Last revised: August 16, 2020
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PROPER 14 (August 7-13) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 19
RCL: Gen. 37:1-4, 12-36; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
RoCa: 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
“Take heart, it’s me; do not be afraid!” There is so much to be afraid of in our world right now. The list is depressing, as well as frightening. With so much to be afraid of, it compounds matters if one’s God can also be frightening. It not only adds to the list of things to be afraid of, with God’s power to harm imagined as formidable, but holding a view of a violent God justifies greater human violence, as well. We punish people because God does and commands us to do the same. We favor those in power to the neglect of those who aren’t because we imagine that’s what God does, too. God blesses and curses. Obviously, those who are in power are the blessed, and those on the margins are cursed.
Matthew’s Jesus, from beginning to end, presents us with a completely different God. He begins with the beatitudes, flipping upside-down the usual list of who’s blessed (5:1-12). His teaching ends with the “Son of Man” judging the nations based on prioritizing those on the margins, with the usual culture of neglecting the marginalized cursed to suffer the consequences of their own violence (25:31-46). All of this climaxes with Jesus himself coming as the “Son of Man” precisely through choosing to suffer the typical human violence justified by frightful gods of violence.
Here in the middle of the Gospel, Jesus stages an acted-out parable that previews the dramatic difference in gods. It comes at the fourth watch of the night, prime-time for the malevolent spirits who are agents of the gods. The disciples think Jesus is one of them, a ghost. It’s me, he says, echoing the name of God itself, Yahweh, I am. He is here to reveal the true God as one who has nothing to do with violence, with punishment, with harming human beings. Jesus brings the divine presence as one to calm human fears, not stoke them. Jesus brings a divine presence that is actively working for peace in the face of human violence.
There is another crucial dimension to this acted-out parable. Walking on the water recalls the times when God enabled the people of Israel to pass through troubled waters. One was with Moses through the Red Sea. The second was with Joshua through the Jordan River and into the Promised Land (Joshua 1-4). As Matthew 14 closes with this scene, it is the latter, Joshua taking Israel into the Promised Land to face the seven nations of people who already live there (Deut 7:1-2), which sets up the acted-out parable of Matthew 15: this second Joshua (Jesus) who will encounter these Gentile descendants of Canaan and reveal the God of mercy, not genocide. But that’s for next week (Proper 15A).
1 Kings 19:9-18
1. James Alison, “Theology Amidst the Dust and Stones,” ch. 2 in Faith Beyond Resentment. The opening section gives a moving account of Elijah’s ministry coming to grips with sacred violence. See an excerpt, “Alison on Elijah.”
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, also has an excellent section on Elijah, “Elijah: Anti-sacrificial Sacrifice” (excerpt), pp. 169-173. Bailie’s notion of “anti-sacrificial sacrifice” has become central to me, similar to Sandor Goodhart’s “idolatry of anti-idolatry.” I think it characterizes much of the history of the church: in taking up the noble cause of stamping out sacrifice, we have carried out our cause performing our own bloody sacrifices. We slaughter Aztecs, for example, in the name of being anti-sacrificial. A good deal of modern liberation theology can also come under this banner. Our human efforts at liberation are often bloody and destructive. Finally, anti-sacrificial sacrifice represents that sacred violence most resistant to our seeing it as sacred violence since it seems to be the ultimate just cause. It relates to the Romans 9-11 passages, as I reflected on last week (in light of Sandor Goodhart‘s exegesis of Jonah): the Christ event had to happen among the Jews because they were God’s people chosen for the revelation of idolatry. They are anti-idolatrous, which can so easily turn into anti-idolatrous idolatry — as evidenced by a long, bloody history of the church doing precisely that.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 13, 2003 (Woodside Village Church), 2nd in a series of eleven sermons on the prophets.
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-36
1. René Girard, with this passage begins a several week serial reading through the Joseph saga in the Revised Common Lectionary. The Joseph saga is one of Girard’s prime examples of the Hebrew scriptures beginning the process of revealing the perspective of the victim. He first wrote on it in Things Hidden, “Joseph,” pp. 149-154. More recently, he came back to it in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 106-112; Girard compares the Joseph saga to the Oedipus myth as a central illustration of the Bible’s uniqueness in demythologizing the mythological viewpoint.
2. For a complete bibliography on this important saga within Girardian literature, see next week (Proper 15A).
3. In 1996 I had merged the Peter on the lake story (the Gospel text below) with the Joseph saga in talking about faith as keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus through the stormy violence of the cross to the new life at Easter — a sermon entitled “Keeping Your Eyes on the Lord.”
1. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #5. Bailie has some valuable reflections on the necessary role of the rejecters. Was it necessary for our salvation that someone play the role of rejecting Jesus? St. Paul is wrestling with this question of why it had to be his own people who play the role of the persecutors of Jesus. Gil contends that St. Paul never comes up with a completely satisfactory answer. He shifts around trying many possible answers over chapters 9-11 but finally ends with the doxology, a pointing to the mystery of God’s ways.
One thing that Paul is clear about: their rejection of Jesus does not cancel their election as God’s people. Jesus himself is of the chosen people, and so are the first witnesses of the resurrection who do accept Jesus’ message and mission. But so are many of those who rejected Jesus. Does their chosenness actually imply that they were chosen to play the necessary role of rejecter? That’s the mystery.
2. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren 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). This theme coincides with my own choice for the clearest statement of the Gospel in Ephesians 2: grace manifests itself chiefly as God creating one new humanity in place of the two. This is the context for McLaren as well, since this chapter comes as his response to one the “Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” Question #5 is, “What is the Gospel?” (chap. 14). For more on this centrality of this question and its answer, see my Opening Comments for Proper 6A.
Chap. 15 is McLaren’s reading of Romans in light of the Gospel as Jesus’ Kingdom of God manifesting itself as Paul’s bringing together of Jews and Gentiles. 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:
Why have so many Jewish people rejected Jesus and his good news of the kingdom of God?
Like someone who has lost something precious, he retraces his steps to see if he has missed something. Maybe Jews never heard the good news? No, that’s not it. Maybe they heard, but didn’t understand? No, that can’t be it either. So he comes to the possible conclusion that God is responsible. God has hardened their hearts to achieve some greater good. Paul is finally comfortable with this conclusion, right? No, not completely! (pp. 153)
3. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship for those who take seriously Campbell’s dismantling of justification, and his arguing that Paul’s language of justification was 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, according to Campbell, 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, in my opinion, that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page. The most controversial thesis involves his contention that Paul used the Roman rhetorical convention of Diatribe, meaning that it contains Paul voicing his opponent’s views within the text of Romans which we thus need to sort from Paul’s own views. In short, for twenty centuries after Paul delivered this letter to the Roman church, training the carrier to read it properly in two voices, subsequent generations have read two opposing views in the text all as Paul’s view only. I find this thesis compelling and vitally important; here is my own explanation and plotting of the opposing views in a translation of Romans 1:1-4:3.
4. 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. His ‘big book’ on Paul in his Fortress Press series “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” was published in 2013, Paul and the Faithfulness of God; the most sustained section on Romans 5-8 are pages 1007-1026. Wright’s more recent book on theology of the cross, The Day the Revolution Began, devotes more space to Romans than any other book of the New Testament, chapters 12-13; see also my review of this book, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”
Reflections and Questions
1. See the resources and reflections last week (Proper 13A) regarding Romans 9-11 as a whole.
2. In last week’s reflections I shared the insights that have come to me since the 2002 COV&R conference around Sandor Goodhart‘s notion of the “idolatry of anti-idolatry.” In 1999 I offered the following reflections on Romans 9-11, perhaps a pre-cursor to where I’m at since 2002:
Does Girard’s anthropology shed at least a little light on this mystery of being God’s chosen, even chosen for the necessary and a paradoxical role of rejecting the Messiah, God’s chosen among the chosen? The SIN that needed to be revealed and forgiven in the cross was our founding of human culture in rejection or expulsion of the minority. It was necessary that Jesus be rejected in order that this mechanism be revealed and forgiven. Someone had to play the role of rejecter. The fact that those who rejected Jesus were also part of the chosen people makes it more difficult for the first followers to make a hard and fast distinction between themselves and the rest of their fellow Jews. St. Paul is having this trouble precisely in these chapters of Romans. He is refusing to draw a sharp line between himself and his fellow Jews who have rejected Jesus. He will not turn around and scapegoat them, but holds steadfast to their chosenness. Too bad these chapters have largely been ignored by subsequent Gentile Christians who have relented and drawn that line between themselves and Jews, so often using it as an excuse for scapegoating them.
1. It is helpful to realize that there are two separate traditions of wind stories in the Gospels: (1) a ‘calming of the storm’ tradition where Jesus is in the boat with the disciples, sleeping, when a “windstorm” arises; he is awoken, challenges their ‘little faith,’ and calms the storm: Mark 4:35-41; Matt 8:23-27; and Luke 8:22-25. In all three instances the placement is after teaching and immediately before healing the Gerasene demoniac. (2) a ‘walking on water’ tradition in which Jesus is not in the boat; the disciples find themselves rowing into an “opposing wind” when they see Jesus walking on the water and are frightened by what they think is a ghost: Mark 6:45-52; Matt 14:22-33; and John 6:16-21. The placement in all three is immediately after the miraculous feeding. Matthew is the only one to extend the tradition with Peter trying to walk on the water. Notice that the fear is not of the wind but of Jesus, thinking he is a ghost. Summary overview: Matthew and Mark include both traditions; Luke has the calming of the sea but not the walking on water; John has only the walking on water.
2. I think another relevant passage is Matthew 16:1-4:
The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.
It parallels or enhances this one in several respects: (1) It immediately follows the other miraculous feeding in 15:32-39. (2) It doesn’t involve a literal storm but uses recognizing a coming storm as a metaphor for reading the “signs of the times.” (3) The closing comment about the sign of Jonah involves being in a boat in a storm: Jonah is scapegoated by the sailors on his boat and thrown overboard, kept safe for three days in the belly of the fish. Jesus will be scapegoated on the cross and be kept safe for three days in the tomb. I think this enhances my seeing today’s story as a parable that previews Peter’s experience in the passion story, where he wants to be like Jesus riding the waves of sacred violence but sinks down into denial when challenged at the charcoal fire. Doesn’t almost everything in the Gospel in some way presage what happens at the end?
3. V. 25, “early in the morning” in the NRSV is actually more specific in the original (and other translations that don’t paraphrase it), “the fourth watch of the night.” This was the last watch of the night, around 3:00-6:00 am. It was also believed to be prime time for demons and other agents of Satan to be out doing their dirty work.
1. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 171. In Chapter 7 on “The Five Kinds of Prayer,” this episode helps to illustrate a dimension of penitential prayer:
The mimetic dimension of our sinfulness also impresses upon us the necessity of turning to God, the One who is outside the system of the mimetic contagion that constitutes the principalities and powers. It is God as the Other who gives us an alternative to the principalities and powers. This is what we find at the heart of the penitential psalm par excellence. When the Psalmist prays: “Create in me a clean heart and put a right spirit within me,” (Ps. 51:10-11) the Psalmist is praying for God to infuse God’s desire into the penitent. Then, still noticing double-mindedness, the Psalmist goes on to pray that God sustain a “willing spirit.” The story of Peter walking on water — or trying to — also illustrates this aiming. (Mt. 14:28-33) The wind and the choppy waves represent our being overwhelmed by the mimetic movements that tend toward rage and persecution. When Peter looked at the waves instead of at Jesus, he started to sink. By himself, he would have sunk and drowned. By looking again at Jesus, Peter was pulled into the boat and the sea grew calm.
2. James Alison, offers a video homily for Proper 14A (Ordinary 19); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. Last week we saw the first sign: Jesus reenacting Moses feeding people in the desert. This week we have the sign of leading people through threatening water. It could be Moses leading people through the Red Sea. But it might also be Joshua leading people through the Jordan River into the Promised Land in Joshua 1-4. This reading especially sets up the following stories as acting out Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, since the following stories have Jesus ministering in Gentile territory. Next week’s encounter with the ‘Canaanite’ woman is especially telling.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from August 11, 2002 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from August 10, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
5. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” offered these reflections on this passage in 2017, “On Hearing God’s Silence in the Storm.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Psalm 69 is a classic psalm of the scapegoat crying out for help. Its main image is that of sinking down into the water. Here are the first several verses:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?
Is this an image that lends meaning to Peter’s sinking down in the water? And of Christ’s rising above it until his appointed time?
2. Another way of conceiving sinking down into the water is to become caught up in the swirling of scandal around the scapegoat, to get caught up in the flood of violence. Peter and all the disciples will get caught up in this flood that kills Jesus. Jesus will die because of the flood, but he alone is not swept up in it. This is the image of Noah and the great flood. All people on earth get swept up in a flood of violence except Noah and his family. Jesus dies during a flood of such violence; but, in another sense, he his kept free of its ultimate effects by not returning violence for violence. Instead, held in the ark of the tomb, he rises on the third day as forgiveness, not vengeance. In this sense, he has willingly succumbed to the violence but not gotten swept up in it as a perpetrator of it.
This is my reading since 2001 of the Noah story in preaching on the passage from Matthew 24:
For as in the days of Noah…, they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. (Matt. 24:37a, 39-41)
See the reflections from Advent 1A and the sermon “Left Behind: Surviving the Floods of Violence.” Jesus is like Noah in being left behind when everyone else is swept up and sinks down in the flood of violence. Could this image also apply here? Peter will try not to get swept up in that tide of violence when it swarms around Jesus, but he will fail around the courtyard fire when accusations come his way.
3. The most common mythological depiction of the chaos is a turbulent sea (cf., Gen. 1:1): There existed a chaos of waters in the beginning, and the gods somehow order it into creation.
Girard’s anthropology helps us to see that the common mythological image of turbulent waters is a cover-up for the human chaos of mimetic rivalry that exists before the order of human culture created through scapegoating violence. It is a chaos that comes about due to the swirl of desires created by keeping our eyes fixed upon one another.
Jesus comes walking right over that swirl of desires with the loving desire from God that can help us rise above the effects of that chaos. Peter can sustain that same protection in the midst of chaos only for the few moments that he keeps his eyes trained on Jesus. As soon as he looks back to the swirling waters and takes notice, he begins to sink again.
What are the swirling waters of desires that seek to pull us under in our day? Can keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus still help us to walk on those waters?
4. A key verse for me is verse 31: “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?'” How different is it that Jesus “immediately” reaches out to save Peter, and then chides him about his faith, as opposed to the other way around, chiding him about his faith and then finally reaching out — reluctantly? — to save him? The loving forgiveness which reaches out to save precedes the realistic assessment of what’s wrong.
5. In 2002 this text sparked for me a series of sermons on faith, beginning with “Faith Is Rising above the Stormy Seas of Violence.” I take the more important test of faith as that which faces the disciples at the arrest of Jesus. There, they will face a rising storm of violence against Jesus. Will Peter be able to rise above that? He fails even more miserably in denying Jesus three times. Not until Jesus exemplifies this faith — on the cross and in the forgiveness of Easter morning — of not giving in to the violence will such a faith be established on earth as a permanent fixture. It is post-Easter that disciples have a real chance to catch the Spirit of that faith.
6. The series on faith in 2002 continued the following week with “Faith Is Not Being Scandalized,” when talking about Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman and the Joseph saga. In 1996 I had merged the Peter on the lake story with the Joseph saga in talking about faith as keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus through the stormy violence of the cross to the new life at Easter — a sermon entitled “Keeping Your Eyes on the Lord.”