Proper 17A

Last revised: September 8, 2017
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PROPER 17 (Aug. 28-Sept. 3) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 22
RCL: Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
RoCa: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

Romans 12:9-21

Exegetical notes

1. The quotes in this passage are: in 12:19 a quote of Deuteronomy 32:35: “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; because the day of their calamity is at hand, their doom comes swiftly.” In 12:20, a quote of Proverbs 25:21-22: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the LORD will reward you.”

2. Paul doesn’t directly quote Jesus, but I think this passage echoes the Sermon on the Mount more than in any other epistle. Compare, for example, 12:14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” with Matthew 5:44: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” If we contend that a central theme of Jesus’ teaching which makes him unique is his teaching of love for even one’s enemies, thereby overcoming evil with good, then Paul is certainly echoing those teachings in this passage.

3. Romans 12:20: “No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.'” This is a direct quote of Proverbs 25:21-22. Richard B. Hays, in his chapter on “Violence in Defense of Justice” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996; Hays argues, btw, that the New Testament is against violence, even in defense of justice), has the following footnote in quoting Romans 12:20: “Despite the apparently harsh image, the burning coals may be a traditional symbol for repentance. See, e.g., William Klassen, “Coals of Fire: Sign of Repentance or Revenge?” New Testament Studies 9 [1963]:337-350.” (n. 39, p. 345)

4. Romans 12:19, NRSV: “leave room for the wrath of God.” This is one of two places, the other being Rom. 5:9, where some modern translations such as the NRSV insert “of God” where it doesn’t exist in the original Greek, which is simply dote topon te orge, “give place for the wrath.” Hamerton-Kelly, in the excerpt below, takes this as a key phrase in interpreting this passage and suggests we consider it in light of Romans 1, so that we see:

The wrath works by self-inflicted harm. God gives sinners up to the consequences of their self-destructive actions, described as the activity of perverse desire (Rom 1:24-31). Thus there is no actual violence in God, and the quotation, “vengeance is mine, I shall repay” must, therefore, be taken loosely. The vengeance of God is to give sinners their own way and not to mitigate the consequences of their freely chosen desires. This is the same understanding of judgment as we find in John 3:19 and in Dante’s affirmation that there is no one in hell who does not freely choose to be there. The wrath is the consequence of living willingly in the system of sacred violence.

For the translators to thus turn it into the wrath “of God” is to again throw the responsibility back onto God instead of us! Using God as a justification for our wrathful violence is so prevalent among us that skilled translators will even insert words that aren’t there.

For a more complete look at the “wrath of God” in Romans — as a transformation by Paul into the idea of God handing us over to our own human wrath — see “Nuechterlein on the ‘Wrath of God’ in Romans.” (The original insight comes from Hamerton-Kelly.) This has become one of the most important insights for me since it shows a New Testament writer seeing the often wrathful God of the Hebrew scriptures in light of the merciful God in Jesus Christ. St. Paul, in my opinion, is working a very important ‘subversion from within’ of the “wrath of God.”

Resources

1. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #6.

2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 150-156, on “Love, Law, and Vengeance” (excerpt).

3. 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:

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.

The resonances between this passage and the Sermon on the Mount are loud, strong, and beautiful. (pp. 154)

4. 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.

5. 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.”

6. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 156, 186, 213, 258, 271. 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)

7. 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).”

Reflections and Questions

1. 12:10: “Outdo one another in showing honor.” If one is going to get caught up in a mimetic rivalry, then this is the one to get caught up in! In general, I would say that Romans 12-13 might be the best choice, along with the Sermon on the Mount, for a text on which to build a Girardian version of Christian ethics.


Matthew 16:21-28

Exegetical note

1. Matthew’s gospel is the only one that inserts the word skandalon in Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, combining it with the charge of “Satan” that he gets from Mark. Luke skips entirely the portion of this passage of Peter’s reaction to the passion prophecy and Jesus’ rebuke of his reaction. Matthew, in general, is the NT author who uses the word skandalon the most. See #3 under resources.

Resources

1. René Girard. This passage brings together two of Girard’s most poignant themes from scripture: Satan and the skandalon. It’s no surprise, then, that this passage figures prominently throughout his work. Here’s a partial list: Things Hidden, p. 418; The Scapegoat, p. 157 (chapter on “Peter’s Denial”); The Girard Reader, pp. 199-200; within his article “Are the Gospels Mythical?“, First Things, No. 62 (April 1996), pp. 27-31. Here’s an excerpt from the latter, beginning with comments on Peter’s denial of Jesus, and ending with the tying together of the two things Jesus names of Peter in this passage — “Satan is skandalon personified”:

Peter spectacularly illustrates this mimetic contagion. When surrounded by people hostile to Jesus, he imitates their hostility. He obeys the same mimetic force, ultimately, as Pilate and Herod. Even the thieves crucified with Jesus obey that force and feel compelled to join the crowd. And yet, I think, the Gospels do not seek to stigmatize Peter, or the thieves, or the crowd as a whole, or the Jews as a people, but to reveal the enormous power of mimetic contagion — a revelation valid for the entire chain of murders stretching from the Passion back to “the foundation of the world.” The Gospels have an immensely powerful reason for their constant reference to these murders, and it concerns two essential and yet strangely neglected words, skandalon and Satan. The traditional English translation of “stumbling block” is far superior to timid recent translations, for the Greek skandalon designates an unavoidable obstacle that somehow becomes more attractive (as well as repulsive) each time we stumble against it. The first time Jesus predicts his violent death (Matthew 16:21-23), his resignation appalls Peter, who tries to instill some worldly ambition in his master: Instead of imitating Jesus, Peter wants Jesus to imitate him. If two friends imitate each other’s desire, they both desire the same object. And if they cannot share this object, they will compete for it, each becoming simultaneously a model and an obstacle to the other. The competing desires intensify as model and obstacle reinforce each other, and an escalation of mimetic rivalry follows; admiration gives way to indignation, jealousy, envy, hatred, and, at last, violence and vengeance. Had Jesus imitated Peter’s ambition, the two thereby would have begun competing for the leadership of some politicized “Jesus movement.” Sensing the danger, Jesus vehemently interrupts Peter: “Get behind me, Satan, you are a skandalon to me.”

The more our models impede our desires, the more fascinating they become as models. Scandals can be sexual, no doubt, but they are not primarily a matter of sex any more than of worldly ambition. They must be defined in terms not of their objects but of their obstacle/model escalation — their mimetic rivalry that is the sinful dynamics of human conflict and its psychic misery. If the problem of mimetic rivalry escapes us, we may mistake Jesus’ prescriptions for some social utopia. The truth is rather that scandals are such a threat that nothing should be spared to avoid them. At the first hint, we should abandon the disputed object to our rivals and accede even to their most outrageous demands; we should “turn the other cheek.”

If we choose Jesus as our model, we simultaneously choose his own model, God the Father. Having no appropriative desire, Jesus proclaims the possibility of freedom from scandal. But if we choose possessive models we find ourselves in endless scandals, for our real model is Satan. A seductive tempter who suggests to us the desires most likely to generate rivalries, Satan prevents us from reaching whatever he simultaneously incites us to desire. He turns into a diabolos (another word that designates the obstacle/model of mimetic rivalry). Satan is skandalon personified, as Jesus makes explicit in his rebuke of Peter.

2. David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels, pp. 34-35.

3. As in recent weeks: See the webpage “Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon,” which includes a page cataloging those uses (note the wide variation of translation into English). The Gospel of Matthew accounts for 19 out of 34 occurrences of the noun and verb, with the heaviest concentration in this middle section, Matthew 13-18; link to a page cataloguing Matthew’s uses of skandalon and skandalizo.

4. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 171, on Jesus’ words that he “must suffer”:

This gives us a way in to seeing how the second “angle” onto original sin, the foundation of human order in murder, symbolized by Cain’s murder of Abel, is made available by the victimary self-giving of Jesus. The central moment of this is Jesus’ own prior interpretation of his death in the Last Supper. It is at this point that the nature of the ecclesial and the an-ecclesial hypostases become apparent. The key word in this context is dei. All four Gospels show a clear understanding that Jesus must suffer (Matt. 16:21; 26:54; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7; 26:44; John 3:14;12:34). We see two reasons behind this “must”: so that the scriptures be fulfilled, (the “theological” reason), and because of the nature of the human order (the “anthropological” reason). Where it might be possible to read the necessity of fulfilling the scriptures as suggesting that there is some divine plan to kill Jesus, the tendency of Jesus’ own interpretations of this “must” is always towards the anthropological subversion of this understanding. The Gospels do not attempt to attribute this “necessity” to anything in God: when Jesus in his apocalyptic discourses indicates that “all these things must come about,” he is referring to the cataclysmic convulsions of the human order which must not distract the disciples from their attention to the coming of the son of man precisely as crucified-and-risen victim. The word dei in these contexts has a quite specific meaning: it refers to the necessity to which the human order, based on death, is in thrall. What enables Jesus to point this out is the willingness of divine gratuity to allow itself to suffer the consequences of this human order precisely so as to free it from the realm of the necessity of death. (pp. 171-172)

5. S. Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice, pages 151-153. In a section titled “Satan’s House Divided,” Heim deals with the key Girardian text on ‘Satan casting out Satan’ (see Proper 5B or my explanation of this passage in “My Core Convictions“) and follows it with a discussion of this key text on Peter being linked with Satan:

Another passage found in the three Synoptic Gospels follows upon Peter’’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus immediately teaches the disciples that he is going to suffer and be executed and rise again. At this, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him, saying, “‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’” (Matt. 16:22-23). This is a key text for our interpretation of Jesus’’ death. Did not the discourse from the Gospel of John discussed above make clear that this death is the work of Satan? How then can Jesus turn on Peter for passionately objecting that this must never happen, and identify Peter with Satan? The rebuke comes because Jesus is not going to the cross to confirm the scapegoat ritual, but to repeal it. Here is the same doubleness we have seen threaded through all the Gospel accounts. Peter’’s picture of God forbids the Messiah’’s identification with a victim. Peter rejects the idea of Christ’’s suffering because of his natural human attachment to Christ, the attachment that leads us always to prefer victims who are not part of our closest circle. And he rejects it because he is hoping for a violently victorious God who will crush the enemies of Israel. Jesus says Peter is a “stumbling block” to him, offering a real temptation to deflect him from his path. If Peter were flatly wrong, this would not be a live temptation. But Jesus’ reaction makes it clear that it is. The objection affects Jesus for different reasons than it appeals to Peter. It appeals to Jesus because of its fundamental truth. This should never happen to Jesus, or to anyone. The wrongness in the cross is precisely what Jesus aims to oppose and overcome in bearing it. If Jesus’’ death can oppose that evil, then that is why he will do it. But that injustice is also the strongest possible argument why he should not accept it. For all the wrong reasons, Peter has hit on the weakest point of Jesus’’ resolve, and played Satan’’s strongest card: to go through with this trip to Jerusalem is to implicitly cooperate in the most unjust in the long line of unjust sacrifices. Why would Jesus want to do Satan’’s business for him? Precisely because Jesus is innocent, the strongest temptation to deflect him from his path is the simple truth. This injustice ought not happen. It “ought” to happen only if it can be unlike all the others from the foundation of the world, if it can reverse the practice. We can hardly blame Peter for not seeing how that might be. It requires resurrection, and a new spirit.

6. 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:

  • 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.
  • But then notice what happens . . . Jesus explains his coming death and resurrection. Peter just got the gold star. Now, he begins to rebuke Jesus: “Jesus, you are the Son of God. You don’t get crucified; you crucify. You don’t get tortured and arrested; you torture and arrest.”
  • Jesus rebukes Peter. The things of men squeeze out the things of God. We stand with Peter in the confusion of the moment, feeling whiplash — speaking truth one minute and playing for the wrong side the next, trying to imagine how a crucified king can be king at all. It is absolute insanity to us. But it is the very heart of this new vision of Jesus.

7. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2014, titled “Peter’s Shattered Dream“; a sermon in 2017, “Steeped in Mystery.”

Reflections and Questions

1. In 2008 this weekend fell between the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. It occurred to me that Matthew 16:13-28 could be read as Jesus holding convention with his followers. Peter gives the nominating speech, “You are the Messiah.” But then Jesus stuns them with his acceptance speech, outlining a campaign of being killed by his enemies. That’s not the Messiah! Or so thinks Peter. What kind of Messiah is Jesus? One who bears God’s unconditional love. Link to the sermonMessianic National Convention 32 AD.”

2. Continuing the sermon series on faith in 2002 is the sermonA Re-formation of Faith.” I believe we need to finally bring the Reformation to fulfillment by understanding what faith is. Luther emphasized faith in Jesus Christ as faith in a God of mercy, but he still left intact elements of faith in a God of wrath, even if he called this the “hidden God.” The modern legacy of the Reformation is an understanding of faith that centers on believing in Jesus in order to go to heaven someday. The flip side of this is believing in Jesus in order to avoid hell. In short, believing in Jesus saves us from the ultimate divine violence of condemnation to hell. What I believe the Girardian anthropology helps us to see more clearly is that Jesus came to save us from our own human violence, not some ultimate divine violence. Any ideas about divine violence are the continuation of the idolatry that has plagued humankind “since the foundation of the world”: namely, the projection of our human violence onto the gods in order to cover our own responsibility.

An example of such idolatry is what we are seeing today with Islamic-based terrorism: I can go to heaven by sending my enemies — who, of course, are God’s enemies, too — to hell. The Christian version lay behind much of colonialism. We threaten the “pagans” with believing in God or going to hell — and if they get in our way, in the meantime, we might do God a favor by helping to send them to hell. What we need is a re-formation of faith in the God of Jesus that does away with all notions of divine violence.

A re-formation of faith is ultimately the work of the Spirit, but that work can be either helped along or inhibited by one’s reading of the Word. The preacher’s task is to interpret the Word in a way that helps, against all those ways which haven’t helped us thus far. This takes some wholesale shifting — a subversion from within — in interpreting Scripture — essentially, the task of this now immense website. In the sermon for this one Sunday’s texts, I can’t hope to lay the hermeneutical groundwork for a re-formation in the time allotted. But there are things crucial about these texts which can help give a good start. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter makes clear the drastic distinction between the human and divine ways of thinking. The epistle hashes out this distinction along the lines of vengeance vs. love. And, nearing the end of our serial reading of Romans, I take the opportunity, using a handout with all the relevant Bible verses, to show how Paul is working a subversive understanding of the wrath of God as handing us over to our wrath. (For the list of verses and further reflection on this theme, see “Nuechterlein on the ‘Wrath of God’ in Romans.”)

Showing the Scriptural subversion of God’s wrath is a big part of the battle, climaxing in the cross of Christ and the cross-centered theology of Romans. Showing a re-working of the idea of hell as a place of divine wrathful punishment is another big step. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant provides such an occasion in two weeks (Proper 19A). Hell is living in the worlds of debt and vengeance we make for ourselves; if we turn away God’s offer to live in a world of forgiveness, we condemn ourselves to the hell of our own making.

3. “Take up your cross and follow me” is often interpreted these days with something like, “This is my cross in life to bear,” without realizing, of course, that the individualistic fatalism of the latter bears little resemblance to the evangelical power of the former. By fatalism, I mean being moved more by the powers of death than by God’s power of life. It is the cross without the resurrection.

When I’m confronted with this sort of line, the pastoral task is to help the other person out of their fatalism. Example: a person is saddled with a heavy load of caring for a sick loved one and views this as “my cross to bear.” The task is to help them see their caring for a loved one as a positive choice they’re making because of the gospel. It can be even more positively viewed if the help of others is enlisted to lighten the person’s burden, because helping to bear one another’s burdens is also a call of the gospel. Sometimes, the fatalistic person will resist receiving any help because it’s seen as their cross to bear and not anyone else’s. That’s where teaching the non-fatalistic experience of Jesus’ call is important.

4. In retrospect to last week’s encounter with Romans 12:1-2, does following Jesus and taking up a cross relate? If one does not conform to this world but is transformed, doesn’t that now make you a target for this world’s continuing scapegoating projects? If so, you are a “living sacrifice.” You are sacrificed on this world’s continuing altars of sacrifice. But baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, the ultimate outcome is always life, not death. It is transformation and not assimilation (conformation?).

5. The call to follow Jesus in taking up the cross is non-fatalistic when one understands the cross of Jesus. The latter wasn’t simply his fate. (See Alison’s comments on “must suffer” above.) It was the consequence of revealing the depth of our sin to build up both ourselves and our societies on the basis of an over-againstness of others. It took the cross and resurrection, and the gracious forgiveness which they bear to us, to show us what our projects of Self and Society really look like. The Girardian anthropology helps to sharpen our insight into this even more.

6. Without something like the Girardian anthropology to sharpen our insight, it has been easy to use the cross in enhancing our projects rather than in transforming them. The fatalistic version mentioned above is only our more modern version that goes along with our extreme individualism. Using the cross during the Crusades would be an example of a Medieval misuse of the Cross. On a cataloguing of such misuses through the ages, let me give you a marvelous Internet reference that was passed on to me this week (in 1999): www.textweek.com. Jenee Woodard has put together the most comprehensive website on the weekly lectionary readings that I’ve come across. It is entitled “The Text This Week.” Her “Link of the Week” for Proper 17 (in 1999) is a journal article, “The Cross: Should a Symbol Betrayed be Reclaimed?“, by Mary C. Boys, Cross Currents, 1994.

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