Last revised: March 10, 2018
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3RD SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR B
RCL: Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
RoCa: Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
Last week, we continued (from Lent 1B) the subject of a New Reformation in the church, emphasizing the need to read the New Testament as an anti-imperialist text, after centuries of blunting that reading under Christendom. This week’s Gospel Reading provides an excellent opportunity to critique the Christendom way of reading the Gospel as one that shifts the focus to the afterlife, instead of the real Good News about God transforming this life.
This week’s element of a New Reformation is recovering a Jewish sense of being firmly grounded in history and Creation, that reorients the disciple’s focus to this life, the afterlife receding to the background. Salvation is Here and Now.
The person who has done more than anyone else to champion this element of a New Reformation is renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. It just so happens that he has another new book out this week, Paul: A Biography, in which he strikes up this theme right away in the introduction:
Another obvious barrier stood between my teenage Bible-reading self and a historical reading of Paul. I assumed without question, until at least my thirties, that the whole point of Christianity was for people to “go to heaven when they died.” Hymns, prayers, and sermons (including the first few hundred of my own sermons) all pointed this way. So, it seemed, did Paul: “We are citizens of heaven” (Phil. 3:20), he wrote. The language of “salvation” and “glorification,” central to Romans, Paul’s greatest letter, was assumed to mean the same thing: being “saved” or being “glorified” meant “going to heaven,” neither more nor less. We took it for granted that the question of “justification,” widely regarded as Paul’s principal doctrine, was his main answer as to how “salvation” worked in practice; so, for example, “Those he justified, he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30) meant, “First you get justified, and then you end up in heaven.” Looking back now, I believe that in our diligent searching of the scriptures we were looking for correct biblical answers to medieval questions.
These were not, it turns out, the questions asked by the first Christians. It never occurred to my friends and me that, if we were to scour the first century for people who were hoping that their “souls” would leave the present material world behind and “go to heaven,” we would discover Platonists like Plutarch, not Christians like Paul. It never dawned on us that the “heaven and hell” framework we took for granted was a construct of the High Middle Ages, to which the sixteenth-century Reformers were providing important new twists but which was at best a distortion of the first-century perspective. For Paul and all the other early Christians, what mattered was not “saved souls” being rescued from the world and taken to a distant “heaven,” but the coming together of heaven and earth themselves in a great act of cosmic renewal in which human bodies were likewise being renewed to take their place within that new world. (When Paul says, “We are citizens of heaven,” he goes on at once to say that Jesus will come from heaven not to take us back there, but to transform the present world and us with it.) And this hope for “resurrection,” for new bodies within a newly reconstituted creation, doesn’t just mean rethinking the ultimate “destination,” the eventual future hope. It changes everything on the way as well. (7-8)
“…the coming together of heaven and earth themselves in a great act of cosmic renewal.” This is what the Christian Good News is truly about. And in the Gospel of John we begin to see this theme in Jesus’ proclamation of himself replacing the Temple. He is to be the place where heaven and earth come together to launch a New Creation.
And he goes before us to prepare places for his disciples (14:2). In the dawning of New Creation on Easter morning, he makes it possible for his followers to also be dwelling places of God’s presence in the world, places where heaven and earth come together to renew everything through the powers of love and forgiveness. God’s house has many dwelling places: Us! And so:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
Another powerful Johannine theme that relates here is that of “abiding.” John uses the noun (monē) and verb (menō) 42 times in his Gospel (and 29 more in his letters). The NRSV is typical in translating this one verb as: remain, stay, endure, abide, dwell, and more. (See the page “Abide” in John.) It comes to full development as a theme in John 15, in the Vine and Branches portion of the Farewell Discourse. There we see the ultimate benefits of Jesus the Logos abiding in the world: human beings, those who follow Jesus, become the new temple of God’s abiding in the world. The Christian message is not about a Platonic migration of spirits to heaven but the opposite: God’s spirit bringing heaven and earth together by coming to abide in disciples of Jesus.
All these themes are brought together for the sermon (PowerPoint with notes) in 2018, “The Many New Abiding Places Are . . . Us!”
1. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, chapter 1, “Scandal Must Come.” This is the definitive Girardian resource on the Ten Commandments. Girard begins his book — his explanation of mimetic desire, the foundation of mimetic theory — by wrapping it around an explication of the Decalogue.
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, “Moses and the Commandments,” pp. 143-145. One of his insights into this core drama of the Bible is that “there is an internal tension within the story, a tension between Israel’s determined effort to emancipate itself from the stifling world of the primitive sacred and its inability to sustain its own cultural cohesion without some vestiges of the sacral system.” The commandments would move God’s people more decidedly in a new direction, but the story of these commandments is interwoven with the drama of the golden calf and Moses’ ensuing capitulation to the sacrificial system. Of the commandments themselves Bailie makes the following insightful comments:
When Moses and the former Egyptian slaves reached Sinai, they had only the most rudimentary sense of common purpose. With nothing but a reinterpreted harvest festival for a ritual and with little more than campfire stories for a common heritage, Moses first tried to give social coherence to the refugees whose leader he had become by fashioning a code of ethical behavior, the ten commandments. These commandments, listed in Exodus 20, are lofty, original, and morally demanding. They are strikingly lacking in ritual prescriptions. In terms of mimetic desire, this set of commands is remarkably sophisticated. So sophisticated is it, in fact, that in its final injunction it forbids not only rivalrous and violent behavior but the covetousness that gives rise to the rivalry and violence. The last commandment is this:
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his servant, man or woman, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is his. (Exod. 20:17)
H. L. Ellison wrote of this injunction against covetousness that “it is not wanting more that is condemned, but wanting it at the expense of others” (Exodus, The Daily Study Bible Series, Westminster Press, 115). In a perceptive comment about covetousness, C. K. Barrett shows that while the last commandment explicitly prohibits only the forms of mimetic desire most likely to lead to violence, it is easy enough to recognize beneath these specified transgressions the larger and looming problem of mimetic desire itself. Barrett says:
It is of course wrong to desire one’s neighbor’s wife; but behind this guilty desire, shown to be guilty by its object, lies a desire which is guilty in itself, independently of its object, and sinful though quite possibly respectable. ( A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Harper & Row, 141)
Rabbinical interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures frequently give special attention to the first and last items in a sequence of texts or a list of proscriptions. When this interpretive procedure is applied to the ten commandments, the two commandments highlighted are the injunction to have only God as a god — “I am Yahweh your God . . . you shall have no other gods” — and to forswear conflictual or rivalistic mimesis — “Thou shalt not covet.” For the most part, the intervening commandments address the social and religious repercussions of failing to obey the first and last commandments. Were the commandments insisting on true transcendence and condemning mimetic rivalry to be universally obeyed, the social order would be relieved of those aggravated passions that lead to social deterioration, to a demand for victims, and, eventually, to sacrificial religion. The New Testament summation of the commandments — to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself — expands, in effect, the first and last commandment in Exodus 20 in such a way that the intervening commandments are subsumed in them. We are mimetic creatures, of course, and so eliminating mimesis is impossible. Without it, humanity would not exist. But the humanity that does exist has soaked the earth with blood, and the prohibition against the most destructive forms of mimetic desire is a worthy attempt to reduce the violence. But we haven’t a prayer of eliminating the worst of the mimetic passions unless we find a truly transcendent focus for our deepest imitative urges, our deepest “desires.” I suppose one could say: without prayer, we haven’t a prayer. That’s why the first commandment must be taken into consideration in trying to come to grips with the last one. It is also why it is the first one. It is an insistence that we “desire” and have as our ultimate model the One in whose image and likeness we are made, to use the biblical idiom for expressing something almost too profound for expression. (pp. 144-145)
3. Bailie himself makes this reference in a footnote: “For a discussion of the individual commandments and for a much more thorough examination of many of the related issues, see James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred.” There’s two excellent chapters on Moses, the commandments, covenant, and sacrifice.
Reflections and Questions
1. It might be said that, from the perspective of mimetic theory, the first and last commandments amount to the same thing. When we take our neighbor as the model for our desire, prohibited specifically by the tenth commandment, we are effectively taking our neighbor as an idol. We should be taking God’s loving desire for the whole creation as the model for our desire, but instead we idolize the desires of our neighbors.
2. Yet the first commandment also entails more. Idolatry is much more than idolizing our neighbors’ desires. The cultural analysis of mimetic theory helps us to also understand that every culture is founded on idols who command us to undertake righteous, sacred violence against god’s enemies. Even in this secular age, when we no longer call our idols God, we continue to have stand-in idols in the former place of our gods. We are called to defend such sacred things like the Constitution and Freedom. We are still called to make the sacrifice — just the right dosage of righteous violence in order to win the peace. And we still worship our sacrificial victims, namely, the soldiers who make the sacrifice. I prefer to see those fallen soldiers simply as victims of our sacrificial machinery. Rather than worshiping them, they are hopefully among the white-robed martyrs who have come through the ordeal and worship around the throne of the Lamb day and night (Rev. 7:9-17).
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
1. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, ch. 13, whose title is a quote from 1 Cor 1: “Where are the philosophers now?” Here’s the first two paragraphs:
The New Testament was written by people who were reeling from the revelation of the Cross and trying at the same time to find the words and concepts with which to express its spiritual and historical significance. They made claims that remain baffling until the gospel begins to produce the mental clarity it takes to recognize the nature of the claims and to appreciate the extent to which history is validating them. One such claim is the one made by Paul in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, where he says that in light of the Christian revelation philosophy has become irrelevant:
As scripture says: “I shall destroy the wisdom of the wise and bring to nothing all the learning of the learned. Where are the philosophers now? Where are the scribes?” Where are any of our thinkers today? Do you see how God has shown up the foolishness of human wisdom? (1 Cor. 1:19-20)
On the rare occasions when the New Testament deigns even to mention philosophy, it treats it as a garrulous Greek exercise that must not be allowed to distract the serious-minded from discovering the truth-telling power of the gospel. In the letter to the Colossians we find this: “Make sure that no one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some secondhand, empty, rational philosophy based on the principles of this world instead of on Christ” (Col. 2:8). Paul stressed that the gospel could not be expressed philosophically and that efforts to do so would have the effect of emptying the Cross of its revelatory power (1 Cor. 1:17). (pp. 234-235)
2. Andrew McKenna, Violence and Difference. This entire book brilliantly takes up Derrida’s deconstruction of philosophy as corroboration of St. Paul’s point. Derrida’s deconstruction basically shows what one can see even more clearly with the Gospel, and Girard’s elaboration of an evangelical anthropology: namely, that violence still underlies philosophy. In short, philosophy ends up, when deconstructed, to be little more than a highly sophisticated language game to cover up human violence.
2:17 – “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.'” This is a quote of Psalm 69:9, the quintessential scapegoat psalm, the prayer of an innocent person suffering at the hands of enemies who “hate me without cause” (Psa 69:4; which is also quoted in John 15:25).
But another interesting word here is zeal, which had a specific, important meaning for 1st Century Jews. The first chapter in N. T. Wright‘s book Paul: A Biography is “Zeal” — how the Apostle Paul labeled his former life as a Pharisee as being about “zeal.” Wright lays out how 1st Century Jews had three primary models for having zeal for God’s house and Torah: Phinehas spearing two blasphemers (Numbers 25); Elijah defeating and killing the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18-19); and Judas Maccabees retaking the Temple from Aristarchus Epiphanies IV — all exemplary illustrations of sacred violence in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Wright also brings in the stoning of Stephen as an example for Saul of a proper zeal, linking it to the Temple and Jesus’ prophetic sign there:
Saul of Tarsus, a zealous young Torah student, had been there, watching, taking it all in, looking after the coats of the men throwing rocks, who were ceremonially cleansing the city of the poison that Stephen had been uttering.
What was that poison? It had to do with the Temple, which meant it had to do with God himself. The Jerusalem Temple was “the house,” or “the place”: the place where Israel’s God had promised to put his name, his presence, his glory, the place the One God had promised to defend. The place where heaven and earth met, where they were linked, where they enjoyed a glorious though highly dangerous commerce. The place where, a year or two before, a Galilean self-styled prophet not much older than himself had caused a stir with a symbolic demonstration. That had seemed, at the time, to have been intended as a warning of divine judgment: Israel’s God would use the pagan nations to destroy Israel’s most cherished symbol. By Saul’s reckoning, of course, that was totally out of order. Everybody knew that it would be the other way around, that the One God would judge the wicked pagans and vindicate his people, Israel. In any case, the authorities had caught up with the demonstrating prophet, handed him over to the Roman authorities, and seen him killed in the most shameful way imaginable, making it clear once and for all that he was a blaspheming imposter. Whoever heard of a crucified Messiah?
What a turnaround! Paul not only came to be the crucified Messiah’s chief Apostle, but he also came to see zeal in the sense of absorbing violence in one’s own body, instead of dishing it out. His new model for zeal comes from the scapegoat Psalm: “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me” (Psalm 69:9).
1. Mark R. Bredin, Bredin makes use of Mimetic Theory in writing an exegesis of this passage, “John’s account of Jesus’ demonstration in the temple: violent or nonviolent?” (abstract only, with portal to paid access; from Biblical Theology Bulletin, Summer 2003).
2. Gil Bailie, his audio tape lecture series on “The Gospel of John,” tape #2. He has a wonderful, lengthy elaboration on this passage. Here’s the conclusion:
This is where the gospels are so much more serious than we realize. Jesus didn’t come and say, ‘The temple is finished. Thank you and goodbye.’ He said, ‘The temple is finished, and I will take its place.’ And we have to ask ourselves: how can that be so? That’s an outrageous claim. Jesus says, ‘You have used the sacrificial system up to this moment to stay sane and civil. I’m now going to take it away from you. You’re now going to have trouble staying sane and civil. I’m going to give you another way, and that is to fall in love with me, to follow me.’ Not out of some piety, or ‘wouldn’t it be nice, or ‘isn’t he a lovely guy,’ or even ‘he’s God’s incarnation.’ No, it’s the alternative to the anthropology that we humans have lived with since the beginning of culture.
Link to my full notes / transcription of Bailie’s lecture on John 2.
3. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “The Temple Is Over and I Will Take Its Place“; a sermon in 2018, “The Temple Becomes a Person.”
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,” made these reflections on this passage in 2015, “Abolishing Sacrifice to Establish Mercy.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Link to a sermon on these lessons, “What the World Needs More of.”
2. In 2015, our parish went off the RCL to use the lectionary suggested in Brian McLaren‘s book We Make the Road By Walking, where the season of Lent focuses on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. I applaud McLaren’s suggestion for a couple of reasons. One is that Lent was originally a time of preparation for those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, and there’s no better text for preparation of disciples than Matthew 5-7 — Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the same decision in his book Discipleship. Moreover, as such an essential text, it’s one of the biggest errors in the RCL that it falls towards the end of the Epiphany season in Year A — excerpts spread across Epiphany 4A-9A. In the years that Easter is early, we miss most of this passage (the exception being today’s portion, which we hear every year on Ash Wednesday, but sorely out of context). Following McLaren’s lectionary addresses this oversight.
For the 3rd Sunday in Lent McLaren’s suggested portion is Matthew 6:1-18 (the Gospel Reading for Ash Wednesday) — Chapter 29, “Your Secret Life.”