Last revised: September 3, 2017
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PROPER 16 (August 21-27) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 21
RCL: Exodus 1:8-2:10 or Isaiah 51:1-6 (Luth.); Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
RoCa: Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
1. Tony Bartlett, the tenth study in a series on Second Isaiah (on 50:1-51:23). These studies are among the finest examples of how Mimetic Theory is a key to opening the revelation of Scripture.
Reflections and Questions
1. This passage was probably chosen because of its reference to Abraham and Sarah as the rock out of which God’s people are hewn, matching the rock metaphor for Peter in the Gospel. If one really wanted to extend and play with the rock metaphor, it might be appropriate to roll in 1 Peter 2 and all of its stumbling stone imagery that it borrows from the Old Testament. God builds on the stone that human builders reject. Lots of Girardian implications.
2. The promise of salvation and deliverance at the end of this passage is extraordinary. In the Jewish context of Isaiah’s day, deliverance triggered the recollection of the Exodus event and the promise of deliverance from the exile in Babylon. But the promise here apparently goes far beyond this to a salvation and deliverance that will survive even the decay of creation. Is this a promise of deliverance even in the face of death?
This also looks ahead to the Gospel Lesson in which the Messiah establishes the church not as a beachhead of political deliverance against the Romans but as one which will prevail against the “gates of Hades” or, less literally, the powers of death. The powers of death presumably include the Roman imperial power, which wielded a power of death. But it goes far beyond this to any subsequent powers of death to take its place. And does it go as far as the prophecy to even include the final decay of creation itself? That would seem to be the final horizon which gives us hope to stand against the Satanic powers of death in our present.
1. V. 1, “spiritual worship” in the NRSV, “reasonable service,” in the KJV. The Greek is logikēn latreian, so the KJV would be a more literal rendering. I’m not sure why the NRSV renders logikēn as “spiritual” when Paul’s clear choice for that word, used 18 times elsewhere, is pneumatikos. James Alison uses the KJV rendering in the resource cited below.
1. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #6. Here are some of my notes on this lecture:
Introductory remarksIn the early chapters of Romans Paul speaks of living in the Old Eon and the New Eon; the Old Eon being the eon of sin, death, and wrath, and the New Eon being the eon of grace and faith. In chapters 12-14, Paul begins to talk about how to live in the New Eon, how to not get caught up in the Old Eon, and how to conduct our lives in light of the Christian revelation.
12:2 is the most famous part of this passage, one which often draws the most attention. But this time through I took more notice of verse one. In the past it’s been easy to skip over that verse with its reference to sacrifice and regard it as Paul’s naturally slipping into the sacrificial idioms of his day. On the other hand, we may realize that something quite different is going in this verse, so let’s get into it.
“I urge you then, brothers, by God’s mercy to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, as worship proper to sensible people.” (NRS: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”)
Most likely, this is the only reference to living sacrifices in the biblical canon. It recalls Gil’s formative story of visiting Howard Thurman in about 1973: What am I going to do with my life? What does the world need? His response was, ‘Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who come alive.’ I think he was talking about what Paul was talking about here. That is to say, living sacrifices in the sense that one tries to live in such a way that those who are touched by one’s life are better able to live without the sacrificial structures of the Old Eon, which are becoming progressively weakened by the revelation of the cross. It is to live in such a way that those old sacrifices aren’t necessary any longer. It is to accomplish (being wary of “accomplish” in light of Paul’s efforts to break the spell of religious works) by living faithfully to Christ what was accomplished in the Old Eon by sacrifices and scapegoating–namely, the work of reconciliation in the world, and in one’s own life and relationships, that we used to have to resort to sacrificing and scapegoating in order to generate. Yes, the two forms of reconciliation are quite different! But still, in all, they are both forms of reconciliation. There are a number of things later on that echo this theme of being a living sacrifice.
12:2 still has the great power in this chapter:
“Do not conform yourself to this present eon but be transformed by renewal of your whole way of thinking so that you may discern what is God’s will, what is good, acceptable to him, and perfect.”
If Paul is addressing the Romans about how to live in the new eon, the first thing he has to say to them is how not to live in the old one. He doesn’t give them an elaborate formula for this, but says it in powerful terms. There’s a warning implicit that it’s difficult not to conform to the eon in which one is living. We’re surrounded by it. It’s like some sort of thematic music that’s always playing in the background of everything we do and say and think. And so not to fall into step with it is very difficult.
Reminded of a passage in Madeline L’Engle’s children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time. Describes the plot of traveling to planet with a brain controlling everything. There’s a pulse emanating through everything. Reads passage where Meg tries to ward off the influence. Her brother had recited the Gettysburg Address. You have to fall back on something bigger than yourself. Tries nursery rhymes and fails (which are too much a part of our culture). Begins reciting preamble to the Constitution. Charles Wallace, as mouthpiece for It, seizes on the word equality and responds. Meg: “Like and equal are not the same thing.”
When Paul talks about not being conformed to the pattern of this world, he’s talking about a very powerful one, something beyond just “the 90’s,” or something like that. He’s talking about a power that has an enormous capacity to adapt to different cultural moments.
More on the word “equality” from L’Engle’s book, which causes Meg to reel for a moment. It causes us to reel a bit, too. The Enlightenment redefined itself in secular terms which cut itself off from the root of its values, namely, the biblical tradition. “Equality” is the secularized, sterilized, diminished version of what in the biblical tradition is “brotherhood” or “sisterhood.” Equality is what all ancient cultures feared like the plague. It was the plague. Ancient religious cultures existed to eliminate equality because it is the breeding ground for strife. We don’t want to tolerate structures that are unjust. We want something that looks like equality. But because we haven’t understood the deeper processes that we’re caught up in, we make naive assumptions. Our assumptions are the reverse of the ancients: we see strife, and we immediately blame it on inequality. But we strive to create more equality and end up with more strife. Girard is extremely helpful on this in understanding that sameness creates conflicts. This isn’t a total aside here because Paul is talking about being one body in this passage.
Another way that the modern world thinks it can ward off these forces: sturdy individualism. The Enlightenment invented this dichotomy between the individual and the collective, a false dichotomy.
Reads from book by Jungian Eric Norman which emphasizes individualism.
Verse 4 begins to talk about the community that is awakening and sustaining this way of living as a living sacrifice. Reads verses 4-5: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” He’s talking about the Church, the anthropological laboratory for living in the new eon. The body of Christ is his major metaphor.
*****End of notes on Bailie lecture*****
Law is the judicial transformation of the prohibition originally sanctioned by the threat of the recurrence of mimetic violence dissembled as the vengeance of the god. The element of reciprocity in Law is therefore a transformation of vengeance, and for this reason I have called law the myth of vengeance. Law is, therefore, essentially mimetic violence transformed into divine vengeance and then rationalized as retributive justice. In Paul’s Judaism, Law had not yet been fully rationalized and still rested on the idea of the divine vengeance. The Law was still sacred.The one explicit discussion of the Law in relation to vengeance occurs in Romans 12:9-13:10. Paul exhorts his readers to love sincerely, be forbearing and sympathetic, and especially not to take vengeance by rendering evil for evil. They must leave vengeance to God who has promised to repay, and as they recognize the divine monopoly on eschatological vengeance so they must recognize the state’s monopoly on vengeance in this world. The reciprocity of legal obligation is, however, only an imperfect image of the generosity of love that overflows the bounds of the quid pro quo.
This acceptance of the divine and civic monopolies of vengeance could indicate that Paul’s God is still the primitive sacred, and God’s order still the order of sacred violence, but that would be a misunderstanding. There are two clues in the immediate context to a proper understanding. One is the reference to sacrifice at the beginning of the chapter, and the other is the phrase in Romans 12:19, “give place to the wrath” (dote topon te orge). Furthermore, Paul’s teaching must be placed in the larger context of the Jesus tradition as recorded in Matthew 5:33-48 if it is to be fully comprehensible.
Romans 12:1-2 opens the ethical section of the letter by placing the image of sacrifice as a rubric over the discussion. It is, therefore, not substitutionary sacrifice that the image has in mind but rather self-dedication to God. Sacrifice is a metaphor for moral self-dedication and not a ruse for shifting responsibility on to a substitute. Thus the logic of substitution has been reversed, and instead of being a device for escaping responsibility, sacrifice is here a metaphor for the acceptance of responsibility before God. The metaphor is based on the “thanksgiving” element in sacrifice as an image of the moral dedication to God that acknowledges the creator as the “other” who constitutes the self by relationship.
The noetic element is prominent in the passage — such self-sacrifice is reasonable (logikos) and renews the mind (anakainosis tou noos) — and this gives the following exhortation (Rom 12:3-8) — to maintain the proper order in the community — a moral rather than a sacral basis. In the realm of the Sacred, order is the effect of the filtered violence of ritual and prohibition; here it is to be the result of moral discernment by the renewed mind. Its mark is precisely the rational curb on rivalry by the responsible acceptance of the differentiated functions of an ordered society. In this Christian community the differentiation that is normally achieved by the threat of the vengeance of the god institutionalized in the law is to be achieved by rational self-restraint (phronein eis to sophronein — Rom 12:3). Therefore, not only the explicit image of sacrifice but also the deep logic of the passage attests the dialectical influence of the logic of the Sacred. The passage is in dialogue with sacrificial logic, correcting it in the light of the Cross, and redescribing sacrifice as self-sacrifice in thanksgiving, and order as the free acceptance of prudential constraints, rather than the fearful observance of divine sanctions.
This deep logic continues to form the text in the section on vengeance and love (Rom 12:9-13:10), and thus establishes a presumption in favor of a non vengeful interpretation of God’s action despite the quotation “vengeance is mine, I shall repay” (Rom 12:19; cf. Deut 32:35). The key to the interpretation is the phrase “give place to the wrath” (dote topon te orge) in Romans 12:19. It specifies the meaning of the quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35. The vengeance of God is the wrath of God that operates when it is given place. The phrase “give place to” clearly means that the wrath operates apart from human participation. It could also connote, however, that the wrath works independently of God’s action, in the sense set out in Romans 1:18-32. There are several indications that the two passages are related. The sinners in Romans 1:18-23 knew the godhead of God rationally from the evidence of creation, but irrationally refused to acknowledge it by giving thanks, and for this reason Romans 12:1-2 urges the rational worship of self-sacrifice. The result of the refusal in Romans 1:18-32 was the “reprobate mind” (adokimos nous — Rom 1:28), and for this reason Romans 12:1-2 describes the renewed mind as able to discern the will of God (dokimazein . . . to thelema tou theou — Rom 12:2). Romans 12, therefore, describes a reversal of the deleterious effects of the refusal of Romans 1, against the background of the presentation of the working of wrath in Romans 1. (pp. 150-151)
3. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 550, Essay 12, “Neighbors and insiders: What’s it like to dwell in a non-moralistic commandment?” Alison uses Rom 12:1-2 as a way of summing up the significance of his lengthy reflections on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He writes,
Being owned by the victim has turned out to be something much less panic-inducing, and much more spaciousness-creating than he would have thought possible.
And this, I think, is a second dimension to the process of beginning to live the life of the deathless one in the circumstances of contingent humanity. As death loses its power, so commitment to the flourishing of what is fragile and precarious becomes possible, and our relationship with time changes. I don’t know about you, but pledging yourself in an open-ended manner to make good on the hospital expenses of a severely injured person without any guarantee of payback for yourself is mostly a terrifying possibility. What is to stop you being “taken to the cleaners” for everything you’ve got?
But what if time is not your enemy? If time is not your enemy, then what you achieve or don’t achieve, whether you are “taken to the cleaners” or not, is secondary, and whatever you have will be for the flourishing of the weak one for as long as it takes, since you know that you will be found there. Being on the inside of the life of God looks like being decanted, by a generosity you didn’t know you had in you, into making a rash commitment which makes a nonsense of death, of worry, and of the panic of time, because you know that you want to be found in loving proximity to what is weak and being brought into being. Wanting to be found there is a huge statement of joy at the power and gentleness of One for whom it is the apparently weak and futile things that are going to be enabled to be brought into being. Being given the daring to be able to lose yourself in being found there is recognized as a privilege to be greeted with praise.
This, I think, is what the Samaritan was discovering in his slow-burning, gentle and intelligent excitement, what St Paul would describe as “rightly reasoning worship” (Rom 12:1-2 [see Exegetical Note above]). That God is the One who brings into being what is not. And dwelling on the inside of the life of God means being prepared to lose sight of all the apparently important things that are and to give yourself away in extreme gentleness and tenderness towards that which is apparently not, and yet which is being brought into being out of the brink of nothingness by one not ashamed of mingling with the least important of all, one who has nowhere more important to be (1 Cor. 1.22-29).
So, what is Jesus doing now, what is it like to share his life? My own answer to that includes a tinge of jealousy: the Samaritan had it lucky in having God rush through his entrails like an express train. For most of us, the process of having our hearts turned from sacrifice to mercy is incredibly, incredibly painful. Since the more any of us loves, the more any of us is given a heart of flesh, the more alive that heart becomes. And the more alive it becomes, the more raw and painful the world comes to seem, even if also much, much richer and more interesting. (pp. 549-51)
3. Daniel Clendenin, The Journey with Jesus Foundation, Proper 16A for 2008, “Positively Maladjusted: Martin Luther King and ‘Transformed Nonconformity.'” Clendenin writes a nice essay around quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s sermon on this text, “Transformed Nonconformity” (found in Strength to Love). My favorite quote is King proposing that many Christians these days are thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.
4. 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). 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 Sixth Move: Engage all in a common life and mission (Rom. 12:1-13:14), of which he writes:
A therefore signifies a move now from the what of God’s amazing mercy to the so what of how we should live in light of that mercy. We should present our entire selves to God as a living sacrifice, Paul says, a new kind of sacrifice in which Gentile and Jew can equally share. We shouldn’t be conformed to the patterns of the world, but should be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We should use our gifts for the common good, loving others without hypocrisy, living the way Jesus lived and taught: sharing, giving, practicing hospitality, breaking down class barriers, forgiving, reconciling, overcoming evil with good. (pp. 154)
5. 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.
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. 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.”
7. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 156. In Chapter 6 on “The Body of Christ” (you may want to read this whole chapter), he brings in Rom. 12 after raising the image of “living stones” in 1 Peter 2:
If these living stones making up the “holy house” are truly vibrant, they are personal. One can’t have mimetic resonance without humans and God. As “living stones,” we should present our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” which is our “spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12:1) We are to be “transformed” by the renewing of our minds so that we “may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2) This transformation should help us discern God’s desire. Paul lists many signs of this transformation: That we “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (Rom. 12:9-13) We should “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way [we] will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2) Loving with mutual affection and bearing one another’s burdens are ways we resonate deeply with the desires of others in supportive ways. We also participate in Christ who bears all of our burdens. (156-7)
8. Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture, Ch. 7, “God and the State Sword,” a section “Paul and the State Sword,” pp. 158-69. Flood places a reading of Rom 13:1-7, on the State Sword, within the wider context of Rom 12-13. He also has a good blog on this passage, “The New Testament and State Violence, Pt 2 (Paul and State Violence).”
9. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from August 25, 2002 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from August 24, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. I have used a sermon by William Willimon on this passage (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 21, No. 3, July-Sept. 1993) that tells the story of a college student who lived out her faith in such a way that she was quite aware of how it made her stand out. Yet she referred to this as “The Joy of Being Odd” (link to sermon). To the extent that we do not conform to this world but are transformed by faith in the Holy Spirit (the “Odd Spirit”?), are we called to the joy of being odd?
1n 1999 we had a couple of infant baptisms that Sunday. It is a day to dream big dreams for such young children with so much ahead of them. Is the joy of being odd typically among those dreams? That our children would grow up in the Christian faith in such a way as to make them stand out?
1. Michael J. Darcy, CO, “On This Rock: Imitatio Dei Across the Testaments,” a paper delivered at COV&R 2005.
2. It is next Sunday’s follow-up episode that receives all the attention from Girardian scholars; see the numerous resources for the Gospel Lesson of Proper 17A.
3. Brian McLaren, “The Historical Jesus: What You Focus on Determines What You Miss,” a video presentation in the DVD “The Emerging Church: Christians Creating a New World Together” (available through the Center for Contemplation and Action). This Gospel is the central text in McLaren’s excellent lecture. Here are some of my notes for this portion:
- Protestants and Catholics have argued about Peter the Rock and missed the crucial points about Jesus.
- Son of Man comes from a passage in Daniel 7 that describes bestial empires that dominate and destroy everything in their path. This is how all empires behave, including the American Empire, when they have excessive power and not enough accountability (driven by a story of domination). Then, up to the throne of God comes a Son of Man, a frail human being. Son of Man could be translated as a New Generation of Humanity to this one a new Kingdom is given which will last forever. Son of Man in the context of Daniel 7 is both an individual and a community.
- Caesarea Philippi 35 north of Galilee to have this conversation. Why? Named after Caesar and the Tetrarch Philip. It’s the regional headquarters of the Roman Empire. Previously, it was named after a Greek trickster god, Pan, a place of pagan religion. Can you see why Jesus would go to the regional headquarters of the Roman Empire for a significant conversation about the Kingdom of God?
- Who do you say I am? Peter gets it right. Jesus praises him. Protestants and Catholics argue about Peter without paying attention to who Jesus is.
- What does Peter mean by Messiah, Christ, Son of God? Reads inscriptions from first century using titles for Caesar like Lord, Son of God, and Savior. Also, words like epiphany and Good News (Gospel). Peter is saying, I get it. Caesar isn’t Lord, you are. Caesar’s not the Son of God, you are. Caesar is not the authority under whom we should organize our lives; you are. You’re not just inviting us into a religion on the sidelines of Caesar’s kingdom; you’re inviting us into a new kingdom. Jesus is giving him a choice between Lord Caesar and Lord Jesus, and Peter is choosing Jesus.
4. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change and We Make the Road By Walking. The above video presentation is also available in excellent textual form. This passage is the focus of the first half of ch. 14, “Or So It Appeared,” of Everything Must Change; and ch. 25, “Jesus, Violence, and Power,” of We Make the Road by Walking. I highly recommend checking these resources from McLaren before preaching this text.
In establishing the setting, for example, as a place of a terrible military defeat, McLaren writes:
Imagine what it would be like enter Caesar-ville with Jesus and his team. Today, we might imagine a Jewish leader bringing his followers to Auschwitz, a Japanese leader to Hiroshima, a Native American leader to Wounded Knee, or a Palestinian leader to the wall of separation. There, in the shadow of the cliff face with its idols set into their finely carved niches, in the presence of all these terrible associations, Jesus asks his disciples a carefully crafted question: Who do people say the Son of Man is? (We Make the Road, p. 117)
And he helps capture the political nature of the term Christ, which we have come to see as a theological title:
By evoking the term Christ, Peter is saying, You are the liberator promised by God long ago, the one for whom we have long waited. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar. (Ibid.)
McLaren does an amazing job of capturing the drama of the reversal between Peter’s confession and his being rebuked, concluding:
Like most of his countrymen, Peter knows with unquestioned certainty that God will send a Messiah to lead an armed uprising to defeat and expel the occupying Roman regime and all who collaborate with it. But no, Jesus says. That way of thinking is human, Satanic, the opposite of God’s plan. Since the beginning, Jesus has taught that the nonviolent will inherit the Earth. Violence cannot defeat violence. Hate cannot defeat hate. Fear cannot defeat fear. Domination cannot defeat domination. God’s way is different. God must achieve victory through defeat, glory through shame, strength through weakness, leadership through servanthood, and life through death. The finely constructed mental architecture in which Peter has lived his whole adult life is threatened by this paradoxical message. It’s not the kind of change of perspective that happens quickly or easily. (Ibid., pp. 118-19)
5. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 121. Marr’s comments on the binding and loosing — the giving of the “keys of the kingdom” to Peter — looks ahead to Matthew’s chapter on forgiveness, Matthew 18 (Proper 18A and Proper 19A):
But wait a minute! Aren’t we told that those we loose on earth are loosed in Heaven and those who are bound on earth are bound in Heaven? (Mt. 16:19; Jn. 20:23) Sounds like we have the power to bind other people for all eternity, and God’s hands are tied for as long as we want them to be. How much power is that? Not so fast. Why is it that we so easily assume we are being allowed, even encouraged to bind on earth? Why are we slower to see that maybe we are being encouraged to loose on earth? Let’s return to Peter’s question about how many times he must forgive and Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. If we have to forgive others as God forgives us, and that without limit which is what seventy-seven times means, then we are indeed being encouraged to loose on earth. We are being warned that if we do not loose on earth, we are bound to our resentment for what others have done to us (or we think they have done to us.) If we remain bound to our resentments, we will be so bound even in Heaven since God’s hands are indeed tied for as long as we refuse to let God untie us. Truly accepting this free gift of forgiveness entails passing this free gift on to others. We are all thrown into the same world together. The question is whether we will be tied up in vengeance or bound with others by forgiveness. (121)
Reflections and Questions
1. Peter as the Rock has totally different implications in Matthew and Mark. I think that Mary Ann Tolbert has a strong case in Sowing the Gospel to reading Peter and the other disciples in Mark’s gospel as the rocky soil of the sower parable. They are those who grow up enthusiastically for a time and then run away when persecution threatens. Does Matthew realize this and so intentionally challenge Mark’s portrayal with a very different use of the Rock metaphor? I think it’s possible, if not probable. Luke deals with Mark’s scandalous portrayal of Peter by leaving out the ensuing parallel story where Peter challenges Jesus’ passion prophecy and where Jesus counter-challenges Peter with the strong words, “Get behind me, Satan!” Matthew leaves this in but adds his positive view of Peter where Jesus commends him as the Rock on which he will build his church.
Personally, I like Matthew’s more balanced portrayal. It fits, in a way, with the Psalm 118 proclamation of God building on the rock that human builders would reject. Here, we have Peter, who himself at times is a stumbling block to Jesus, rocky soil that withers faith at times of persecution. None of us would choose this kind of Rock on which to build the church. But Jesus does.
2. Peter is an example of how the revelation of the cross is a gradual dawning. Humankind was too much in the dark to have it dawn on us all at once. The pre-cross disciples are also an example of how forgiveness finally makes the revelation possible. We cannot see how dark it is until the light of forgiveness begins to flicker and get our eyes used to seeing in the light. We cannot know the joy of that experience until we see how wrong we have been. Hence, the following brief homily on this passage which borrows the title of James Alison’s book, “The Joy of Being Wrong.”
3. In 2002 I had begun a series on “Faith Is…” two weeks prior. Noticeable by contrast in this passage is the lack of mentioning faith. In the Proper 14A Gospel, Jesus tells Peter he has little faith out on the wind-swept water. In Proper 15A the Canaanite woman is commended for her faith. Here, Peter gets the confession of the Messiah correct, but faith is not mentioned at all. Could it be that faith isn’t so much what Christians over the centuries have made it out to be? Namely, confessing Jesus Christ as Lord? The emphasis of modern Protestantism has been to say that we are saved by faith alone and then to make faith out as a sort of creedal confession, or making Jesus one’s “personal savior.” Peter comes as close to this modern depiction of faith as anyone in any of the Gospel stories. He is commended for it, but it is not called faith as it is for the Canaanite woman, who had persisted in trusting Jesus despite being seriously insulted. A sermon to continue the series might be entitled “Faith Is More than Getting the Names Right.”
4. I find Stephen C. Rose‘s concept of “creedal messianism” very helpful here (his essay “Beyond Creed: The End of Creedal Christianity” was once on the Internet). One might quibble about when the church lapsed into this creedal messianism. Rose argues: “But the primitive church, before a word was written down for posterity, tended to make Jesus a messiah and to downplay his message and the iconoclastic acts which characterized his ministry.” What about this passage, for example? On the one hand, it seems to be the forerunner to the tendency of creedal messianism with Peter’s confession. On the other hand, there are strong elements present in this passage which seem to say that Jesus is about much more than espousing the right creed. The disciples are to keep quiet about the messianism, presumably because they don’t yet understand it. They immediately prove Jesus’ point when he predicts his passion and Peter resists the idea, with Jesus letting him know in no uncertain terms that he is on the side of Satan in doing so.
I would tend to see Christianity’s lapse into creedal messianism as a much more gradual thing. A big step was taken when Christianity became the imperial religion, because then those in power had the tendency, along with the power, to start doing violence against enemies in the name of their not espousing the same creed. Sarah Dylan Breuer‘s essay on this text (for Proper 16A) pairs the emperor Constantine with Peter. I might argue that the Protestant emphasis on faith alone has unwittingly supplied the final piece to this creedal messianism with an even more pronounced tendency to threaten hell to anyone who doesn’t share our creed: ‘Invite Jesus to be your personal savior or you will burn in hell forever.’ In 2008 I used Breuer’s essay as a foundation for my sermon and proposed that creeds, in the context of imperialism, became a litmus test for whether one was for or against the empire.
However we trace the development of this creedal messianism, I would agree with Rose that we need to welcome its end — especially to the extent that it ends up serving the powers of sin and death by becoming a justification for violence and for the threat of violence — the exact opposite of Jesus’ Way of Peace.
5. The “keys to the kingdom” verse is paralleled in John 20:23, where Jesus also commissions his disciples to bind or loose, though there it is explicitly sins. Here in Matthew it is whatever. To me, the parable to soon follow in Matthew makes the most sense out of this keys passage. The parable of the Unforgiving Servant (18:21-35; Proper 19A) shows how one contributes to his or her own binding or loosing. The Unforgiving Servant is unbound from his unpayable debt in the parable’s opening scene, yet he chooses to not continue living in that world of unbound debt when it comes to the small debt of his fellow servant against him. The Master thus binds the choice that the Unforgiving Servant has made for himself to not live in that world of unloosing. In the sense of this parable, the only unforgivable sin, the only one to be bound, is the sin of refusing to live in a world of forgiveness. Seemingly unpayable debts can be forgiven, but the refusal to abide by such forgiveness with others precludes the possibility of being able to abide in forgiveness for oneself.
6. This passage has been a point of contention for most Protestants with Catholics and Episcopalians over the issue of Apostolic Succession and the historic episcopate. (My ELCA church body narrowly accepted full communion with the Episcopalians despite a huge controversy over the historic episcopate.)
But I see this passage as speaking more poignantly to the other extreme of the Protestant spectrum: those who emphasize personal decision for Jesus as the way of salvation. Peter makes the right decision about who Jesus is: the Messiah. But notice, first of all, that Jesus clearly qualifies his praise for Peter’s correctness. It is not flesh and blood that led him to this confession, in the first place, but rather Jesus’ heavenly Father. And even more decisive is Jesus’ decision for Peter. Does the Protestant problem with the historic episcopate these days stem from the fact that we are scandalized by whom God chooses for leaders in the church? Or even by the fact that it might be God who chooses and not us? In any case, I like the fact that this passage makes it clear that it is God choosing us that saves, not the other way around.