Last revised: September 12, 2014
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PROPER 21 (Sept. 25-Oct. 1) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 26
RCL: Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
RoCa: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 135-136. Ezekiel 18 has a prominent place in Alison’s rereading of the Old Testament in light of the Resurrection.
***** Alison excerpt *****
If the Law was born as part of a social project of nationhood subversive of victimary practice, remarkable in itself, then even more remarkable, and comparatively little commented on, is its role as an epistemological instrument. By this I mean that, over a long period of time, the attempt to live by the Law, and to be faithful to it permitted two quite different sorts of discoveries. In the first place it is highly probable that it was fidelity to the Law that permitted the discovery of monotheism (as opposed to monolatry). Exegetes agree that the period of the Babylonian exile and immediately thereafter was a crucially rich period for the development of Israelite theological understanding. It was the crisis provoked by seeking to be faithful to the Law and God’s promises in the circumstances of the apparent powerlessness of God in the face of the greatly superior Babylonian culture and pantheon, and perhaps especially by the fact that the return from exile was owing to Cyrus’ benevolence, that led to the awareness that there is only one God. The monolatry enshrined in the Law (thou shalt have no other gods before me) became the instrument for the discovery of monotheism under the circumstances of the exile. It is not only that the God of Israel punishes Israel’s enemies (dealing blows at Assyrian armies, for instance), but the one, universal God can even use a gentile emperor to further His plan of love for Israel. Faithfulness to the Law under the circumstances of complete defeat opened the possibility of a re-conceptualization of God. Were it not for the possibly fanatical, and at least ‘imprudent’, adherence to the legal monolatry of the Jews, they could not have made the great discovery of universal monotheism!
In the same way, the Law was an epistemological instrument in the discovery of sin. As the prophets (especially) sought to call back Israel to faithfulness to the covenant, (and therefore to the law), so there developed an anthropological understanding of sin. Thus there is a shift from representations of God hardening the heart (for instance, of Pharaoh, Ex. 4:21, etc) to the notion of God testing and tempting human beings (Gen 22:1), and finally this too is put to question and denied in the Wisdom literature (for instance, Sirach 15:11-17). The book of Job can be read as a struggle with this set of ideas, where Job wrestles with the much more primitive theologies of his “friends”, even though there are only hints at a decisive break with an understanding of God as torturer. A similar development occurs in which a tribal notion of sin, and therefore of diffused punishment of sin is gradually broken down in favor of a view that God does not punish the children for the iniquities of the fathers (Ezek. 18), but seeks individual responsibility and turning aside from sin.
At the same time as these shifts were occurring, we have a fundamental discovery in ethical terms: the discovery of the human heart. Here I do not mean merely a discovery of emotions or passions, but a properly theological discovery: that of the relationship between the seat of human attitudinal patterns and God. If there is such difficulty in keeping the Law, if Israel has so much difficulty in keeping faith with the covenant, is this not because of the human heart? The human heart is understood to be something “desperately corrupt” (Jer 17:9). Of particular importance in the understanding of the heart is the relationship between envy and violence. This is clear in the account of the murder of Abel. It is clear again in the reaction of Joseph’s brothers to Joseph. Ahab has Naboth killed for no less. The formidable violence exercised by the “friends” in their discourses against Job is shot through with envy. Some one hundred of the one hundred and fifty psalms indicate or hint at a situation where a group of enemies, filled with envious violence, are arrayed around a single just man (see the analysis of R. Schwager in Must there be Scapegoats, pp 91-109). This discovery of the human heart as a theological reality, only possible within the cultural growing frame provided by the Law and the discovery of monotheism is intrinsically linked with the development of a concept of subjective guilt, of which the evidence is to be found in the psalms (for instance 32, 38, 51). The depth of sin and the awareness of God’s capacity for forgiveness grow together, as can be shown by the penitential exhortations of the prophets (for instance, Isa. 1:16ff; Jer. 18:11; 25,5; Ez 18:21, 31; Hos 6:1ff; Joel 2:12ff.). This theological development culminates in the awareness that for Israel to be able to live the covenant, it will actually be necessary for God to give the people a new heart, as Ezekiel prophesies in 36:26.
If envy is its motive force (see Wisdom 2:23-24), far more time is spent in the Old Testament pointing out that violence is what is really abominable. The flood came in Genesis 6 because God could tolerate no longer the violence that abounded on the face of the earth. The priestly codex clearly interprets the sin of humankind as violence (see R. Schwager op.cit. pp 48-49). Many of the prophets rail against violence and bloodshed (e.g. Hos 4:2; Mic 7:2, 5-6; Is 59:2-7; Ez 7:10-11; 22:1-27) And it is important that in these quotations they are not railing against the violence of other nations (which they also do abundantly), but are pointing the finger at the presence of violence in Israel. It is not any sort of violence, but what is usually described is an escalating ladder of violence building up from swearing and lying to murder. The particular horror of this is that murder is fratricidal. The Jewish commentator Pinchas Lapide has pointed out that for the Jewish tradition, taking as its starting point Gen 9:5 ff, all sins of murder are fratricide (The Sermon on the Mount, Maryknoll N.Y.: Orbis 1986 p 49).
It is from this perception that the same process of inspiration is able to understand sin as essentially a relational matter. Rather than being a matter of failure of observance of prescriptions (though there is no exaggerating the importance these play in the Old Testament), sin is to do with relational disturbances which lead to violence among the whole community. Hence the arrival at simple universal ethical prescriptions such as Leviticus 19:17-18: if the problem is fratricide, then the solution is love of neighbor as self.
Some of the prophetic critique goes further, in understanding that the presence of fratricidal violence, the reign of death, is an universal phenomenon, which is a veil of blindness that is over all peoples (Is 25:7-8). When therefore Isaiah talks of the darkness (9:2; 42:16; 59:9; 60:2; etc) out of which God will lead his people, it is a particular form of darkness to which he is referring — a darkness related to the reign of death — to the boot of the tramping warrior and the garment rolled in blood (Is 9:5). This theme is not greatly developed, but there is enough of it present to suggest that prophetic insight went as far as to see sin as related to the reign of death precisely in the measure in which God is increasingly perceived as entirely foreign to death.
None of this is to suggest that there is a theology of Original Sin in the Old Testament. There is in fact no unitary understanding of sin in the Old Testament, nor a unified hermeneutic key by which to interpret the many different understandings of sin which are to be found. It is to suggest, however, that the Law and the Covenant played a role in Israel’s self-understanding such that real conquests were made in the subversion of myth, and thus real insight gained simultaneously into the understanding of God and an ever less mythical anthropology. This permitted an ever greater separation of divine and human violence, an ever sharpening view of the latter, and an ever less easy admission of the former. A perception was able to be developed of the human heart as involved in violence, and needing to be trained away from that. There are hints of an etiology of sin in the Genesis account (though the Adam story scarcely reappears at all in the rest of the Old Testament) and a reference to Eve’s sin in Sirach 25:24. However, Jewish tradition considers Sirach apocryphal, not part of their canon of scripture.
The subversive process of the discovery of sin, which is the same as the discovery of freedom, reached a certain point in the Jewish tradition: moral life involves the struggle between an evil impulse (yetzer ha-ra) and a good impulse (yetzer ha-tov). The former is active from birth, the latter comes with the age of discretion and can control the former if the person feeds himself on the Law (see R. Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p 89). Once again, it is the positive framework of knowledge, the Law, which permits it to be understood in what sin consists. The understanding of sin as original required a further sharpening of perspective, which was also simultaneously a further deepening of the drastic character of the human condition and a heightened awareness of God. We are back to the double insight into God’s deathlessness and human deathfulness provided by Jesus resurrection. It is now clear not only that man must struggle against evil so as to avoid death, but a step further has been reached. The resurrection reveals that man is already shot through with death in a way that no amount of struggle can avoid. It is not that we are sick, but that we are dead. Life is not something fought for, but something given. There is no real freedom that does not pass through a recognition of complicity in death.
***** End of Alison excerpt *****
2. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment; ch. 5, “Moving On: The Exilic Transformation of Anger into Love,” features a reading the Book of Ezekiel, commenting on Ez. 18 especially on pages 114-115.
3. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 154.
4. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, & the Sacred; comments on Ezekiel are on pages 145-146, 156-157.
1. Willard Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus/Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” in Violence Renounced, pp. 225-226. After quoting this text, he comments:
Even though this text does not use either of the key terms, imitation or type, it clearly portrays the believers patterning their conduct after the suffering and obedience of Christ Jesus. Hence this important text takes its place in this list. Further, this text is joined to imitation in Philippians 3:17 (see p. 225) by the similar exhortation, “be of the same mind” (touto phroneite in 2:5 and touto phronomen in 3:15).The context of this foundational confession on Jesus’ self-emptying and humbling to the cross is Paul’s admonition in vv. 3-4 to put away conduct that proceeds from mimetic rivalry: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Then follows: “let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.”
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 103, 139, 154, 210.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 172, 176. Link to an excerpt of “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified,” pp. 174-182.
5. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 46, “Spirit of Service.”
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 29, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
7. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 55. In making preliminary comments on Christology, Alison states:
It becomes possible to see Jesus’ human self as being “suggested” (or called, or loved) into being by the Father, exactly through the normal human physical means. It is to just such an intelligence of who Jesus was that John gives witness in the way in which he portrays Jesus as being utterly dependent on the Other who called him into being (John 5:19ff), and yet utterly one with his Father. A completely non-rivalistic imitation is at work (“I do everything which I see my Father do”). There is no sense in which Jesus tries to forge his own identity over against that of his Father, there is no grasping in Jesus’ mimetically formed self (cf Phil. 2:5-9). Thus the purely gratuitous self-giving of the Father is completely imitated in the life-story of the Son. This enables us to affirm the hypostatic union as being the “hypnotizing” into historical being of the person of the Son, and makes sense of the insistence of theology after the Third Council of Constantinople that Jesus is not a human “person” but a divine person in a human nature.The consequence of this approach to the question of the hypostatic union is that it enables us to see Jesus as having a human desire, human will, human intelligence, and so on, so that it is not necessary to postulate anything humanly “special” about Jesus, in whose case all these are formed by a non-rivalistic mimesis, which is in principle a possibility for us. Thus it becomes possible to see Jesus not as a god, with the implications of a special sort of difference in his humanity, but as God, precisely as a fully human being. The reason why this is important is that the imputation to Jesus of something “special” in his humanity, something which we could never be, is to present Jesus as urging upon us a particular form of human imitation of the sort “imitate me/do not imitate me”. That is to say, Jesus would, for us, remain stuck within the double-bind of distorted mimetic desire, from which he would thus not be able to release us. However, part of the point of the doctrine of the Incarnation is exactly that it shows that here is a human we can imitate fully, have our relationality completely transformed in his following, such that we too are able to become sons of the Father in a dependent, but not in a limited way. It is not true that, “yes you can become sons, but no, not in the way that I am the Son”. Christology undergirded by an anthropology of pacific mimesis is able to yield the sense in which humans are called out of the double bind. In Christ there is no “Yes” and “No.” Only “Yes.” (2 Cor 1:19)
Reflections and Questions
1. I’ve suggested before that Paul’s letter to the Philippians is perhaps the biblical exhortation par excellence to “good mimesis.” Paul in numerous places calls the Philippians to imitation, both implicitly by holding himself up as an example (last week’s text) and explicitly, for example, Philippians 3:17: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating (Gr Sum-mimetai) me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Having the same mind of Christ is the heart and soul of good mimesis. Through the cross and resurrection of Christ, the kenosis unto death and the cross and the subsequent exaltation, Christ is able to live in us and we in him.
1. This passage sets up the parables to follow, giving the setting and audience and setting the theme:
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (Matthew 21:23-25a)
The setting is the temple, the audience is the leaders of the people, and the theme is authority (exousia, which can also be translated as power). Jesus begins to parse the subject of authority with a crucial distinction regarding from whence it comes: from heaven or from human origin, ex ouranou or ex anthropon. This distinction will remain prominent in the ensuing parables.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 25, 2005 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).