The Full Sacredness of All the Earth – Dennis Ormseth reflects on Jesus crossing and removing boundaries.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday June 26 – July 2, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Lamentations 3:22-33 or Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
“When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea” (Mark 5:21). Not Zion, the mountain of the Lord, not Jerusalem, and emphatically not the temple in Jerusalem, but the Sea of Galilee is the center of the cosmos around which people are gathered by the person and the story of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen from the dead, gathered into presence of the God of Israel. Congregations reading this Gospel on the this Sunday after Pentecost will want to orient themselves similarly with respect to a “sea” near them, be it the Roman-dominated Mediterranean, the Viking-swept North Sea, the British dominated Atlantic ocean, the Pacific Ocean in contention between China and the United States, wherever and whenever—for no place on this blue planet is truly godforsaken—where bodies of water manifest to us the creative presence of God in the midst of wind sweeping over water, as happened on the Sea of Galilee, according to the reading for last Sunday (see our comment in this series on the lessons for the Sunday June 19-25 after Pentecost, Year B). Whatever the watershed in which they gather, the congregation is in a place fully open to the healing presence of God. Whenever inhabitants of a place reach out with anxiety-banishing faith to acknowledge the presence of Jesus, they receive his healing power for the mending of creation.
The region around the Sea of Galilee was not typically so regarded. This “other side” of the sea of today’s reading was seen as a location to be preferred by Jews because it was closer to Jerusalem and, accordingly, inhabited by a majority of Jews, while the other “other side,” known as “the country of the Gerasenes” and dominated by the Roman army, was believed to be inhabited by unclean spirits. But that “other side” has now been transformed by Jesus’ presence into a place where the formerly demon-possessed go about proclaiming “how much the Lord has done” for them (Mark 5:19-20). And while the inhabitants of this “other side” are shown in the Gospel for this Sunday to be equally subject to human suffering as the Gerasenes, as instanced not only by a woman doubly cursed by seemingly incurable hemorrhaging and the abuse of the unscrupulous physicians treating her, but also by the illness and death of the twelve year old daughter of one of the leaders of the Jewish synagogue there, they show themselves to be no less open than the Gerasene demoniacs to the manifestation of divine presence and its healing power in the person of Jesus. Both “other sides,” it is clear, are now places where the crowds blessed by Jesus’ presence are amazed to see those persons healed and restored to life, “walk about,” and eat. The distinctions that make the designation of “the other” an invidious comparison have been removed. Either side of the Sea of Galilee is open to the visitation of the God manifest in the person who commands the wind and water of the sea.
What are those distinctions? Life under ancient Judaism, explains Ched Myers, was governed by a “great variety of complex rituals” that essentially functioned “to reinforce group boundaries” around issues of holiness. The debt and ritual purity systems operated, he proposes, “in three basic social spheres or “sites:” the “table” (e.g., the production and consumption of goods), the “house” (e.g., kinship and community relations), and the “sanctuary” (e.g., the temple cultus and the priesthood), categories which Myers extends to include land, village, and synagogue (Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1988, p. 73-74). The land of Israel was ordered in a system of ascending holiness: itself “holier than any other land,” specific locations within it were differentiated in terms of a “center-periphery structure” of walled cities, space within the walls of Jerusalem, the temple mount, the rampart, the court of women, the court of the Israelites, the court of the priests, between the porch and the altar, the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies.” Persons were ranked according to degrees of purity: “(1) priests; (2) Levites; (3) Israelites; (4) converts; (5) freed slaves; (6) disqualified priests (illegitimate children of priests); (7) netins (temple slaves); (8) mamzers (bastards); (9) eunuchs; (10) those with damaged testicles; (11) those without a penis,” an ordering which placed the physically impaired at the bottom of the list and women on it not at all (Myers, p. 75; he follows the work of J. Neyrey and Mary Douglas in this analysis).
Maintenance of these differentiations was a matter of great concern in the world of the Gospel of Mark, Myers notes. Ritual impurity had become “the guiding principle in the division of Jewish society into classes.” Rigorous conformity to the demands of the symbolic system presented huge economic obstacles for the poor: “The daily circumstance of their lives and trades, especially for the peasantry, continually exposed them to contagion, and they simply could not afford the outlay of either time or money/goods involved in ritual cleansing processes.” Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes developed rival ways to deal with these difficulties: Pharisees sought to make the practice of piety possible by liberalization of the code, thus furthering their development of a political base among the artisan and lower classes; the Sadducees, often large landowners, sought to protect their privileges by strictness of observation; and Essenes sought strict observance in withdrawing from regular society. All these strategies, Myers argues, engendered further social stratification, enforced by interpretation of the Torah by the scribal class, and the extension of the temple system into the synagogue. For Mark, on the other hand, “the temple state and its political economy represented the heart of what was wrong with the dominant system. He had no wish for greater access to, or control over, the cultus—only its demise. In the same breath, he was at pains to reassure his Palestinian readers that God’s existence was not tied to the temple” (Myers, pp. 78-80).
We see how Mark works out this conviction in the Gospel readings for these Sundays after Pentecost: with the Sea of Galilee at the center of the story, exorcisms happen on either side, as do healings, with their associated social rehabilitation; and perhaps most importantly with respect to the relationship of the inhabitants to the creation that sustains them, so are people fed in the wilderness on either side, no matter that they do not have access to Roman markets or a supply of kosher food (see Myers’ discussion of the “double miracle story cycle,” Binding the Strong Man, pp. 187-190). People are restored in mind, body, their village community and their relationship to the land. It is particularly telling that these things happen despite Jesus’ transgression of the cultic boundaries and class divisions. In the presence of Jesus, the purity differentiations are simply set aside, as faith becomes the decisive factor in determining whether works of healing actually occur.
We have previously seen that the boat crossing on the Sea of Galilee was terrifying for the disciples because of their lack of faith (Mark 4:40). Now in today’s reading, on the other hand, both the woman’s brash touching and the synagogue leader’s persistence are credited by Jesus as manifesting precisely the faith that leads to healing and restoration of life. Indeed, in their desperation these very different persons reach out to Jesus across the very (failed) boundaries set by their religion to shelter them from such chaotic disorder: the purity laws made it highly offensive for a woman with a flow of blood to touch a man, and the class distinctions built on those laws would discourage a well-known synagogue leader in their community from persisting in seeking the help of a man who had just offended his cultic status by attending first to the needs of an anonymous, unclean woman of the streets. As in the storm, order is brought out of disorder, a new creation encompassing all aspects of life rises out of chaos: healing and restoration to life promote reconciliation of all participants in the community of life.
Thus does faith bring about what the practices of ritual purity were failing to accomplish. While the cosmic mountain falls into the background of the “primordial landscape” centered on the temple and its ritual practices and festivals, the yet more primordial seascape of Galilee comes into central focus. And because no mere ritual practice appears sufficient to defend the Jews from the threatening chaos of the times, more fundamental response is called for: the faithful relationship between creator and creatures which the original couple of Genesis lost in their fearful quest for mastery (see our comment on Sunday June 5-11 after Pentecost); the stout courage of a Job tutored in knowledge of God by the animal creatures, which in the face of the wildness of the sea, draws forth confidence of spirit sufficient to move ahead with a vocation of care of creation; or, the confidence expressed in our first lesson from Lamentations 3:32: “Although [God] causes grief, he will have compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”
The embodiment of Israel’s faith in the Jerusalem temple—Walter Breuggemann would caution us who find Myers’ appreciation of Mark’s attack on the cult and its managers convincing and appropriate for garnering support for care of creation—was the locus of dramatic activity whereby all of life—cosmic, political, personal—was brought under the rule of Yahweh. In coming under the rule of Yahweh, moreover, all of life was made whole and safe. It is important to emphasize the full dramatic enactment, which seems evident, even if we cannot be precise about the actions undertaken. The liturgy was a series of actions whereby Israel bodily received from Yahweh the assurance of an ordered life . . . . The temple is indeed the place where Israel entered into Yahweh’s full zone of shalom (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, p. 661)
It is evident, Breuggemann suggests, that in “the contemporary world, as in the ancient world, that a regularized, stylized practice of symbolization is indispensable for the sustenance of intentional ethical practice.” Nonetheless, when political compromise and class struggle led to the attempt to control access to the redemptive media of the temple, the danger inherent in any religious system that makes holiness an issue of insider/outsider boundaries was exposed, and a new encounter with Yahweh as “a roving, moving, free God who will not be hemmed in or domesticated” was called for. Brueggemanm sums up this complicated matter well: “Yahweh must be in the temple, if Israel is to find wholeness and assurance there. Yahweh must not be bound to the temple, if Yahweh’s true holiness is to be fully recognized” (Breuggemann, p. 675). The cultus offered a profound sense of the holiness of the land, and it inculcated provisions for its maintenance, right use, and enjoyment, but what was called for in the time of Jesus was a sense of the full sacredness of all the Earth. Both needs yet remain to be met.
Originally by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.