far worse for prophets, because they don't play by the rules of the game; Adam Goodes is booed wherever he goes.

On the face of it, Mark 6:10 is a plain statement: "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place." But how often is the leaving of a prophet, or even a mere minister, undergirded, even if not publicly,  by scandalised locals who have taken offense at him— "Where did this man get all this?" (And God help the women who don't toe the line and play the game.)

But this local, vulnerable living, might be the only strategy. When we look for the meaning of life in things, life becomes demonised. Jesus' call to compassion heals us of these demons. But compassionate living is slow living— it has to be lived. It can be described, even taught in a lecture, to some extent. We can write about it. But in the end we have to live it, or it is nothing but empty words.

We have to become vulnerable and powerless. We can only feel-with (com-passion) when we suffer-the-same.

This is the essence of compassion. It truly is mercy, because it gives up our privilege on the catwalk. The true prophet steps down to live with the people, to enter a new home town. And because we can therefore no longer lord it from the catwalk, with a media magnate or some other authority behind us, it means that when they say, "It's just the carpenter's kid," there is not much we can do. Sometimes we can walk away. Sometimes we can "pass through the midst of them," (Luke 4:30) and sometimes we will  be crucified.

But we are freed from the demons of possession. We are freed from the demonic slavery of having to matter. I use the words demonic and slavery very deliberately. The slavery should be obvious, we keep on buying, and we keep on  racking up debts of time or money to own things we don't need. But needing to matter is also demonic because we abuse, beat, and even murder each other when we judge that we didn't matter enough for someone to pay us the attention we desire.

Luke's development of Mark's scandalised crowd into a lynch mob shows the true outcome of modelling ourselves on the wrong values. It tells the same story of the violence which undergirds the gossip magazines and the catwalks of fashion. Having to own, and having to matter, inevitably draws us into violence. These things are an admiration of the wrong things. They are not the imitation of Christ. They are the denial of death, idols. If we must have these things, then we will compete unto the death.

If the last sentence seems extreme, consider our current politics in Australia, where both major parties seek to outdo each other in "toughness," also known as cruelty, in contravention of UN Conventions, for the sake of maintaining power. They invite us to condone treatment of human beings, including children, which has actually led to death, not to mention rape, and child sexual abuse— which it is now illegal to report!, and severe mental illness. This is done not with apology for our failure to measure up to our best ideals, but with self-congratulation. All because we want the power.

In the third week Abbott panicked. The phone messages he was leaving were more desperate in language used. He begged for the job during the latter stages of the process. He would say, “I will do anything for this job, I will do anything. I will do anything but sell my arse.” I felt sorry for him. He was quite lost. Tony Windsor on Tony Abbott

 Possession, of course, is not just about tangible objects. It's also status, reputation, and influence. These were the desires of Paul's competitors, and are every bit as deadly as material riches when we get into the imitation / comparison / celebrity game.

And the majority of Australians approve. If there were an election today, we would, apparently, elect Labor by a small margin. But both parties are the same: they stand for money and possessions first, and compassion and justice and distant last.

Where does this lead us?

Maslow said we have a basic physiological needs, such as food. We also need some basic safety and predictability about life. We need love and belonging, and we need self esteem if we are to grow as people. Apparently Maslow concluded later in life that "The self only finds its actualization in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality."   

I wonder if our time has a fundamental difference from the time of Jesus. Of course we need adequate food, and safety, and a sense of our self worth. But I wonder if we are so blinded by our material wealth—so committed to it, and trapped in it— that Jesus is "amazed at our unbelief."

A friend writes of the refugee camp in which  

parents had to make do with fortnightly rations of a mere two kilograms of wheat flour, half a cup of rice, half a cup of olive oil, and 2 cups of kidney beans per person. That's often all they had to raise families of 8, 9, 13 etc including little babies. To put things into perspective for those who have been fortunate to never experience that...let's just say that's approximately enough to feed even the most earnest of adults at most for 5 days...but that's often all they had to get us through 14 days! So what about breakfast? you may ask. lunch? Not in our vocabulary… (A)

From the same camp, another young man can recall his mother and other adults going hungry so that he, as a little child, could at least eat. (G) That is compassion.

In such a situation, perhaps not so far different from the privations of a Jewish peasant, what does the power of compassion do? Could it be that among the panic and fear of almost starvation, that the deep healings we seek, and which are so hard to find, are more accessible?

Don't hear me glorifying privation! But why am I so fearful about, and so destroyed by, my current low income— more worried that I objectively need to be— if it is not that "things" and "safety" have a demonic hold on me.  Maybe when compassion is all we have we can then, finally, appreciate its power. 

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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