Stranded on Olympus

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Mark 7:24-37

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17


The appropriate response to the depiction of Christ’s suffering and broken flesh is not empathy leading to philanthropic action or political activism on behalf of the less fortunate other.  Rather, it is meant to provoke repentance and conversion.                                                                

                                             Luke Bretherton

There are two kinds of people in the world, the saying goes – those who divide people into two kinds and those who don’t.  The saying is, of course, tongue-in-cheek; a satire of, say, candidates who draw dishonestly simplistic false dichotomies for political gain, or of “experts” who presume a perspective from which they omnisciently categorize the world.  At best these folks are pretentious.  At worst, they are the ones who make “distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:4).

The lectionary readings unabashedly speak of two kinds of people – the poor and the rich.  Far from making a false dichotomy, the texts shine light on what is perhaps the primordial divide.  Luke Bretherton traces this divide all the way back to Greek and Babylonian myths in which “the children of the soil” are distinguished from “the children of the gods.”  Bringing that ancient division into current terms, Bretherton describes how those of us who benefit from the vast material advantages of consumer lifestyles tend to look down from our Olympus with sympathy (though tinged with ‘if only they could be more like us’) upon those trapped in inescapable poverty (“The Iconography of Sorrow: How Easter Transforms Our Response to Suffering”).

There is indeed a great gulf fixed.  R. Drew Smith’s essay on the 10th anniversary of Katrina and its decade-long aftermath is entitled “Distant Churches and the Isolated Poor.”  Yesterday I received a note from a colleague with whom I’ve participated in a local group focused on interracial ministry.  She said that the more she becomes aware of the root causes of racism and economic disparity, the more she understands “why most of the [group’s] partner churches serving congregations of people of color have lost their enthusiasm for participating in this alliance.”

This coming Sunday, someone in worship will read from Proverbs.

The rich and poor meet together; the Lord is the maker of them all (22:2).

And someone will read from James, in which the division between rich and poor is multilayered with many other stark contrasts, even polar opposites:

Hearers of the Word / doers of the word

            Friendship with the world defined by the logic of envy / friendship with         

                        God which cultivates fellowship


            The arrogant whom God resists / the lowly to whom God gives gifts


            The wisdom that comes down from above and leads to a crown of life /

               the wisdom below that is sin leading to death


How can those of us on Olympus hear, and do, the Word of God in these Scripture texts?  I offer two pointers:

The first is to confess the tragic nature of this divide. To call it tragic is to acknowledge our part in perpetrating or benefiting from this divide and, more crucially, acknowledging that we cannot possibly make up for or make right what has been done.  Stanley Hauerwas says that the more we deny this, “the more we become determined by what we fear and captured by our own false accounts of righteousness.  By denying the reality of the tragic,” he writes, we “lose the skills to free ourselves from the self-deceiving stories we tell to avoid the truth” (“A Tale of Two Stories: On Being a Christian and a Texan”).

This is, I think, Bretherton’s point in the initial quote above.  He certainly is not dismissing empathy, philanthropy or political action; nor is he setting them in a dichotomy over against repentance and conversion.  Rather he is speaking of those ‘third party’ observers who believe “involvement” can take place without being broken, that “improvement” need not involve reconciliation.  For them, “sight of the poor [on the quickly changing Western media] does not catalyze different ways of living together,” Bretherton clarifies.  “These images do not provoke mourning and humility, but activism and altruism.”

Secondly, honesty about the tragic nature of this divide can free us to hear the Gospel, a Word that the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus are the end of time – and its beginning.  God’s future (“the rich and the poor meet together”) presses in on our present, and everything partakes of God’s eschatological “now.”  A way from Olympushas been opened and Jesus beckons us to follow.

Ched Myers points out that this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Mark 7:24-37) is the second set of double healings in Mark’s Gospel, and that all four healings are Jesus’ assault on the great divide.  The first set of healings (Mark 5:21-43) has to do with “the two extremes of the Jewish social scale.” On his way to heal/save the daughter of a synagogue leader, Jesus is interrupted by a nameless statusless woman who herself becomes the ’daughter’ at the center of the story.  This “profound reversal of dignity” signals a reversal of the social order as well.  As Myers reads it, “the object lesson can only be that if Judaism [read ‘Church’] wishes to ‘be saved and live’ (5:23), it must embrace the ‘faith’ of the kingdom: a new social order with equal status for all” (Binding the Strong Man).

This week’s Gospel reading is a parallel set of double healings, both of them set in gentile territory.  There is another desperate request concerning a daughter, this time not from a synagogue leader but from a pagan gentile woman, for whom Jesus redefines the boundaries of the Kingdom.

Jesus’ next healing occurs in horizons far beyond Palestinian Judaism, sounding very strange to our ears.  Since saliva was considered to be like all the other “discharges” from the body (Lev. 15), the healing could even be considered unclean, or else an historic divide has been bridged.

In a Roman Catholic baptismal rite, the priest touches the ears and the mouth of the newly baptized person and says, “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak.  May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise of God the Father.”

What does the fullness of that proclamation sound like?   Luke Bretherton lifts up the testimony of those who, like Christ, “exist in excess of the horror and suffering they have been through.”   These are the sons and daughters of God who are “embodied witnesses to the eschatological order in which all may flourish in communion with God and each other.”  As such, they don’t just “need our help.” Rather, they are the ones who challenge us to come together with them and live into something new.

Can this be what James means when he says, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?”

Can that be Gospel to those who feel stranded on Olympus?

2 Responses to “Stranded on Olympus”

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  1. Susan Adams says:

    Thank you, Jim. It was indeed good to “hear” your voice today.

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