Last revised: November 7, 2017
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PROPER 26 (October 30-November 5) / Ordinary Time 31
RCL: Joshua 3:7-17 or Micah 3:5-12; 1 Thess. 2:9-13; Matt. 23:1-12
RoCa: Mal. 1:14-2:2, 8-10; 1 Thess. 2:7-9, 13; Matt. 23:1-12
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred; pp. 152-154 give a summary of Micah’s message, citing 3:11. Here is an excerpt:
In general, Micah’s prophetic message (c. 730-700 B.C.E.) is very similar to that of these other prophets, particularly his fellow Judeans Amos and Isaiah. Especially representative of Micah’s message is the oracle in 3:9-12, for which he was remembered even in the time of Jeremiah (Jer 26:18): “Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height” (Mic 3:12). And why is it that this calamity will come about, so that the Temple will be destroyed and the city a heap of ruins? Micah’s answer is that the “heads,” the rulers, “build Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with wrong” (3:10). In an indictment he specifies rulers, priests, and prophets.
Its rulers give judgment for a bribe,
its priests teach for a price,
its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the LORD and say,
“Surely the LORD is with us!
No harm shall come upon us.” (Micah 3:11)
In other words, the perspective and the practices that are indicted are representative of a common sort of religion of the divine presence, which is centered in sacrifice. Sacrificial forms, with their inherent and partially concealed victimization mechanism, express themselves by many different avenues. As we see here, the sacrificial substitutions are supplemented with further substitutions through bribes and irregular payment for services. All three of these offices represent means of access to the sacred in the sense of the bounty and means of life given by God.The word ruler is a very general term that probably encompasses king, prince, judge, and so on. Those who rule do so in the stead of the divine ruler. Money is, in origin, a means of substituting for the sacrificial act. The gift is a substitute for sacrifice; that is, it stands in place of the victim that is offered in place of the one for whom sacrifice is offered. One kind of remedy for conflict in a sacrificial system, one of whose offshoots may be a money economy, is the offering of a bribe, a payment beyond what is ordinarily required for someone’s services. The bribe reflects both the power of the sacrificial system and its corruption, in that the system does not curtail rivalry, which uses the reciprocity of the system as a standard that must be exceeded or “supplemented.”
The “priests teach for hire,” evidently giving answers that people want. The verb meaning “teach” is from the same root, *yrh, as torah, “teaching,” or “law.” The root word means to cast or throw, and in at least one instance it denotes casting lots to determine the portions of land for Israelite tribes (Josh 18:6). Because many of the occurrences of the form of the verb meaning to instruct occur in passages where priests direct worshipers in ritual observance, I suspect that the sense of instruction is derived originally from casting of lots to obtain the divinity’s answer or from some such process of divination. Just as in the case of rulers accepting bribes, this benefitting from the sacrificial system, beyond the economy established through the roles and relationships this system structures, shows that mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry are not effectively addressed through the sacrificial mechanism.
The picture that Micah draws is that of a sacrificial system gone haywire. We see this also in Isaiah’s prophecies, for example, the oracle in Isaiah 1:10-17. In a developing state of undifferentiation, with the sacrificial system so blatantly ineffective, more and more substitutions, and substitutions for the substitutions, are sought and found. This may be seen in the indictment of the prophets who divine for hire — who foretell the future, locate lost objects, and so on. The sacrificial system has become so ineffective that people turn, sometimes in desperation, to prophets. The prophets, in turn, are drawn into this vortex of rivalry, for the structure that spawns so many substitutions offers many advantages for profit and power to the clever person who has good timing and few qualms about dominating others.
Much like Amos and Isaiah, Micah cries out against those who force the old free peasantry off the land and acquire enormous land holdings (Mic 2:1-4). A key passage in Micah, often quoted, is 6:6-8. It is often considered an addition to the Micah scroll stemming from the sort of post-exilic piety that is expressed also in Psalm 51. A case may be made for this position. In fact, it would support the non-sacrificial reading of the Scriptures as evidence of part of a post-exilic, anti-sacrificial perspective that stems in great part from the prophetic tradition. Let us pick up the passage halfway through:
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my life?
He has disclosed to you, O mortal (adam) what is good;
and what does the LORD seek from you
but to do justice, and love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?(Mic 6:7-8)
It is quite striking that in this advanced perspective on the divine-human relationship and morality there is nonetheless a recollection of the archaic connection of the offering of the firstborn and transgression. Right relationship with God and reestablishment of order does not depend on eliminating the ills of the human community by killing the firstborn son for the sake of the family or community. It depends on the ancient covenant virtues of mishpat, or justice and right judgment, and chesed, or kindness (the “steadfast love” of Hos 6:6), the kindness one does for others who belong to the same community or family. (pp. 152-154)
1. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, p. 65-66; “call no one on earth your father…” is a key point in this essay entitled “Jesus’ fraternal relocation of God.” In a thorough treatment of John 8, Alison mixes in Matt. 23:9 in arguing for God’s paternity taking a turn toward fraternity in Jesus. He says, for example:
Let us assume, rather, that by means of this sort of talk Jesus is accomplishing something of incomparably greater anthropological significance: the removing from God of any of the anthropological connotations of fatherhood, and the recasting of God entirely within the terms of reference of fraternity. Let us read this text, then, in that most Jewish of veins, as a text about overcoming idolatry.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel; Matt. 23:3 is cited on the last page, p. 197.
3. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 46, “Spirit of Service.”
4. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 475.
6. This is the beginning of Matthew’s entire chapter devoted to “Woes to the Pharisees,” widely commented on in Girardian literature. Most significant for Girardians has been one skipped over completely in the lectionary:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)
This passage is cited often in showing how modern people like to think themselves superior to those of previous generations. “Political correctness” can get into this game, to some extent; modern white folks can talk as if they would never have held African slaves or massacred Native Americans if in the place of their ancestors.
In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, René Girard is commenting on the danger of over-psychologizing Peter’s denial, making it a matter of his personal psychology. No, it is more a matter of the mimeticism of crowd contagion. Girard writes:
Resorting to a psychological explanation is less innocent than it appears. In refusing the mimetic interpretation, in looking for the failure of Peter in purely individual causes, we attempt to demonstrate, unconsciously of course, that in Peter’s place we would have responded differently; we would not have denied Jesus. Jesus reproaches the Pharisees for an older version of the same ploy when he sees them build tombs for the prophets that their fathers killed. The spectacular demonstrations of piety toward the victims of our predecessors frequently conceal a wish to justify ourselves at their expense: “If we had lived in the time of our fathers,” the Pharisees say, “we would not have joined them in spilling the blood of the prophets” [Matt. 23:30; par. Luke 11:47]The children repeat the crimes of their fathers precisely because they believe they are morally superior to them. This false difference is already the mimetic illusion of modern individualism, which represents the greatest resistance to the mimetic truth that is reenacted again and again in human relations. The paradox is that the resistance itself brings about the reenactment. (p. 20)
The most crucial of the “woes to the Pharisees” for Girardians does appear in the lectionary, but only on the lesser festival of St. Stephen the Martyr Day:
Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation. (Matthew 23:34-36)
For more on this passage, see the resources and reflections for St. Stephen the Martyr.
7. 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 in 2017 on this passage, “Our Heavenly Father and Teacher.”