Last revised: May 20, 2014
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THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR A
RCL: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
RoCa: Acts 2:14a, 22-33; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35
1. René Girard, Things Hidden, p. 278. Girard has been contrasting the Johannine Logos of Love with the Heraclitan Logos of Violence, with the modern spokesperson for the latter being Nietzsche. In our post-modern world we believe ourselves to be moving away from Christ, just as the disciples on the way to Emmaus think they are leaving the dead Christ behind. But our modern forms of the Logos of Violence only work to further reveal the Logos of Love, now that it has been revealed in Christ. Here’s a couple paragraphs:
The idea that Christ brings with him the key to the Old Testament can be found throughout the Gospels, not only in the interpretations Jesus offers but also, significantly, in a number of scenes that occur after the Resurrection and are already (so it seems to me) dominated by the outpouring of truth — in other words, by the power of interpretation that is bestowed on humankind by the Passion of Christ.
In the Christian world, it is always a question of re-reading not from the end but from beyond this end; in the light of this beyond, former perspectives are shown to be false. Western culture as a whole, whether Christian or post-Christian, is under the illusion that it is moving further and further away from Christ, like the Emmaus disciples, while it retains a false, sacrificial conception of him. It is struggling to rid itself of Christ for good. But at the very point when it is under the impression of moving in quite a different direction, Christ is to be found beside it, as he has been for a long time, “opening the Scriptures.”
2. René Girard, Job: The Victim of His People, pp. 167-168 (the last two pages of the book, which concludes with a quote of Luke 24:32). The last chapter, “The God of Victims,” argues for finally understanding the Dialogues of Job (i.e., the oldest, central part of the book, chapters 3-31) in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who most clearly reveals to us the God of victims. His figure for portraying such an understanding climaxes with the Emmaus story in which Christ interprets the entire Scripture according to himself. Here are the concluding paragraphs:
Nothing is both more disturbing and more exciting than the irresistible resurgence of the Christian text, at a time and place when it is least anticipated.In the New Testament, particularly Luke, knowledge of Christ is frequently achieved in two phases. There is a first contact that results from a movement of curiosity and a purely superficial sympathy.
This is followed by disenchantment and disaffection. The disciple who is not completely converted feels he has been mistaken and distances himself. This movement of retreat will not be stopped, it is truly without return; yet it will put the person who despairs in contact with the truth, but a truth so profound that it is transfigured.
The eunuch of Queen Candace came to Jerusalem to have the Gospels explained to him. He returns discouraged, for he does not yet know who could be the Servant of Yahweh in the Book of Isaiah, that unjustly condemned scapegoat who saves the community. But Philip happens to come along and explains to him that Christ is the person in question. After being baptized, the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:26-40).
There is the same movement in the story of Emmaus. Two disciples are leaving Jerusalem after the Passion and are talking on the way about the collapse of their hope. Here again is the same attitude of skeptical and suspicious discouragement with regard to a revelation that has clearly failed. The discouragement even brings about its own reversal: at the destructive moment of suspicious criticism, suddenly Christ is walking with the disciples and explaining to them the Scriptures. But “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”
We may one day understand that the entire history of Western thought conforms to the model of these two stories and to a third similar one, also found in Luke: that of the Prodigal Son.
Of these three texts, by far the most precious for those of us who spend so much time writing commentaries on them, interpreting them and comparing them, is the one about the road to Emmaus. It seems orientated towards the “work of the text”; it does not even forget to include the rewards of this work, which the interpreter receives when the light finally dawns, coldly and even, in one sense, implacably rational and at the same time just the contrary, unacceptable in the world’s eyes, mad, truly demented, since it speaks of Christ, since Christ speaks through it, since it emphatically validates the most apparently absurd hopes, hopes that are considered culpable in our day. Does it not suggest that all our real desires are gratified simultaneously?
Then they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
3. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 41-44, 104, 121. For the Easter A resources on Colossians 3:1-4, I quoted Alison’s autobiographical sketch regarding his gradual discovery of the power of these verses. The very next section is called “Dead Man Talking” and features the Emmaus story, excerpted for you here:
One of the richest and most sophisticated texts of the New Testament is the passage at the end of Luke’s gospel where two demoralized disciples are walking to Emmaus. They don’t recognize the traveler who joins them, nevertheless it is he who explains to them the meaning of what has just happened in Jerusalem, and he does so making use of the whole Torah and the Prophets, starting with Moses. That is to say, he makes available a new and unheard of interpretation of scripture so that they might find a new meaning in their lives and be empowered by this interpretation, until the moment when they recognize their companion in the breaking of the bread, and he vanishes. Well, you all know the story, and we all know that it is a basic text for the understanding of the Eucharist: the presence of the Lord who interprets scripture, making it possible for the hearers to restructure their own imagination, and, duly fired up, go out to reconstruct the world.Well, I’d like to draw attention to one element of this story, a story which offers not so much a key to reading scripture as an ongoing hermeneutical principle which we do not control, and which is alive independently of us and transforms us. This element is indispensable for those of us who are trying to imagine the catholic faith in the third millennium. It is the fact, little commented, that what is odd about the Emmaus story is that it is a dead man who is talking. I think it very important that we don’t make the separation which we are accustomed to when talking about the risen Jesus, imagining that he is alive, and for that reason, not dead. No, what is fascinating about the doctrine of the resurrection is that it is the whole human life of Jesus, including his death, which is risen. The life of God, since it is totally outside the order of human life and human death, doesn’t cancel death, as if it were a sickness which is to be cured, but takes it up, assumes it. Luke offers us a vision of a risen Jesus who has not ceased to be a dead man, and who, starting from his living-out-being-a-crucified-man, teaches and empowers his disciples by his presence.
Please indulge me as I try to suck out some juice from this apparently absurd scenario. Since I live in the USA, where a lot of people get executed, let us imagine a prisoner in the Louisiana state penitentiary, which, curiously enough, is called Angola, someone sentenced to die, just as in the film which many of you will have seen, Dead Man Walking. Well, the prisoner is led to the execution chamber, and, at the very same instant in which the doctors pronounce him dead, he becomes entirely free of the law, and of the social and police structures of the state of Louisiana, as indeed of the Federal Government. Now, follow me with your imagination. The moment he is free, not only of the law, but of social structures, life commitments like marriage, and so on, he is also absolutely free of resentment. If we imagine him a guy who had been completely opposed to the process which led him to his death, one who protested his innocence, and who considered the use of the death penalty to be an atrocity, then, up till the moment of his death he imagined himself as a victim of all that. His presence was characterized by a tremendous struggle to prevent them taking him to his death, a struggle which was, of course, ineffectual in the face of the strength and weapons of the forces of public order of the State of Louisiana.
Now, the moment he dies, he’s completely free of that whole game of power and victimization of which he was part, no longer is he struggling with those powers: he doesn’t have to, for they have no dominion over him, they no longer affect him in any way at all. The resentment disappears completely, because resentment only has its place within that game. Let’s stretch the fantasy a little more: since the powers of the law, of social custom, and so on, no longer affect him, our dead man can begin completely to restructure his imagination with respect to his previous experience of life in the State of Louisiana. For the first time he begins to see it from the perspective of one who is no longer resentful and pushed around by it. Perhaps he’s not much interested by his former life, and heads off elsewhere, no longer weighed down by what he lived. But let us imagine that he does take an interest in Louisiana, in such a way that, now that he sees things with a certain clarity, he wants to help build a better, more just, State, so he becomes present to other people, people totally caught up, as we all are, in the reigning social, political, and economic structures, so as to help them understand what they are really doing in their way of leading their lives and their social belonging, so that, little by little, they begin to undo all that is sacrificial and resentful in all that, at every level, economic, social, military, religious, and begin to be able to live with the same freedom which he now enjoys.
Well, of course, the example is at least as misleading as it is useful, and that’s why I’ve called it a fantasy. However it’s a fantasy in the service of something which is not a fantasy, but a rather important theological point. When we speak of the risen Jesus speaking to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we are talking about a dead man, totally free from resentment. For this reason he is not present as an accusation, seeking to avenge himself on his executioners, but as one who begins to make of the story of his life and death a way of opening the imagination of his disciples, offering a new interpretation of texts which they already knew, so that they, not yet dead, might begin to live from then on with the same lack of resentment, free as he is from being bound in by laws and sacrificial customs, aiming for the construction of a human way of being together not marked by the powers of death.
Now, please notice a word which I have used a great deal in this explanation: it is the word resentment. Resentment, which is typically incarnate in our world as a seeking to protect oneself against death, and, because of that, in considering oneself a victim, is exactly the opposite of grace. A resentful presence is exactly the reverse of a gratuitous presence. A gratuitous presence isn’t trying to protect itself against anything, isn’t insisting on anything for itself, nor is there as part of the give and take of resentful reciprocity. It is not seeking to establish itself, because it does not fear disappearing, ending, or being destroyed. Well, what I’d like to do now is to suggest some hints of an imagination of a catholic moral theology which starts from this place of the one who, as a dead man, has no need to establish himself, and is for that reason capable of offering an anti-sacrificial, Eucharistic constructive critique which aims at the bringing about of a fraternity not marked by death. This we can do if we attend to the Pauline verse which I quoted to you before: “Fix your minds on the things that are above…because you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God.”
4. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong; ch. 3, “The Search for a Soteriology,” anchored in the apostolic experience of the resurrection, mentions the Emmaus story several times, pp. 79, 89, 110. His argument is reminiscent of Girard’s in the final chapter on Job, that Christ reveals to us a God of victims who turns our ordinary anthropology upside-down. Once again, the Emmaus story anchors the argument:
From this recasting of God in the light of the resurrection of the forgiving victim it then becomes simultaneously possible to understand who humans really are, and who God really is — understanding both in relational terms. This is particularly clear in John’s Gospel, where the relationship of Jesus to God, as a son in utter dependence, and yet equality, without any rivalry, yet imitating perfectly is simultaneously the adumbration of the relationship of Father and Son in God, and the revelation of a definitive anthropology. Humans are called to live in a relationship of dependence and yet equality, of pacific imitation without rivalry, and this is shown as something humanly possible. This serves, even within John’s Gospel, as a critique of current human practice. The Pharisees are shown as living within a mimetic dependence on the reputation gained from men, and therefore unable to believe in Jesus. (1)Then again, in chapter 8 John gives an extraordinary dialogue between Jesus and some Jews who had formerly believed in him. The question, in anthropological terms is: “who is the other who moves you?” Jesus gives witness to himself being moved by the Father, the same Father who chose Abraham. There is another “other” who moves his interlocutors, the father of lies who was a murderer from the beginning. The criterion for perceiving by which “other” they are moved is that they seek to kill Jesus. That is to say, humans are always moved by another. Either it is the other of pacific self-donation, or the other which maintains order by expulsion and killing. Knowing the Father is being a human who tends towards the victim; not knowing the Father is being a human who lives by creating victims. Simultaneously in John’s Gospel we have the manifestation of God, and the manifestation of an anthropology based on murder. (2) It was thus that the intelligence of the victim made possible a radically anthropological re-reading of the Old Testament, showing the gradual revelation of God as not complicit in violence and humans as complicit in violence. The discovery of the Trinity is also the discovery of a radically anthropological hermeneutic of the Scriptures: the hermeneutic of God as human victim. This is the final working out of the hermeneutic key proposed by Jesus to the disciples on the road to Emmaus:
“O Foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory ?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
5. James Alison, “‘He opened up to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Lk 24, 27b): How can we recover Christological and Ecclesial habits of Catholic Bible Reading?” (online essay). Alison uses Luke 24:27 as a banner for a form of reading the New Testament more like Midrash on the Hebrew Scriptures, using The Parable of the Prodigal Son as his central example. It is highly resonant with contemporary approaches that take seriously the Jewishness of Jesus.
6. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” (audio tape series), tape #12.
7. Homepage, introductory section entitled “The Influence of Mimetic Theory on Hermeneutics and Preaching.” Whenever I need to begin a presentation that raises the topic of biblical interpretation, I begin with Luke 24:27 as an example of “Christ-centered” interpretation. A literalistic reading of the Bible is still too common, which makes use of every verse in the Bible as equally true in a literalistic sense. One of the most important duties of a Christian teacher is to deflate this way of reading the Bible in favor of a Christ-centered approach: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2011 my reading of the Gospels has been increasingly shaped by more recent vision of the Historical Jesus which see Jesus as enacting a new politics from God. The resulting sermon is titled “The Politics and Economics of God.”
2. An emphasis of Gil Bailie‘s in recent years has become very important to me. He highlights the Eucharistic breaking of the bread as a sign of living a kenotic life of serving, ala Phil. 2:5ff. Blessing, breaking, and giving the bread away is the sign both of what Jesus does for us with his life and of what he calls us to do with our lives. The “breaking of bread” is a theme, above all, in Luke-Acts. In addition to the miraculous feeding (Luke 9:16) and the Last Supper (22:19), the Emmaus story establishes the breaking of bread as a pattern for disciples to follow, as witnessed to in Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11; and 27:35.
This emphasis supports my thesis of the Eucharist as a meal to nurture us in the life of servanthood (see the portion of my article on Holy Communion pertaining to “Mimetic servanthood as remedy to mimetic rivalry“). This is most obvious, perhaps, in John’s Gospel, where he transforms the Lord’s Supper into the first first communion class, teaching them the life of servanthood by washing the disciples’ feet (see the sermon for Maundy Thursday). Luke can be seen to raise this theme not only through the thematic “breaking of bread” but also by placing the disciples argument about who is the greatest right after the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:24-27). Jesus must stop to make explicit that the Son of Man came to serve, not to be served. He must make explicit to them what is implicit in the sign of the “breaking of bread.”
An extension of this theme is also possible in light of the resurrection. As our Risen Lord, in the breaking of bread, we see that even when life risks brokenness and being given away, we receive it back in the power of the resurrection. By “eternal life,” one undertanding is to see it as pointing to an endless source of life. In faith we risk entering into the brokenness of this world and giving of our lives because we trust that in Christ we receive life back through an endless source in God.
3. This Sunday (2002) I begin a series of adult forums on “Homosexuality and the Bible.” One of the goals I take into these classes will be to teach a Christo-centric approach to reading Scripture. My central illustration of this approach is Luke 24:27: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
4. Lutherans have long suggested that the shape of our Christo-centric reading for preaching and teaching should be Law and Gospel. I am beginning to formulate a Girardian suggestion for adjusting that dyad of interpretation to Anthropology and Gospel. The problem with Law and Gospel is that St. Paul was a bit unsure himself of how to formulate it. He wanted to criticize the Law as ending in Christ but also seemed to uphold some positive use, at the same time. Lutherans have tried to take that ambivalence and clarify it, but I’ve never been confident in our success. The proper use of the Law, according to this approach, is to convict us in our sin such that we submit to the grace of the Gospel.
I am more of a Girardian on this point (and probably most other points, as the reader has no doubt assessed by now). I think that Girard’s anthropology is able to more clearly state the human situation than Lutheran talk about the Law, since the Law itself can be shown to be one of those human institutions under the power of sin. Girardian anthropology can show how this is so; and it convicts us more thoroughly than the Law, because its reaches back to the foundations of all human culture, including the Law itself — and much, much more — within its purview.
Whenever we begin to talk about positive uses of the Law, even when we are attempting to use it as a companion with the Gospel, it is very difficult to not fall back into using the Law in ways that Christ came in order to put those uses to an end. If the Law convicts us — meaning each of us ourselves — to receive the Gospel, it invariably falls into our favorite use of it: convicting someone else.
5. Consider talk of Law and Gospel with regards to “homosexuality” in the church. Is the Law used to convict all of us equally to receive the Gospel, or is it inevitably used to convict those who partake in “homosexual” behaviors?
Evangelical anthropology shows how our use of the Law persistently falls into the Satanic game of making accusations against others in order that we may feel more righteous about ourselves. The only Law we are left with by the end of Romans is the law of love. (See my essay “A Different Angle on Resolution #1: What Is the Sin which the Lamb of God Came to Take Away?“) Issues around gays and lesbians in the Church is our latest opportunity to make our reading of Scripture a Christo-centric one. And it is my prayer that it is an opportunity to see the new insight gained by shaping that reading with an evangelical anthropology.
How is this anthropology so all-embacing? It is “generative,” Girard’s word for the fact that his hypothesis takes us back to the point of hominization to suggest the difference between animal and human hierarchies, which dictate the deferences needed in order to help keep a semblance of peace in the face of mimetic rivalry. Animal hierarchies of deferential behavior are based on the physical ability to dominate the other. There is some remnant of this in human hierarchies; physical domination can be a factor. But the overarching mechanism which aligns our human hiearchies of deference, according to this theory, is the victimage mechanism revealed in the Cross and the religious hierarchies that originate with the mechanism. The victim is experienced as a transcendent being because both the chaos and peace of the whole community is attributed to him or her. The ensuing hierarchies of deference are then endowed with a transcendent quality, interpreted as given to us by the gods. That’s why arguments around “orders of creation” are also so persistent. We perceive our hierarchies as based in transcendent principles founded in the victimage mechanism. In our Lutheran circles, the debates about inclusiveness of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters invariably go back to naive views of “Law and Gospel” and “orders of creation” — that is, views which do not go to the anthropological level of more fully realizing our enslavement to the Satanic victimage mechanism. (For more on “homosexuality” and “orders of creation,” see Transfiguration A.)
From the perspective of mimetic theory, these are the things hidden from us since the foundation of the world. This is the Sin which originates all that is human, going back to the point of our human origin, the Sin of the world which the Lamb of God came to take away. That means that all of our human institutions, such as the Law, also come under the power of the generating victimage mechanism. St. Paul had to grapple with how ‘Sin took advantage of the Law,’ leading him into acts of persecution. It is only in the Cross and Resurrection that we see the offering of virtually a new point of human generation in something else. The Cross is a point of initiation of a new creation: “It is accomplished!” What generates this initiation of a renewed creation? The unconditional forgiveness and love by the One who was crucified according to the old mechanism of generation. In our baptisms, we too are crucified to the old mechanism in order to begin living according to the new one of unconditional grace. Could there be any Good News more ‘Lutheran’ than that? My hope as a Lutheran is that an evangelical anthropology can prove to be a more effective partner to the Gospel than our previous talk of the Law.
6. This website is a testimony to the way in which I have come to find Girard’s anthropology to open up the Scriptures to me in a whole new way. I gave such a testimonial in my 1996 sermon on this text:
If I point to a passage in scripture that strikes me as autobiographical, it is this one. I must admit that simply the name of this church was a drawing card for me in coming here as pastor, because I relate to these disciples on the road to Emmaus as they had their lives and hopes opened up by Christ interpreting Scripture to them. My adolescent days were filled with doubts and questions. I looked for something that could make sense out of life for me, and I was especially sensitive to the suffering in the world, wondering why such evil existed. Could there really be a God? Most people come to ask such questions and search in their own ways. My way of searching first took me to study philosophy. Could the great thinkers of the world have found the key to meaning in life, and the answer to the existence of evil? I finally gave up, and decided to try what others in my family have tried: being a pastor. I know that doesn’t sound like such a noble sense of being called. But neither is this story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus a noble story of coming to the truth on their own. Jesus had been walking with them and they didn’t even know it. Now, I can look back, too, and see that Jesus was with me leading me, and I didn’t even know it. For this life of studying the Scripture, of having Christ interpret its meaning to me in the task of preaching and studying as a pastor, has resurrected my hope. Especially in these last several years, as I’ve shared with you more and more recently, I have come upon the work of René Girard and his followers, whom I think has the potential to affect us in the church to the same kind of magnitude as a Martin Luther. His understanding of Christ and the scriptures has truly renewed my feeling of having Christ ‘interpret to me the things about himself and all the scriptures.’ I’ve had the entire way in which I see and understand life changed, revived, resurrected. I have hope again. And I count it a privilege to be a pastor and share the scriptures with you in ways that can revive and refresh our hopes for this world, our hopes for our lives and for the lives of those we love. Have you ever felt such a burning in your hearts?
Notes from Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong
1. John 5:43-44: “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?”
2. It seems proper to indicate that, in John’s Gospel, the adumbration of what I have called the abstract anthropological view of Trinity and humanity is set within a highly sophisticated Semitic narrational account of how Jesus is the promised victim of Israel, and fulfils in his person the rôles of King, Shepherd, Scapegoat, Prophet, Messiah and persecuted just one. I am grateful to J.D.M.Derrett’s The Victim for the massive evidence of John’s use of Old Testament material in his construction of his Gospel, and in particular, his Passion Narrative. In the light of Derrett’s account, and what I have set out here (the simultaneous presence of the two sorts of discourse) it perhaps becomes possible to understand why John’s Jesus is both a profusion of Semitic fulfillments and a curiously abstract character, not completely ‘engaging’ with the world through which he moves to his death.