Last revised: October 24, 2011
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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
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.”