Imperial implications

5 July 2015
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9B (RCL)

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Psalm 48
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

The Books of Samuel provide a very ambivalent assessment of the development of the monarchy. At times, they portray the monarch as God’s plan for Israel from the outset; and then again, as a betrayal of God’s plan, demonstrating the people’s lack of trust in God. In the passage we hear today, the nation of Israel finally choose David as their king, and he thereby becomes king of both Judah and Israel, beginning the process of the melding of their various traditions. David captures the neutral city of Jerusalem of the Jebusites (thereby also becoming a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek — possibly a title for the king of Jerusalem). The empire is now a fact. From here on, the history of David’s monarchy is presented almost as a matter of fact, neither as God’s plan or a betrayal thereof. But God does send prophets to David to remind him of the way he came to the throne — by considering the plight of the marginal — something he woefully forgets once on the throne. That would be an enduring theme of both the histories and the prophetic works. Monarchy as an institution in its own right was never the plan, but only for the protection of the least.

Both the passage from 2 Corinthians and from Mark have resonances with Cynic philosophy. They cynics rejected the institutions of empire, and did their best to live outside of the economy, begging their food, ridiculing the dominant cult and boasting in the hardships they face. Paul’s boast of his own foolishness and of the sufferings he has endured would sound right on the lips of a cynic. Also, his own belittling of his mystical vision would fit well. Paul is very clearly seeking to establish a way of life outside the normal institutions: marriage, economy, sacrifice, law, even the Judaism of the “super-apostles” are called into question.

Jesus sends out the twelve looking very much like cynic philosophers; in fact their habitude was to be even stricter than the cynics. Cynics were allowed to carry a wallet with food for the next day and copper coin. The second cloak was for covering for sleep. Jesus’ disciples are made absolutely dependent on the hospitality of others, not even carry enough to sleep outside when necessary. He gave them authority (exousia) over unclean spirits. Both Stoics and cynics sought exousia as the goal of their way of living. For the cynics, the person who could free himself (and it was always men) of all his implications in empire exercised the exousia of the true king. The real kingdom (as opposed to the kingdom of Caesar) was out with the cynics on the road. For the Stoics, the man who freed himself from the passions was the true king.

This helps explain Jesus’ rejection in his home town. He is the carpenter, the son of Mary. Who is he to tell us how to live? Calling someone the son of his mother was equivalent to calling her the town whore. Where does this man get all this authority, all this power? Pish.

The healing of demoniacs always involves recognizing the oppressiveness of the circumstances in which they live. Demoniacs simply live out the shattering of the local ways of life by outside forces. The Garasene demoniac is possessed by a legion of the Roman army, which Jesus sends into a herd of pigs, the Romans’ favorite sacrificial animal. By accepting the hospitality of strangers, Jesus’ disciples empower people to step outside the oppressive structures of empire. By welcoming the disciples, they could claim the status of patron, and be restored to the local covenant community, fulfilling the requirements of hospitality.

The people in Jesus’ hometown are too thoroughly implicated in the structures and mores of the status quo to see the kingdom in their midst. As the church, we have to be careful not to accept the way things are and be ready to risk joining the disciples on the road to the kingdom.

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