Last revised: September 12, 2014
Click Reload or Refresh for latest version
PROPER 13 (July 31-Aug. 6) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 18
RCL: Gen. 32:22-31; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
RoCa: Isaiah 55:1-5; Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14:13-21
1. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 423.
Reflections and Questions
1. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” This seems to me to be the question for our time. When we try to talk about things like “Affluenza” (link to PBS website on “Affluenza”), this is the number one question. We are caught up in mimetic entanglements that cause us to spend our labor and money on things that are mostly about those rivalries in which we are entangled. Far from satisfying, those rivalries lead to conflict and ultimately to death, not life. Listen, says Yahweh, I can truly satisfy your desire. What is it that can truly satisfy? Listening to Yahweh is a good start! This whole thing got out of whack when the first Adam and Eve listened to the other creatures rather than to their creator. It is the loving desire of the Creator which can get us our of those mimetic entanglements. And it all starts by listening first to God, by choosing God as our model for desiring, instead of choosing each other. We might honestly ask ourselves: Who is it we spend our time listening to? How often do we listen to God in prayer as opposed to the time listening to advertisers, for example?
We have a young woman in our congregation who returned from a year of study in Ecuador. She is having a difficult time re-entering our society and its crazy pursuit of unsatisfying bread. She is going through a re-examining process of what is truly satisfying. She is asking the question of this text. Hopefully, the preacher can engage the others in the congregation to be seriously asking the same question. Of course, the preacher needs to constantly be wrestling with this question her/himself.
For me, personally, a symbolic version of this question often is, “Can I live without my TV?” Especially when I observe its influence on my children, I am seriously challenged to do completely without it.
2. The element of being a witness is again prominent. A witness to what? Certainly not to being powerful in the conventional sense. Second Isaiah has needed to explain to a people in exile, whose high point in history had come 500 years earlier under David, how their God was still the true God, despite all outward appearances. David’s example, in fact, is lifted up not as the mighty conqueror, but as a witness to the nations. They still are called to play that same role, despite 500 years of apparent national decline since David. What this text begins with, of course, is a challenge to the criteria by which we normally measure success. What is truly satisfying? What is truly life-giving? Perhaps those who are the footstools for other ‘successful’ nations are in a better position to find out, and to thus be witnesses to the other nations about what is truly satisfying. The above example of the young woman in our congregation who spent a year in Ecuador sheds light here, too. We, from our most ‘successful’ nation, often go to lesser countries these days to help them and instead find ourselves helped much more. We find things like solidarity in community — things that mimetic rivalry have increasingly broken down here in the U.S. in consumerist society of “keeping up with the Joneses.”
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, & the Sacred, ch 2. is on the “Enemy Brothers”; link to an excerpt of the section entitled “Jacob’s Encounters with God and Esau (Genesis 32-33),” pp. 46-54.
Psalm 145:8-9, 15-22
Psalm 145:16: “You open your hand, satisfying the desire (Heb: rson) of every living thing.” This verse is the perfect complement to the themes of the day. Not only is it about God satisfying our desire but it speaks of God’s desire itself — namely, satisfying the desire of others. We fall into rivalries when the satisfaction of our desires comes into conflict with others satisfying their desires. As we model one another’s desires, we reach for the same objects of desire. But we do well to model God’s desire because it means working to satisfy the desires of others.
1. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #5.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, “The Dialectical Role of the Jews in the History of Salvation” (excerpt), pp. 129-139. He concludes, for example:
One can only understand this doctrine theologically. It is appropriately called a mystery (Rom 11:25) and should not be carelessly revealed. Unfortunately it cannot be kept only to the mature; therefore we must make determined efforts to interpret it properly. According to Paul the Jews have performed a hard service for the world; they unveiled the founding mechanism of sacred violence once and for all in the crucifixion of Christ and the refusal of the gospel. In that work they represented all of us, and exposed the darkest shame of us all. Therefore, we hate them and load upon them the very violence that they uncovered in us. When we call them the “Christ killers,” pretending thereby that we, of course, are on Christ’s side, and would not have participated in this crucifixion had we been on hand, we treat them as they treated Christ and thereby show that we are their mimetic doubles, and more than that, that we have taken their place and they have taken Christ’s. This is the theological cause of the continuing Christlike suffering of Jews at the hands of Christians, a mimetic reversal of roles that Paul in his robust theology of the divine purpose sought to forestall.
Both the positive and the negative poles of the drama of salvation are necessary until the end of history; Christians must continue to accept the messiah and Jews to reject him. In the dialectic of that relationship between the two groups each must accept the necessity of the other if they are to avoid the devastating mimetic rivalry that has marked the history of the relationship up to now. That means that Christians must affirm the Jewish existence of the Jews, because it is as such that they serve the divine purpose. The dark side of this is that that service is the service of the negative pole; the darker side is that mimesis causes the two roles to interact resulting in mutual recrimination and violence when power permits. The record shows more such violence on the part of Christians. This may be due to the lack of opportunity on the part of Jews because of their exclusion from political power. The record of the state of Israel under the pressures of state responsibility does not suggest that Jews are inherently less violent than gentiles, or that the Jewish religion less militant than others. (p. 137)
Hamerton-Kelly has an ‘appendix’ to this section in which he outlines his misgivings about the doctrine of election in two main categories: (1) anthropologically, in its pitting one group against another as with sacred violence; and (2) theologically, with a God so much in control behind the scenes that this God ends up seeming responsible for violence that is of human origin. His concluding words:
There is, therefore, a major flaw and inconsistency in Paul’s thought. It is no wonder that Jews are for the most part unconvinced by the far-fetched dialectical argument that makes them the divinely appointed killers of Christ. It would be better simply to identify them in that role as the representatives not of God but of us all, bringing to light the sacred violence of the world. (p. 139)
3. René Girard, “A Girardian Review of Hamerton-Kelly on Paul,” Dialog 32:4 (Fall 1993), pp. 269-274. Girard gives a very positive review of Hamerton-Kelly’s book, grateful for its skillful extending of mimetic theory to the writings of St. Paul. His only disagreement is on the doctrine of election. Here are several paragraphs that might be overlooked in this little known article by Girard but which I think are very important to the Girardian corpus:
If “mimetically” interpreted, the Gospels put our Christian failure in the only appropriate perspective, maximum responsibility, at the very top of the spiral. When the Christians face their own failure, their reaction must not be one of fatalism: “well this is the way all human beings have always behaved; why should we be expected to behave differently?”
The expectation will seem legitimate only if it is tied to what all people who belong to the biblical tradition call an “election.” According to the apostle’s doctrine, the Jews are the first recipients of the favors of God and the Gentile converts follow. As co-participants in the Jewish election they are expected to do better than their predecessors. Who would dare to assert that they have done better? Is not their failure the specific revelation of our age?
Ours is the most colossal failure in the history of the biblical revelation. There cannot be any worse failure than the failure of those who received the most. Only from a Paulinian perspective does it become possible to write a theology of the Holocaust that would measure up to the magnitude of the event.
Paul’s doctrine of the election is one of responsibility as much as privilege. The election is inseparable from some great task that the elect are supposed to perform but never manage to perform. Contemporary Christians must therefore apply to themselves Paul’s warnings to his converts:
So do not become proud but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches [the Jews], neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God; severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off. (Romans 11:20c-22)
Provided you continue in his kindness is the most important phrase here. Have we continued in the kindness of God?…Who can answer this question positively? If we continue Paul’s line of thinking, if we extend it to include our time, the doctrine of the election is revealed as a call to repentance, an intensified awareness of our guilt, not a narcissistic contemplation of some imaginary superiority.
It is a Paulinian idea, in Romans, that the Jewish election is cancelled neither by the crucifixion nor by the subsequent refusal of the Jews to acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). “Israel as a whole will be saved.”
Robert Hamerton-Kelly sees the election as a dangerous and misleading doctrine that tends to promote mimetic rivalry and therefore leads to scapegoating. Being a student of contemporary nationalism, he finds many such beliefs in the modern world that confirm the noxiousness of whatever sanctifies the collective narcissism of ethnic, national, and religious groups.
I can see his point but a distinction must be made between election as mere collective narcissism and the Paulinian doctrine which has genuine historical depth. If we apply the idea of the election to ourselves, today, our sense of guilt will be such, at the thought of our failure, at the thought that we too, are persecutors — Paul’s own discovery at the time of his conversion — that the entire doctrine will appear in a new light.
The total Paulinian idea must be retained, I feel, in order to balance the sense of guilt with a sense of hope. The continuation of hope is the same thing as a belief in the significance of history. If we do away with hope, we run the risk of turning the sense of guilt into the destructive despair that is a negation of history.
Thanks to the Paulinian doctrine of the irrevocable election, contemporary Christians can acknowledge the dreadful failure of Christianity and instill a proper sense of guilt in themselves without losing sight of the hope without which this sense of guilt would become sterile and worse than sterile.
Paul tried to make sure that he would not instill this sense of guilt in anyone, but the later Christians have done their best to instill it into the Jews, while behaving themselves in even worse fashion. The Jews now should not retaliate and try to return that same guilt to the Christians. Only if we all maintain the notion of election, I feel, can we make sense out of Paul’s magnificent statement in Rom 11:32 which Robert Hamerton-Kelly quotes: “…God has shut up all people in unbelief in order that he may have mercy on all.”
4. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren (whose next book will have a significant Girardian component) suggests a theme for making a unified reading of Romans that I think works well — namely, Jews and Gentiles being able to live together in Christ, who is “the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). See the citation on this book in Proper 4A for a more complete description of the theme and McLaren’s Seven Move outline for Romans. This passage comes within his Fifth Move: Address Jewish and gentile problems, showing God as God of all (Rom. 9:1-11:36), of which he writes:
What is Pauls problem? This glorious new way of the Spirit that he has celebrated in the previous move is truly accessible to both Jew and Gentile. But Paul is brokenhearted because so many of his fellow Jews are not walking in the new way, not living the new life, not experiencing the no condemnation and no separation of the kingdom of God. (pp. 152)
5. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship after Campbell’s dismantling of justification, showing Paul’s language of justification to be a secondary way of speaking for Paul when in debate with a version of Christianity that is conditional in its grace. And because we misread Romans 1-4, Protestantism has often lapsed into the conditional grace that Paul is trying to undo. Paul’s primary language of unconditional grace is a language of deliverance elaborated in Romans 5-8. This is now the definitive book that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page.
6. N. T. Wright is another important resource to consult for Romans. See, first of all, his commentaries: The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10; and his Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Romans 1-8) and Part 2 (Romans 9-16). See also The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, Resurrection in Paul (Outside the Corinthian Correspondence),” sec. 7 on Romans; and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. We await his ‘big book’ on Paul in his Fortress Press series Christian Origins and the Question of God, which will surely include his response to Douglas Campbell.
Reflections and Questions
1. I considered writing on these chapters after attending the 2002 COV&R Conference at Purdue, which had the theme, “Judaism, Christianity, and the Ancient World: Mimesis, Sacrifice, and Scripture.” A relationship occurred to me as we discussed matters between these sibling religions. They both are part of the process of being chosen to reveal the one true living God from the origins of human religion in the idolatries of the Sacred. The Jewish people give humanity a solid start on historically bringing this revelation about. But the last and toughest nut to crack is what Sandor Goodhart has aptly called the “idolatry of anti-idolatry” (see his brilliant article oh Jonah in Sacrificing Commentary). This is when we are so zealous against idolatry that we fall into the same idolatrous patterns of sacred violence. St. Paul, as a zealous Pharisee persecuting the new messianic Jews called Christians, had to be confronted in his idolatry of anti-idolatry. It is something to which the book of Jonah already was giving insight.
But it comes to its zenith of revelation in the Cross of Christ. This is why it had to be among the Jews that the Christ event took place. The idolatry of anti-idolaters can only take place among a people who are anti-idolatrous. The people whom God has chosen to reveal the ways of idolatry are the Jews. To get to the point of revealing the idolatry of anti-idolatry could only have happened through them.
So how have Christians done in taking up the task of God’s chosen people to reveal the idolatry of anti-idolatry? In our history of violence, I would say that we have only continued the slaughter of anti-idolatrous idolatry to levels far exceeding the cross, while mostly remaining blind to it ourselves. Our brother and sister Jews have so often taken the place of the Cross, becoming our victims of anti-idolatrous idolatry. As Hamerton-Kelly points out, there has been a “mimetic reversal of roles”: “we treat them as they treated Christ and thereby show that we are their mimetic doubles, and more than that, that we have taken their place and they have taken Christ’s.”
I also resonate very much with Girard’s article above when he says that Christianity has been a “colossal failure in the history of the biblical revelation.” We need to join with our Jewish friends in the faith in finally fulfilling the calling to put away all idolatry, especially that most pernicious one of anti-idolatry.
2. Goodhart’s notion of an idolatry of anti-idolatry actually sheds light on all of Romans. Romans 1 starts out on the topic of idolatry, with Paul setting up his Jewish readers to fall into a lather of anti-idolatrous idolatry, so that he can then reveal to them their brand of idolatry in 2:1-2:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.”
Paul couldn’t be more clear that saying we know God’s judgment on idolaters is itself a form of idolatry. I find that Goodhart’s nomenclature of the “idolatry of anti-idolatry” to be tremendously helpful in getting a handle on what Paul is doing in Romans.
Matthew 14:14: “When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion (Gr: esplagchnisthe) for them and cured their sick.” The New Testament Greek word for “compassion,” splagchnizomai, has a fascinating derivation out of ritual blood sacrifice and through the Septuagint translation of Hebrew words. The noun form splagchna was used in the earliest Greek literature to designate the inner parts of the sacrificial victim ripped out during a ritual blood sacrifice. Eugene Peterson, in his The Message translation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, translates the phrase as, “his heart went out to him” — which is a remarkable capturing of the derivation. Originally, of course, the heart was literally ripped out of a person. For Jesus the term is subverted from within to mean its opposite, compassion — namely, an intentioned ‘heart-going-out’ to someone in mercy rather than the merciless ripping out of a heart. We once again clearly see the Gospel reversal: instead of the heart coming out of the sacrificial victim, compassion means one’s heart going out to the victim.
For more on this New Testament word for compassion, see the page on the Parable of the Good Samaritan for Proper 10C. I also stumbled onto a Flannery O’Connor short-story that helped me in illustrating the term (see further down the same page for Proper 10C).
1. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 213-215; link to an excerpt on “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.” Also, there are his lectures on the feeding miracle in both his John and Luke audio series.
2. René Girard on Herod and the death of John the Baptist. In all three synoptic accounts, this feeding miracle follows directly after the death of John the Baptist and his entanglement with Herod (most elaborate in Mark, shortened in Matthew, briefly summarized in Luke). Girard first elaborated on Herod and John in ch. 11 of The Scapegoat, but has continued to lift up the importance of this passage in subsequent articles. A sampling of the articles are: two in The Girard Reader on “Satan” (ch. 13) and “The Question of Anti-Semitism in the Gospels” (ch. 14); and an article in the journal First Things called “Are the Gospels Mythical?” (No. 62, April 1996, 27-31).
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from August 4, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. In his weekly gospel notes on Ecunet (see the one for Proper 13A), Brian Stoffregen distills the following five approaches to interpreting the Feeding of the Five Thousand from Eugene Boring‘s commentary on this passage in the NIB‘s “Matthew”:
- A miraculous event of feeding hungry people actually happened in the life of Jesus (and, according to Matthew’s account, sick people were healed).
- A sacramental explanation from Albert Schweitzer where Jesus distributed bits of bread in the wilderness as a symbolic meal for a multitude of his followers. In time, this proleptic, “hungry feast” of the eschatological banquet, was elaborated into the miraculous banquet of more than enough food for all.
- A lesson in unselfishness from H. E. G. Paulus, as Jesus and his disciples shared the little food they had, which shamed others into sharing their food, so that there was enough for all.
- Similar to Schweitzer’s interpretation above, Ernst Renan suggests that Jesus led his followers into the desert for a time during which they lived frugally on skimpy rations. This event later developed into a miracle story.
- A symbolic representation of the meaning of the Christ-event as a whole, with overtones of the eucharist and the eschatological pictures of fellowship and plenty for all. The story has no basis in any particular event in the life of Jesus.
Gil Bailie‘s take on this miracle gives a Girardian version of the third line of interpretation here. This line of interpretation is not intended to discredit or explain away the most literal approach (#1 above), but to perhaps deepen our experience of miracles. Similar to the first lesson, we might ask of miracles what is most truly satisfying about them. Bailie offers, “Curing a crippled leg is not as miraculous as curing a hardened heart or a despairing soul” (VU, p. 213). It’s not that one should doubt Jesus’ ability to multiply food supplies out of thin air, it’s that curing thankless, stingy hearts might be the more significant miracle, in the first place.
Bailie gives a Girardian version of this interpretation because he further puts it in the context of the Sacred. The people there that day were conditioned to be thankless and stingy by sacred dietary laws that put more emphasis on the separation of clean from unclean than it does on the justice of sharing one’s bread.
Have things really changed in our version of the Sacred? Our version of cleanliness is decided by productivity. If you are a productive member of the economy, then you deserve your fair share of the bread. And all those who are productive will get their fair share. Those who aren’t productive have only themselves to blame. Such are the justifications we use in not graciously sharing our bread.
2. I thought that Regina Schwartz‘ basic theological distinction a God of scarcity vs. a God of abundance, in her presentation to the ’99 COV&R meeting, has a lot of merit. In a Girardian context, it is easy to see why versions of the Sacred generally postulate gods whose creation presume a scarcity. The perception of scarcity arises out of mimetic rivalry. Think of that most common Girardian illustration: in a room full of toys, even of duplicate toys, two children will still perceive a scarcity of the toy they mutually desire. When our sacred justifications come into play to decide between who gets that perceived scarce resource, those gods will be the keepers and deciders of scarce resources.
But the Bible is trying to introduce us to the true God, a God of abundance, even in the face of scarce resources. The preeminent text of the Old Testament is the story of manna in the wilderness; and the preeminent story in the New Testament is the feeding of the five thousand.
I believe that this is a key concept of the theologizing of James Alison, as well. The God we meet in the resurrection of Christ is a God who “gratuitously” (a favorite word of his) showers us with life. Other gods lead to the cross, gods who have only enough grace to shower on some while heaping curses upon the others, gods whose grace is scarce.
3. Interpretation #5 above might fit Schwartz’ theological distinction, then, though I wouldn’t necessarily go along with the part about these feeding stories not pointing to any particular events in Jesus’ ministry. But I do find them to be symbolically central, especially if we also combine it with the preceding story of Herod and John the Baptist, which Girard finds to be so symbolically central. Herod and Jesus throw two very different kinds of banquet: one which leads to a mimetically entangled execution in the face of an extremely wealthy banquet by the standards of that day, and the other which finds a true abundance in the face of an apparent scarcity. The angle of a miracle of curing hardened hearts only adds to this contrast, I think, since the opening of those hardened hearts to true graciousness is the beginning of being saved from the results of our mimetic entanglements, the likes of which is Herod’s beheading of John. It is a salvation, however, which is only a precursor to the abundant life of the resurrection in the same way that John’s beheading is only a precursor to the justifying salvation of the cross.
4. Believing in scarcity as a foundational human belief can be seen, for example, as embedded in our human economics. Check out a typical economics textbook from the standpoint of capitalism, for example. You will find a fundamental assumption about fair distribution of scarce resources — which from the standpoint of mimetic theory can be seen as highly ironic: the economic system that has led human beings into mass production par excellence is founded upon an assumption of scarcity. Is belief in scarcity, in fact, the economic engine to a paranoid drive to mass produce and consume?
I make the link between scarcity-thinking and capitalism in the 2002 sermon “The Miracle of Changing Hearts Fearing Scarcity into Hearts Believing in Eternal Life,” telling the story of the time I was invited to a ‘propaganda’ seminar for pastors on capitalism. I used the miraculous feeding stories as a counter-example to scarcity-thinking.
5. In 2014, there were several more recent experiences or insights that added to my ‘traditional’ approach to this text as outlined above:
- Contemplative Prayer is becoming more crucial to my practice and faith life, especially through Richard Rohr‘s guidance and influence. He speaks of silent prayer as a means to unthink our dualistic thinking — such as good and evil, us and them, scarce and abundant. (See, for example, his recent little book Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation.) Jesus in this passage begins in silent prayer away from everyone but is interrupted. He is able to bring this perspective to the crowd with compassion, and through his public prayer of thanksgiving is able to bring them into his perspective of abundance.
- Rohr’s insights into dualistic thinking matches the version of falling into sin that I’ve gleaned in the last year through Mimetic Theory — primarily through James Warren‘s chapter on Genesis 3 in Compassion or Apocalypse?: A Comprehensible Guide to the Thought of René Girard, for which he relies on Jean-Michel Oughourlian‘s reading in The Genesis of Desire. Here the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the fall into dualistic thinking. We go from a creation created good in Genesis 1 to the perception created by mimetic desire of good and evil — which align themselves with our other dualisms like us and them, abundant and scarce.
- The prevailing news story was the crisis at the Mexican border of thousands of unaccompanied children crossing into the U.S. from Central American countries. Do we perceive this event through a lens of scarcity or abundance?
- A youth-led service the Sunday before used readings from off the lectionary. I didn’t want to miss reading Romans 8:26-39, so we used it with these readings in place of 9:1-5. I then concluded the sermon by reading the ending of Romans 8 as Paul’s version of silent prayer in the Spirit helping us to unthink dualistic thinking in favor of the experience of God’s love as that which heals all separations and brings us into Oneness.
The resulting 2014 sermon, I feel, is one of my best: “Abundance Is a Spiritual Matter.”
6. A strong theme of Gil Bailie‘s in recent years has been the eucharistic action around the breaking of bread, that was also modeled in the feeding miracles. Jesus takes the bread and says, “This is my life — now here’s what you do with it: you give thanks to God, because it isn’t yours, in the first place; you break it; and you give it away for others.” My addition to this, especially in the context of the miraculous feedings, is to highlight faith in a God of abundant life. We can let our lives be broken and given away because the Living God is an eternal source of life. We give our lives away and receive them back, just as our Lord received his life back on Easter. Just as there was enough bread there that day for everyone. Eternal life is the experience of giving your life away and continually receiving life back.