Last revised: March 18, 2018
Click Reload or Refresh for latest version
5TH SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR B
RCL: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
RoCa: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
This week I heard a sociologist who’s author of a recent book on contemporary “tribalism” say that human beings are “hard-wired” for tribalism. From the anthropological perspective of Mimetic Theory, a claim to hard-wiring (taking that to mean something along the lines of neurology, or genetically-determined instinct) can be challenged. MT proposes that tribalism is a matter of cultural-wiring, not hard-wiring.
Cultural-wiring might be said to be “hard” in the sense of difficult to undo. Its undoing, in fact, requires nothing less than a redoing of the genesis of human culture. What could possibly account for such a redo? Human beings suddenly on their own having insight into their cultural-wiring for tribalism? Again, what could account for that?
Mimetic Theory proposes that the true God’s intervention through the resurrection of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth is exactly an event of redoing the genesis of human culture. All human culture is originally founded in collective murder in a fashion that structures culture into an Us-Them structuring, i.e., tribalism. The resurrection signals God’s intervention into a typical collective murder such that it opens the possibility for redoing the founding of culture on the abolishment of Us-Them. The One who was executed as one of “Them” has been vindicated in a way that reveals that there is no Us-Them, only Us. Around the Crucified and Risen Messiah of God we can redo culture as one new human family, one human tribe.
The element of a New Reformation for today’s Gospel is to understand that Jesus came not to establish a new religion — just another instance of continuing tribalism on the basis of religions — but to re-found human culture, opening up the possibility of a new Way of being human. New human culture no doubt includes redeeming religion, but the emphasis must come first on re-founding human culture. Otherwise, we misunderstand the new religion in terms of all those that have come before it, and it becomes just another instance of tribalism. Christendom fully reinstituted the old religion of tribalism. In a post-Christendom world, we might be better off with a “religionless Christianity” (Bonhoeffer), at least until we can fully understand and begin to live into the re-founding of human culture as one tribe.
The most relevant portion of Girardian corpus for this day is Chapter 7, “The Founding Murder,” in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. He begins the chapter:
Behind the Passion of Christ, behind a number of biblical dramas, behind many mythical dramas, and behind primitive rituals, we find the same process — the process of crisis and resolution founded on the same error, the same illusion. This illusion is the misunderstanding about the single victim who pays the price of the “mimetic cycle.”
When we examine the great stories of origin and the founding myths, we notice that they themselves proclaim the fundamental and founding role of the single victim and his or her unanimous murder. The idea is present everywhere. In Sumerian mythology cultural institutions emerge from a single victim: Ea, Tiamat, Kingu. The same in India: the dismemberment of the primordial victim, Purusha, by a mob offering sacrifices produces the caste system. We find similar myths in Egypt, in China, among the Germanic peoples — everywhere.
The creative power of this murder is often given concrete form in the value attributed to the fragments of the victim. Each of these is identified as producing a particular institution, a totemic clan, a territorial subdivision, or even the vegetable or animal that furnishes the community its primary food. The body of the victim is sometimes compared to a seed, which must decompose in order to germinate. This germination is the same thing as the restoration of the cultural system damaged by the preceding crisis or the creation of an entirely new system, which appears often as the first one ever created, as a sort of invention of humanity. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
The myths presenting the founding role of the primordial murder are so numerous that even a comparative mythologist so little given to generalizations as Mircea Eliade considered it necessary to take into account. In his Histoire des croyances et des idées religieuses, he speaks of a “creative murder” (meurtre créateur) common to many stories of origin and founding myths throughout the world. Here we have a theme whose frequency clearly surprises the comparative mythologist, a phenomenon that is “trans-mythological” in a way. However, in keeping with his practice of pure description, Eliade never, as far as I know, suggested the universal explanation of the theme that I think must be given. (pp. 82-83)
Girard was willing to suggest the founding murder as a universal explanation when other anthropologists weren’t. I believe this was at least partly because of his faith in the Gospel. The cross and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah stands as the universal cure of what ails humanity in its original sin of being enculturated into tribalism through founding murders. These comments began by citing a contemporary sociologist who is more bold to propose a universal diagnosis that humanity is “hard-wired” for tribalism. I am suggesting that, due to the ongoing cure of the Gospel, this sociologist has overreached. The Gospel is the hope of an ongoing cure of not a hard-wiring, but a cultural-wiring.
In John 12:24, Jesus is knowingly proposing that the bearing fruit of the founding murders of human culture can only be undone and redone by another grain of wheat falling into the ground and bearing much fruit. When he is raised up on the cross (John’s representing the crucifixion and resurrection as a continuous event), Jesus will gather all people to himself. He will re-found humanity as one tribe. Two thousand years later humanity continues to struggle mightily to live into that re-founding, but the resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit stand as the promise that a healing transformation is underway. How do we read our moment in the evolutionary history of this healing process?
In 2018, an insightful glimpse of where we stand in the transformation process is an op/ed by Nadia Bolz-Weber, “We’re in the midst of an apocalypse, and that’s a good thing.”
1. Walter Wangerin, Jr., The Manger Is Empty, pp. 116-132. Wangerin has a wonderful story, called “Matthew, Seven, Eight, and Nine” about how he tried to stop his son Matthew from stealing comic books. He tried various uses of the law over several years and continued to fail. Finally, he resorted to something he rarely used: a spanking. He did it deliberately, almost ritualistically, and he was so upset when he finished that he left the room and wept. After pulling himself back together, he went in to Matthew and hugged him. A number of years later, Matthew and his mother were doing some general reminiscing, and Matthew happened to bring up the time when he kept stealing comic books. “And you know why I finally stopped?” he asked. “Sure,” she said, “Because Dad finally spanked you.” “No!” replied Matthew, “No, because Dad cried.” Wangerin concludes with these words:
Hereafter, let every accuser of my son reckon with the mercy of God, and fall into a heap, and fail. For love accomplished what the law could not, and tears more powerful than Sinai. Even the Prince of Accusers shall bring no charge against my son that the Final Judge shall not dismiss. Satan, you are defeated! My God has loved my Matthew.
As St. Paul came to realize (cf. Romans. 13), the only law that can be written on our hearts is the law of God’s love. Link to a sermon that uses this story and theme, “The Law Written Upon Our Hearts.”
2. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, pp. 154-156. Williams takes this passage as the climactic moment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, a theonomous moment. All mimetic rivalry would cease at the moment that God’s law is written on everyone’s heart. Williams gives an excellent summary analysis of the Law:
The Torah of the Sinai covenant was unique, an attempt to abrogate the mythology of god-victims who are placated and summoned in the sacrificial cult to restore the community. A system of law involves a qualitative leap from the primitive stage of the sacrificial cult, which maintains a certain control over individual violence by channeling the all-against-one of collective violence into a ritual that normally allows social relations to continue and cohere. However, even though law is a system of rationalization that weakens and distantiates the sacrificial mechanism, it does not eliminate it entirely. Law presupposes the boundaries of responsibility that both distinguish individuals and groups from one another and connect them in a social bond. It deals with degrees of guilt and presupposes that an individual may be guilty, but that a given part of the community may be partially if not totally responsible for transgressions. It offers a structure that seeks to prevent one family, clan, or tribe from engaging in a blood feud, from taking vengeance against another kinship grouping. No longer is the principle of the offering of the innocent victim at work, because the actual guilty party is to bear the force of retribution. However, law presupposes that an external authority must hold desire in check; that is, it assumes that all members of the community will desire what the authoritative or sanctioning other — the god, the leader — desires as this desire is mediated through the social structure, through the hierarchy of surrogates for the primary person or reality. Although it controls individual and arbitrary violence, it rests on the principle that retribution is right and vengeance must be exacted. It is very difficult for a legal system to recognize in principle that its total social order may be involved in a crime or in the circumstances that lead to a crime. Law cannot, finally, recognize mutual guilt, the only solution to which is mutual forgiveness — the willingness of those in the community to forgive one another. Although law is a rational step away from sacrifice, it is still dependent on the sacrificial mechanism. Mimetic desire and rivalry are presupposed as the very basis of law, even though the sacrificial cult loses, in principle, its primitive power.
Thus it is easy to explain why sacrifice continues to coexist with law even in those spiritual traditions that develop advanced forms of law, as in Israel and Greece. However, in the vision of the new covenant this problem with the law would be overcome, because it is a “law” no longer given through the mediation of the prophet Moses within the context of a sacrificial cult that perpetuated many archaic elements of religion and culture. It would, rather, be immediate, written on the heart. (pp. 155-156)
Reflections and Questions
1. The drama of the law written on our hearts sometimes causes us to miss the last line: “for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” The shape of God’s love and mercy that can write the law upon our hearts is forgiveness.
Reflections and Questions
1. What does it mean to ‘learn obedience through what he suffered’? My guess is that we would have to talk about the way in which the gospels, especially Luke, speak of Christ’s suffering and death as a necessity. But I’m still not sure how Christ learned obedience in that way. Rather, it seems to me that Christ suffered because he was obedient. Christ entered this world of mimetic rivalry as one who was not caught up in it. His obedience to the Father consisted in doing his will without falling into rivalry. The world cannot abide such obedience, and that is why he suffered.
1. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, p. 226 (and the surrounding context). This entire section on “The Spirit” provides a wonderful lead-in to rapidly-approaching Holy Week:
In John’s Gospel, the crucifixion and the resurrection are the same thing. The Johannine Jesus had repeatedly said that when he was “lifted up” — meaning hung on the Cross — he would begin to draw all of humanity to himself. Whether some form of this claim goes back to the historical Jesus is, of course, uncertain, but even if the claim originates with the evangelist in the late first century, it is a bold, almost brazen claim. The striking and irrefutable fact is that history has borne it out. That is all the more reason to marvel at the prescience of the Fourth Gospel. Explicitly and with a calm assurance that in the hindsight of two thousand years is astonishing, the Gospel of John predicts that the crucifixion will have the most sweeping effects on human history. The last words of the Johannine Jesus, spoken from the Cross, are: “It is accomplished.” The verb used here, telein, means to bring to completion, but the deeper issue is not the predicate but the subject of the sentence. What is accomplished? What is brought to fulfillment? What is brought to an end?
In John’s Gospel, Jesus pronounces the prologue to his own passion with these words:
Now sentence is being passed on this world;
now the prince of this world is to be overthrown.
And when I am lifted up from the earth,
I shall draw all men to myself. (John 12:31-32)
The crucifixion both “accomplishes” the decisive demystification of the demonic powers and inaugurates the historical epoch in which these powers — and the social and psychological structures based upon them — will undergo a progressive delegitimization, as the Crucified One gradually draws all of humanity to himself. As Rudolf Schnackenburg put it, “The ruler of the world encounters the final rejection, loses his sphere of influence, becomes powerless — over those who look up in faith to the crucified Jesus and let themselves be ‘drawn’ to him” (The Gospel according to St. John, 2:392.) According to the fourth evangelist, the spiritual and anthropological revolution set in motion by the crucifixion is a glacial process the driving force of which is the “Spirit of Truth” — the Paraclete. It was to be the task of this Spirit of Truth to gradually “accomplish” historically what was “accomplished” in the hearts of Jesus’ disciples at the crucifixion and in the days that followed it. As I have said, the Greek word Parakletos means a “counselor” or “advocate.” More precisely, it means one who defends the “accused one.” The Paraclete is the planetary spirit who deconstructs the myths and mystifications spewed forth by Satan, the perennial “Accuser.” Jesus, speaking of the Paraclete, said:
. . . unless I go,
the Advocate will not come to you;
but if I do go,
I will send him to you.
And when he comes,
he will show the world how wrong it was,
about who was in the right,
and about judgment. (John 16:7-8)
The world would continue to hold itself together and make itself coherent by channeling its violence toward expendable victims. Cultures and subcultures in the grip of the “father of lies” [Jn 8:44] would continue to drown out the victim’s voice with myths and incantations and slogans. But from the moment of the crucifixion onward, the Paraclete would be at work in the world, slowly giving the victim’s voice the ability, in the haunting words of Whittaker Chambers, to sweep away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, and whatever contemporary myths might lend violence a momentary aura of righteousness. However formidable the structures of the sacrificial system might be, however beguilingly and discretely these structures might resort to their scapegoating mechanisms, relentlessly the Paraclete would “show the world how wrong it was,” gradually leading humanity to “the complete truth” (John 16:8, 13). Had not the crucifixion loosened the grip that the primitive sacred had on the human imagination, we would probably find Caiaphas’s view on the matter far more intelligible than Paul’s. Without the crucifixion we would still be living in one of the cultural subdivisions thoroughly under the spell of what the Fourth Gospel calls the father of lies and the murderer from the beginning. No doubt some amelioration of sacred violence would have occurred, but without something structurally equivalent to the Gospels, something with an anthropological and historical purview comparable to that which the Gospels have achieved, all critiques of the structures of sacred violence would be taking place from within these structures.
Once you show the world the picture of this planet taken from the moon, try as you may to resuscitate them, there are certain parochial myths that simply cannot be revived and sustained. The effect of the crucifixion is precisely the same, only with vastly greater anthropological significance. The gospel can neither be annihilated nor can its historical momentum be arrested because the process of arresting or annihilating it would be structurally identical to the crucifixion itself and would therefore have the effect of supplying the revelation with yet another proof of its historical pertinence. The Johannine Jesus said that once he was raised up on the Cross he would draw all humanity to himself, that gradually the sight of this innocent man on the gallows would become more compelling than all of conventional culture’s techniques for making sanctioned violence morally respectable. By the time the biblical scholars finally succeed in disproving the “authenticity” of this saying and demonstrating beyond all scholarly doubt that it was never spoken by the historical Jesus, it will have been fulfilled in ways that the average ten-year-old will be able to recognize.
2. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John,” audio lectures, tape #9.
3. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, pp. 311-312; John 12:24 anchors the very last section of the book, as he echoes Dostoevsky‘s prominent use of the verse in The Brothers Karamazov.
4. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p. 82, and Evolution and Conversion, p. 120; both quoting John 12:24 in the context of commenting on the Founding Murder.
5. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 57-58; Marr recounts Girard’s citations of Dostoevsky in DDN.
6. 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 the text in 2018, “On Being Lifted Up for Us.”
7. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 143 (and surrounding section on John’s gospel, pp. 138-144). See reflections below.
8. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from April 2, 2006, and sermon from April 12, 2009 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
9. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Lifted Up“; and in 2015, “Time to Be Glorified!“; a sermon in 2018, “Was Jesus Mumbling or Responding?”
Reflections and Questions
1. As Alison puts it:
What [the Son] does in obeying his Father is to reveal the murderous lie of the world, and it is as victim of that murderous lie that he becomes the Judge. That is, Jesus did not come to judge, but, in as far as people reject him, he, as the victim who reveals the dominion of death, and is the criterion by which its mechanism is understood, comes to be its judge.
Christ turns the human/satanic mechanism of judgment upon itself in the process of being judged in human courts, duly executed, and then declared innocent by God in the Resurrection. He judges not via an active judgment, ala humankind, but by taking judgment upon himself and exposing it for what it is, sacred violence. This same notion of self-judgment can be seen in John 9; see Lent 4A for more on John 9.)
2. In 2006 the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA is encouraging a Lenten Journey of ‘Walking with the Poor.’ One of the “Story Share” reflections for this week is entitled “The Poor? What Poor?” by Walt Chossek. With Matthew 25:31-46 in the background, Chossek writes:
I don’t see any poor people in the community where I live. My education and hard work have allowed me to live where I want with neighbors who have similar life styles and values. I don’t see any poor people on my way to work. It is really nice to drive along the Lake, enjoy the view and avoid the congested neighborhoods and the freeway.
I work on the eastside of downtown and I don’t see many poor people there. There was a panhandler the other day. Someone called building security and now we don’t see him anymore. It is great to work where I feel secure.
Jesus promised to save me if I turn to him. He has blessed me with many things. I work hard to sing his praises and I will share his story with the people I meet each day of my life —
— as I stand to the left of my Lord, I have to cry out and ask: “Jesus, you promised me salvation, how did I not serve you?”
Jesus turns to his right and shows me the poor I did not have to see.
This might also be connected with this Sunday’s Gospel: “They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus'” (John 12:21). In John’s Gospel to truly see Jesus we must see the Son of Man lifted up on the cross. The way to see Jesus is a way through suffering to glory. It is a way in which the world is ordinarily blind. Those who think they see are blind, and those who are blind are healed to see (John 9:39).
3. On the above theme of seeing Jesus through the poor, I might also use a favorite song by Brian Sirchio titled “I See You.” It tells the story of meeting a young girl in Haiti begging for food, ending:
And how often I have quoted that familiar cold statistic
32,000 children starve to death each day
A few more years, some high-heel shoes and lip stick
And little girls will do what they must do just to still those hunger pains
One more day
I could see the traffic up ahead was moving
But she and I kept looking eye to eye
And when the moment finally came to take my foot off of the brake
She shrugged her shoulders, and then she cracked this little smile
And as I drove away I made a promise
Little girl, I never will forget your face
And I’ll do what’s mine to do to change the world for kids like you
And when I hear 32,000, I’ll remember you and say…
I see you. I see you.
Hey little girl, I won’t pretend that you’re not there
I see you. I see you.
Little girl Christ, I see you.
4. 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 5th Sunday in Lent McLaren’s suggested portion is Matthew 7:13-29 — Chapter 31, “The Choice Is Yours.”