Last revised: October 18, 2020
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PROPER 25 (October 23-29) / Ordinary Time 30
RCL: Deut. 34:1-12 or Lev. 19:1-2, 15-18; I Thess. 2:1-8; Matt. 22:34-46
RoCa: Exod. 22:20-26; I Thess. 1:5-10; Matt. 22:34-40
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10; Proper 18A)
I begin with Paul this week to underscore the centrality of today’s Gospel Reading in the teaching of Jesus. He writes a lot about who Jesus is and what this means for our lives, but he very seldom passed on teachings of Jesus that we have recorded in the Gospels. Romans 13 is a notable exception, presumably because he knows that the law fulfilled in love is perhaps Jesus’s most central teaching. And so love is the word that echoes throughout Paul’s letters, dropping it almost a hundred times (96 to be exact). The revelation of God in Jesus the Messiah is all about love.
Mark is the major writer in the New Testament who speaks the least about love but nevertheless set the pace for this central teaching of Jesus by being the first to record it in Mark 12:28-34. Mark uses the word love only five times in his Gospel: once in telling us that Jesus loved the rich young man (10:21) and the other four times in his parallel to today’s Gospel. Luke does not carry an exact parallel to this passage in his Gospel but moves it earlier in his narrative and makes it the occasion for one of Jesus’s greatest parables, the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). John, the Gospel writer who speaks the most about love (using the word 57 times), does not have a direct parallel but something very close: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). This boiling down of the commandments is the centerpiece for Jesus’s Farewell Address in John (chs. 13-17), using the word love thirty-four times.
Which brings us to Matthew and today’s Gospel. Matthew sets up this passage right at the beginning of Jesus’s teaching ministry. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). What follows are six antitheses explaining his fulfillment of the law, ending with: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:43-45a, 48). I believe that “perfect” — teleios in the Greek, having the sense of completion or meeting a goal — refers back to the fulfillment of the law spoken of in 5:17. The law is fulfilled in the perfection of God’s love that reaches out even to enemies. It is the only perfect kind of love that would empower a person to live into the kingdom of heaven by suffering the violence of one’s enemies.
One further comment on love in Matthew’s Gospel. I believe it is the measure by which not just individuals but nations are judged. In five weeks we will conclude the Year of Matthew’s Gospel with the end of Jesus’s teaching in Matt 25:31-46. This passage is tragically misread in the context of seeing salvation as individuals going to heaven when they die. In that context, each person is judged by whether they acted in loving service to the least of Jesus’s family. I will argue on Christ the King Sunday A that this is a colossal misreading that ignores what Jesus tells us the passage is about: a judging of the nations. It’s the nations which are sorted as sheep and goats based on whether their politics and economics address the needs of the Jesus’s most vulnerable brothers and sisters — our most vulnerable brothers and sisters. Nations which fail to do so will end up on the scrapheap of history like most others before. In short, the measure of whether a nation succeeds or not — the measure of fulfilling its systems of law — is love.
We have focused on the love part of the equation thus far. I’d like to conclude by reflecting on that which love fulfills: the law. In Hebrew the law is called Torah. Torah is also what Jews would call the practice of their religion. Torah names law and religion intertwined together as the core of the Jewish culture. So what is law and religion if it is not fulfilled in love? Mimetic Theory explains to us how a loveless law and religion are the tools of the Scapegoat Mechanism to justify sacred violence done in God’s name. What percentage of the modern West has come to see this and so view religion as part of the problem of violence? How much of the phenomenon of shrinking churches today is due to people fleeing the church as a continuing source of violence? I believe that if we come to see this message of fulfilling the law in love to also apply to religion, then we also come to understand how vital it is for us to renew our Gospel message. True salvation in Jesus the Messiah is not and has never been about converting to a new religion so that some of us can go to heaven while everyone else is damned to eternal sacred violence in hell. Salvation in Jesus the Messiah is about a new Way of being human such that our law and religion, our cultural pillars, are among those things human which are redeemed from violence. And the Christian religion qua religion is top of the list in need of saving.
Recommended reading for this theme: Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. McLaren argues for precisely this change in messaging and practice in the three parts of the book: Part 1, From a System of Beliefs to a Way of Life, with the closing chapter on “Learning How to Love”; Part 2, From a Violent God of Domination to a Nonviolent God of Liberation; Part 3, From Organized Religion to Organizing Religion.
Reflections and Questions
1. This is an account of the death of Moses on the threshold of the promised land. Mimetic theory states that for human beings death can never be simply biological. We are cultural animals; there is always a cultural dimension to death. In fact, culture commences with the founding murder, with the site of the cadaver. Girard‘s most succinct statement comes in Things Hidden, pp. 80-83. He says, for example,
culture always develops as a tomb. The tomb is nothing but the first human monument to be raised over the surrogate victim, the first most elemental and fundamental matrix of meaning. There is no culture without a tomb and no tomb without a culture; in the end the tomb is the first and only cultural symbol. The above ground tomb does not have to be invented. It is the pile of stones in which the victim of unanimous stoning is buried. It is the first pyramid.
Or the first altar.
2. Strange, then, in Deut 34:6 that “no one knows his burial place to this day.” No tomb! Why no shrine at the burial site of their greatest prophet? Is this the work of the Holy Spirit in Moses that he would not let his death be a galvanizing force for sacred violence? Jesus seemed to have that same concern in trying to teach his followers not to mourn in the usual ritualistic ways at the death of Lazarus (John 11; see my notes on tape #8 of Gil Bailie‘s lectures on John) and the importance of the empty tomb for the Christian experience of Easter (Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 228ff.; “The Empty Tomb”).
Yet the history which follows Moses’ death is the sacred violence of the conquest of the promised land. As Girard says, the Old Testament is sometimes a “text in travail.”
3. How does one have a perfectly timed death apparently orchestrated by God? The Lord tells Moses that he will let him see the promised land but not cross over into it. Are we to imply that God then killed Moses? Is this a mythological account of a death? The latter would mean that Moses might actually have been killed by his own people at a time of crisis but later memorialized in sacred terms as dying on a mountain with God.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
1. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 528.
1 Thess. 2:1-8
Reflections and Questions
1. Probably the earliest letter we have from Paul, there are some differences from his later letters. One is that he doesn’t announce himself as an apostle at the beginning of the letter. Rather, this passage seems to be working out Paul’s notion of apostleship. And the striking feature of the images he uses conveys the vulnerability of the apostle. In imitating Christ by passing on the gospel (a theme in last week’s pericope), the apostle makes himself vulnerable. It takes courage to be an apostle.
2. “we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” “Please,” in the Greek aresko, is not a common word. The only place this word appears in the gospels is to describe what Herodias’ daughter did for Herod when she danced for him, eliciting the response from him that led to John the Baptist’s beheading (Matt. 14:6; Mark 6:22). St. Paul uses it more often, especially in Rom. 15 and, interestingly, in 1 Cor. 7 when talking about husbands and wives “pleasing” one another. I think we can take this word as having to do with satisfying a person’s desire. And so St. Paul puts before us the basic choice in life: acting according to the desire of other people or the desire of God.
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 80:
Jesus’ indirect but yet precise way of proceeding is shown also in his interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. Faced with burning messianic expectations, he raised what was apparently a side issue: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” (Matt. 22:42) When the answer came that he was the son of David, he needed just one further question to leave the Pharisees completely at a loss. By merely referring to Psalm 110:1 “The Lord spoke to my lord,” he succeeded in bringing into the open a fundamental problem in the interpretation of the Old Testament writings, which his adversaries — and not only they — always glossed over. The Messiah is supposed to be on the one hand son of David, and on the other hand he was addressed by David himself — according to the exegesis of the time — as lord. Behind this linguistic problem there lies also one of substance. As son of David the Messiah is supposed to stand squarely in the tradition which comes down from the great king of Israel, but at the same time he is to bring rescue from a history which was always one of failure. How can the two coexist? Jesus must have felt the problem very intensely and precisely to have been able to express it through one single question and thereby to touch on a fundamental theme of the Old Testament. Since the problematic of the Son of Man sayings, with their utterances about heavenly and earthly manifestations, belongs to the same theme, the question arises as to whether Jesus’ indirect self-designation did not subtly suggest more than many exegetes credit him with. By a choice of words, which allowed allusions to the different Son of Man representations in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Jewish apocalyptic, he could have been preparing an answer to that great question before which the Pharisees were completely at a loss. In the parable of the wicked winegrowers, which, at least in its original form, as we have seen, may go back to Jesus himself, the master’s “son” is clearly separated from all the “servants” sent by him, and as “heir” he is placed by the side of the master. The “son” and the “Son of Man” thus stand in an inner connection with one another, and both these indirect self-designations of Jesus are in accord with his high claim in the basileia message. Thus there emerges a picture which has inner coherence and which carries in itself its own credibility.
2. Matthew continues his merging of the Markan material with his own materials. This passage parallels Mark 12:28-37. The major difference between the two is the dialogue partners. Mark takes a ‘break’ from the interrogation by Jesus’ opponents by having one scribe ask the question about greatest commandments; he and Jesus agree on the answer, drawing praise from Jesus. Matthew retains the polemical context and omits the words of agreement and praise. Mark also follows the word of praise with the closing off of debate, noting that no one else dare challenge him. The passage concerning David, then, is simply offered by Jesus to his disciples, whereas Matthew continues it as a dialogue with the opponents – this time with Jesus starting the discussion with his own question to his inquisitors.
With these differences in mind, some insights from the perspective of mimetic theory may be drawn from Robert Hamerton-Kelly‘s book on Mark, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 30-33.
3. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 10, “Getting Slavery Out of the People.”
4. Of note, perhaps, is the passage that the lectionary skips over in this year of Matthew. Matthew 22:23-33 is the story of the leaders trying to trap Jesus with the question about the woman who dies having had seven husbands:
“In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.” Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:28-32)
This is a key passage for James Alison in his major books: it begins his entire argument in Raising Abel, pp. 35ff., and is cited in a similar context in The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 217. It relates to the Girardian thesis above that all human culture is rooted in death (i.e., literally begins at the corpse of the scapegoat and the tomb that enshrines it). Alison proposes that the most striking contrast between Jesus and us was his ability to get beyond this rootedness in death, especially when it came to his relationship with God. Jesus was able to imagine a God completely about life:
Jesus isn’t talking about some special power to do something miraculous, like raising someone from the dead. Rather he’s giving an indication of the sort of power which characterizes God, something of the quality of who God is. This ‘power’, this quality which God always is, is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let’s put this another way: for us ‘being alive’ means ‘not being dead’; it’s a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death. Well then, I suggest that we have here something of great importance. Jesus was able to imagine God, to perceive God, in such a way that his whole vision was colored by God as radically alive, as a-mortal, as in no way shaded by death. Those who started the dispute with him were not able to perceive God in this way, and their theological arguments were, according to Jesus, vitiated from their roots. When Jesus tells the Sadducees that they are greatly mistaken (poly planasthe), he is not telling them that they have made a mistake, for example, with respect to some detail, but that their whole perception is radically wrong, distorted, and it is so because it is stuck in a vision which flows from death to death, a vision which has not acceded to God, the entirely death-less. (RA, p. 38)
I have found this to be the most challenging consequence to glean from Girard’s work. Alison takes this point to its logically conclusion and places it before us. Will we be scandalized by it? (Are we so scandalized by it, for instance, that we try to skip over it in the lectionary?) It places before us the thesis that our ideas about God are totally colored by a view which can only see life in its contrast with death. It’s not that there is no such reality that we might call “death.” It’s that our human experience of it is completely colored by what has shaped us culturally and psychologically since the foundation of the world. Our very humanity is rooted in a certain kind of death for which we alone are responsible. If there is another kind of death, a “natural” death, for example, we cannot truly know about it because our experience of death is bound up with what shapes us as human beings. The Christian liberation which begins at the Resurrection is therefore, first and foremost, a liberation from our sin-bound experience of death, an experience which has always colored our experience of God. The Resurrection begins to make possible a whole new experience of God as being unconditionally about life, which can completely transform our experience of “death.”
But again, dear friends, the point here is not to solve the riddle and get the right answer. Rather the point is becoming a trickster like Jesus by being the right answer.
Jesus embodies the right answer as a trickster, for example, by duping Satan at the cross. Smith quotes one of Girard’s favorite bible passages, Colossians 2, that on the cross Christ “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (2.15). He concludes:
Rather his words and actions reveal the character of a “trickster extraordinaire,” who targets cosmic powers and spiritual enemies, and whom we are invited or even required to imitate.
Finally, Smith finishes with a contemporary example concerning how one can respond to racism without turning into a victimizer oneself.
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from October 19, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
7. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “Intersected from Outside Time and Space“; and in 2014, titled “Turning Enemies into Footstools“; and in 2017, “Turning Enemies into Footstools.”