Last revised: November 1, 2020
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ALL SAINTS SUNDAY — YEAR C
RCL: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In 2016 I was coming to the end of an interim ministry in which ringing out fresh insights into the Gospel had been well received. A key text to these insights — one which is also arguably central to Jesus and to First Century Jews, in general — is Daniel 7. “Son of Man” is attested to in the Synoptic Gospels as Jesus primary designation for himself. In the context of reframing theology in light of Mimetic Theory, it speaks of the coming of a Human One — an anthropological framing to the Gospel. Jesus saw his mission, in other words, as the bringing into Creation of a new way of being human. And this way of being human especially undercuts the beastly sacred violence of Empire. See the crucial resources on Daniel 7 below.
In the 2016 sermon I began with a reference to Cubs fans celebrating in heaven . . . the Cubs having just won their first World Series in 108 years. It was a more light-hearted way into the serious point that our experience of the Gospel has become too caught up in the notion of ‘going to heaven when we die.’ So the sermon, “Becoming Saints, Becoming Human,” lays out the view of salvation as Jesus pioneering the new way of being human.
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 72ff. Schwager has a significant section on the “Son of Man” tradition, pp.69-80. Schwager says, for example:
Whereas the judgment according to the visions of the apocalypticists takes place in the struggle against the enemies of God, Jesus proclaimed his Father as a God of love for one’s enemies and interpreted the judgment as a self-condemnation of those who shut themselves away from this love. From his experience of God as Abba he thoroughly transformed the few allusions which he took over from the world of Daniel. (p.73)
He also concludes with an interesting reason of why Jesus might have used the “Son of Man” language for himself:
In the disputations it is striking the way Jesus mostly chose an indirect strategy (turning back the actions of the adversaries against themselves, counter-questions, shifting the discussion to a different level, etc.). The Son of Man sayings fit into this style of discussion. If in confrontation with his adversaries he spoke of his function as a judge; if, face to face with his disciples, he expounded to them a path which they did not want to take; and if in other critical situations he made his claim for himself, then, by using the Son of Man terminology, he was not directly setting up his own “I” against another “I,” but he was referring to someone who at first appeared to be a third person. Immediate confrontation in the sense of blow and counter-blow, argument and counter-argument, was thus avoided, and a future was opened up in which his claim could be established and prove its truth. (p. 79)
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 86, 147. Of the saying about the Son of man having no place to lay his head (Matt: 18:9; Luke 9:58), Alison says,
I think that the use of “Son of man,” the figure from Daniel 7:13 — which consists, by the way, in a vision of the open heaven and a man on the clouds beside the Ancient — suggests that Jesus is saying something a little different: “Look, in this business of following me, don’t think that I’m taking you to some safe place, or anything like that. The one who follows the Son of man does not have a place, for in every place he or she will have to create the story which comes from the open heaven, and that story means that that place will not be their place, for the story which comes from the open heaven is the story of the one who has no place, the one who does not find himself at home in the midst of the world of human violence.” (p. 86)
And commenting on Mark’s apocalyptic material (primarily Mark 13), Alison says,
After having laid the foundations about that to which one must not pay attention, Jesus turns to describing his coming. In the first place he uses apocalyptic language, taken from the book of Daniel: the sun will be darkened, the moon will give forth no light, and so on. Now, please notice that this way of talking does not indicate some supposed divine intervention shaking up these heavenly bodies. The language depends on the Semitic vision of earth and sky as a single reality where the stars, the sun and the moon were hung in the vault of heaven. What is being described is the way in which earthly, that is to say, human violence, shakes all of creation. We are speaking, once again of human violence, a social and cultural upheaval of ever greater magnitude. It is in the midst of a human violence which shakes the foundations of all creation that the Son of man will be seen on the clouds, in strength and majesty. That vision of the Son of man, as we have already seen, comes from Daniel, and the clouds will be appearing again shortly. It is starting from this appearance of the Son of man that the angels will come out to gather together the chosen ones from every corner of the earth. (p. 147)
3. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories, pp. 204ff; Story 7, “History to Its End”; Lesson 2, “Son of Man,” especially pp. 209ff. Bartlett writes of Daniel 7,
There is the vision of the beasts arising from the place of chaos, of limitless violence. Thrones are set up, signifying God’s final intervention of justice. One like “a son of man” or “a human being” comes into his presence, and an everlasting kingship and dominion is conferred on him (vv. 13-14). The distinguishing mark of this figure is likeness to human beings, as opposed to the fierce armor of the beasts. Interpretations sometimes say that he is an angelic entity, but then the humanity becomes mere appearance. The point to concentrate on is the contrast with the violence of the beasts and the transcendent humanity (nonviolence) of the figure which deals with this acute problem at hand. Later on (v. 21) we are told that the figure is in fact the same as “the holy ones” against whom the horn made war. These figures are tied symbolically and existentially to the actual people of Israel who are being persecuted. At v. 27 we hear explicitly the goal of the whole episode is that “the kingship and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them.”
In other words earthly authority will be given to the persecuted people of the covenant. One “like a son of man” is a symbolic figure representing God’s people who are victims of imperial violence, and hence he is a symbol of the assault on God’s own designs themselves and thus also a heavenly figure. There is an identity overlap between human beings and heavenly beings, which is typical of apocalyptic. But God’s designs are always for a people living fulness of life here on earth, and so God’s final judgment is to turn all earthly kingship and rule over to his chosen people.
Because we have seen that the “son of man” is a figure without violence there is no other way to conceive of this final kingdom other than in terms of nonviolence.
There is indeed a cosmic battle underway. This is confirmed in chapter 10 where we read about an angelic or heavenly being who contends for Israel against “the prince of the kingdom of Persia” (v. 13) and “the prince of Greece” (v. 20). But the issue to be dealt with is always the violence taking place on earth. God’s method of defeating the empires is shifted to the heavenly dimension precisely because no human military method is envisaged. The authors of Daniel took the issue out of human agency not because they needed a military force greater than any on earth, but because they intuited that God’s method was completely different from those employed by the empires. It is the breakthrough of the revelation of divine nonviolence.
And how does Jesus fit into this vision of Daniel 7? Bartlett writes,
Buckets of ink have been spilt over the question of whether Jesus saw himself as “the Son of Man.” The question has almost always been approached textually — trying to figure out whether one saying or another about “the Son of Man” could be authentic according to various criteria.
The question is much more about what is historically credible in terms of Jesus’ action and motivation. Once we agree he went to Jerusalem knowing he was going to die, then what possible scriptural scenario could be in his mind to justify his action? Not only does Daniel give hope for resurrection, it presents “one like a son of man” who is involved with lethal suffering and is vindicated by God.
Twinning this figure with the Servant of Isaiah (see Story 4) provides the template for Jesus’ actions and a credible description of his own inner horizon of meaning. Jesus, identifying with Wisdom, would have assumed the authority to unite these two figures into a single seamless pathway. The project of the Son of Man/Suffering Servant is to take authority over the violent order of the world and replace it with a time of wisdom, peace, nonviolence, and love.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, p. 40. Hamerton-Kelly is also commenting on the Son of Man in Mark 13, in saying,
The role of the section on the parousia (13:24-27): in this chapter is analogous to the role that the question about the resurrection plays in the discourses in the temple (12:18-27). It introduces the note of miraculous intervention and signals that the fulfillment of the, hope for a new order can only take place through the action of God. It is as if for a moment the veil is lifted and we are shown the real agent in the history that is being recounted. The temple is to be replaced not with another sacrificial system but with the community of those chosen by the Son of Man, which in Daniel 7 symbolizes the truly human one, who with the restoration of the right order of creation takes the place of the beasts as the ruler of humanity. Sin caused the beasts to rule over Adam in contradiction to the intended order of creation. Now the right order is restored and the human one rules in the human community.It is remarkable that among all the apocalyptic imagery of this discourse there is not one claim, that the tribulations to befall humanity in the messianic apocalyptic history and the ultimate eschaton are expressions of the vengeance of God. Rather, the suffering is to be caused by wars, frauds, charlatans, natural catastrophes, misunderstandings and persecutions. These are the sadly predictable human failings that cause human misery without any divine intervention. In fact, the one clear reference to divine intervention has God shortening the tribulation for the sake of his elect. There is, therefore, a significant omission of the divine vengeance from a traditional apocalyptically styled passage, and that confirms our thesis that the generative energy of the Gospel is the opposite of the Sacred. Even though traditional imagery is used, the traditional content has been modified so as to remove the idea of the divine wrath and vengeance. The wrath is the suffering we inflict on ourselves and each other within the order of the GMSM [Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism]. (p. 40)
4. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God; within the most important chapter of this book, on “The Hope of Israel,” the crucial section is on “Daniel 7 and the Son of Man,” pp. 291-297. Crucial to Wright’s project of writing about the Historical Jesus in vol. 2 of this series is to take the side of Schweitzer concerning Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet of the 1st century, but to argue against Schweitzer’s characterizations about what that meant. (For a summary of Wright’s argument in Jesus and the Victory of God, see Part III of “My Core Convictions.”) The major problem with so much exegesis that follows Schweitzer is the tendency to take the “apocalyptic” languange literally, langauge that makes it sound as if the ‘world is coming to an end.’ Wright argues near the beginning of this crucial chapter on “The Hope of Israel”:
I have come to the view that the critique of Schweitzer launched by Caird, Glasson, Borg and others is on target. Sometimes, no doubt, extraordinary natural phenomena were both expected, witnessed and interpreted within a grid of belief which enabled some to see them as signs and portents. No doubt eclipses, earthquakes, meteorites and other natural phenomena were regarded as part of the way in which strange socio-political events announced themselves. The universe was, after all, regarded as an interconnected whole (which is not the same thing as a closed continuum). But the events, including the ones that were expected to come as the climax of YHWH’s restoration of Israel, remained within (what we think of as) the this-worldly ambit. The ‘kingdom of god’ has nothing to do with the world itself coming to an end. That makes no sense either of the basic Jewish worldview or of the texts in which the Jewish hope is expressed. It was after all the Stoics, not the first-century Jews, who characteristically believed that the world would be dissolved in fire. (This has the amusing corollary that scholars have thought of such an expectation as a Jewish oddity which the church grew out of as it left Judaism behind, whereas in fact it seems to be a pagan oddity that the church grew into as it left Judaism behind — and which, perhaps, some Jews moved towards as they despaired of the old national hope and turned towards inner or mystical hope instead.) Far more important to the first-century Jew than questions of space, time and literal cosmology were the key issues of Temple, Land, and Torah, of race, economy and justice. When Israel’s god acted, Jews would be restored to their ancestral rights and would practice their ancestral religion, with the rest of the world looking on in awe, and/or making pilgrimages to Zion, and/or being ground to powder under Jewish feet.The ‘literalist’ reading of such language has of course had a profound effect on the study of the New Testament in the present century. If we imagine the majority of first-century Jews, and early Christians, as people who were confidently expecting the space-time universe to come to a full stop, and who were disappointed, we at once create a distance between them and ourselves far greater than that of mere chronology. We know that they were crucially wrong about something they put at the centre of their worldview, and must therefore either abandon any attempt to take them seriously or must construct a hermeneutic which will somehow enable us to salvage something from the wreckage. This was the programme to which Schweitzer and Bultmann — and Käsemann as in some ways the successor of both — gave such energetic attention. In addition, the thought of the space-time world coming to an end belongs closely with the radical dualism which brings together, in a quite un-Jewish way, three of the dualities discussed in the previous chapter: the distinction between the creator and the world, the distinction between the physical and the non-physical, and the distinction between good and evil. The result is a dualistic belief in the unredeemableness of the present physical world. This meant that ‘apocalyptic’ could be seen as far closer to Gnosticism than was really warranted by the evidence (see below); that it could be uprooted from its context as part of Israel’s national expectation; and that it could thus function as a history-of-religions explanation for (say) Pauline theology, in a way which allowed quite a bit of the previous theory, that of derivation from Gnosticism, to remain in place. That is why, no doubt, an insistence on the ‘imminent expectation’ of the end of the space-time world plays a vital and non-negotiable part in some such readings of the New Testament.
There is, I suggest, no good evidence to suggest anything so extraordinary as the view which Schweitzer and his followers espoused. As good creational monotheists, mainline Jews were not hoping to escape from the present universe into some Platonic realm of eternal bliss enjoyed by disembodied souls after the end of the space-time universe. If they died in the fight for the restoration of Israel, they hoped not to ‘go to heaven’, or at least not permanently, but to be raised to new bodies when the kingdom came, since they would of course need new bodies to enjoy the very much this-worldly shalom, peace and prosperity that was in store.
Within the literary form of standard apocalyptic writings, then, we have found a linguistic convention, which traces its roots without difficulty back to classical prophecy: complex, many-layered and often biblical imagery is used and re-used to invest the space-time events of Israel’s past, present and future with their full theological significance. (pp. 285-286)
The key to Wright’s reading of apocalyptic material is a clear delineation of metaphorical language, or “representation”:
This is literary or rhetorical representation: a writer or speaker uses a figure, within a complex metaphor or allegory, to represent a person, a nation, or indeed anything else. In Pilgrim’s Progress, people in the story represent qualities, virtues, temptations, and so forth, in real life.There is, however, a second sense of ‘representation’, namely the sociological representation whereby a person or group is deemed to represent, to stand in for, to carry the fate or fortunes of, another person or group (the former does not necessarily have to be numerically smaller than the latter, though it usually is: one can imagine a group of people saying ‘We have come to represent the Queen’). This has nothing necessarily to do with literary forms or conventions, and everything to do with social and political customs and beliefs. In particular, it has often been pointed out that in the ancient world, as sometimes in the modern, the leaders or rulers of nations ‘represent’ their people: a good example is the subversively royal act of David, fighting Goliath on behalf of all Israel, after his anointing by Samuel but long before the death of the reigning king, Saul.
There is a third sense of ‘representation’, which will cause yet more confusion unless it is unearthed and clarified. In the mainline Jewish worldview, according to which the heavenly and the earthly realms are distinct but closely intertwined (instead of either being held apart, as in Epicureanism, or fused into one, as in pantheism), the belief emerges that heavenly beings, often angels, are the counterparts or ‘representatives’ of earthly beings, often nations or individuals. This metaphysical representation is clear in, for instance, Daniel 10.12-21, where the angel Michael is the ‘prince’ of Israel, fighting against the angelic ‘princes’ of Persia and Greece. This battle is not to be thought of as essentially different from the one taking place on earth. The language of metaphysical representation is a way of ensuring that the earthly events (puzzling and worrying though they may seem) are in fact bound up with the heavenly dimension, and thus invested both with a significance which may not appear on the surface and with a clear hope for a future that goes beyond what could be predicted from socio-political observation. (pp. 289-290)
Part of the problem, then, in interpreting passages like Daniel 7 stems from being unclear about the kinds of representation. If it is more clear that the four beasts constitute a representation of enemy nations, then it should be more clear that the “Son of Man” figure is in this same category of representation:
What we have in this chapter, I suggest, is literary representation, whereby a figure in the story — a human figure, surrounded by monsters — functions as a symbol for Israel, just as the monsters function as literary representations of pagan nations. This symbol is obviously pregnant with the meaning of Genesis 2, evoking the idea of the people of God as the true humanity and the pagan nations as the animals. This strongly implies, with all the force of the imagery, that Israel, though beleaguered and battered, is about to be vindicated. To say, off the surface of the text, that either the writer or others reading his work would have thought the text was speaking of a ‘son of man’ who was a historical individual, and who, as such, ‘represented’ Israel as a nation in the second, sociological, sense, would be simply to confuse categories. Once again this can be seen by analogy with the monsters: nobody imagines that the author of Daniel, or any of his second-temple readers, thought that there would appear on earth actual monsters who would ‘represent’ the pagan nations much as an MP ‘represents’ a constituency. If anyone, within the first-century Jewish worldview, were to take the step of treating ‘the son of man’ as a sociological representative as well as a literary one — to suggest that the symbol might after all become reality — such a bold move could only be felt as radical and innovatory, new wine bursting old wineskins. And if such a move were made, so that an individual figure within history were held to be in some sense the fulfilment of Daniel 7.13f., any attempt to make the literary imagery associated with this ‘son of man’ into literal historical truth — to imagine, for instance, that he should be attacked by monsters from the sea — would be an extreme clash of categories.Equally, it would be wrong to jump from the literary ‘representation’, whereby the ‘son of man’ represents Israel within the, logic of the vision-genre, to a metaphysical representation whereby the ‘son of man’ becomes a transcendent heavenly being existing in another realm. Any such suggestion (for instance, on the basis that the ‘saints of the most high’ in verses 18, 25, 27 must refer to angels rather than Israel) must be resisted again on the grounds that it is a confusion of categories. (p. 291-292)
When Wright lifts up the possibility of someone in the first century mixing the sociological and literary representations in an innovative way, he will make this argument for Jesus, namely, that Jesus used the “Son of Man” for himself as being the historical fulfillment of this literary representation mixed in with a sociological representation. After drawing connections between Daniel 1-6 and 7-12, he concludes about Daniel 7:
It therefore seems to me perfectly justifiable (though of course the above account remains tendentious, since space forbids the full discussion that would in principle be desirable) to read Daniel 7 in the light of the first half of the book, and to suggest that a Jew of the second-temple period would have read it like that too. Faced with pagan persecution, such a Jew would be encouraged to remain faithful while awaiting the great day of victory and vindication, when Israel would be exalted and her enemies defeated, when the covenant god would show himself to be god of all the earth, and would set up the kingdom which would never be destroyed. The later visions in Daniel 8-12, in my opinion, are to be read as developments from this basic position, rather than as themselves determining the meaning of the earlier portions of the book. And if this is so, it is this overall context of meaning, rather than isolated speculation about the figure who appears in 7.13-14, that must form the basis for understanding the multiple reuse of similar language in the first century. Putting together the argument of the chapter so far, we may observe the irony of one of the standard features of twentieth-century gospel study. Many have read apocalyptic metaphor (the ‘coming of the son of man with a cloud’) as literal prediction (a human being floating on a real cloud), despite the fact that the rest of Daniel 7 has never been read in this way; and they have then read potentially literal statement (stories about Jesus in the gospels) as metaphor (allegorical or mythical expressions of the church’s faith). This, as we will see on another occasion, is simply to misunderstand the genres involved. (pp. 296-297)
5. Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars, chap. 7, “Clouds, Christ, and Kingdom Come.” This chapter has been pivotal for me in reframing my experience of the Gospel in its working together of Daniel 7 and Matthew 25:31-46. See Christ the King A for much more.
6. A crucial monogram on “Son of Man” is Walter Wink‘s The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man. Wink was an early leader in MT circles, a founder member of COV&R. Later in his career, when this book was written, he had begun to distance himself a bit from MT — this book being quite Jungian. Nevertheless, it is full of valuable insight; I have long used a quote from it (repeated in his book Just Jesus) on the homepage for this website. He comments specifically on Daniel 7 on pages 51-54 and then numerous places throughout in the Gospel references to “Son of Man.”
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong; he devotes a brief section called “Redeeming the Time” to the letter to the Ephesians, pp. 229-232.
2. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2016, “All God’s People, Every Human on the Face of This Earth!“.
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” lecture series, tape #4. These lectures are available online in clips; this portion is covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20. Here are my notes on his reflections for this passage:
Luke 6:17-26 — The Sermon on the Plain: a new ethic
- It’s the Lukan version of the Sermon on the Mount, which is a revelation about how the world really works, and a presentation of the ethics that this new community will have to adopt. The ethics that exist have to do with the way the cultural structures are. The ethics that Jesus is pronouncing have to do with the way the world is. Matthew has a much more elaborate sermon, and it on the mount, the place of revelation and transcendence. Luke has the sermon on the level place, among the people, talking to them about how to live in this world.
- There’s two categories: the multitude and a crowd of disciples. The disciples are those who believe, while the multitude are the curious. These categories are important to keep in mind for vs. 20: “Then he looked up at his disciples and said…” He’s only talking to the disciples. When we hear this passage, it’s almost instinctual for us to assume that it divides between how Christians behave and how non-Christians behave. But in directing this to the disciples, he’s talking about the Christian community. Luke’s community has lots of rich people, lots of well-fed people. He’s not saying this is the way we live, and that’s the way the pagans live. There is a sense of judgment that has more to do with Christians than non-Christians. (More on this later.)
- It’s a diptych of four parallel blessings and woes. The last blessing and woe sum up everything. The first is also important: blessed are the poor points to a whole range of impoverishments, including Matthew’s “poor in spirit.” It’s also present tense: yours is the Kingdom. The next two are future: the hungry will be filled and the weeping will laugh.The fourth blessing and woe have to do with the social element in these things. Rich and poor, hungry and well-fed, weeping and laughing all have social consequences, particularly in first century Palestine. To be poor, hungry, suffering meant that you were out of favor with God, because the old moral economy was based on a divine reward system. It is an economy that floats to the surface even today, after centuries of a gospel which tries to counter it with grace. Recent book: “Jesus C.E.O.,” on how to use faith in Jesus to make it big. When Jesus forgave and healed these outcasts, it had enormous social consequences.
- What will the hungry be filled with? Filled with a sense of joy and meaning once you know what your life of simplicity, poverty, even hardship means in the larger context.
- Laugh at what? That all the weeping will pay-off and earn a few compensatory laughs? I don’t think so. A story from a student: she had gone a retreat at which an exercise was to chart the emotional peaks and valleys in your life. The next task was to locate in your life when you were closest to God. Lo and behold, those times were in the troughs. God was closest when one was broken, and sad, and outside of it. Isn’t this the same answer the biblical text provides? It says, “Look back, and you will be amazed. You will laugh at what you used to weep over. You will realize that it was when you were in the desert that God was there with you.” This isn’t a Pollyanna operation in which you say, “Gee, that wasn’t sad, after all.” It could have been terrible; nevertheless, you realize something that you didn’t when you were in the midst of it. It’s the mystery of liberation which says to us, “You don’t have to be afraid.” It says what the Cross says, loud and clear, “Even here, the God revealed by Jesus is present.” Jesus cry of “My God, why have you forsaken me?” is a prayer. If it was a true forsakenness, then the prayer is a non sequitur (i.e., Why cry out to someone who isn’t actually there?). This verse is not so much a compensatory justice as it is the divine comedy: the tragic and comic can never quite be separated. When you see that suffering and joy are not at war with one another, you are free. It’s a program of liberation, because the spooks we’ve been running from do not have true substance.
- The first three woes are parallels. And, again, they aren’t aimed at another group of folks, the unbelievers. They are still aimed at the disciples. Like that student’s retreat exercise: we all have both valleys and peaks. In these verses, we’re looking back at the peaks, and we see that these are generally the times we’re usually, spiritually speaking, dumb as a post. We’re brain dead. We’re having a nice time. (Recalls old poem he wrote about the fear of dying by a pool at a patio party.)
- A passage from Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:
- And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
- Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
- Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
- Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
- Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
- Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
- Vs. 26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” This is the false ontology that was dealt with in Gil’s series on “The Famished Craving.” If everyone speaks well of you, there’s nothing more intoxicating than that. There’s nothing more capable of sinking us in a delirium about what’s really happening. This is the social approval that can substitute for God (which is why we tend to be spiritually brain dead at these times).
- Simone Weil’s work on affliction as the way in which we come to know the true God. Quote: “The social factor is essential. There is not really affliction unless there is social degradation, or the fear of it in some form or another.”
- Vs. 22-23 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” The true prophets are expelled. In Violence Unveiled, he tries to show that the prophet’s calling has to do with the fact that he is already a social outcast. He is able to see what it is he’s trying to tell them about because he is the victim of their scorn — what Andrew McKenna calls the victim’s “epistemological privilege.” The prophet tries to share the insights that that privilege has made available to him with the people who are in the process of victimizing him.
- “On account of the Son of Man.” What if they revile me because I’m a jerk? My reward in heaven won’t be all that great. Nevertheless, if I’m a jerk, and I’m excluded in a unanimous way such that it is socially generative (Hamerton-Kelly’s GMSM), then I am experiencing it in some way on behalf of the Son of Man, even if unaware of it. The gospel is trying to make us aware of it. Example: John 16:2: “Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” That’s when the generativity is operating.
- Even more profound is Colossians 1:24: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Suggests this reading: each person in the role of the victim does have the opportunity to experience expulsion and reviling on behalf of the Son of Man. As the gospel continues to work in history, these episodes will continue to occur. These kinds of passages are saying, “Don’t run from that. Don’t be too quick to join the crowd. Realize that in that suffering for the Son of Man you are part of the gospel in ways you never dreamed of.” An intimacy with the Christ experience is revealed, so, looking back, it is a joyful thing. The joy doesn’t erase the tremendous sadness at the heart of the gospel, but the sadness and joy exist at the same moment. There are medieval spiritualities that got too caught up in the morosity of the cross; likewise, there is a bubbly resurrection spirituality that isn’t grounded in the crucifixion.
- “Your reward will be great in heaven” Is God some sort of scorekeeper? The kingdom, or heaven, and this world are not separated chronologically. Our experience of them might be chronological: we experience one and then the other. But the kingdom and the world are not themselves separated chronologically. We were closer to this when we used the language of the supernatural (a term we’ve hardly used in fifty years).
2. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories, p. 63. Lesson 3 of Story 1 (“Oppression to Justice”) is on the “Sermon on the Mount.” Bartlett primarily deals with Matthew’s version, but he does make these comments in comparing Luke’s version of the Beatitudes to Matthew’s:
Luke’s Gospel has “you poor” rather than “poor in spirit.” Matthew’s phrasing refers to a condition of poverty that is also an inner state of non-possession, rather than poverty plus envy or resentment. Luke also has “you who are hungry” rather than “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke’s more concrete expressions are likely more original; but Matthew’s expansions are fully consistent.
Finally, the expansion of the “blessing” of persecution to three expressions demonstrates the crucial character of this experience for early Christianity, and the need to underline that the state of persecution without retaliation is part of the joy of the Kingdom.
All in all Jesus announces not law but a life-blessing, one that is deeply paradoxical because it goes along with poverty and powerlessness. Jesus is saying that the purpose of the law is fulfilled in the voluntary nonviolent embrace of these conditions. An entirely new relationship with the violence of existence is proclaimed — one of love, trust, letting-go, forgiveness.
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 32.
4. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong; he comments on the sermon on the mount (or plain) on pp. 81ff. and pp. 143ff. In explaining his term “intelligence of the victim,” he says:
So, for instance, the sermon on the mount paints a picture of blessedness as being related to the choosing of a life that is not part of the violence and power of the world, going so far as to show solidarity with those who are of no account in this world, even if this means suffering victimization because of the option taken. The parallel passage to the beatitudes, the parable of the sheep and goats, shows the same intelligence at work: divine judgement is recast entirely in terms of practical human relationship to victims, independent of formal creeds or group belongings. The only relationship that matters in the judgement is that with the victim. This intelligence is not only present in those passages which obviously and explicitly have to do with victims and persecution (which are not a few), but is present at one remove in all the moral teaching: in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives teaching about the way in which we are constituted in violence — so anger is the equivalent of murder, lust of adultery, and so on. The Law cannot reach this, the constitution of our consciousness (as Paul was to demonstrate forcefully in Galatians and Romans) so Jesus gives a series of teachings about how to break out of violent reciprocity, learning not to be run by the violence of the other (going the second mile and so on). This freedom, when lived, permits us to live gratuitously with relation to others, even if they then victimize us.Lest this sound too like a strategy for coping with an evil world, or some sort of paranoia, it is important to insist that the disciples’ perception, after the resurrection, was that Jesus possessed this intelligence from the beginning, and that the self-giving, the gratuity, was prior to the intelligence. To put this in a different way: Jesus was able to teach about the intelligence of the victim because his human consciousness was not formed in violence but was purely pacifically given and received. Thus he was able to live his life in self-giving, and it was his self-giving that enabled him to understand the intelligence of the victim, and interpret the Jewish scriptures around this central perception.
Link to a webpage with a full explanation of the “intelligence of the victim.”
Reflections and Questions
1. The second and third blessings are in the future tense, the first one is in the present tense: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Is there something more basic about the division between poor and rich which these beatitudes are immediately overthrowing? If we understand that God’s kingdom, God’s culture, is one not based on such divisions, then we are already blessed. We are already beginning to live in God’s culture, even in the midst of those worldly cultures which continue to rely on a division between poor and rich. Our worldly cultures also rely on idolatrous gods who are seen as blessing the rich. This beatitude is obviously a direct challenge to those idols. The true God blesses the poor.
2. I said that God’s culture does not rely on divisions between rich and poor at all. So why does Jesus speak a woe to the rich? Is he still presuming a culture that divides between poor and rich but simply turns the blessings and woes upside-down? I think that Christian liberation groups have often assumed the latter, and so have even gone along with violent overthrow of the rich of this world, an attempt to turn upside-down this world’s order.
I feel it is crucial to let the Girardian anthropology give us another angle on this passage. God’s cultural order does not depend on divisions between rich and poor. The miracle of the fishes and loaves are among those signs from Jesus that God is a God of abundance. There is enough for everyone. We don’t have to presume a scarcity (which capitalism, for example, still does presume), which also presumes some will be among the haves and some among the have nots.
Then why the woes to this world’s rich? In the present tense, they are the ones most likely to continue to live by this world’s consolations. They already benefit from this world’s cultural order and are not likely open to living by God’s cultural order.
3. Gil Bailie‘s noticing of Jesus turning his attention to his disciples is also important here. Luke’s audience of disciples is generally agreed upon to have contained the greatest number of wealthy folks. It is not a coincidence, then, that Luke’s gospel has by far the most challenges to disciples about material possessions. It would seem strange for Luke to direct a message to his wealthy congregants that describes some ultimate new order that leaves them woefully on the outside. It makes more sense that he would lift up a pen-ultimate reversing of this world’s order as a needed challenge to coax such members into beginning to live in God’s order today. Their wealth is a woeful stumbling block to their opening themselves to God’s cultural order.
4. Another example in the modern world of such worldly orders vs. God’s order is that of racism. As a white person, I benefit everyday from our cultural institutions that for hundreds of years have been slanted in my favor. It is like bicycling with the wind: I’m not even aware of the privileges. But people of color are bicycling against the wind and are constantly aware of the privileges working against them. If God’s cultural order is about transforming such orders based on privilege, then people of color will hear that message much more readily than I and open themselves to living in its blessings. To me, such a call to live in a new order will be a call to give up the privileges of this world’s order. Such a call will appear as a woe to me, not a blessing. It is only when I give up this world’s way of ordering altogether, a way which is always founded in some manner of sacred victimage, that I can count myself as blessed. To this world, I will perhaps still need to talk about that in terms of giving up privilege, which will seem like a woe. Jesus does not immediately give up the blessing and woe language in speaking to those in a world that still relies on it. But he will be about the business of transforming our language and our experience into an ultimate experience of abundance and life, an order in which all will be filled and all will know joy.
5. Link to the 2001 sermon that ties several of these threads together, entitled “Facing the Powers of Death in this World, That We Might Share the Power of Life in God’s Anti-World.”
6. In 2004, this Sunday fell five days after George W. Bush’s re-election, and all the post-election talk was about “moral values” voters. Exit polls showed that the Bush campaign had succeeded in getting nearly a quarter of voters to vote moral issues ahead of others — particularly two morals issues, opposition to abortion and gay marriage. See, of example, this email that went out to “evangelicals” in the week leading up to the election, “USA – READ THIS SUNDAY to your church!”, by Stephen Strader. It occurred to me in reading this Gospel Lesson that the “moral values” reflected in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain go much, much deeper than abortion or gay marriage to fundamental values that I heard neither candidate address. The result was a sermon entitled “Jesus’ Campaign on ‘Moral Issues.’”
7. Link to the 2010 sermon “Connections in the Spirit.” Part of growing into the post-Lutheranism of the Emerging Church is to recover the centrality of St. Paul’s “life in the Spirit,” which has been much neglected in favor of a justification theology that focuses on the Cross in neglect of the Resurrection.