Last revised: September 16, 2003
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ST. MATTHEW, APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST (September 21)
Ezekiel 2:8-3:11; Eph. 2:4-10; Matthew 9:9-13
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, chapter 5, “Kings and Prophets: Sacred Lot and Divine Calling,” pp. 129-162, with pp. 145-146, 156-157 more specifically on Ezekiel. The chapter as a whole gives a great introduction to a Girardian reading of the role of prophet. Of Ezekiel’s call, Williams says:
Ezekiel’s call to prophesy is evidently connected to his throne vision (Ezek 1). This is a vision of God coming to be with his people in exile in which the divine is revealed in likeness upon likeness: “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking” (Ezek 1:28). The voice of one speaking commands him to speak to a people who will resist the divine word. Ezekiel’s call to prophesy includes the symbolic action of eating a scroll; on the scroll are written “words of lamentation and mourning and woe” (2:10). When he eats it, he says, “It was in my mouth as sweet as hone” (3:3). The prophetic word involves speaking of what is bitter to the community addressed but sweet to the prophet. This again indicates the prophet’s sense of being an exception, of being singled out, of being unlike all the others. Ezekiel is to serve in the role of watchman for the house of Israel (3:16). Undoubtedly, the role of watchman was already well known in the prophetic tradition (see Hos 9:8). What is new here is the understanding of the responsibility of the prophet, whose blood will be required for those who have not been warned of God’s judgment. The concept of exchange, the life of the prophet for the life of those in the community whom he does not warn, is quite striking. It shows that although Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, has begun to think in terms of individual moral responsibility, he is still very much immersed in the language of the sacred, which is at bottom the language of the sacred as violence. I will comment on this further in the next section of the chapter.
2. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, ch. 5, “Moving On: The Exilic Transformation of Anger into Love.” The second major section, “Jewish Hints,” is an exposition of the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a priest who found the exile and destruction of the temple devastating. He was coaxed to gradually “move on.” Alison summarizes:
How Ezekiel has moved on! He has moved from a man of spurned love, to a man who, from within the whirlwind of that anger, has begun to see glimpses of a hard-won love, the breakthrough into his heart of the breath of Yahweh. Little by little it has been that love that has turned out to be what the breath of Yahweh was all about, until slowly, oh so slowly, there has emerged the tone of a strong but gentle voice which builds up, bringing into life, loving people, re-creating, and tending towards catholicity. Ezekiel’s journey brings into focus a number of milestones in the much huger journey that is the Yahwist revolution. His life is a magnificent example of the dislocation and recreation of being which began when Abram left behind the city of Ur, the city of his father and his idols.The point that I have wanted to drive home, is that it seems fair to inscribe Ezekiel’s journey within the three stages of (1) spurned love, pierced by a vision of God which it is as yet unable fully to take on board. This is followed by (2) a long process of working through the spurned love, and beginning to glimpse what I have called hard-won love, a non-reactive love which tends to bring together. This yields finally to (3) the relaxing into a gratuitous upbuilding, creative love which empowers the imagination to project and work towards building a huge catholicity of life: the discovery of God as creator and lover of all humanity with a project of bringing people into mutual rejoicing. (pp. 117-118)
1. I highly recommend reading James Alison‘s essay published in two places: ch. 1 in Faith Beyond Resentment, “The man blind from birth and the Creator’s subversion of sin,” 3-26; in Contagion (Spring, 1997) called “The Man Blind from Birth and the Subversion of Sin: Some Questions about Fundamental Morals,” 26-46. Here is a passage that puts Matthew 9:13 at its center:
In this sense it seems to me that the key instruction of the New Testament with relation to moral discourse, and it is a doubly sacred instruction, for it is one of the surprisingly few places where Jesus quotes the Hebrew Scriptures with absolute approval; the key instruction for those of us who are trying to make use of the religious word in some moral sense, and there is no moral theology that is not that, is:
“But go and learn what it means: I want mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matt 9:13, quoting Hos 6:6)
Please notice that this is now no longer an instruction just for the Pharisees, but is, so to speak, the program-guide for whoever tries to do moral theology. Being good can never do without the effort to learn, step by step, and in real circumstances of life, how to separate religious and moral words from an expelling mechanism, which demands human sacrifice, so as to make of them words of mercy which absolve, which loose, which allow Creation to be brought to completion. And this means that there is no access to goodness which does not pass through our own discovery of our complicity in hypocrisy, for it is only as we identify with the righteous just of the story that we realize how “good” their procedure was, how careful, scrupulous, law-abiding, they were, and thus, how catastrophic our goodness can be, if we don’t learn step by step how to get out of solidarity with the mechanism of the construction of the unity of the group by the exclusion of whoever is considered to be evil. (p. 41)
2. See also Proper 5A, for both Matt. 9:13 and the Hosea 6:6 passage that Jesus quoted.
3. Link to a sampling of prophetic passages on the theme of “Mercy not Sacrifice.”
Reflections and Questions
1. To modern ears, “mercy not sacrifice” might be confusing because we have come hear “sacrifice” as self-sacrifice. In the cross, Jesus subverts from within the old sacrifice into self-sacrifice. The preacher might want to make the ancient practice of sacrifice more explicit. As the Letter to the Hebrews says of Christ, “Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself ” (Hebrews 9:25-26). The ancient practice of sacrifice shed another’s blood. Christ ends the need for such sacrifice by letting his own blood be shed.
Girard in his early writings (e.g., Things Hidden, pp. 227ff.) wasn’t satisfied with this rendering. Hebrews is not explicit enough about where the demand for sacrifice comes in the first place. A gospel anthropology finally makes explicit that demand for sacrifice is of an anthropological compulsion, not a theological one. It arises out of our swirling desires, not God’s clear desire of mercy (agape-love). The prophetic message established a tradition of making this increasingly clear: God desires mercy not sacrifice. God never desired sacrifice. Since the foundation of our human worlds, we have come to worship the ones we collectively murdered, and it was these false gods of our making that have demanded sacrifice — not the Living God whom Jesus came to reveal to us. And the revelation of the true God was necessarily at the same time that the risen and forgiving victim of the cross revealed to us our sacrificing nature. We can finally experience God’s true desire when we recognize the idolatrous projection of our desires upon God.
2. How, then, do we assess the typical atonement theories that rely on some form of substitution? For substitution is a consistent outcome of sacrifice. The basic logic of sacrifice is to substitute one victim of collective violence for the rest of the community. Doesn’t the standard atonement theory simply reinforce this logic, where Christ is substituted for those who believe in him? Girard’s gospel anthropology makes it clear that we are saved not by such a substitution but from such substitution at all. The logic of substitution is our logic, never God’s. We need to be saved from our logic of peace through sacrifice in order to see God’s logic of mercy, that is, of unconditional love and forgiveness. God’s logic (logos) is one of grace, free gift.
Mark Heim‘s two part essay offers Girard’s work as an alternative to substitutionary atonement. In “Christ Crucified: Why does Jesus’ death matter?” (The Christian Century, March 7, 2001, Vol. 118, No. 8, pp.12-17), Heim lays out the problems that modern folks experience with the traditional theories of atonement, and with the sheer violence of the cross itself. “Visible Victim: Christ’s death to end sacrifice” (The Christian Century, March 14, 2001, Vol. 118, No. 9, pp.19-23) is an excellent introduction to Girard’s work around the modern reaction of scandal to the cross. Link to an online version: Part 1, on atonement theories in general; Part 2, on Girard’s anthropology as a key to a more plausible atonement theory.