Last revised: January 17, 2021
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THE EPIPHANY OF OUR LORD (January 6)
RCL: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
RoCa: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
I believe that a key to reading Matthew’s Gospel is a thorough-going, integrated contrast between human Empire and the “kingdom of heaven” which Jesus comes to inaugurate. Human empires operate by force and terror. The kingdom of heaven chooses to suffer the violence of human empire rather than mimic it or try to compete with it. (For more on Matthew’s Jesus portraying the kingdom of heaven as suffering violence, see the Gospel Reading, Matt. 11:2-11, for Advent 3A.) The climax of Matthew’s contrast will be the passion narrative, but the so-called judgment parables also provide a lead-up to the dénouement. In our treatment of these parables on girardianlectionary.net, we refrain from reading the masters and kings in them as representing God. The violence and injustice of these parabolic figures represent human imperialism, not the kingdom of heaven. (For a summary of this approach to Matthew’s parables, see Proper 28A.)
The Epiphany story of the Magi provides the opening volley of the contrasting divine and human reigns. In 2017, as the first ‘season’ of the reality show known as the Trump Presidency was about to debut, Sojourners offered this timely Epiphany essay by Kate Jones Calone, “When the Wise Men Refused to Collaborate with Empire.”
Two years later in 2019 the stark contrasts in politics, human and divine, were even more evident. I used Herod as a foil for understanding the Christian idea of original sin as something more than a tendency for individuals to sin that is passed on through the ages. No, Mimetic Theory helps us to see that the reason why original sin is so persistent is that it infects the collective dimension of who we are. We are enculturated into sinful collectives. Sin enslaves our politics into entrenched modes of Us-vs-Them. So if God in Jesus Christ is healing our tribalism (where we began this preaching theme on July 22), saving us from politics of sacred violence, then the call to discipleship is also a call to embody a different politics. Here are the Sermon Notes for 2019.
Addendum: In the week after Epiphany in 2019, Brian Zahnd‘s new book Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile was released. Chapter 5, “In the Time of Tyrant Kings,” begins with Herod the Great and the contrast of kingdoms in Matthew’s story of Christmas, which remains the central illustration throughout the chapter. Here is a summary paragraph near the end:
Much of the prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible is a sustained critique of tyrant kings and kingdoms — Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece. And by the time we arrive at the opening pages of the New Testament, it’s Caesar Augustus and client kings like Herod who sit atop the pyramid structure of society, making sure tyranny benefits those on top. But now a new king is born — a king whose birth portends such significance that it draws magi from a thousand miles away and provokes a paranoid king to infanticidal rage. An alternative kingdom, a redemptive regime, has invaded earth. Joy to the world! Herod’s days are numbered. The old king has one foot in the grave and his dynasty is headed for an ignoble end, while the new king whose kingdom will never end is wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The magi discerned the birth of the King of the Jews in the stars, but the king himself was born in a cave. It had to be that way. For in the kingdom of God, greatness is not achieved by reaching for the stars, but by love’s willing descent into lowliness, meekness, and humility. The new King, the King of Kings, will not sit atop an elaborate pyramid scheme, but will stoop to wash the feet of his disciples. Something truly new entered the world at Bethlehem! (p. 76)
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, cited on p. 59. In this proclamation of Good News to Jerusalem, Isaiah says, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Schwager notes the contrast with Jesus’ words of judgement on Jerusalem:
In that saying where Jesus so explicitly spoke of the wishes of those who opposed his task of assembly, he also gave a precise description of the forces hostile to him. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you. How often would I have…” (Matt. 23:37). Jerusalem, the holy and chosen city, in which the “holy people” and the “redeemed of the LORD” (Isa. 62:1-12) were meant to come together and which was destined to be a place of peace for the nations (see Isa. 60:1-22; Zech. 9:9-11), was experienced by Jesus in a very different way, namely, as a city of murderers of the prophets. The contrast between the promise and the judgment which he delivered could hardly be greater. This opposition invites us to look for a deeper interpretation of Jesus’ words of judgment. Before asking how Jesus came to his judgment, we must take note of other utterances which point in a similar direction.
In the parable of the wicked winegrowers, Israel’s leaders are addressed as those who systematically persecute and kill the master’s servants and finally even the last messenger, the beloved son (Mark 12:1-12 and parallels). In this parable, rejection with violence appears as the recurring denominator in the wicked actions of the winegrowers (leaders of Israel), and from this point of view a continuity is suggested between the fate of the prophets and that of Jesus. The problem of violence thereby holds a structural importance for the understanding of the entire Scriptures. (p. 59)
The main problem addressed by Schwager’s book, and by any Girardian who ventures into Christian theology, is what to do about the words of judgment if one is to maintain that the revelation in Jesus Christ shows us a God who is completely nonviolent, and who saves us from our violence by sending Jesus into the midst of it. Jesus suffers the violence without returning it. Or does he? What about the words of judgment?
One of Schwager’s primary strategies is to emphasize the story of Jesus as an unfolding drama. In Act 1, at the outset of his ministry, Jesus comes proclaiming the Kingdom of God as a love of God, even toward God’s enemies, such that forgiveness enables repentance (see excerpt on “God’s Turning toward His Enemies“). But in Act 2, Jesus begins to experience the resistance to this Good News, primarily on the part of those for whom the status quo seems preferable. This is where the above quote enters in, as Schwager begins to diagnose the opposing will. Jesus’ words of judgment are basically words diagnosing a self-judgment on the part of those who would resist such Good News. He takes us these words of judgment more fully in one of my favorite sections of the book, “Doubling of Sin and Hell” (excerpt).
The problem still remains, however:
But does it make a difference whether an angry God damns people or whether a “kind” God looks on as his creatures damn themselves almost of necessity? The result is the same. So the pressing question faces us: is Jesus’ message of salvation after all really a message of salvation? (p. 81)
To get the full answer, it’s best to read Schwager’s book, as he takes the reader carefully through the drama of Jesus. In Act 3, the bringer of salvation is himself brought to judgment and crucified. In Act 4, the Resurrection signals the Heavenly Father’s judgment. It is the latter which must especially clear up the question of those who damn themselves by resisting God’s love. Here is what I take as Schwager’s primary answer to that question — and notice that it is followed up by the same passage which follows up our initial quote on page 59, the parable of the wicked winegrowers:
In the resurrection brought about by the Father it is consequently not enough to see merely a verdict for his Son and against those who opposed him. Certainly, this view is correct, as Jesus’ opponents are convicted as sinners. But the verdict of the heavenly Father is above all a decision for the Son who gave himself up to death for his opponents. It is therefore, when considered more deeply, also a verdict in favor of sinners. The opponents of the kingdom of God, closing themselves off, had the way to salvation once more opened for them by the Son, who allowed himself to be drawn into their darkness and distance from God. Although they had already turned their backs, as far as they were concerned, the self-giving of the Son got around this hardening of hearts once more, insofar as he allowed himself to be made the victim of their self-condemnation.
The saving dimension of the Easter message, and the revelation of God contained in it, can be clarified from yet another angle. In the parable of the wicked winegrowers (Mark 12:1-12 and parallels) a lord is presented who at first acts with unfathomable goodness, in that, after the rejection and killing of several servants, he even risks his own son. This goodness however comes to an end, for after the murder of his beloved son it is transformed into retribution, and the violent winegrowers are in their turn killed. (1) But the heavenly Father in his Easter “judgment” acted differently from the master of the vineyard in the parable. Even the murder of his son did not provoke in him a reaction of vengeful retribution, but he sent the risen one back with the message “Peace be with you!” (Luke 24:36; see also John 20:19, 26) to those disciples who at the critical moment had allowed themselves to be drawn into the camp of the opponents of the kingdom of God. The judge’s verdict at Easter was consequently not only a retrospective confirmation of the message of Jesus, but it also contained a completely new element, namely, forgiveness for those who had rejected the offer of pure forgiveness itself and persecuted the Son. Through the Easter message of peace there came about a redoubling of that readiness to forgive expressed in the message of the basileia, a pardon for the earlier nonacceptance of pardon. It could be summed up in that saying from the Old Testament, which, taken together with the parable of the wicked wine-growers and seen in the light of Easter, says something quite new and can serve as the hermeneutical key to the Gospels: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was accomplished by the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Mark 12:10). The miracle of Good Friday and of Easter once again embraces those people who hardened their hearts and made their decision against the Son. A rightly understood doctrine of the atoning death is therefore, even when seen from the viewpoint of Easter, not in opposition to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it is precisely the peace of Easter which shows how the Father of Jesus willingly forgives, even in the face of people’s hardened hearts. (pp. 135-136)
Essentially, this leads us right back to where the drama started: a love that even extends to one’s enemies. God models such love with a ‘judgment’ that brings salvation to sinners, i.e., to God’s enemies. Jesus has not just preached it. He has incarnated it, by giving himself up to the violence of God’s enemies, with a love that cannot be vanquished — in fact, it instead brings the power of new life in the Spirit (Act 5).
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong; Alison does a brief exposition of the letter to the Ephesians in the section “Redeeming the Time,” pp. 229-232.
1. See resources on Matthew 2 at Christmas 1A.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from December 31, 2000, sermon from January 6, 2002 (Woodside Village Church); sermon from January 5, 2003; sermon from January 4, 2004; and sermon from January 7, 2007; and sermon from January 6, 2008; and sermon from January 4, 2009; and sermon from January 3, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
4. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on the text in 2013, “Outcasts at the Manger“; a brief essay on this passage in 2015, “In Exile with Jesus“; in 2017, “Sharing God’s Riches“; and in 2020, “Gifts to the Universal King.” Also, since I made use of the movie Les Miserables in my 2013 sermon (below), see Marr’s post “A Miserable Gospel.”
5. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “The Absolute Tenderness of God“; a sermon in 2017, “A Plan from the Beginning of Time“; a sermon in 2019, “Secret Plans.”
6. My favorite commentary reflections on this passage are from Stanley Hauerwas, The Brazos Theological Commentary on Matthew, Chapter 2, on Matthew 2. He is eloquent in posing the contrast of kingdoms:
Jesus is eventually killed under Rome’s authority, and at the time his death will mean nothing to Rome. How could Rome know that this man would be the most decisive political challenge it would face? Rome knew how to deal with enemies: you kill them or co-opt them. But how do you deal with a movement, a kingdom whose citizens refuse to believe that violence will determine the meaning of history? The movement that Jesus begins is constituted by people who believe that they have all the time in the world, made possible by God’s patience, to challenge the world’s impatient violence by cross and resurrection. (p. 37)
Yet the movement is patient in a world still beset with much suffering. The slaughter of the children which immediately follows this passage provides a quick reminder, a large dose of reality — giving rise to the paragraph in this chapter I find most insightful:
Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants. Christians are tempted to believe that the death of the children of Bethlehem “can be redeemed” by Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection. Donald MacKinnon, however, insists that such a reading of the gospels, in particular the destruction of the innocents of Bethlehem, is perverse. For MacKinnon, the victory of the resurrection does not mean that these children are any less dead or their parents any less bereaved, but rather resurrection makes it possible for followers of Jesus not to lie about the world that we believe has been redeemed (1979, [“Ethics and Tragedy,”] 182-95 [in Explorations in Theology, Vol. 5, London: SCM]). (p. 41)
In 2013, these were painfully poignant words since only weeks before Adam Lanza had slaughtered twenty children in Newtown, CT.
Questions and Reflections
1. In 2015 the focus point is a verse just several verses before the Gospel Reading:
“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21)
What does it mean to be saved from our sins? Biblical scholars are increasingly coming to the conclusion that what it has come to mean after 2000 years of Christianity as a religion is quite different than what it meant within a First Century Jewish worldview. Ask the average Christian what it means and it will be something like this: “The penalty for our sins is death, so God sent Jesus to take the punishment for us, that all those who believe in him get receive eternal life” (meaning life-after-death in heaven for an eternity). How do we begin to unlearn 2000 years of reading and see these texts as Jesus and the Apostles saw them? That, first of all, salvation had nothing to do with life after death — except in the sense of resurrection on the Day of Resurrection, to live in a world where God reigns with justice? And that, secondly, with the death and resurrection of Jesus that reign begins now? What we are being saved from is bad kings like Herod. What we are being saved from are empires like Rome where God’s people exist in exile on the margins. And so it is a vision that embraces all peoples. To save us from our sins entails saving us as an entire species from the evolved way of our origins in which we came to order ourselves sacrificially.
In 2015 Can We Survive Our Origins? Readings in René Girard’s Theory of Violence and the Sacred had just been released, a collection of essays (edited by Pierpaulo Antonello and Paul Gifford) that essentially reflects on the meaning of salvation in our modern context. From the back cover:
It asks: How far do cultural mechanisms of controlling violence, which allowed humankind to cross the threshold of hominization — i.e., to survive and develop in its evolutionary emergence — still represent today a default setting that threatens to destroy us? Can we transcend them and escape their field of gravity? Should we look to — or should we look beyond — Darwinian survival? What — and where (if anywhere) — is salvation?
This book is not for the faint-hearted as it reflects on our time in history as a crossroads moment in our evolution, since we finally possess the real potential to destroy ourselves. From the introduction:
“The selfsame mechanisms that allowed humankind to emerge, survive, and thrive biologically — and the very inventions that drove forward a new evolutionary phase, engaging the culture-programmed, civilizing social existence of Homo sapiens — are also the default mechanisms that mortgage human moral progress and threaten to foreclose the human future. We thus walk the fine line between Progress and Abyss.” (p. xxii)
If a majority of Christians continue to read “salvation” as ‘going to heaven when we die,’ will we miss our calling to participate in the ways that God is saving us from our sins of self-destruction? God’s reign has begun in Jesus Christ with the power to save us from our origins and lead us into new ways of ordering ourselves. Paul in Rom 5:12-21 proclaims this essentially as Homo sapiens 2.0. Yet creation continues to suffer, waiting for the revealing of the children of God. We continue to await the fulfillment of of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”
2. In 2013 the movie Les Miserables had opened on Christmas Day. It was fresh for me as I wrote a sermon “A Gift of Love to Share,” using the typology of Jean Valjean and Javert to represent God’s gift of Jesus as the divine way of mercy and compassion and Herod’s reaction to the gift from the standpoint of the human way of law and order. Valjean receives the gift of mercy and compassion from the Bishop Myriel and has a conversion experience to lead a life of sharing that gift with others. Human beings have a way of justice based on a wrathful god. Valjean in his prayer scenes prays to the God of mercy and compassion. Javert in his prayer scene, standing on a rooftop high above the city, prays to the god of law and order. Which god is the God we see in Jesus Christ? Recent centuries of Christian theology, based on the Anselmian atonement, has answered, “Both.” God’s way of justice, in the Anselmian logic, is the same as human justice in its dependence on a wrathful god who punishes wrongdoing. No human being, because of the gravity of our sin, can satisfy God’s wrath. But God is also merciful in sending the gift of the Son as the sinless one who can satisfy God’s wrath. God is both the wrathful god of folks like Javert, but God is also the merciful God known by Valjean and all who claim the cross as God’s act of mercy to save us from eternal damnation.
A difference I bring out in the sermon is our recent Anselmian versions of atonement have focused on the afterlife: God’s mercy saves believers for heaven. The passing on of the gift of mercy to others in this life is thus similarly focused on the afterlife — helping others to believe the right things about atonement in Jesus so that they can also experience the mercy of being saved for the afterlife. But Valjean’s experience of mercy in Les Miserables is very much this-world focused. He experiences mercy from the dregs of human law and order, and he turns it into a life of showing mercy to others in this life. Isn’t this part of the difference that has alienated more recent generations from the church? They experience Christians as hypocrites who talk a merciful God without more fully living it in this life.
Mimetic Theory, of course, is also behind this sermon as helping us to understand the ultimate disconnect of Ansemian atonement, in the first place. The whole business of a wrathful God is revealed as our idolatry to back our system of justice. God’s justice in Jesus Christ is one wholly of mercy and compassion. MT answers the question about God differently. God is not both wrath and mercy. As John tells us, God is Love. Period. That is where this 2013 sermon comes out. For more on MT and atonement, see the page “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement.”
3. Left out of the above sermon is an anticipated reaction by those who still find Anselmian atonement attractive: what about the passages in the Gospels where Jesus speaks words of judgment that seem to presume a God of wrath? A response in terms of Les Miserables is to point out that Jesus’ words of judgment are almost always to the Javert’s of his day, i.e., those who are charged with upholding the human system of law and order. Spoiler alert: And I left this out of the sermon because the point is best made by revealing a crucial moment in the drama of Les Miserables: When Valjean shows Javert mercy during the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, Javert cannot live in the world of mercy and takes his own life. Steadfastly choosing to live a a world of human condemnation, he condemns himself to die. This is a perfect illustration of a Girardian reading of Jesus’ words of judgment in the Gospels: that Jesus understands the consequences of upholders of human law who refuse to step into God’s world of mercy, preferring the gods of wrath.
4. For regular readers of these pages, you are aware of one of the most important New Testament readings for me regarding the gods of wrath: namely, what I see as Paul’s reworking of wrath in Romans, made even more poignant since Douglas Campbell‘s stunning new reading of Romans that postulates Romans 1:18-32 [The Deliverance of God] as Paul speaking in the voice of his opponent. For more on this, see the relevant portion of “My Core Convictions.”
5. Why is the traditional Anselmian Atonement such a hot topic on these pages and among Girardians in general? Because it puts us right back into the ancient logic of sacrifice that Jesus came to reveal and end. It completely revives the gods of wrath that we need to preside over our human sacrificial enterprises. Tony Bartlett — in his great book on the subject, Cross Purposes — places Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo in its historical context and invites us to see that the articulation of this sacrificial theology and the launching of the First Crusade are not mere coincidence. The gods of wrath behind the sacrifice are essential foundation for all our sacrificial enterprises. We might say that the logical end of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo is the Holocaust of Nazi Germany — the latter of which I pray is the madness that is finally waking us up to ending sacrificial Atonement as the centerpiece of Christian theology. Is it now mere historical coincidence that in the aftermath of the Holocaust (translating the Hebrew word shoah meaning “sacrifice,” or “burnt offering”) that Anselmian Atonement is increasing under question and abandoned? In my opinion, the biggest mistake of the Reformation was leaving Anselmian Atonement in place. In fact, it tragically became central over the last five hundred years to what we meant by God’s mercy — while also leaving in place a god of wrath who presides over the holocaust of eternal damnation in hell.
6. Which brings us to the other Christian doctrine most in need of abandonment in the New Reformation, hell — which Rob Bell‘s book Love Wins has seemingly brought to a head. As I’ve used Bell’s book in teaching and met resistance to questioning hell, I’ve recently adjusted my teaching on hell from understanding Gehenna as the landfill outside Jerusalem to placing more emphasis on the OT references to it as a place of child sacrifice. Here’s what I have (in 2013) more recently written:
In the NRSV Jesus speaks of hell eleven times (seven in Matthew, three in Mark, one in Luke). In each instance the English translation of the Greek Gehenna is hell. Gehenna is a place, a valley south of Jerusalem, which in Hebrew is ben Hinnom (ben being Hebrew for son of). Some say ben Hinnom was at the time of Jesus a place of perpetual fires burning trash, a landfill, while others say the evidence is spotty.
There is one place, however, where the evidence is crystal clear: in Hebrew Scriptures. The Valley of the Son of Hinnom is named five times in the Old Testament as the place where the people of Israel were unfaithful to Yahweh, specifically by burning their children on altars of sacrifice: 2 Chron 28:1-3, 33:1-6; Jeremiah 7:30-32, 19:1-6, 32:33-35. Child sacrifice had been prohibited by Yahweh when Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac on an altar in Genesis 22. Later prophets all said that God didnt wanted blood sacrifice of any kind (e.g. Micah 6:6-8). And in the New Testament Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, when he says, Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (Matt. 9:13; repeated in 12:7).
It is vital to understand that in all human cultures, including Hebrew, ancient blood sacrifice was a practice of substituting lesser violence for greater violence, e.g. sacrificing an animal instead of killing a person. In more extreme cases, as when war threatened, the sacrifice was more extreme, e.g. killing one child on an altar was seen as a lesser violence than losing all the children in an all-out war. So when Jesus spoke of Gehenna, he was likely referring to the place of blood sacrifice.
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, You shall not murder; and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, You fool, you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt. 5:21-22)
Hell of fire is literally Gehennas fire, the fire of child sacrifice. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls it all into question. He is saying that unless one faithfully follows him in the way of love, then anger and verbal violence might as well lead to the most extreme of sacrificial solutions, child sacrifice. Hell is choosing to stay stuck with old sacrificial solutions instead of following Jesus in the way of love.
7. [Spoiler alert once again for the last two points:] To say that Javert in Les Miserables ends in hell is not to say that he is damned to eternal condemnation. It is to say that he suffered the terrible consequences at the ending of his earthly life of remaining stuck with the old sacrificial solutions. When the movie ends with all the dead singing in Paris, I looked for Javert and didn’t see him — perhaps a missed opportunity by the screenwriter to say that God’s mercy extends beyond ours. Or perhaps the movie’s portrayal is correct to the extent that the Javert’s of this life tragically refuse to live with mercy even in the afterlife. Who can say for sure?
8. Javert’s suicide brings to mind for me Brian McLaren‘s apt metaphor for current Western culture as a suicide machine, in his magnum opus book Everything Must Change. The tragedy in our current suicide is that we are largely unaware of it. That’s why it’s so important for the followers of Jesus to also retain his words of judgment — which are not warnings about the danger of eternal damnation but warnings against suffering the consequences of remaining stuck in our sacrificial ways. God’s Way of peace and justice through the power of love, God’s Kingdom, has been inaugurated in the Way of Jesus Christ. We now have an alternative foundation for our culture. The redemption of human culture itself is underway. But would-be followers of Jesus will continue to impede the progress of the Kingdom more than help it until we abandon our ‘traditional’ doctrines of Atonement and hell, which keep us stuck in the sacrificial ways of the First Adam. In short: Anselmian Atonement and our typical ideas of hell are props for the suicide machine, and so deflating them is important work toward disciples being able to join in the Spirit’s work of redeeming our suicide machine into a life-enhancing machine that fulfills our stewardship with God. Meanwhile, thank God we have a message of unconditional grace, that God has acted through the Second Adam to redeem our original way of founding culture. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as in heaven.”
Note from Jesus in the Drama of Salvation