Last revised: September 12, 2014
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PROPER 18 (Sept. 4-10) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 23
RCL: Exodus 12:1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
RoCa: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
Reflections and Questions
1. Ezekiel’s sense of being a prophet seems at odds with Jesus’. Ezekiel’s prophet is the sentinel who stands watch over repentance: if the people repent, they will receive forgiveness instead of the divine wrath. I like Raymund Schwager‘s capsulization of Jesus’ message. Jesus completely turns around the order: God offers unconditional forgiveness first, so that we might be moved to truly repent. (Link to crucial passage of Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, entitled “God’s Turning toward His Enemies.”) And he is a prophet in the sense of ‘all the prophets murdered since the foundation of the world, from Abel to Zechariah.’ He prophetically shows forth our murderous ways — which include that old order of repentance and forgiveness used to persecute those we deem as unrepentant sinners. (For more on this sense of the word “prophet” see the comments on Pentecost B.) The Gospel Lessons for the next two weeks give Matthew’s most to-the-point look at the issue of forgiveness.
1. The last word in this lection is “desires,” which in the Greek is epithymia. Gil Bailie has some good comments on the etymology of this word as it first appears in Romans 1 in his audio tape series. Girard himself also has some helpful comments on a root word, thymos, in Violence and the Sacred, pp. 154, 265. I decided to dig deeper for myself and was stunned by what I found in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the NT (TDNT). Here’s an etymology of words that could stand as solid corroboration of Girard’s theses! The two central themes of Girard, desire and sacrifice, are bound together in the etymology of the ancient Greek words, even more than of what Bailie and Girard had previously made me aware.
Here’s an overview, before going a bit more in depth. The most common Greek words for “sacrifice” (in both the NT and LXX) are thyo (verb) and thysia (noun). Derived from this are thymos, most often translated as “anger” or “wrath” (often used interchangeably with orge in designating the wrath of the gods), and epithymia, or the verb epithymeo, meaning desire. Essentially, these are both strong desires (1) thymos relating especially to the sacrificial cult; and (2) epithymia relating to the sorts of desires which lead to sacrificial crises. epithymia can mean any strong desire or yearning, but very often has a negative connotation, sometimes translated as “lust.” In this Romans passage it is something to be avoided by putting on Christ. Earlier, in vs 9, the verb epithymeo is what is used for the rendering of the tenth commandments prohibition against “coveting.”
A one sentence summary of Girard’s anthropology could be summed up in the relationship of these words: thyo (sacrifice) is what we humans resort to in order to keep in check our epithymia (covetousness), all the while hiding our problem with epithymia (mimetic desire) from ourselves by attributing the need for thyo (sacrifice) to the appeasement of the thymos (wrath) of the gods.
My digging in the TDNT suggested even deeper relationships among these words. The article on thymos / epithymia by Buechsel (Vol. III, pp. 167-172) is especially revealing. (It also points the reader immediately, in its heading, to the huge article on orge [vol. V, pp. 382-447], which has a section on the interchangeability of thymos and orge in translating the “wrath” of God in the LXX.) Here’s how the article on thymos starts (with a better etymology of thyo than the article on thyo [vol. III, pp. 180-190]):
thyo originally denotes a violent movement of air, water, the ground, animals, or men. From the sense of ‘to well up,’ ‘to boil up,’ there seems to have developed that of ‘to smoke,’ and then ‘to cause to go up in smoke,’ ‘to sacrifice.’ The basic meaning of thymos is thus similar to that pneuma [‘spirit’], namely, ‘that which is moved and which moves,’ ‘vital force.’ In Homer thymos is the vital force of animals and men…. thymos then takes on the sense of a. desire, impulse, inclination, b. spirit, c. anger, d. sensibility, e. disposition or mind, f. thought, consideration. The richly developed usage in Homer and the tragic dramatists is no longer present in the prose writers, e.g., Plato, Thucydides. For them thymos means spirit, anger, rage, agitation. In Jewish Gr. thymos is common in this sense…. Everywhere in the NT it means ‘wrath.’
I find this fascinating! Especially the comparison to pneuma as a vital force. Jean-Michel Oughourlian has advocated for mimeticism as the universal vital force that animates living beings (akin to gravity which governs the movements of physical objects; see ch. 1 of The Puppet of Desire). From a biblical perspective, especially when informed by Girard’s anthropology, we might say that that vital force divides in two, blows in two different directions, thymos and pneuma. The first is mimetic desire fallen into rivalry and the descension into wrath, the wrath we ultimately project onto the gods through our sacrificial cults. The second is the true vital force of life, a loving, non-rivalrous desire, also known as agape in the NT, which only God truly originates, a Holy Spirit. We need to put on Christ to live in this pneuma, while “making no provision” for epithymia.
1. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #6.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence; deals with this passage primary in a section called “Love, Law, and Vengeance” (excerpt), pp. 150-156. Bringing the theme of vengeance in as a central point to the passage helps, I think. It makes sense of the verses we skipped, for example, the controversial 13:1-7 on obedience to the state. Hamerton-Kelly writes:
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 (p. 150).
But with the contrasting Christian law of love the person in Christ begins to live a life without vengeance at all, leaving it to God and the state. Again, Hamerton-Kelly:
…love sums up and transforms the Law from a system of vengeance into a provisional structure for the expression of love in this world. The exposition reaches a climax in the quotation of Leviticus 19:18, which is presented as the alternative to vengeance. The prohibition of vengeance now applies to all people, not just to one’s fellow Israelites. The issue all along has been the transformation of the basis of order from the reciprocity of vengeance into the open-endedness of love. Thus the Law has been fulfilled, and been shown to point beyond itself to the new order of the new creation (p. 156).
3. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, prominently cites 13:10 within the first point of his reading of Paul in light of Adam. Link to an excerpt of the full context, a section entitled “The Pauline Understanding of Desire.” Or here are the most pertinent selections from pp. 147-150:
There is a quite specific reason behind Paul’s option to discuss sin in terms of Adam. This is related to the polemic about the Law that underlies and occupies so much of both Romans and Galatians. By re-reading the Adam story, which contains an original prohibition (Gn 2:15-17), in the light of the cross, Paul is able to show the relationship between desire and the (mosaic) Law, which is seen as an explicitation and elaboration of the original prohibition, in such a way as to demonstrate the caducity of the latter and the universally death-bound nature of the former.I am not seeking to make an exegesis of the Pauline texts. Nor am I seeking to prove that Paul “already” has a doctrine of Original sin. Rather I am trying to show that for Paul, starting from Adam rather than from Cain and Abel, it was no less apparent (and maybe even more apparent) than it was for the rest of the apostolic tradition that what we have been brought out of by Christ is a human condition (a) constituted by distorted desire (b) and lived out in a mimetic interdividuality, in which it is the “other” who forms and moves the “I”. This human condition (c) comes from and leads to death and (d) is from the beginnings of, and affects the whole, human race. That is to say, that for Paul as for the other witnesses a certain sort of anthropological understanding is a necessary consequence of, and basis for, the understanding of the salvation that has been wrought in Christ.
Let us look at this claim point by point:
a) The human condition is constituted by distorted desire. Adam appears explicitly in Romans only in 5:12-21, in lines that are infamously central to the Augustinian interpretation of original sin. However it is not there alone that the early chapters of Genesis make their appearance. The early chapters of Genesis are the vital allusive framework of the whole of Romans 1-8, and it is in the light of them that Paul argues with his interlocutors, for whom the text would not only have been familiar but an authority held in common with Paul. In Romans 1:32 Paul shows that he considers that all humans know of the primal prohibition that is found in Genesis 2:15-17. This law is to be found inscribed on the hearts of both Jews and gentiles (Rm 2:15). It is thus reasonable to read Paul’s understanding of the fulfilment of the law as love of neighbor (Rm 13:10) as the positive command made necessary by, and in direct contraposition to, the negative command of Genesis 2:15-17. The primal prohibition is being read in the light of Jesus’ commandment.
The use Paul makes of the primal prohibition is to be found in Rm 7:7-20, which involves an implicit reading of the Adam story. It is necessary to fill in some steps which Paul jumps (presumably because of the familiarity of what is being described to his interlocutors). The primary positive commandment is to love the neighbor as oneself. The encapsulation of the Mosaic decalogue is in the commandment not to desire (ouk epithuméseis [here’s epithymia again!], which we normally translate by ‘covet’ or envy). It is this prohibition which is read as being the content of the prohibition not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That is to say, it was an initial act of covetousness, or envy, which broke the original prohibition, cast God in the role of a vengeful rival and introduced humans into the world order in which envy governs human relationships. It is in this world order that the commandment to love the neighbor as oneself fulfils the original prohibition, by aiming at restoring fractured human relationality. Behind this understanding is the reading (well attested within Jewish circles, see Wisdom 2:23-4) of the Genesis story as the way in which envy came into the world, and its consequences for humanity.
The primary problem, according to this reading of Genesis, which Paul’s shorthand enables us to intuit, was that God gave a prohibition for the benefit of human beings (not to eat of the fruit of the tree of good and evil), and this same prohibition was treated by human desire, turned (by imitating the suggestion of the serpent) to envy, as a sign of God withholding something of his being from humans. Envy turned a prohibition given for our benefit into a sign of divine rivalry with, rather than divine love for, us, and humans were thereafter constituted in rivalry, the fruit of envy. This reading of Genesis lies behind Romans 7:7-12. Paul explicitly says that the law itself is not sinful, but was meant to bring life, “but sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness” (7:8), where “me” is Adam, Paul, and everyone. He goes on: “I [Adam, Paul, omnes] was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died” (7:9). Paul interprets the serpent of Genesis in terms not of the devil, but of sin: It was sin which found opportunity in the commandment to deceive humans. Human desire, in itself good, turned to envy. Making use of the commandment, it deceived itself and led to death.
Paul demonstrates this because his argument is that the Law of Moses is the continuation and explicitation of the original prohibition. That is to say, the Law, which in itself is good, was, from the beginning, the occasion of the distortion of desire, and since then is not only the occasion of the distortion of desire, but actually contributes to the further distortion of desire. The Law has, as it were, become prisoner to, and works as a function of, the world of sacralized violence that has resulted from the breaking of the original prohibition. I say sacralized violence since the twin effects of the rupture of the original prohibition were to produce an envious and vengeful perception of God, and a human race constituted in envy and rivalry leading to death: it is the conflation of these two elements which produce the ‘sacred violent’ that is at the root of all idolatry, and thus of all human culture. The combination of a rivalistic notion of God and a rivalistic living of humanity constitutes the sphere of death from which God has sought to set us free in Christ. Paul’s argument is essentially that desire has turned the original prohibition into a stumbling block, such that all human beings live in the mode of stumbling through distorted desire. This same distorted desire affects even the Law, which was meant to reveal and control the desire, and as such turns the Law into an instrument of death. For this Paul’s own experience as a law-inspired persecutor of Christ was paradigmatic.
This enables us to see the structure of Paul’s analysis of universal sin in Rm 1:18-32. The first effect of human transgression following the Adamic model set out above was to provide a distorted image of God, and simultaneously to divinize things that were not God (1:18-23). Envious desire turns what should have been a pacific model (God) into an obstacle, and then seeks out obstacles, turning them into models (gods). The next step is that, just as Adam and Eve noticed their nakedness, and human erotic life became complicated by distorted desire, so human bodies and passions become perverted and distorted (1:24-27). The final step, corresponding to the life of humanity once expelled from the Garden (and thus to Cain, Lamech, Babel, and so on) is that the whole of human life and culture is utterly infected with distorted desire leading to strife and murder, and all under the sentence of death resulting from the original prohibition (1:28-32).
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 Sixth Move: Engage all in a common life and mission (Rom. 12:1-13:14), of which he writes:
The resonances between this passage and the Sermon on the Mount are loud, strong, and beautiful. The Jewish and gentile community in Christ, while radically nonconforming to its culture, is not a group of Zealots plotting violent revolution against the Roman Empire. They live and work as law-abiding, tax-paying citizens within the kingdom of Caesar, even though they are now citizens in Gods kingdom. But they must remember that their highest law is neither the Jewish Law nor the law of Caesar. Paul describes it as the law of love, clearly echoing Jesuss teaching for disciples of the kingdom of God. This is the life to which we Jew and Gentile together are called…. (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 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.
1. The lectionary skips over the most dense occurrences of skandalon / skandalizo in Matthew: one occurrence in the last verse of Matthew 17 and six in Matthew 18:6-9. (See more on skandalon below.) This amounts to skipping to the crucial section on forgiveness without first deepening ones understanding for what needs forgiving. I would like the reader to keep this passage in mind for our understanding of the larger unit. As McCracken does in the reference below, I would take the larger unit to be that which begins with the second passion prediction, namely, Matthew 17:22-18:35. Here, then, is the first portion of this unit which the lectionary skips over, Matthew 17:22-18:14 (with skandalon / skandalizo bolded):
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23 and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” 25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” 26 When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 27 However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. 6 If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10 Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.
12 “What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
2. Key word groups in the Greek over the next two weeks are luo (Matt. 18:18), to loose or unbind, and aphiemi (Matt. 18:21), to forgive. Both are used in Matt. 18:27: “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released (apoluo) him and forgave (aphiemi) him the debt.” There is a great deal of overlap between the two words; both can be translated as “release.” The word group for luo includes lutron, “ransom,” and lutrosis, “redemption.” The word group for aphiemi includes aphesis, “forgiveness.” The most literal, common meaning of luo usually has to do with a physical untieing or unbinding. The most common, literal use of aphiemi most often has to do leaving something alone or letting go, with a more technical us in a legal form of release, such as a remitting of debt. But, again, there is much overlap. apoluo is commonly used in the NT to designate a legal divorcing.
3. The Office of the Keys. Matthew gives his version in both 16:19 and today’s 18:18: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” John gives his version in John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Each evangelist uses two completely different word groups: Matthew uses deo and luo, repectively; and John uses aphiemi and krateo, respectively.
1. David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels; pp. 110-127 provide a close reading of Matthew 17:22-18:35. Matthew 18:15-20 is especially dealt with in the section “The Sublime and the Bathetic,” pp. 121-123.
2. 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 second resource listed on this page are the closing pages of the opening chapter in Girard‘s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. That opening chapter takes its title from Matthew 18:7: “Scandal Must Come.” The excerpt of pp. 16-18 that you will find at this link pays special to Matthew 18:1-10. Here is a edited version of Girard’s comments on this passage:
Understanding this strange phenomenon depends upon seeing in it what I have just described: the behavior of mimetic rivals who, as they mutually prevent each other from appropriating the object they covet, reinforce more and more their double desire, their desire for both the others object of desire and for the desire of the other. Each consistently takes the opposite view of the other in order to escape their inexorable rivalry, but they always return to collide with the fascinating obstacle that each one has come to be for the other.Scandals are responsible for the false infinity of mimetic rivalry. They secrete increasing quantities of envy, jealousy, resentment, hatred — all the poisons most harmful not only for the initial antagonists but also for all those who become fascinated by their rivalistic desires. At the height of scandal each reprisal calls forth a new one more violent than its predecessor. If nothing stops it, the spiral has to lead to a series of acts of vengeance in a perfect fusion of violence and contagion.
“Woe to the one by whom scandal comes!” Jesus reserves his most solemn warning for the adults who seduce children into the infernal prison of scandal. The more the imitation is innocent and trusting, the more the one who imitates is easily scandalized, and the more the seducer is guilty of abusing this innocence. Scandals are so formidable that to put us on guard against them, Jesus resorts to an uncharacteristic hyperbolic style: “If your hand scandalizes you, cut it off; if you eye scandalizes you, pull it out” (Matt. 18:8-9)….
The phrase “Scandal must come” (see Matt. 18:7) has nothing to do with either ancient fatalism or scientific determinism. Taken individually, human beings are not necessarily given over to mimetic rivalries, but by virtue of the great number of individuals they contain, human communities cannot escape them. When the first scandal occurs, it gives birth to others, and the result is mimetic crises, which spread without ceasing and become worse and worse. (I See Satan, pp. 16-18)
“Mimetic crises” are what Girard goes on to explain in ch. 2, “The Cycle of Mimetic Violence,” namely, the descending into skandalon that focuses on a victim such that the scapegoating mechanism generates a renewed societal order based on a sacrificial logos. The new societal order lasts for a time until a swirling descension into increased skandalon starts the next cycle of mimetic violence. In ch. 3, “Satan,” Girard shows how Satan / the devil is behind both the descension into skandalon and the scapegoating mechanism, such that it can truly be said that Satan casts out Satan (Mark 3:23). But as the cycle of mimetic violence shows, too, that our human societies will thus always be ‘kingdoms divided against themselves which can never stand’ (Mark 3:24).
3. The Gospel of Matthew accounts for 19 out of 34 occurrences of skandalon / skandalizo, with the heaviest concentration in this middle section, Matthew 13-18; link to a page cataloguing Matthews uses of skandalon and skandalizo.
4. 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,” wrote a brief essay on this passage in 2014, “Binding and Loosing.”
1. Mimetic theory helps a great deal in being aware of the constant dynamic in human community to place blame and to thus find a scapegoat, heaping that person or persons with more than their fair share of the blame of what’s going wrong in the community. The Christian message of forgiveness brings one into a Holy Communion based on every person being able to accept their own responsibility for their own part in what goes wrong, instead of the constant shifting of blame to one person or a small group. I think this redemption of the process of responsibility within community is helpful to keep in mind with the “Office of Keys,” binding and loosing on earth as it in in heaven.
2. Remember how Jesus himself lived out the so-called Office of Keys, namely, he was willing to be made the scapegoat that we might learn the process of forgiveness and the life of repentance, which includes being able to take responsibility for our part in what’s wrong wiithin the community. To be a follower of Jesus, I can never take the place of the blameless one who lets himself be made the scapegoat. But I can be a follower of Peter in the Office of Keys by modeling the taking of responsibility myself. This can set me up for being made the scapegoat, in unhealthy situations. But it can also bring healing and forgiveness when the word of forgiveness is truly preached, so that others begin to take their proper responsibility, too.
3. The part about treating the unrepentant person as a “Gentile or tax collector” makes sense from the above perspective. First you treat fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as fellow recipients of grace through Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. You treat them as folks who stand in that forgiveness and so are able to accept responsibility for their fair share of what might be amiss within the community. If they fail to accept responsibility, then you need to start over with them as folks outside that grace. You go back to the basic Gospel of Jesus letting himself be made the Gentile or tax collector for our forgiveness.
4. On the other hand, those who hold the Office of the Keys also need to be mindful of the temptation to make someone take more than their fair share of the blame, of the constant anthropological pressure to make scapegoats as a resolution, the Unholy Communion of usual human community.
5. In Matthew 18:8-9, do we see through Jesus that God is not scandalized by sacrificial solutions? That is not to say that God approves of them. Not being scandalized by something and approving of it are entirely different. Jesus says, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that if our eyes or hands are going to lead us further down the path of scandal to violence, then cut that path short by cutting off the offending member. In context, the sacrificial solutions are especially pointed at saving the little ones from violence. A form of self-sacrifice, cutting off one’s hand, is preferable to leading a little one down the path of scandal to violence. God does not scandalize us by forcefully taking away our sacrificial solutions too quickly, a situation which would leave the little ones most at risk.
6. In 2002, I continued the series of sermons on faith by referencing the part skipped over, Matthew 18:1-10, as a rationale for continuing the theme of faith as not being scandalized, which was begun with the sermon at Proper 15A. Link to a sketch of this sermon (much was extemporized), “Faith Is Not Being Scandalized, Part II.”