Last revised: December 14, 2019
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THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT — YEAR A
RCL: Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
RoCa: Isaiah 35:1-6, 10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
Mimetic Theory identifies two points of interest in today’s Gospel Lesson that speak to elements of a New Reformation. The first involves the centrality of scandal — skandalon in the Greek. Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who are not scandalized at me.’ Girard thematized the New Testament use of skandalon as the naming the dynamics of mimetic desire which lead to interpersonal violence, which can organize around a victim into sacred violence. A bibliography can be found below.
The second point of interest is somewhat of my own making. For I am adding a verse to the assigned lectionary passage. I find Matthew 11:12 to be a candidate for the most important single verse in the Gospel of Matthew: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Matthew’s Gospel is the only one which has Jesus using the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” — and uses it 24 times! (See a complete list.) It seems to me that telling us that the kingdom of heaven is suffering violence is a huge clue, one that helps our reading of the many kingdom parables. (A great example is a paper by W. Martin Aiken, delivered at the COV&R 2003 conference in Innsbruck, on Matt. 22:1-14: “The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence.”)
Why does the lectionary stop short of this verse? It could be because the key word biazetai, “suffer violence,” has caused a history of translation problems. In Greek the middle and passive voice are the same in the indicative. Biazetai is one of those instances of the middle/passive, such that it has been translated both in the middle as “forcefully advancing,” NIV, as well as the more common passive rendering, “suffering violence” — basically the opposite! Major theologians have lined up on both sides of this translation issue.
The middle voice in Greek is usually quite tricky and subtle to translate into English, often requiring different words from either the active or passive voice. For example, the Greek archo means “to rule,” with the passive (archomai) meaning, “to be ruled.” But the middle voice (also archomai) is usually translated “to begin.” The difficulty of the middle voice, as described in my Greek grammar book (New Testament Greek for Beginners, by J. Gresham Machen [Toronto: Macmillan, 1923], p. 57) is this: “The middle voice represents the subject as acting in some way that concerns itself, or as acting upon something that belongs to itself.” So in the English it often takes a reflexive pronoun.
I have a proposal for translating biazetai in Matt. 11:12 in the middle voice: “the kingdom of heaven chooses to suffer violence.” Does the intentional choice of suffering violence help to capture somewhat of a reflexive character? In any case, what I’m proposing here is what Walter Wink refers to as “Jesus’ Third Way.” Jesus never chooses to inflict violence, and his suffering violence isn’t truly passive. Rather, Jesus chooses a third way of responding to violence in between fight and flight. He suffers violence as an intentional choice. Perhaps, he is claiming this third way for the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s Gospel through using the middle voice of biazetai.
If I’m right about the centrality of this verse in Matthew’s proclamation of the Gospel, then this is another crucial piece of evidence in favor of a central element in the New Reformation: God and the kingdom of heaven are entirely nonviolent. In fact, the kingdom of heaven seeks to undo and heal human violence by choosing to suffer it — most preeminently on the cross.
2. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred. His general summary of Isaiah is as follows:
Isaiah prophesied about 745-700 B.C.E. His vision of the new age includes a new Davidic king (Isa 9:1-7; 11:1-8), but there is no clear evidence that he knew or appealed to the Exodus-Sinai tradition. Likewise unclear is his view of how the sacrificial cult began. But there is no doubt that he condemns it in unmistakable terms. In fact, the connection of sacrifice and violence is made more explicitly than in Hosea and Amos. Those who bring “vain offerings,” who think YHWH delights “in the blood of bulls,” have hands “full of blood.” This image, whether hyperbole or not, pictures mass violence and murder. The prophetic alternative is an ethical exhortation given in a staccato series of brief imperatives:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Torah, which for Isaiah is synonymous with the word of YHWH (1:10), does not make victims in cult offerings or in any sort of violence. Rather, it draws all the peoples to it in peace and leads them to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4). This vision of the new age mentions “the house of the God of Jacob,” undoubtedly a reference to the Temple, but quite strikingly there is no mention at all of a reconstituted sacrificial cult. The “house of Jacob” is associated with torah, with teaching, not with sacrifice (2:3). (pp. 151-152)
The wider context of Williams’ comments on Isaiah is chapter 5, a Girardian reading of biblical view on “Kings and Prophets: Sacred Lot and Divine Calling,” pp. 129-162.
1. The imagery here involves a way through the wilderness for God’s people to go come to God. But the startling thing is that God first comes to us to prepare the way for us.
2. Vs. 4b: “He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.” For me this is another example of the “text in travail.” It is on the way to knowing who God is, but still falls short. Perhaps, in terms of our observation in #1, we could say that God needed to come to us first in Jesus Christ for our eyes and ears to finally be opened to God’s forgiveness that will finally someday lead us through the wilderness of vengeance.
Matthew 11:2-11 
1. Matthew 11:6: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
In Greek: kai makarios estin hos ean me skandalisthe en emoi.
Because skandal– is such a central notion to Girard’s mimetic theory, this verse (and its Q parallel in Luke 7:23) is one of the most oft quoted in Girardian sources. Below is a partial list, along with some explication. For a more complete explication see the webpage “René Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon.”
In Greek: apo de tōn hēmerōn Iōannou to baptistou heōs arti hē basileia tōn ouranōn biazetai kai biastai harpazousin autēn.
As mentioned above in the opening comments, the translation of biazetai has been a problem throughout history because its declension is the same for both middle and passive voice for the indicative verb, yielding quite disparate, basically opposite, meanings. Gottlob Schrenk, in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament article on biazomai (excerpt), weighs the various interpretations (note Melanchthon’s and Luther’s position in the footnotes) and concludes, “All that we read elsewhere in Mt. shows that Jesus has in view the forces which were opposed to Him in the Judaism of His day.”
I propose that mimetic theory helps us to take Schrenk’s conclusion and generalize it as a problem of all human cultures, with the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day being a specific instance. What we might see is that all cultures are binding, forcefully imposing their myriad of conventions, standards, and morals. The “kingdom of heaven,” God’s Culture, on the other hand, intentionally suffers the violence of human cultures in order to expose it as violence.
Hence, the middle voice. Jesus, as representing God’s Culture, neither actively forces itself on others, in the vein of all other human cultures, nor does he passively suffer the violence. Jesus represents God’s culture by knowingly submitting to the violence of human cultures. (Note: I haven’t yet found anyone else who interprets biazetai in the middle voice in this way. But the idea for such a translation is prompted by Walter Wink‘s notion of Jesus’ Third Way in responding to violence.)
3. Here’s an illustration in English of the problem with biazetai. What word is this: resign? I heard sports announcers the other day read a story about a player resigning (pronounced resine) for another year with his team, and the next story was about a coach pressured to resign (pronounced rezine), basically fired. Then they noticed outloud that it’s the same word — spelled the same, anyway — with essentially opposite meanings. In the case of biazetai, I’m not sure the two uses are even pronounced differently.
4. William Loader, in his “First Thoughts” on this Gospel text, raises some very important historical-exegetical questions. First, in formulating a response to John the Baptist, Jesus draws from six places in Book of the Prophet Isaiah: 29:18; 35:5-6; 42:8, 17; 26:19; and 61:1. I might ask if this is the sort of interpretation that Jesus used on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27) when “he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Even within the passages themselves, Jesus is selective. Notable, for example, is Jesus leaving out “the day of vengeance of our God” from the list of Isaiah 61:1-2. Would Jesus’ selective list satisfy John the Baptist? Or has John’s question via the messengers been prompted by missing things in Jesus’ message like “the day of vengeance of our God”?
This is a second important question raised by Loader: historically, how close or far apart were John’s and Jesus’ message? The Gospels seem to present them as far apart, namely, that John emphasized judgment while Jesus emphasized grace and forgiveness. Loader thinks that this is not accurate historically. And Matthew’s Gospel is the one that seems to bring them closest together. He states his case:
[Matthew] even takes the summary of Jesus’ message, which he found in Mark 1:15 and uses it as a summary of John’s message (3:2; 4:17). In fact Jesus is also a lot more like John than in any other gospel. Judgement is where all of Jesus’ speeches end up. The only clarification which appears to be required for John is that Jesus is not bringing the pitchfork and the fire yet. He will — later. In the interim he has come to expound the Law and to demonstrate its heart — in compassion.
When Loader concludes, however, that “Historically such a contrast is scarcely justified,” I’d like to know his sources. Are our outside sources substantial enough to be able to characterize John’s message differently than the Gospels themselves?
On the basis of the latter, I would disagree with Loader. I do not fully agree, for example, with his assessment above that “Judgement is where all of Jesus’ speeches end up.” At the very least, we would need to expound on Jesus’ interpretation of judgment. Mimetic theory helps us to see more clearly that for Jesus judgment of humanity becomes a self-judgment. We bring upon ourselves the consequences of our own violent ways of doing culture.
My interpretation of Matt. 11:12 is precisely all about a different way to look at many of the so-called judgment passages in Matthew. In Matthew 22:1-14 (see Proper 23A), for example, there are various slaughters and ‘judgments’ in this parable. The king levels an entire city for spurning the invitation to his son’s wedding. The parable ends with the king throwing out a guest into the darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” for not wearing the proper gown. Marty Aiken’s suggestion (in “The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence“), however, is to stop taking this violent king as a stand-in for God and to instead see him as a representative of human kings like Herod, who actually did these sorts of things. Which throws this parable into a whole new light. It is Aiken’s reading of this parable which prompted my subsequent assessment of Matt. 11:12 as crucial for an understanding of Matthew — precisely around this issue raised by Loader of how we might understand that “Judgement is where all of Jesus’ speeches end up.” Mimetic theory’s interpretation of the judgment of Jesus (especially in John’s Gospel where it is an explicit theme centered in a reading of John 9) is to see Jesus’ submission to human judgment in the Passion as a judgment primarily on our human mechanisms of judgment. We judge ourselves by judging Jesus, who is a representative of scapegoats judged throughout history. The figure in Matt. 22:1-14 who most clearly represents this picture of Jesus is the one thrown into the darkness at the end, the one whose bringing judgment on himself perhaps was intentional, that is, deciding to not where a gown on purpose so that the king might manifest a self-judgment on his violent behavior. And where is the “kingdom of heaven” in this parable? Certainly not in the actions of this brutal king, but in those throughout the parable who, as Matt. 11:12 proleptically tells us, are “suffering violence.”
Another example of such self-judgment in Matthew is the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matt. 18:21-35 (see Proper 19A). The master again seems harsh in this parable, throwing the servant into prison in the end. But the servant who is forgiven so much — offered the opportunity to step into a world of grace where debts are forgiven — steps right back into the unforgiving world of holding debts by holding a piddling amount against a fellow servant, and thus brings judgment on himself. Given the invitation to live in the Lord’s world of grace, he chooses by his actions to remain in the human world of harsh judgments.
Is this notion of self-judgment far-fetched? Once again, I point the reader to the Girardian reading of the “wrath of God” in Paul’s letter to the Romans. St. Paul reinterprets God’s wrath as a handing us over to the consequences of our own idolatry (Rom. 1:18-31). But the ultimate consequences are signaled by the “Therefore” in Rom. 2:1 and the subject of our judging one another arises. By 2:5 the day of wrath becomes turning us over to our wrathful judging of one another.
5. Matt. 11:11b: “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This no doubt has a many-layered meaning, pointing, for one, to the “least” of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matt. 25). I’d like to suggest another layer of meaning here, following the immediately preceding discussion. Loader seems reluctant to draw too wide a distinction between the message of John the Baptist and Jesus. I disagree. But not because I have a low view of John. Rather, I have a high view of the uniqueness of the revelation in Jesus Christ. As I argue, moving from the conventional view of divine judgment to the insight into humanity’s self-judgment of itself is a significant difference. I propose that John represents the conventional view of judgment at the brink of the moment in which that view itself will be revealed as judged by God through our judging of Jesus. After Easter, the existence of what James Alison calls the “intelligence of the victim” will mean that even the least in the kingdom will be greater than John in the opportunity to understand. The post-Easter community will have access to an “intelligence” regarding things like judgment to which John never had access.
1. David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels [Oxford Press, 1994], offers an in-depth study of skandalon, though the notion is so huge in its Girardian implications that there may never be a definitive work on the subject. There will always be room for improvement and expansion.
McCracken happens to focus on Matthew’s gospel more than any other NT writing, so we will be seeing a lot of his book in these notes during this Year A journey through Matthew.
McCracken quotes Matt 11:6 on the title page [p. 1] and then again in crucial places in his argument on pp. 19, 31, 82, and 116.
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled; discusses skandalon on pp. 202-212, with Mt 11:2-6 quoted as central to his discussion on p. 208. Also, the Lukan parallel to Mt 11:6 is treated in “The Gospel of Luke” audio series, tape #4.
3.René Girard, multiple references to skandalon: he introduces the centrality of scandal to his interdividual psychology in the last chapter of Things Hidden, with the final section devoted to the scriptural notion of skandalon, pp. 416-431; he works it into his interpretation of Shakespeare in numerous places in A Theater of Envy (check the index); and in the parallel articles in The Girard Reader there’s several excellent pages with a very succinct summary, pp. 215-216. His recent book I See Satan Fall like Lightning begins with a chapter titled “Scandal Must Come.” Once again, for a more complete explication see the webpage “René Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon.”
5. In the webpage “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement,” I quibble a bit over how to characterize Jesus’ nonviolence, his “Third Way,” in light of Matt. 11:12:
Weaver provides a nice summary of the importance of Girard’s work for doctrines of atonement. I think he is also correct in identifying the difference around issues of nonviolence. Weaver points to the work of Walter Wink in describing a nonviolence of active resistance to evil. He sees Girard’s interpretation as more of a passive nonresistance. Without getting into a lengthy argument here about the difference, I would take my cue from Girard, and from my own reading of the Gospel, to describe Jesus’ nonviolence as active nonresistance. Perhaps this is an oxymoron, but I intuit a difference between a nonresistance which is completely passive and a nonresistance which is chosen with a high level of intentionality.
One verse from Matthew’s Gospel which I have found intriguing in this regard is 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” The Greek word for “has suffered violence,” biazetai, is the present indicative form of biazomai — which means, first of all, that the NRSV is inaccurate: it should be “is suffering violence.” But the most difficult aspect of this word is that the declension is the same for either the middle or passive voice, thus making this passage notoriously difficult to translate. The choices have wavered between a more active translation, “is inflicting violence,” and a passive one, “is suffering violence.” But what if the middle voice actually conveys to us something in between active and passive? That is, a suffering of violence that is knowingly entered into on behalf of others? Would this constitute an “active nonresistance”?
6. Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian, ch . 7, “What Signs Did He Give?”, pp. 220ff. Bartlett’s climaxing chapter attempts to sketch a Historical Jesus in grounding his thesis that Jesus’ change of meaning is anthropological — grounded in a real human life. Jesus must have intentionally “orchestrated meaning and did so in reference to his own person and activity” (p. 221). And Bartlett begins this sketch by presuming Jesus as a former disciple of John the Baptist who breaks from his mentor for specific reasons.
7. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories, pp. 116-17, 168-69. In comparing John the Baptist with Jesus, Bartlett writes,
John still saw repentance in terms of purity and wrath. So in this he retains the Deuteronomic or retributive mindset. Jesus ate and drank with sinners, abolishing the purity boundaries. John understood the intervention of God would be a violent overthrow of the present world order. Jesus renounced violence and embraced the cross, which changes the mainspring of the human heart and human society. Read Mt 11.2-15.
John’s question to Jesus from jail (“Are you the one who is to come?”) shows that John expects an Elijah-like figure. (Cf. Malachi 4.5 for Elijah sent before the day of the Lord, and 3.1-2 for the messenger of the covenant: “indeed he is coming . . . but who can endure the day of his coming. . . ?) This Matthew passage has Jesus explicitly identify John with this prophecy, and as Elijah: “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (v.14). Jesus replies to John at 11.6, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense in me;” i.e. blessed is the one who is not placed in contradiction to Jesus because violence remains their generative principle. (116-17)
He works primarily with Luke 7 and its comparison of John and Jesus but ends with the Matthean parallel, including his own translation of Matt 11:12:
Of those born of women no one is greater than John the Baptist, but the least in the kingdom is greater, i.e. those born of Wisdom. She is vindicated by her children who are nonviolent. See the same passage in Matthew 11.11-15 where violence is explicitly seen as the generative principle now displaced by Jesus Wisdom: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been taken over by violence, and the violent have hijacked it” (Seven Stories translation). (p. 116)
“has been taken over by violence” is another option for translating biazetai in the middle voice, though we have argued here that there might be a connotation of choosing to walk into violent take-over as a strategy to overcome it.
8. Robert Beck, Banished Messiah, pp. 159-62, the concluding section of a chapter largely on John the Baptist, chapter 6, “Mentor.”
9. Sarah Dylan Breuer, the page for Advent 3A. Without mentioning mimetic theory, her view is often highly resonant with it. This week, for example, Breuer expresses something very much like the differing views of judgment between God and humanity for which we argued in the exegetical notes (#’s 4-5):
What would it do to our ways of reckoning who deserves what if we took Jesus seriously as the Incarnation of God, and Jesus’ treatment of people as the ultimate demonstration of what God thinks we deserve?
We deserve healing, and teaching — and honesty, to be sure, but honesty delivered with pastoral sensitivity to each person’s condition. And what happens when we treat God’s healing, and teaching, and honesty with disrespect? What happens when we reject it, or even reject God?
Look at what Jesus did when he was disrespected, rejected, even murdered in the most brutal and lingering of ways. He took it all, and forgave those who dished it out. When he came back afterward, he didn’t come back like Arnold Schwarzeneggar in The Terminator, rising from each blow to dish out better than what he got to the one who gave it to him; he came back pretty much with the same attitude and behavior he exhibited before his crucifixion.
10. 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,” offers this blog on the text, “John’s Offended Puzzlement.”
11. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2010, titled “The Advent of Joy“; and in 2013 another version of “The Advent of Joy“; and sermon in 2016, “Good Christian Friends.”
Questions and Reflections
1. In 2004 my sermon preparation is moving towards drawing a distinction between human culture and God’s culture on the basis of violence. All human cultures, according to mimetic theory, are not only founded in collective murder but the structure of that all-against-one violence is preserved in its institutions. This is most clear with more ancient cultures whose institutions very much revolved around ritual blood sacrifice. But it is true of all human cultures to the extent that cultures determine who is in and who is out. Human culture works identity formation as an over-againstness, sending the constant mesage which says in some fashion, ‘We are the kind of people who do this but don’t do that’ — and then backs it up with force, even if it’s only the ‘force’ of being ostracized, of being forced to live on the fringes. God’s culture, the “kingdom of heaven,” on the other hand, suffers the violence of human cultures. And its representative, the Messiah, thus suffers the violence, too, choosing to let himself be pushed out onto the fringes of human culture, even to death on the cross. But as the Risen Messiah he makes possible a dying and rising into God’s culture for others who cling to him in faith. Link to an outline of a partly extemporized sermon, “The Culture of Heaven Chooses to Suffer Violence.”
2. I highly recommend reading the above references before preaching this text — namely, Bailie, pp. 207-209; Alison, JBW, pp. 140-146; and The Girard Reader, pp. 215-216.
3. A pinnacle of being scandalized is falling into addiction, a love/hate relationship with the model/obstacle. Has our celebration of Christmas reached the addictive point yet? Has Christmas become a scandal for us? The Christ child is the one who came to free us from such scandals, as long as we aren’t scandalized by him. “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized….” In 1998 I used the image of a virus in preaching the sermon “Have You Caught the Jesus Virus?“