Last revised: March 22, 2023
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FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR A
RCL: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
RoCa: Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
In 2023, I begin a series for Lent and Holy Week on God healing or saving us from the consequences of Us-vs-Them thinking. Paul talks about this salvation in various ways, but most clearly in Ephesians 2:15-16 where he says, “that [Messiah Jesus] might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross. . . .” One new humanity. Peace. Reconcile. The whole point of the Gospel is to unite the human family in the stewardship for which we are created so that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
The opposite of this New Creation, of course, is a humanity intractably mired in the violent divisiveness of the “present age” — or to use Jesus’ parabolic language, ‘Satan casting out Satan’ such that the human household is forever divided against itself (Mark 3:23-26 and par.). Easter begins the “age to come.” But it is only in process, not yet completed, such that it now overlaps the present age of corruption and division, which continues to lead to seemingly endless cycles of violence. We are currently living through a time of increased polarization and political violence, which threatens to step us backwards from democratic movements into authoritarian and even fascist movements fueled by White Supremacist Racism. For perhaps the first time in its nearly 250-year history, even the United States is under the threat of losing its experiment in democracy. It is a time for followers of Jesus to step up and lead with a revitalized Gospel message focusing on the healing of the Us-vs-Them thinking. It is time for us to more fully claim the power of God’s new age to come, the reign of God that launched a project of New Creation on Easter.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
1. In the Hebrew, “crafty,” arum (Gen. 3:1), and “naked”, arummim (Gen. 2:25, 3:7), are in the same word group and might be intended as a pun. The eyes of the man and woman were opened, and so they saw their nakedness. But how much is this related to having their eyes opened at the same time to the kind of crafty, seductiveness of the serpent? It is the serpent who first tells them about having their eyes opened in desiring the fruit. Then, having so desired the fruit through the eyes of another, the man and woman find that having their eyes opened also means looking at themselves differently. The craftiness of the serpent (arum) awakens them to looking at objects of desire through the eyes of others, which then leads to looking at themselves as naked (arummim).
2. In the passage excerpted below from Girard’s I See Satan, he makes note that the word for “desire” in Gen. 3:6 and for “covet” in the Ten Commandments of Ex. 20:17 are actually the same word in Hebrew, nehmad. Also, nehmad is used in Gen. 2:9 to say that the trees of the garden, in general, were pleasing to the sight. In the reflections, I want to remark on what I see as an emphasis on connecting desire with sight.
1. Jean-Michel Oughourlian, The Genesis of Desire, is now the ‘top-of-the-line’ Girardian exegesis of this passage. He devotes an entire forty page chapter to it: ch. 2, “The Creation and Fall,” pp. 43-80.
2. James Warren, Compassion or Apocalypse?, is a close second to Oughourlian, since he devotes a chapter to it as well, giving a good account of Oughourlian’s work: ch. 2, “Mimesis in Genesis 2 and 3,” pp. 39-51.
3. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, opens with the link between Gen. 3 and the Tenth commandment, noting that the Hebrew word behind “desire” in Gen. 3:6 and “covet” in Ex. 20:17 is actually the same word. The story of the ‘fall into sin’ in Gen. 3 is a story of mimetic desire: the serpent suggests a desire for the forbidden fruit to the woman, and the woman to the man. And the narrative cuts right to the chase: The results are rivalry and broken relationship, not just with each other (climaxing in the fratricide between their sons), but with God — “for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Chapter 1, “Scandal Must Come,” begins thus:
In the bible, and especially in the Gospels, there is an original conception of desire and its conflicts that has gone largely unrecognized. In order to grasp how old it is we must go back to the Fall in Genesis or to the second half of the Ten Commandments, which is entirely devoted to prohibiting violence against one’s neighbor.Commandments six, seven, eight, and nine are both simple and brief. They prohibit the most serious acts of violence in the order of their seriousness:
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
The tenth and last commandment is distinguished from those preceding it both by its length and its object: in place of prohibiting an act it forbids a desire.
You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him. (Exod. 20:17)
Without being actually wrong the modern translations lead readers down a false trail. The verb “covet” suggests that an uncommon desire is prohibited, a perverse desire reserved for hardened sinners. But the Hebrew term translated as “covet” means just simply “desire.” This is the word that designates the desire of Eve for the prohibited fruit, the desire leading to the original sin. The notion that the Decalogue devotes its supreme commandment, the longest of all, to the prohibition of a marginal desire reserved for a minority is hardly likely. The desire prohibited by the tenth commandment must be the desire of all human beings — in other words, simply desire as such.If the Decalogue forbids the most widespread desire, doesn’t it then deserve the modern world’s reproach to religious prohibitions? Doesn’t the tenth commandment succumb to that gratuitous itch to prohibit, to that irrational hatred of freedom for which modern thinkers blame religion in general and the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular?
Before condemning prohibitions as needlessly repressive, before espousing the formula rendered famous by the events of May 1968 in France — “Il est interdit d’interdire” [It is forbidden to forbid] — we must pose some questions about the implications of desire as it is defined in the tenth commandment, the desire for the neighbor’s goods. If this desire is the most common of all, what would happen if it were permitted rather than forbidden? There would be perpetual war in the midst of all human groups, subgroups, and families. The door would be wide open to the famous nightmare of Thomas Hobbes, the war of all against all.
If we think that cultural prohibitions are needless, we must adhere to the most excessive individualism, one that presupposes the total autonomy of individuals, that is, the autonomy of their desires. In other words, we must think that humans are naturally inclined not to desire the goods of their neighbors. To understand that this premise is false, all we have to do is to watch two children or two adults who quarrel over some trifle. It is the opposite premise, the only realistic one, that underlies the tenth commandment of the Decalogue: we tend to desire what our neighbor has or what our neighbor desires.
If individuals are naturally inclined to desire what their neighbors possess, or to desire what their neighbors even simply desire, this means that rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations. This rivalry, if not thwarted, would permanently endanger the harmony and even the survival of all human communities. Rivalistic desires are all the more overwhelming since they reinforce one another. The principle of reciprocal escalation and one-upmanship governs this type of conflict. This phenomenon is so common, so well known to us, and so contrary to our concept of ourselves, thus so humiliating, that we prefer to remove it from consciousness and act as if it did not exist. But all the while we know it does exist. This indifference to the threat of runaway conflict is a luxury that small ancient societies could not afford.
The commandment that prohibits desiring the goods of one’s neighbor attempts to resolve the number one problem of every human community: internal violence. (pp. 7-9)
4. René Girard, A Theater of Envy, ch. 35, “Original Sin in A Winter’s Tale,” especially pages 324-325. One of the aspects he stresses in this chapter is man’s wanting to blame things on woman, and Shakespeare’s tendency, especially in the later dramas, to reveal this scapegoating of women. He suggests that, “Woman is the preferred vehicle of truth in Shakespeare.” (p. 324) And of the Adam and Eve story he says:
In his answer to God’s query, Adam blames everything on Eve; he has been repeating this accusation ever since, in the teeth of a Biblical text that, far from condoning his cowardly avoidance of responsibility, obviously regards it as a continuation and aggravation of the original sin. There is no biblical reason for singling out Eve as the main culprit…. From the beginning, Adam has tried to transform a minor point into the total message of the story. He does this in order to elude the truth of his desire. What we inherited from him is both the desire, and the appetite for scapegoating that goes with it. (p. 324)
5. René Girard, Things Hidden, on page 275 he contrasts the Adam and Eve story with the Johannine Prologue: “The only difference is that in the story of Adam and Eve, God manipulates and expels mankind to secure the foundations of culture, whilst in the Prologue to John it is mankind who expels God.”
6. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong; in a book on original sin, this passage is of course crucial; see especially pages 241-248 (but more below under Romans 5 in Paul’s reading of it). The bottom line is to make a christological re-reading of the Genesis 2-3 story which removes the double bind present in the OT myth:
This re-reading of the Genesis story is strictly dependent on only one piece of ‘demythologization,’ and it is a piece of ‘demythologization’ which the New Testament carries out anyhow in a slightly different context: the substitution of salvation by Christ crucified for salvation by the Law. This leaves us with a person rather than a fruit, and a positive divine creative design bringing into being people who might love each other, rather than a prohibition. God is thus constantly calling us into a positive likeness of himself “be like me, imitate me” without any double bind of the sort: “but do not be like me or imitate me in this one area.” (p. 248)
But perhaps Alison’s most important contribution to reading the Genesis story is keeping us aware of our inclination to read it with the agenda of blame:
There are no shortage of ways of talking about Adam and Eve or the serpent that are a way of finding who to blame for how things are. To follow that pattern of search for an origin would be to try to understand original sin within the framework of blaming someone for the present state of affairs, and would be in contradiction with the whole approach I have been trying to set out, which is that original sin is only to be understood from the coming into being of forgiveness, as that which is being forgiven. (pp. 241-242)
Alison’s approach is to instead recall the “mimetic master text,” Luke 6:39-42, about removing the mote in one’s own eye before removing the sliver in your brother or sister’s. When it comes down to it, there are only two modes for doing theology: accusatory or forgiving. The point is to get into the latter mode, “the mode of constructive complicity”:
I would suggest that the discourse which sees original sin as the foundational reality, (Adam/Eve/the Serpent is to blame, Jesus is the solution) is firmly stuck in the accusatory mode of projection, and ultimately does nothing but create stumbling blocks. If we are to be faithful to the whole approach to Original Sin thus far attempted, then our projection of an originating sin must be born from the mode of constructive complicity. In so doing we will be stretching the shape of forgiveness as far as there is anything to be forgiven.So, a first point about the sort of question we are asking when asking about an originating sin becomes clear: we are asking about the first people to be like us. We are doing so out of a grateful acceptance of their likeness to us, and because of an awareness that we are able to accept that likeness on our way to becoming something else, and indeed that our learning to accept that likeness may actually help us construct a forgiveness that includes them. The question is not so much how does “Adam’s” sin affect us, as how does Christ’s forgiveness (which we are charged to make real) affect Adam? To put this another way: there is no properly theological approach to “our first parents” that is not a discourse of love concerning the first people to need the sort of constructive forgiveness that we first discovered ourselves to need. There is no independent anthropological starting point in the approach to original sin. (pp. 242-243)
7. Jean-Michel Oughourlian, The Puppet of Desire, with a Girardian reading of the Genesis myths on pp. 21-27, 68-72. The second passage deals a great deal with both the devil and Satan, too.
8. Cesareo Bandera, The Sacred Game, pp. 114-115 on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The conclusion he draws from Gen. 2-3 is that, “The story … simply says that the knowledge of good and evil, in anybody’s hands other than God’s, will bring death and suffering, that is, expulsion from Paradise.” (Question: is St. Paul’s understanding of the law essentially this? That Torah is the knowledge of good and evil that only ends up bringing us death? Not that Torah is bad in itself, but that manipulated by the power of sin, the knowledge of good and evil becomes for us a justification for righteous violence?)
9. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 92-97 (see also below under Romans 5). See the beginning of Chapter 4, “Sacred Violence and Original Sin,” pp. 88-97.
10. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, “The Garden and the Fall,” pp. 137-138: “The fallen condition is summed up with breathtaking economy” — which is a nice description of both the biblical story and Bailie’s Girardian reading of it.
11. James Alison, On Being Liked. For developing the theme immediately below, regarding “seeing through the eyes of others,” chapter nine, “the strangeness of this passivity…,” develops the New Testament theme of being known by God (using Gal. 4:8-9, 1 Cor 8:1-3 and 13:11-13). He begins his development of this theme with a section on “psychology” (pp. 134-137):
One of the ways I knew about this strange passivity ‘intellectually’ before knowing it ‘as finding myself swimming in it’ was through the understanding of desire which I set out in Chapter 1 of this book. This is Girard’s central insight, and to my mind the incalculably important philosophical insight which he has theorised for us. This is the simple, and never-sufficiently-to-be-meditated-on perception, that humans desire according to the desire of another; or, to put it in slightly more literary terms: we receive ourselves through the eyes of another.All I want to say is that this is not a metaphor, but, I take it, a simple and apt anthropological description of how any of us comes to be. (p. 134)
And he goes on to give a helpful example. (See my example using the movie Groundhog Day in #4 below.) Alison emphasizes how receiving ourselves through the eyes of others is a life-long process that is how we are constituted as individuals. And this gets to how we can be reborn through being known by God through Jesus Christ:
The point of this is that St Paul is not making some arcane or mystical point in talking about the essential Christian discovery as being one of being known by God. On the contrary, he is showing some of the first fruits of the extraordinary anthropological discovery about who we really are which came into our ken in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection. (p. 136)
Jesus is the one who can know us into new being because he came to do God’s loving desire in and for the world without rivalry with God. We, too, can be remade without the rivalries in discipleship with him.
I highly recommend reading Chapter 9 in order to preach a theme of baptismal new birth for Lent. (Note: Alison makes a similar point in Chapter 7, “unbinding the gay conscience,” pp. 107ff.) In 2005 I preach Lent 1 and Lent 3, and plan to develop this theme over those weeks, referring to Lent 2 between them, with its theme of being reborn from above. The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is truly one of being able to see herself anew through the eyes of Jesus. Isn’t the being reborn from above in John 3 what we are talking about when the Risen Jesus knows us through God’s loving eyes of forgiveness?
12. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2014, titled “Fighting Through the Lies“; and a significantly revised sermon in 2017, “Fighting through the Lies.”
1. I use this story so frequently in my preaching that it is somewhat challenging to have it actually be part of the assigned texts for the week and then to say something new. In order to attempt doing so, I’d like to focus on the detail of the role of the eyes. In both Gen. 2:9 and 3:6, desiring is closely linked with seeing. Objects of desire are “pleasing to the sight.” Eyes are also crucial in describing the seeming loss of innocence in this story: the serpent convinces them that eating of the fruit will “open your eyes” — interpreted as a gaining of wisdom. But when they eat of the fruit, is it wisdom that is gained? Or a loss of innocence? Saying that their eyes were opened in Gen. 3:7 is combined with noticing that they are naked. That doesn’t sound like wisdom to me.
2. I suggest that these elements make sense together in light of an insight from mimetic theory between desire and seeing. To say that we catch our desires from each other can often be said in another way as seeing the objects of desire through the eyes of another. (See resource #9 immediately above, Alison‘s On Being Liked, for a development on this theme according to mimetic theory.) The man and woman begin the story abiding by the desire of God to place the tiny limit on their desiring of staying away from only one tree. In a state of trusting innocence, it never occurs to them to see that one tree as a problem, in a garden full of so many trees that are pleasing to the sight (Gen. 2:9). But through the envious eyes of the serpent, they begin to see that tree anew. Once they begin down the road of seeing the world through a creature’s envious eyes, rather than through God’s loving eyes, their eyes are opened to right and wrong. Whereas they previously looked at the good things of creation as simply pleasing to the sight, that sight is now mixed with the envy and seductiveness that causes them to see their own nakedness differently.
3. I have used the phrase “loss of innocence.” When we talk of “loss of innocence” regarding children, we often speak of growing self-awareness. Actually, we have probably mis-named this phenomenon. It is more like other-awareness than self-awareness. So-called self-awareness is an ability to look at ourselves as if we were another person to ourselves. It is essentially being able to look at ourselves through the eyes of others. As we mature and lose our innocence, we become increasingly aware of how others see us — as having a big nose, or frizzy hair, as being unattractive or attractive in various ways. These are the many messages we receive about ourselves regarding how others perceive us.
Is the story of Gen. 3:1-7 relating a similar schema of “losing innocence”? When the man and woman only see themselves through God’s loving eyes, their nakedness is not an issue. But the serpent introduces them to looking through the eyes of other creatures, and all the envy, seductiveness, and rivalry that goes along with such seeing, such desiring. Looking at ourselves through the eyes of other creatures, we notice our nakedness. We, too, are now exposed to be objects of desire for one another, mixed in with our rivalries. We lose our innoncence.
4. In 2005 I tried out several of these insights through looking at one of my favorite stories at this time of year: the movie Groundhog Day (1993), starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Here’s the plot summary on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb):
A weather man [Bill Murray] is reluctantly sent to cover a story about a weather forecasting “rat” (as he calls it). This is his fourth year on the story, and he makes no effort to hide his frustration. On awaking the ‘following’ day he discovers that it’s Groundhog Day [Feb. 2] again, and again, and again. First he uses this to his advantage, then comes the realisation that he is doomed to spend the rest of eternity in the same place, seeing the same people do the same thing EVERY day.
When Bill Murray’s character, Phil, is in his phase of trying to use his dilemma to his advantage, his main project is to get Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita, to like him. Phil is attracted to her, but Rita sees Phil for the self-centered person that he is. And so it’s likely to take more than a day’s time to manipulate her into seeing him differently — especially when he’s hampered by basically seeing himself through her eyes. By the day’s end — and he only has one day, since he keeps living the same one over and over — he always fulfills her view of him and makes some self-centered slip-up. There is a series of consecutive shots of ending their day with her slapping him.
The summary above stops short, however, of relating the crucial transformation, the one that happens after he despairs — which also is futile since even successful suicide attempts land him in the same bed, alive again, at 6 am on Groundhog Day. The first change is that he finally lets go of his attempts to get Rita to like him. Instead of remaining trapped in seeing himself through her eyes, he begins to more simply see the world through her eyes, the eyes of a person that he’s not. In short, Rita is self-giving rather than self-centered; she is genuinely caring in ways that don’t seek to control or manipulate.
Once Phil sets off on his day with this different agenda, he begins to look for all the times and places and peoples that he can help throughout the day. I showed a brief segment during my sermon called “Guardian Angel” (ch. 24 on the DVD) in which Phil consecutively: catches a boy falling out of a tree, fixes the flat tire of several elderly women, and performs the Heimlich Maneuver on the town’s mayor, saving him from choking on a piece of steak in a restaurant. He has given up spending time with Rita in favor of finding as many people and as many situations as he can in which he can genuinely be of help. His day becomes so increasingly filled with helping the good people of Punxsutawney, PA, that he begins to be treated as a town hero at the evening celebration.
Then, another transformation takes place. While intentionally trying to manipulate Rita’s view of him, Phil kept fulfilling it, living up to the way he saw himself through her eyes. But, finally, treated as a town hero by the scores of people he has helped throughout the day, Rita’s view of him is changed, but by seeing him in a brand new light through the eyes of his many admirers. Hers is not the perfect love of God, but it is enough to finally get him to February 3rd.
How much more with the perfect love of God in Christ Jesus? Fortunately, none of us will ever be condemned to living the same day over until we get it right. But we do have ahead of us once again this forty day journey called Lent, ample time to once again drink in the stories of God’s love in ways that help us to see ourselves through God’s loving eyes. And so we are strengthened to live that love for and with others. Here is the 2008 version of the sermon, “Seeing Ourselves Through God’s Eyes.”
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 90-97, 109-111. See the beginning of Chapter 4, “Sacred Violence and Original Sin,” pp. 88-97.
2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 125-130, 147-156. Alison especially focuses on an appropriate reading of Romans 5:12-14 on pages 152-154, concluding with his own suggested translation of these verses. He offers a distinction between Paul’s conflation of two types of reading: an “extrinsic” account of the relationship between sin and death, where death is viewed as a punishment imposed by God for our sin; and an “intrinsic” account of the relationship between sin and death, where death is viewed as the natural outcome of our sin of distorted desire. Paul invokes the former, which is somewhat mythological and counter to his main outlook of grace, because of his argument about the law bringing such an extrinsic account of things. To this extrinsic account of the law, Paul poses his intrinsic account based in grace. Interpreting Romans 5:12-21, he says,
Death reigns again in v 17, and in v 21 sin reigns in death, again showing the interchangeability, and thus the intrinsic co-implication of these two realities. This intrinsic understanding of the relationship between the two realities is important since it permits Paul to give the content of salvation. So, in v 15, the free gift and the trespass are compared: the content of the trespass consists in the exact opposite of a free gift, that is to say, desire distorted to envy, acquisitive grasping. In v 17 it is the content and end of the trespass and the content and end of the free gift that are compared. The content of the acquisitive grasping is death, while the content of gratuitous self-giving is life. (p. 153)
For the full context see the section, “The Pauline Understanding of Desire.”
Reflections and Questions
1. I would like to suggest that St. Paul’s typology of the first Adam and Second Adam is highly resonant with the evangelical anthropology around fallen desire, rather than some version of fallen human nature itself. Our desire is fallen because it takes the wrong model: each other. Desire isn’t bad in itself. It’s simply that the First Adam put us all on the road of desiring according to each other’s lesser desires. It takes the coming of the Second Adam to finally have a human being who fully lives God’s loving desire in this world. His perfectly loving desire can become, through the help of the Holy Spirit, the model for our mimetic desire on its way to becoming more loving. Prior to this Second Adam we had no such model to imitate, short of learning to somehow model God’s love directly, so our redemption is impossible without the coming of the Second Adam. The way of the First Adam is one that leads to death; the way of the Second to life.
2. This has become more of a signature passage for me; I would like to study it more some day and write on it. With very dense language and ideas, I believe Paul is articulating the core message of the Gospel that highly resonates with Mimetic Theory as an anthropology. Paul is saying that in Jesus Christ God is recreating humanity. Jesus of Nazareth, the “Son of Man,” is a New Adam, a New Human Being, the beginning of Human Being 2.0. God, as centerpiece to the New Creation that began on Easter, has launched a homo sapiens makeover. Where do we see evidence of that? Mimetic Theory can sharpen our perception for being able to see it. And it shouldn’t surprise us if it’s a long slow process. The first evolution of homo sapiens has been underway for more than a 100,000 years. The incarnation of Jesus the Messiah, and the seeds of a New Human being planted on Easter, have only been underway for 2,000 years.
Has our theology too often limited the New Creation of Humanity to Jesus alone? Or does a passage like this point to the Good News that the Second Human Being makes transformation real for all of us — just as the First Human Being began our journey as sinful and incomplete?
1. René Girard, multiple works. The devil (diabolos) and Satan are mainstays of Girard’s interpretation of the Gospel. One can find developments of them in just about every work of his. Very helpful are some of his more recent essays, such as “Satan” (found in The Girard Reader, pp. 194-210) and “Are the Gospels Mythical?”
Does the prominent place of the temptation story in the gospels confirm the prominent place of Satan in Girard’s work? The placement of this story at the very beginning of the gospel narrative would seem to suggest that the very mission and work of Christ could be described as a defeat of the powers of Satan. This is essentially how Girard portrays the mission of Christ, as well, as a defeat of the powers of Satan.
2. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, basically unpacks his entire anthropology around the theme of Satan. See the beginning of chapter 3, “Satan.”
3. René Girard, Resurrection from the Underground, pp. 124ff.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from February 17, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
5. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, “The Devil and Satan”, pp. 202-207, focuses on the temptation stories in Matthew and Luke. Bailie concludes of Jesus:
As the story of the wilderness temptations shows, the essence of his sinlessness was his immunity to the contagion of desire. His triumph over demonic snares in the wilderness was a triumph over the glamour of mimetic suggestion, but it was an achievement made possible, not by Jesus’ strength of will, but by the superior strength of another mimetic desire: the desire “to do his Father’s will,” to become the image and likeness of the One in whose image and likeness he knew himself to have been made. The temptation to emulate another’s desire — the devil’s — was unable to lure him away from his desire to imitate the God of powerless love in rapport with Whom he lived and moved and had his incomparable Being. (p. 207)
6. Gil Bailie, “The Mystery of History,” is an audio tape of a presentation on the Book of Revelation which begins with a sermon on these three texts of Lent 1A back in 1999. Link to my transcription of that sermon, “The Mystery of History.” (I reshaped this sermon in 2002 for my own version of “The Mystery of History.”)
7. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, “Excursus on the Devil,” pp. 156-160. We’ll close this week with another excerpt from Alison:
***** Excerpt from Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 158-160 *****
However, the mimetic nature of desire is illustrated graphically in the accounts of the devil’s temptations of Christ in Matthew and Luke. First the devil tries to undermine Jesus’ identity “if you are the Son of God,” attempting to make him feel a lack, and so prove himself out of a feeling of lack of being. Jesus’ replies show that he receives his sense of being as Son from, and by a non-envious obedience towards, God. The final Matthaean temptation shows the devil explicitly as deviated transcendence: the devil offers to give Jesus power over everything if he will worship him. That is to say, distorted desire is the ruling principle of all the kingdoms of the world, and Jesus was being offered to incarnate that principle if only he would distort his desire from pacifically imitative of God, to conflictually acquisitive. The devil here is represented not only as obstacle, but as mimetic distortion of desire, making gifts that should be received from God turn into obstacles that turn us away from God. The irony of this passage is that, by his obedience to God, his allowing God to constitute his consciousness pacifically and without obstacles, Jesus is in fact enabled, himself, to become the bread by which men can live because it is the same as the word which comes out of God’s mouth. He is able to become the Temple from which he refused to cast himself down. Finally he becomes, in his death, the king of all the kingdoms of the world. [Note: I do not think it too far-fetched to suggest that certain Johannine themes may well be elaborated workings out of the synoptic temptations!] However, all this comes about as something he receives the hard way, through obedience to his Father, not something he grabs via a short cut, through allowing his desire to be distorted to an acquisitive mimesis.
The devil is not only “on his way out,” an obstacle, and one understood within the framework of the mimetic anthropology shown to be vital for understanding Original Sin. He is also a foundational principle. This we have seen in the way in which he has as his gift all the kingdoms of the world (Matt. 4:9; Luke 4:6-7), in which he is the prince of the world, founded in murder (Jn). However, it is seen most spectacularly in the synoptic account of the exchange in which Jesus asks whether Satan can cast out Satan (Matt. 12:22-39; Mark 3:22-7; Luke 11:14-22). Girard has dedicated one of his most difficult, and profound, essays to these passages [“Satan divided against himself” ch 14 of The Scapegoat, pp 184-197]. He shows that Jesus is enunciating the foundational principle of all human communities (kingdoms, cities, houses) by indicating that all are based on violent expulsion: Satan expelling himself. And that for this reason, the whole of human culture is ultimately self-destructive, since its foundations depend on its being divided against itself. It is in these circumstances that Jesus comes casting out demons by the Spirit (or finger) of God, and announcing that the kingdom of God has come upon his interlocutors. That is to say that the whole self-giving life and death of Jesus, already present in his teaching and miracles, rather than being part of the world of mutual expulsions founded on being divided against itself (at the base of which Girard detects the hidden scapegoat mechanism), is founding and bringing about a form of human community which is based on the self-giving victim, and not by the driving out of victims. His “casting out” is not so much a casting out as a making redundant, by exposing it, the old lie, and making an alternative form of community available. (pp. 158-160)
***** End of Alison Excerpt *****
1. In 2011 I offered a sermon on the temptations that emphasized repenting of our views of a punishing God, “A Stronger ‘Yes’“:
This season might still speak to us about a punishing God who would punish us all for our sins except for Jesus’ gracious intervention on the cross. Brothers and sisters, it is time to let go of that thinking forever. In Jesus Christ, we have salvation not because he changed the mind of a punishing God. No, we are saved because we finally can have our minds changed about a punishing God. We can know that God loves each of us infinitely and unconditionally.
And now put that with our first insight: God loves us so much that he sent Jesus into this world so that our salvation can begin anew each and every day. We don’t have to wait until heaven, because the Spirit of Jesus’ perfect love is already here in the world for us to begin to live in. It is the same Spirit promised to Jesus and to each of us in our baptisms.
And now we know how Jesus said no so easily to that last temptation of having Satan’s kind of power, the power of being able to punish enemies and evil doers through the power of killing. That is the world’s kind of power. But Jesus had been blessed at baptism and then fed in the wilderness with the Spirit of another kind of power, the power of a love so strong that it the power that gave us life in the first place. And even if we stand up to the Satanic powers of killing and are killed, it is a power which can give us life again someday, just as it gave Jesus life when he stood up to those powers on the cross.
In this wilderness of a world in which there is still powerful feedback loops of envy, rivalry and conflict, in this world where there is still so many powers that think its all about punishing our enemies, we are fed once again this morning with the same Spirit of a powerful, life-giving love that fed Jesus. We remember our own baptismal words of promise: you are my beloved daughter, my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased. And so we leave this place in touch with a stronger yes that we might say no to temptation. Amen