Last revised: February 22, 2017
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SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY — YEAR A
RCL: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
RoCa: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
In 2017 I wrote a blog celebrating the day’s Gospel Reading as, “The Most Important Passage in the Bible.”
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, pp. 528-32. In a section consisting of a lengthy reading of the Good Samaritan passage of Luke 10:25ff., we encounter the lawyer’s quote of Leviticus 19 in his answer to Jesus’ question about the law. Alison comments:
So the lawyer makes an act of legal interpretation, bringing together two laws in such a way that they interpret each other. What it looks like to be on the inside of the life of God is to be stretched towards God with every faculty of your being, and the form this takes is being stretched towards your neighbour.
Jesus commends the lawyer. He is not only a good lawyer, he has a good moral sense as well, since he has made an act of interpretation which, while it was probably not innovative, is, in the different variants in which it has reached us, definitive: he has turned two different commandments into one single commandment which will in fact never be abrogated. Henceforth being on the inside of the life of God and being stretched lovingly towards my neighbour can never be separated. This is not merely a moralistic matter, but shows a firm anthropological insight. What I mean is that we are animals whose selves are brought into being through our relationships with others: we are reflexive. So how we treat our neighbours and how we treat ourselves are inescapably linked, and no amount of either apparent egoism or of fake altruism can do anything other than disguise this fact from us! Thus, indeed, our only access to finding ourselves loved is through our learning to love someone else. (p. 529)
But the lawyer, of course, has a counter-question about who is the neighbor. We know well Jesus’ answer through the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But Alison first points out that the lawyers question is legitimate:
…the lawyer has a follow-up question, and it is by no means stupid. He is not merely asking Jesus to be more specific; he is asking a reasonable legal question about the interpretation of Leviticus 19, whence the second part of his own answer had been drawn. For the verse from which the lawyer had culled the phrase and your neighbour as yourself contains more than the part he had quoted. In full it reads:
You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev. 19.18)
Here, the word neighbour appears to refer to the sons of your own people fellow Hebrews. What makes the lawyers question legally interesting is not that the bit of Leviticus which he quotes has a circumscribed meaning, but precisely the reverse: it is the fact that a few verses later in the same chapter of Leviticus, following on a number of commandments to do with intermingling of cattle, sex with slaves, hair trimming, witchcraft, and respect for old age, we get the following:
When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 19:33-34)
So Leviticus appears to interpret itself, for the same phrase, you shall love him as yourself, which was previously applied to the word neighbour, here acquires a new density: the stranger who sojourns among you is declared to be the exact legal equivalent of one of the sons of your own people, and therefore a neighbour in the strict sense of the commandment. In other words, the text of Leviticus seems to be heading in the direction of the term neighbour becoming universal, and that is worrying legally, since if everyone is your neighbour, then the term neighbour has no longer got any precise legal meaning at all, and how are you to know if you are obeying a commandment when it has no precise meaning?
So it appears that our lawyer is actually asking Jesus to interpret Leviticus, urging him to flesh out the relationship between being on the inside of the life of God and the discussion concerning applicable forms of neighbourliness. (pp. 531-32)
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
1. N. T Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, p. 143. In chapter 9, concerning the time we find ourselves in, namely, the time between ascension and parousia, he writes,
…the task of the church between ascension and parousia is therefore set free both from the self-driven energy that imagines it has to build Gods kingdom all by itself and from the despair that supposes it cant do anything until Jesus comes again. We do not build the kingdom all by ourselves, but we do build for the kingdom [the topic in chapter 13]. All that we do in faith, hope, and love in the present, in obedience to our ascended Lord and in the power of his Spirit, will be enhanced and transformed at his appearing. This too brings a note of judgment, of course, as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 3:10-17. The day will disclose what sort of work each builder has done.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p. 84:
In literary terms the divine power of the Cross would be called ironic; it works through its apparent opposite; life appears as death, light as darkness, strength as weakness, and something as nothing (1 Cor 1:26-31). Christians intend the world ironically, possessing it as if they did not (1 Cor 3:21; cf. 1 Cor 7:29-31). But irony is a violent genre expressing the clash of the violence that constructs the idols with the violence that destroys them, while the view from the Cross interdicts the idols, leaving them in place while deconstructing their power. This irony is, therefore, to be qualified as a gracious rather than a violent irony, and it can be seen only by those who are already in principle and by faith free from the domination of sacred violence. This irony describes the point of view of those who, freed from the principalities, continue to live within their realm. Knowing the truth through the Cross, that the emperor has no clothes on, they withhold cooperation from the superstition and self-deception of the Sacred. Since sacred power depends on the conspiracy of all to maintain it, those who withhold consent from the conspiracy are dangerous and their gracious irony threatens the foundations. They are the nothings that God uses to bring the somethings to nothing (1 Cor 1:28).
And also on p. 135, where he is commenting on Rom 9: 33 (Behold I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of scandal, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame):
The symbolism of the stone is multilayered because the quotation from Isaiah 28:16 is a reference to the remnant, into which Paul has inserted from Isaiah 8:14 the reference to stumbling. [Cf. 1 Pet 2:6, 8, where the same collocation of the two Isaiah texts occurs, leading some to suggest that it was a common property of the early church rather than a Pauline formulation.] Thus he identifies the crucified Jesus as the heart of the remnant, the stone laid in Zion on which the other members of the remnant are founded (cf. 1 Cor 3:11), and over which the rejecting Jews stumble.
The remnant is constituted by faith. He who has faith shall not be in haste (Is 28:16) is its motto. The stone therefore symbolizes a community based on faith in God through the Cross of Christ and patient trust in Gods purpose. To have faith is to see the primal prohibition as a sign of Gods trustworthiness, not as an indication of Gods envy. Faith is to interpret the Cross aright, as the revelation of sacred violence, and to transfer from the community of the sacred to the community of faith. Christ is the end and goal of the Law in the sense that the faith that his death evokes is the real purpose of the primal prohibition (Rom 10:4).
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 193:
In the same letter, Paul uses yet another picture for a similar judgment. He characterizes Christ as the foundation on which each believer can build with gold, silver, precious stones or with wood, hay, straw (1 Cor. 3:12). What the individual in fact does will be shown up in the fire of judgment. If the work survives that he has built, he will receive a reward. If it burns down, he must bear the loss. But he himself will be redeemed, but only as through fire (1 Cor. 3:14ff.). Although Christ is the actual foundation, each one who builds on him has a responsibility of his own. Whether he builds a work that will last or only brings about transitory and deceptive constructions, is a matter for himself. But even if he fails, he can be saved but only as through fire. The identification of the crucified one with all victims of sin is ultimately more effective than the persons own failure.
4. Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection, p. 347. 1 Cor. 3:16 anchors a very rich paragraph on theosis:
While this shared glorification is promissory, it is a reality made effective and present through the Holy Spirit. A key passage from Paul, previously quoted, accentuates the point: If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you (Rom. 8:11). Paul presents the Easter event stereoscopically, as it were. It is an encompassing reality in whose inner world we are plunged. Indeed, there is no outside or inside so much as there is a coinherence between its objective and subjective dimensions. The Spirit of the risen Christ is poured within our hearts, filling us from within, vivifying us, fructifying our work, drawing us beyond ourselves toward that eschatological goal which we anticipate, along with all of creation, with eager longing when creation itself will be free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (vv. 19, 21). It is this Spirit also that bears witness within us as we cry Abba! Father! that we are children of God and will be glorified with the risen Christ (vv. 15-17). When, in the previous chapter, we observed the movement of de-possession from sin to re-possession in Christ, as the false heteronomy of the sinful I is transformed through christonomy, this is made possible by the indwelling Spirit of the risen Christ. It is what enables us to say Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21) or we can put on Christ (Gal. 3:26-27). Such language forms the biblical basis of what the later church fathers will call theosis. Here there is no thought of the Spirit of God replacing our own, but rather the Spirit of Christ indwells within us so that we participate by grace, and with ever-increasing richness, in divine life. Do you not know that you are Gods temple and that Gods Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor. 3:16).
Reflections and Questions
1. Is there anything more crucial in building for the the kingdom of God than learning the way of nonretaliation and of loving enemies?
1. Paul Nuechterlein, “My Core Convictions: Nonviolence and the Christian Faith,” Part II, “Nonviolence as the Heart of Jesus’ Faith” (updated February 19, 2011, to include Douglas Campbell’s thesis about Rom. 1:18). This is the central portion of my “Core Convictions” and begins with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…. I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘We ain’t goin’ study war no more.'” I believe that the heart of Jesus’ faith is nonviolence because he meets, and shows to us, a Heavenly Father who is completely nonviolent. And he does this knowing the consequences of going against the stream of 100,000 years of an anthropology that projects gods of wrath who demand sacrifice. Matthew 5:38-48 anchors the nonviolent ethic which God has sent in Jesus and the Spirit to save us from our violence. More on this below under the “bottom line” to conclude the citations from Girard’s work.
2. Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, see especially pp. 129ff. Rohr combines three perspectives that are immensely helpful to me: Catholic spirituality in the tradition of Thomas Merton, the Emerging Church, and Girardian anthropology (the only footnote in the entire book, p. 4, acknowledges his gratitude to the work of Girard and Gil Bailie). Rohr divides the major portion of the Sermon on the Mount (5:20-7:11) into fourteen triads — triads that give us the following structure: “Traditional challenge of a religious culture”; But, the problem is:”; “The Way of Transformation.”
Matthew 5:38-42 constitutes the fifth triad, of which he writes:
The mechanism of bondage here is violent resistance. The whole problem is in the inner attitude. Jesus great transforming initiative is, Turn the other cheek: Let him have your clothes as well. Why even play the game? If he asks you to go one mile with him, go two with him. In Jesus time, a conscripted soldier was allowed to ask any person to carry his armor for one mile. Thats the image Jesus is building on. Hes saying, Just dont get into the tit-for-tat game; carry it two. Create your own loving set of rules, which will blow the system apart. You take the initiative and change the rules, the expectations and the outcome. (p. 156)
Matthew 5:43-48 comprises the sixth triad, of which he writes:
Traditional piety says to love your neighbor, love the in-group. Loving and greeting only those who love you, Jesus says, is simply a mechanism of bondage. Its keeping you in a small world of warm fuzzies, but actually inoculating you from the often dark and daring world of real love. It actually protects and perpetuates the world of scapegoats, victimization and projection.
This sixth triad is considered the most radical, demanding and truthful of all of Jesus teaching. Until there is love for enemies, there is no real transformation, because the enemy always carries the dark side of your own soul. Normally those people who threaten us carry our own faults in a different form. The people who really turn you off are very much like you. Jesus offers not just a suggestion; youve got to love your enemy to grow up. Jesus rightly puts it in the imperative form: Do it!
Also, what we dont like about ourselves is our inner enemy, in a certain sense. We must learn to love and forgive that enemy, too. Sometimes that takes great humility and great compassion, but if we learn it internally, we will be prepared for the outer enemies.
And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Do not even the gentiles do as much? You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his. (Matthew 5:48; NJB)
This sixth triad is one long but dramatic verse: If you greet only your brother, whats so great about that? The ultimately alienating process is that if we stay inside our religious/ethnic group, wars and racism continue. Thats just staying inside a kind of magnified self-love. The key is always to love the stranger at the gate. Love the one outside of your comfort zone, the outsider, the other. Until you can enter into the outsider and the other, Jesus says, you really have not loved at all. Whats his motivation for doing this? The all-inclusiveness of the Father.
What Jesus suggests is a kind of imitatio Deo, an imitation of God. If thats who God is and thats the way God loves, then thats how we want to love. God rubs off on people who hang around God. If God sets no bounds, then we have to stop keeping score and weighing worthiness.
The final imperative is well translated here by the New Jerusalem Bible. The common translation, be perfect (teleios) is a later abstract, Greek concept which Jesus would never have used. He spoke in concrete and descriptive Aramaic metaphors, never like a cerebral philosopher or even a theologian. He is, however, admitting that this most demanding commandment is going to ask a great deal of us boundlessness and magnanimity. (pp. 157-58)
3. René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, pp. 197-99. In a section entitled “The Preaching of the Kingdom,” he writes:
Look again at the Sermon on the Mount. We can see that the significance of the Kingdom of God is completely clear. It is always a matter of bringing together the warring brothers, of putting an end to the mimetic crisis by a universal renunciation of violence. Apart from collective expulsion which brings about reconciliation because it is unanimous only the unconditional and, if necessary, unilateral renunciation of violence can put an end to the relation of doubles. The Kingdom of God means the complete and definitive elimination of every form of vengeance and every form of reprisal in relations between men.
Jesus makes all of this an absolute duty in everyday life. It is an obligation without counterpart, which makes no condition that it must be reciprocated:
You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well (Matthew 5:38-40).
Modern interpreters certainly see that everything in the Kingdom of God comes down to the project of ridding men of violence. But because they conceive of violence in the wrong way, they do not appreciate the rigorous objectivity of the methods which Jesus advocates. People imagine either that violence is no more than a kind of parasite, which the appropriate safeguards can easily eliminate or that it is an ineradicable trait of human nature, an instinct or fatal tendency that it is fruitless to fight.
But the Gospels tell quite a different story. Jesus invites all men to devote themselves to the project of getting rid of violence, a project conceived with reference to the true nature of violence, taking into account the illusions it fosters, the methods by which it gains ground, and all the laws that we have verified over the course of these discussions.
Violence is the enslavement of a pervasive lie; it imposes upon men a falsified vision not only of God but also of everything else. And that is indeed why it is a closed kingdom. Escaping from violence is escaping from this kingdom into another kingdom, whose existence the majority of people do not even suspect. This is the Kingdom of love, which is also the domain of the true God, the Father of Jesus, of whom the prisoners of violence cannot even conceive.
To leave violence behind, it is necessary to give up the idea of retribution; it is therefore necessary to give up forms of conduct that have always seemed to be natural and legitimate. For example, we think it quite fair to respond to good dealings with good dealings, and to evil dealings with evil, but this is precisely what all the communities on the planet have always done, with familiar results. People imagine that to escape from violence it is sufficient to give up any kind of violent initiative, but since no one in fact thinks of himself as taking this initiative since all violence has a mimetic character, and derives or can be thought to derive from a first violence that is always perceived as originating with the opponent this act of renunciation is no more than a sham, and cannot bring about any kind of change at all. Violence is always perceived as being a legitimate reprisal or even self-defence. So what must be given up is the right to reprisals and even the right to what passes, in a number of cases, for legitimate defence. Since the violence is mimetic, and no one ever feels responsible for triggering it initially, only by an unconditional renunciation can we arrive at the desired result:
And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:33-35).
If we interpret the gospel doctrine in the light of our own observations about violence, we can see that it explains, in the most clear and concise fashion, all that people must do in order to break with the circularity of closed societies, whether they be tribal, national, philosophical or religious. There is nothing missing and there is no superfluous detail. This doctrine is completely realistic. It envisages perfectly all that is implied in going beyond the metaphysical closure, and it never falls into the associated errors of modern fanaticism, which misunderstands the ambiguity and the ubiquity of violence, and invariably limits its indictment either to the loss of sacrificial order or to the presence of that order, either to unruliness alone or to rules alone, in the belief that to triumph over violence is simply a matter of violently eliminating one or other either by curbing individual impulses or by taking the opposite path and liberating them in the expectation that this act will establish peace in our time.
Because they have no knowledge of violence and the role that it plays in human life, these commentators sometimes imagine that the Gospels preach a sort of natural morality that men, being naturally good, would respect of their own accord if there were no wicked people to prevent them from doing so, and sometimes they imagine that the Kingdom of God is a kind of Utopia, a dream of perfection invented by some gentle dreamer who was incapable of understanding the ground rules upon which humankind has always operated.
No one can see that the true nature of violence is deduced with implacable logic, from the simple and single rule of the Kingdom. No one can see that disobeying or obeying this rule gives rise to two kingdoms which cannot communicate with one another, since they are separated by a real abyss. Mankind can cross this abyss, but to do so all men together should adopt the single rule of the Kingdom of God. The decision to do so must come from each individual separately, however; for once, others are not involved.
Here we see Girard’s belief that humanity’s best chance for survival is conversion to the Way of Peace of Jesus Christ one person at a time. He emphasizes this again in the book that recapitulates Things Hidden after twenty-five years, Evolution and Conversion. He repeats the similar point from Things Hidden:
In order to free oneself from sacrifice, someone has to set the example, and renounce all mimetic retaliations: turn the other cheek, as Jesus says. To learn about the role of mimetism in human violence helps us to understand why Jesus teachings in the Sermon of the Mount are what they are. They are not masochistic; they are not excessive. They are simply realistic, taking into account our almost irresistible tendency to retaliate. (pp. 203-4)
But in Evolution and Conversion, Girard says a lot more about what he means by conversion. Species of hominids died out previous to homo sapiens because the scapegoating mechanism and religion of sacred violence had not yet effectively moved into place. The latter has been the key to our survival as a species thus far. But it’s only been around 100,000 years; and now that we have created weapons of mass destruction only God’s way of peace in Jesus Christ will save us. We must be moved by the Spirit to open ourselves to imitation of Christ’s nonretaliatory forgiveness and love of enemies. We must be moved to conversion to the Way.
Interestingly, a little further on in Evolution and Conversion, Girard cites Gandhi as one who was converted, not to the Christian religion, but to the way of Christ in terms of nonretaliation:
Certainly, the mimetic theory does not exclude the possibility that a given society or religious group could reach a form of radical awareness of the violent nature of human beings. Because of that awareness, groups like the Jains were strongly persecuted in the past: being against the sacrificial order often entailed being scapegoated. Jainism probably reached that stage of awareness and proposed a form of radical anti-sacrificial asceticism, which is compatible with a Christian understanding. Gandhi saw a connection between Jainist philosophy and Christianity, but eventually he opted for the kind of political action that is more compatible with the latter. Christianity suggests a political dimension. It entails an intervention in worldly matters, not in the form of sheer proselytism, as it is commonly believed, but in the form of a personal, individual conversion, by proposing Christ as a model to imitate. (pp. 212-13)
A particularly enlightening discussion about conversion occurs several pages later (Girard’s dialogue partner’s response are in italics):
Desire is always mimetic, but some human beings resist desire and being carried away by mimetic violence. When Jesus says: scandals must happen (Matthew 18.7-8) he is talking about communities. In communities, there are so many people that it would be statistically impossible for mimetic violence not to be present, but the individual isnt bound hand-and-foot to mimetic desire. Jesus himself was not. To talk about freedom means to talk about mans ability to resist the mimetic mechanism.
Hence, the only freedom we have is to imitate Jesus, that is, by not joining the mimetic cycle.
Or to imitate someone like Jesus. Remember what Paul said to the Corinthians: I urge you to imitate me(1 Corinthians 4.16). He did so not out of personal pride or self-righteousness but because he himself imitates Jesus who, in turn, imitates the Father. He is just part of an endless chain of good imitation, non-rivalrous imitation, that Christians try to create. The saints are the links of this chain.
Therefore, our free will is given by the choice we have of accusing others or having compassion for them. I don’t see why the idea of this imitation would imply the accusation of those who dont practise it. All accusation is the attempt to get out of the game at the expense of a scapegoat. It is what Christ never does. The Gospel of John says: You are the son of Satan because you dont listen to my voice [see John 8:43-47]. There are two arch-models: Satan and Christ. Freedom is an act of conversion to one or the other. Otherwise, it is a total illusion. That is why Paul says: we are in chains but we are free [see Romans 6:18]. We are free because we can truly convert ourselves at any time. In other words, we can refuse to join the mimetic unanimity. As we already explained, conversion means to become aware that we are persecutors. It means choosing Christ or a Christlike individual as a model for our desires. It also means seeing oneself as being in the process of imitating from the very beginning. Conversion is the discovery that we have always, without being aware of it, been imitating the wrong kind of models who lead us into the vicious circle of scandals and perpetual frustration. (pp. 222-23)
Here’s the bottom line on the significance Girard’s work, summarized in the title of Evolution and Conversion: the fact that homo sapiens evolved with the scapegoating mechanism under the guise of institutionalized religions of sacred violence and saved us from interspecies ‘apocalyptic’ violence so far, does not mean that it will continue to save us. In fact, the Lamb of God has taken that Sin, which lies at our origins as a species, away from us. We now have the means to destroy ourselves and the whole planet with weapons of mass destruction and a global economy bent on consuming the earth. Two thousand years ago the true God intervened in our history to give us the only ultimate way to peace. This time it will take conversion to save us. Evolution will come too late. Either we learn the way of non-retaliatory forgiveness that even loves enemies, or we will destroy ourselves. In his last book, Battling to the End, Girard was not too optimistic about our prospects. His only hope lies anchored in the history of the continuing gracious work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, not in human history.
4. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 36, 41-44, 66, 79, 94, 105. See several substantial excerpts that help interpret Matthew 5.
5. Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian: How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation New. There is two places at which Bartlett cites this Gospel text. The first is in the context of defending the merits of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ (while also admitting the flaws). Bartlett writes,
It is certainly possible to see many things wrong with Gibsons depiction: he short-circuits Jesus ministry and teaching, concentrating myopically on the last twenty-four hours of his life; he merges Mary Magdalene with the woman taken in adultery; from a historical point of view he allows the Roman governor and his officers to take absurdly minimal responsibility; and this imbalance feeds the impression the Jewish authorities were the main agents. But what is never acknowledged in the rush to judge the movie is Jesus unimpeachable attitude of forgiveness and nonviolence evident throughout. One of the few flash-backs to Jesus actual teaching ministry gives the crucial Sermon on the Mount commandment of love for enemies. In the course of the actual crucifixion Jesus twice prays to his Father to forgive his persecutors, and one of the times emphatically in the face of priests and leaders of the people. It is this reaction by Jesus which simultaneously thrusts the violence back on the viewer we are in fact not permitted to fantasize revenge on the perpetrators and invites us into that unimaginable pit of forgiveness. (p. 83)
The second citation of this passage comes within the chapter on the postmodern church, in a section titled “Reprogramming Our Signs,” raising questions especially about biblical interpretation. Bartlett gives a glimpse of the possibilities of what this website hopes to persuade readers, namely, the value of an anthropological reading. Here it is valuable to quote a little bit bigger slice:
A key of interpretation that shows progressively changed meaning may be called an anthropological reading of the text. By its means we see the bible as a developing register of signs and symbols, moving from the ones more easily understood to the wonderfully new ones the first would draw behind them. Let us think for a moment how this might work in practice. For example, the God of Exodus brings down the plagues on the Egyptians, culminating in the slaughter of their firstborn. What this succession of events enabled was a huge reversal of meaning for a group of Hebrew slaves. They were at constant risk of their lives in a world history which would never give their deaths a second thought. In contrast, the death of the firstborn said plainly that they were of equal value to all Egyptians, up to and including the divine son of Pharaoh himself. For another more powerful god was prepared to prove it! Was the God of the bible then responsible for the death of the firstborn? Not in any sense beyond allowing death in the world in the first place. What God was responsible for was the first stage in a shift of meaning within the minds of his people. What God intended and brought about was a critical new perspective that saw the marginal, the dispossessed, those abandoned by fate or the gods, as a group who were central, blessed and loved. At the point of origin of the tradition, even on the most literalist reading, its hard to miss the literary and constructed character of the narrative. The steadily mounting crisis, the hardening of the Pharaohs heart, the supremely countable number of plagues, the dramatic finale, all suggests a rehearsed liturgical format. Here is meaning arising as a story and the story is the most potent of signs. Essentially, therefore, a bunch of escapee Hebrews were theologically inspired to read a series of catastrophic events as a story of meaning, one in which God sides with the weak and oppressed.
The writing of the tradition explicitly understood the whole thing in terms of sign. The word is used frequently in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, referring to Gods deeds: for example I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt (Ex.7:3). The events are never simply a brute exercise of power but are embedded as meaning in a framework of meaning. They point to the law and the covenant, constructing an on-going dynamic of relationship, one which entailed that if the Hebrews were liberated from oppression it was so that they would not oppress each other. Thus any purported act of violence on the part of God already means much more than that; it means in fact the overturning of the rule of violence!
By the time then Second Isaiah came to write his prophecy the tradition of sign is understood and valued for itself and the overturning of meaning is enacted consciously from within. The prophet saw a second Exodus about to take place, returning the Jews from exile. This time, however, instead of a charismatic prophet leader, or a king or priest, it would be the Lord himself who would lead them, and the relationship that before had appeared contractual and violent would appear as compassionate and without violence. I, I am he who comforts you (Isaiah 51:12). Then in the absence of the classic agents of violence, the king and national army, another figure comes to focus, the Servant, marked explicitly by nonviolence (I gave my back to those who struck me, 50:6). It was through this figure that Gods will would be done and many (an indefinite number) be made righteous (53:11). The overturning of meaning has become exponential, while in the process losing its anthropological residue of violence. With this sign of the Servant, the high wire of the humanly new had been strung, between the oppression of Babylon and the miraculous powerless return. And so, finally, upon this thin-air narrow wire, it becomes possible for Jesus to walk out, moving toward his definitive forgiving encounter with the combined agencies of human violence: empire, temple, crowd and faithless friends.
This then is a way of reading the main narrative thread of the bible as construction of new meaning. But it is possible to read just about everything in the bible in this mode of progressive strands or signs. You could call it an ophthalmic approach, a bit like the optician slipping different lenses in front of your eyes until you get twenty-twenty vision. The lucid eyesight were looking for is that of Jesus, he who said six times You have heard that it was said…but I say to you, the so-called antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount. Especially relevant in this sustained claim to a new perspective is the last one: You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matt. 5: 43-44). In this one saying Jesus undid the great violent arc of his own scriptures, from the military defeat of peoples who stood in the way of Israels entry to the land, through the conquest itself, through the multiple wars of the various kings, all the way to the brewing rebellion against the Romans happening in his own time. With these words his message becomes truly universal. For the mission to the Gentiles is surely implied here, and if bible believers see that the gospel reaches beyond national boundaries they must also see the radical human implication of nonviolence. Really the formal gospel proclamation deeply affirms nonviolence. For once Jesus had challenged and changed all human parameters by non-exclusion and nonviolence, and fulfilled his own teaching with the witness of his own life, there could only be two consequences calamitous failure or astonishing resurrection! If, therefore, the disciples actually had the courage to go out and proclaim a risen Jesus it must be because something had in fact affirmed Jesus impossible message. Indeed who, if anyone, could conceivably be the firstborn from the dead if not the one who defined and produced in himself truly new humanity, the one who taught a love that makes forgiveness of the enemy as holy as any contemplation?
The biblical trajectory of transforming human meaning leads step by step to resurrection and any small group reading the scriptures as reprogramming of the human sign system points unwaveringly in that direction. Reading the bible in this way the small group will find itself confronted again and again with the ancient sign value of violence and then be prompted by its pivotal place in the overall biblical journey to see how it has been overturned and made into something amazingly, totally new. Steeping itself in this reading can lead only to the Crucified Risen One, the truly new human, the first born of many sisters and brothers. (pp. 210-13)
7. Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection, p. 295. In a couple of crucial paragraphs, this passage is cited significantly in Robinette’s sketching of “The Gift of the Forgiving Victim”:
Rather than responding reciprocally to the original violence, God instead offers the risen victim as our Gift. In an act that utterly supersedes the logic of equivalence operative in conceptions of retributive justice, the resurrection of the victim, and his return in our midst as the concrete offer of reconciliation with God, manifests God’s logic of excess. Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him (2:38-39). Similarly: The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins (5:30-31). According to the kerygmatic formulae in Acts, God has brought about the fulfillment to Israel’s story through a twofold reversal. First, by raising Jesus from the dead, God has served eschatological justice to an innocent victim whilst unmasking the guilt of his accusers and murderers. The relationship between guilt and innocence has been reversed as the condemned Jesus has now become the judge of his judges. Second, by raising Jesus from the dead, God has acquitted those responsible for this death, using their own ignorance and sin as the very means to save them from self-condemnation, extending to them the Gift of hospitality to participate in a new community, the ecclesia, founded upon the welcome of the victim. Such a surprising avenger. Instead of acting within the parameters of reciprocity, where this is met with an equivalent that, God’s Gift of the risen victim floods the banks of our limited imaginations and distorted desires in a gesture of superabundance. The dynamic of mutual exchange proves inadequate to foresee and absorb the amazing more than of grace which pours itself out in self-donating hospitality, even while we were enemies of God (Rom. 5:10).
Such tenacious hospitality, it should be noted, is entirely in keeping with Jesus historical ministry. The resurrection of Jesus is internally consistent with his most challenging though characteristic sayings and deeds. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, the logic of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is supplanted with do not resist an evildoer; the response to being struck on the right cheek is to turn the other also; the saying you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy is reformulated into love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:38-44). How many times must we forgive? Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times (18:22). Or consider the parable of the Prodigal Son, where the Father, filled with compassion, runs out to embrace and kiss his son whom he sees far off, even before the son has the opportunity to ask for forgiveness (Luke 15:20). This logic of generosity, which Paul Ricoeur claims is present in virtually all of Jesus parables, proverbs, and eschatological sayings, clashes head on with the logic of equivalence that orders our everyday exchanges, our commerce, and our penal law. (pp. 294-95)
8. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, uses Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as a centerpiece by making it the most-oft cited passage in the book, including two chapters devoted to it — Ch. 14, “Kingdom Manifesto” and Ch. 15, “Kingdom Ethics,” with a good summary of the entire Sermon on pp. 135-36. In the longer commentary of Ch. 14, McLaren recounts the reading of 5:38-42 made popular by Walter Wink (see below). Then, after quoting 5:43-48, he has these poignant and powerful things to say on this crucial passage:
This is one of the most powerful yet misunderstood passages in biblical literature, misunderstood largely because people neglect Jesus larger-scale strategy in this whole sermon. They assume (just as the religious scholars and Pharisees may have, by the way) that Be perfect means Achieve external technical perfection. In context, though, it’s abundantly clear that Jesus means something poles apart from external technical perfection:
The kingdom of God calls you to a higher way of living. It’s not just about loving friends and hating enemies. It’s about loving your enemies. This is what the King does, so this is the way of the kingdom. God is good to all including evil people. God’s perfection is a compassionate perfection. That’s the kind of love you need to have in God’s kingdom a compassionate perfection that transcends old divisions of us/them and neighbor/enemy, that loves those who do not yet love you. We will never reach universal reconciliation in the kingdom of God until we move beyond conventional religious morality and believe in and practice this radical, higher plan.
The parallel passage in Luke 6 substitutes the word compassionate (of merciful) for perfect, strongly reinforcing this reading.
Now, recalling the political context of Roman occupation and the varied contemporary agendas for Jewish liberation, Jesus understanding of the kingdom here is guaranteed to satisfy nobody. Those who believe in redemptive violence that the kingdom will come through shedding the blood of enemies will be disgusted. Those who believe that the best path is to compromise and adapt to the status quo will find Jesus words unsettling and therefore unsatisfactory. And the scribes and Pharisees are probably still stinging from Jesus earlier thesis statement. Their blood pressure may never be the same after being marginalized by Jesus direct rejection of their righteousness and by his implication that they are in fact not operating within the kingdom of God and need to enter it by following his different and better way.
If there is a point in this book where readers might be tempted to slam the cover shut and say, This is ridiculous. This is unrealistic. This is a pipe dream. Nothing like this could ever happen, this would be that point. Perhaps they would be right in doing so. But what do they have to look forward to if they’re right? Simply more of the same in human history, on the level of individuals, families, and nations more of the cycle of offense and revenge, undertaken with more and more powerful weapons, with more and more at stake in each confrontation.
What would it mean if, at this moment, many readers actually began to believe that another world is possible, that Jesus may in fact have been right, that the secret message of the kingdom of God though radical, though unprecedented in its vision, though requiring immense faith to believe it is possible may in fact be the only authentically saving message we have? (pp. 127-28)
9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4), two sections entitled “Retribution” and “The Enemy — the Extraordinary,” pp. 131-145.
10. Wolfgang Palaver, René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, pp. 35, 216, 220, 232, 240, 295-96. Palaver’s excellent account of Girard’s work makes it clear with numerous citations that this portion of the Sermon on the Mount was central to Girard. Here’s a condensed paragraph titled “The Nonviolent God and the Love of Ones Enemy”:
The uncovering of the scapegoat mechanism in the Gospels necessitates the repudiation of all sacrificial theologies on which this mechanism is based.69 According to Girard, the Gospels contain no comparative reference of Jesuss death on the cross to any form of sacrifice. On the contrary, he argues that Jesus fully accepts the words of the prophet Hosea, who claimed that God preferred mercy over sacrifice (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7). This renunciation of sacrificial theology which any violent divinity ultimately requires emanates from the image of the New Testament God. In the sermons about the Kingdom of God and above all in the Sermon on the Mount which Girard considers central to the New Testament texts Jesus rejects all forms of interpersonal violence. The challenge to love ones enemy found in Matthew 5:43-45 is based on the desire of a God to whom revenge is entirely foreign, one who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. According to Girard, even the apocalyptic texts in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24:1-25, 46; Mark 13; Luke 17:22-37; 21:5-33) have nothing to do with a violent God? The violence expressed in these texts, he argues, is brought about by the humans themselves who refuse the message of the Kingdom of God. (p. 216)
And in a passage on Girard’s views on war, he connects this week’s passage with last week’s:
Girard’s rejection of the thesis that war and political hostilities represent eternal human institutions opens up significant ethical perspectives for the future. This rejection undermines all theories that define warfare and xenophobia as inexorable elements of human nature. His argument that these institutions are based in the scapegoat mechanism shows, namely, that all forms of interpersonal violence and hostility begin in the most elementary human relationships. The way out of violence and enmity must be found on these rudimentary levels. The Sermon on the Mount is one such example that exhibits this way to peace. The practice of reconciliation and the love of one’s enemy must commence from the beginning in order to avoid eventual dependence on the institution of warfare or any other means of channeling violence outwardly. Wrath or words of insult against one’s own brother pave the way that ultimately leads to the hell of war (cf. Matthew 5:21-22). (p. 295)
11. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life. Hardin features the Sermon on the Mount in section 1.4, “The Life of the Kingdom of God,” pages 48-58.
12. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (and other books). Wink’s best material is on this Gospel passage. He coined the term “Third Way” to mark Jesus’ Way of nonviolent resistance as an alternative to the other two ‘ways,’ fight or flight. Passed on to me is Bishop Catherine Waynick’s of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis succinct summary of Walter Wink’s reworking of this week’s Gospel text for Epiphany 7A. There are also YouTube videos of Wink himself presenting on this Gospel.
13. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “The Contrast Continues; and in 2014, “Beyond Tit-for-Tat“; and in 2017, “Announcing a New Freedom“; Suella Gerber, a sermon in 2017, “Love Your Enemies … You Are God’s Temple“; Lindsey Paris-Lopez, a blog in 2017, “‘Love Your Enemies’: Expanding Our Hearts Through Compassion.”
Reflections and Questions
1. This week’s Gospel Reading is too important for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany. It may be one of the only serious errors of the lectionary. By my accounting of the calendar, in 2011 this is the first time I’ve seen Epiphany 7A since 1990! But by a fluke of the way we figure the date of Easter — and hence the point at which Lent cuts off the Epiphany season — we have a late Easter again in 2014. And so Epiphany 7A will see two cycles in a row after missing six cycles in between 1990 and 2011.
But Matthew 5:38-48 deserves to be read in the assembly every year! Is it worth creating another “Lesser Festival”, perhaps the Sunday after Trinity Sunday, which could feature our call to be peacemakers ala Matthew 5:38-48?
2. In 2014 my sermon actually proposed as the title suggests, “The Most Important Passage in the Bible.” I had been on retreat that weekend, with limited sermon prep time, so I decided to make ample use of our current All-Church Bible study book, which we had just started, Brian McLaren‘s The Secret Message of Jesus. McLaren very much uses the Sermon on the Mount as a central passage, devoting two full chapters to it, and having it in the background throughout. This sermon doesn’t focus simply on Matthew 5:38-48, but uses it as behind the our understanding three essentials of the Christian faith: 1. Who God most truly is; 2. Who Christ is and why his kingdom message went to the cross; and 3. Who God is making us to be as disciples, following in the way of the cross. I used McLaren’s book in a similar fashion — not simply his comments on this passage, but that this passage shapes his articulation of these essentials of the faith.
3. In 2011 we are in the midst of another incredible peace movement won by nonviolent resistance. The Egyptian people, through weeks of peaceful demonstrations, have succeeded in ousting dictator Hosni Mubarak. And it has had a 21st century technological twist: the protests were spontaneously organized through social networking. And when the regime closed down Facebook, it forced people out into the streets even more. A CBS news story said,
The Facebook page was called “We are all Khalid Sayid” [after a young man who had been beaten and killed by police in June 2010]. Soon hundreds, then thousands of others began sharing photos and video of abuse and mistreatment. Within months, the number of followers on Facebook grew to half a million, and when Wael Ghonim and other organizers posted the dates and locations of protests, people started showing up and posting Internet videos. Many of the organizers never met in person. Their primary interaction was online.
Yet these cyberspace protesters were also willing to put their lives on the line. Ghonim was imprisoned for several days; he was quoted as saying he was willing to die for the cause. Asked if he wanted to see Mubarak brought to trial, Ghonim replied,
At the moment, I don’t care. Revenge is not the thing I want. For me, what I care about right now, I want all the money of the Egyptian people to come back. There are billions and billions of dollars that were stolen out of this country. You cannot imagine the amount of corruption that was here. … But for me, what is more important, we want the money back. Because this money belongs to the Egyptians, and they deserve it. The people who were eating from the trash, that was their money.
4. The momentum of nonviolent resistance and revolution in the modern world began with a Hindu man, Mahatma Gandhi, who took the Sermon on the Mount much more seriously than the average Christian. The 1982 motion picture Gandhi (my all-time favorite movie) has a scene in which Gandhi is walking down a street with Anglican priest Charlie Andrews. Menacing youths appear in their path. Andrews is about to suggest they change routes, but Gandhi wants to press the issue:
Charlie: Perhaps we should…um…
Gandhi: Doesn’t the New Testament say that if your enemy strikes you on the right cheek offer him the left?
C: I think maybe the phrase is used metaphorically. I don’t think…
G: I’m not so sure. I have thought about it a great deal, and I suspect he meant you must show courage, be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show that you will not strike back nor will you be turned aside. And when you do that it calls on something in human nature, something that makes his hatred for you decrease and his respect increase. I think Christ grasped that, and I have seen it work.
My favorite scene in the movie is when Gandhi is fighting apartheid in South Africa, early in his career. He organizes a rally in a theater packed with willing protesters. Gandhi outlines features of new laws: mandatory fingerprinting for People of Color, only Christian marriages are to be considered legally valid (all the Indians are either Hindu or Muslim), and police may enter their dwellings without permission. There are outcries from the crowd promising violent resistance, ending with someone shouting out: For that cause I would be willing to die! To which Gandhi responds:
I praise such courage. I need such courage, because in this cause I, too, am prepared to die. But, my friend, there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.
Whatever they do to us, we will attack no one, kill no one. But we will not give our fingerprints, not one of us. They will imprison us, they will fine us, they will seize our possessions. But they cannot take away our self-respect if we do not give it to them.
A person in the crowd interjects: Have you ever been to prison? They beat us and torture us…. Gandhi continues:
I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger, not to provoke it. We will not strike a blow. But we will receive them. And through our pain we will make them see their injustice. And it will hurt, as all fighting hurts. But we cannot lose. We cannot. They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then, they have my dead body. Not my obedience.
We are Hindu and Muslim, children of God, each one of us. Let us take a solemn oath in His Name that, come what may, we will not submit to this law.
If our world is to survive, we need more people to imitate Gandhi who imitated Christ. Link to a 2011 sermon, “Do This in Imitation of Me!”
5. In the Fall 2011, we went off the lectionary for a series on the Lord’s Prayer, based on the excellent book by John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer. For the second week’s theme of “Your Kingdom Come,” I chose Matthew 5:38-48 for the Gospel Reading, and Daniel 7:1-14 for the First Reading. But the central image came from the Children’s Object Lesson, namely, the illustration of 3-D technology, especially 3-D glasses I obtained from the local movie theater. Being able to see God’s kingdom through the call to nonviolence and the love of enemies is like putting on 3-D glasses. More specifically, I elaborated three crucial dimensions of the Christian faith: (1) the personal dimension, that is, personal salvation/transformation; (2) the socio-political or prophetic dimension, that is, socio-political transformation within history; and (3) the spiritual dimension, that is, living one’s life plugged into the love of God.
The latter generations of the Christian faith, in which many of us were raised, has been rather one-dimensional, focused on the personal dimension — and narrowed even further in terms of the afterlife. Salvation has been seen in terms of a person’s soul being saved for eternal life in heaven. There’s all kinds of problems with this latter focus, but here I developed it in terms of three necessary dimensions of the Christian faith, two of which have been lopped off in the latter generations. So the latest generation — those in their 20’s — are fleeing the church in huge numbers. They are seeing the fruit of a one-dimensional faith focused on heaven, namely, a relinquishing of making a difference in the world today. And the underlying reason for becoming so comfortable in a one-dimensional faith is that the second dimension is contrary to the imperialistic politics of Christendom. A one-dimensional faith allows us the luxury of not being challenged to change our politics.
My sermon points to the pivotal nature of Daniel 7 for 1st century Jews as expressing the second dimension, the socio-political dimension of faith. They carried hope for transformation within history: namely, that beastly imperialist politics would someday be replaced when the Son of Man comes to enact God’s justice. Crossan’s book very much brings forth this second dimension of faith — which also transforms the personal dimension by placing it in the context of socio-political transformation. One’s personal faith is transformed to participate in the coming Kingdom of God.
Yet the third dimension is also necessary. Crossan points to this by talking about a “Spirit transplant” (p. 26). I believe that Matthew 5 points to the fact that the socio-political dimension will be truly transformed by God’s noviolent power of love. In my recent explorations of contempative spirituality, I have been reading Richard Rohr‘s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. In the introduction, Rohr quotes the Dalai Lama: “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.” Isn’t this exactly what Jesus is expressing in Matthew 5? Learning to break the rules properly means learning how to break them in the direction of God’s unconditional love for the world. So here is the concluding paragraph of this sermon on “Your Kingdom Come“:
If we are to put on 3-D glasses for eyes of faith [putting on 3-D glasses one more time], we need to go far beyond the last five hundred years of Protestant-Catholic faith. We are going to need to learn the ways of the mystics, the way of the spiritual dimension of seeing everything in love, the way of living one’s entire life in the power of God’s unconditional love for the world. That’s the deepest meaning of praying together to see the coming of God’s kingdom. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your kingdom come…”