Palm / Passion Sunday B

Last revised: April 7, 2006
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RCL: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14-15
RoCa: Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14-15


John’s Gospel is featured Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Philippians 2:5-11


1. Willard Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus/Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” in Violence Renounced, pp. 225-226. After quoting this text, he comments:

Even though this text does not use either of the key terms, imitation or type, it clearly portrays the believers patterning their conduct after the suffering and obedience of Christ Jesus. Hence this important text takes its place in this list. Further, this text is joined to imitation in Philippians 3:17 (see p. 225) by the similar exhortation, “be of the same mind” (touto phroneite in 2:5 and touto phronomen in 3:15).The context of this foundational confession on Jesus’ self-emptying and humbling to the cross is Paul’s admonition in vv. 3-4 to put away conduct that proceeds from mimetic rivalry: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Then follows: “let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.”

2. René Girard, Violence Renounced; link to an excerpt on the importance of Imitatio Christi.

3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 103, 139, 154, 210.

4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 172, 176. Link to an excerpt of “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified,” pp. 174-182.

5. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 55. In making preliminary comments on Christology, Alison states:

It becomes possible to see Jesus’ human self as being “suggested” (or called, or loved) into being by the Father, exactly through the normal human physical means. It is to just such an intelligence of who Jesus was that John gives witness in the way in which he portrays Jesus as being utterly dependent on the Other who called him into being (John 5:19ff), and yet utterly one with his Father. A completely non-rivalistic imitation is at work (“I do everything which I see my Father do”). There is no sense in which Jesus tries to forge his own identity over against that of his Father, there is no grasping in Jesus’ mimetically formed self (cf Phil. 2:5-9). Thus the purely gratuitous self-giving of the Father is completely imitated in the life-story of the Son. This enables us to affirm the hypostatic union as being the “hypnotizing” into historical being of the person of the Son, and makes sense of the insistence of theology after the Third Council of Constantinople that Jesus is not a human “person” but a divine person in a human nature.The consequence of this approach to the question of the hypostatic union is that it enables us to see Jesus as having a human desire, human will, human intelligence, and so on, so that it is not necessary to postulate anything humanly “special” about Jesus, in whose case all these are formed by a non-rivalistic mimesis, which is in principle a possibility for us. Thus it becomes possible to see Jesus not as a god, with the implications of a special sort of difference in his humanity, but as God, precisely as a fully human being. The reason why this is important is that the imputation to Jesus of something “special” in his humanity, something which we could never be, is to present Jesus as urging upon us a particular form of human imitation of the sort “imitate me/do not imitate me”. That is to say, Jesus would, for us, remain stuck within the double-bind of distorted mimetic desire, from which he would thus not be able to release us. However, part of the point of the doctrine of the Incarnation is exactly that it shows that here is a human we can imitate fully, have our relationality completely transformed in his following, such that we too are able to become sons of the Father in a dependent, but not in a limited way. It is not true that, “yes you can become sons, but no, not in the way that I am the Son”. Christology undergirded by an anthropology of pacific mimesis is able to yield the sense in which humans are called out of the double bind. In Christ there is no “Yes” and “No.” Only “Yes.” (2 Cor 1:19)

Reflections and Questions

1. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is perhaps the biblical exhortation par excellence to “good mimesis.” Paul in numerous places calls the Philippians to imitation, both implicitly by holding himself up as an example (last week’s text) and explicitly, for example, Philippians 3:17: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating (Gr Sum-mimetai) me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Having the same mind of Christ is the heart and soul of good mimesis. We are to have the mind of Christ, who even though he is equal to God, does not get caught up in rivalistic mimesis. Rather, he takes the role of the servant.

2. This also ties in with John’s account of the Last Supper, the gospel text for Maundy Thursday: Jesus teaches his disciples servanthood, urging them to take him as a model.


Mark 14-15


1. For an anthropology sometimes known as an “anthropology of the cross,” the resources abound as to unpacking the meaning of the Passion. What strikes me the most on Palm/Passion Sunday these days (i.e., since receiving my Girardian pair of glasses) is the role of the crowd in moving from the praise of Palm Sunday to the murderous shouts of Good Friday. “The Question of Anti-Semitism in the Gospels,” (Girard Reader, p. 211-221) is an article of Girard’s which focuses nicely on the role of the crowd in the gospels. He compares Herod, for example, in the beheading of John the Baptist, to Pilate, and says: “the two sovereigns yield to mimetic pressure; they become part of the crowd. The purpose is to show that a crowd in a lynching mood is the supreme power. For the Gospels, political power has been rooted in the crowd since the foundation of the world.” (See more on the crowd in the first “reflection” below.)

2. Other good Holy Week resources include: René Girard, “The Passion (excerpt),” Things Hidden, pp. 167ff.; The Scapegoat, chapters nine, “The Key Words of the Gospel Passion,” ten, “That Only One Man Should Die,” and twelve, “Peter’s Denial.” Also, Girardians Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, chapter 12, “‘It Is Accomplished (excerpt)'”; Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 40-59; Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, “Third Act: The Bringer of Salvation Brought to Judgment” and “Redemption as Judgment and Sacrifice.”

3. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story, especially pp. 125-127, “Garden to Cross: Nonretaliation.” Beck begins his crucial chapter on Mark’s nonviolent plot resolution by comparing Richard Horsley’s spiral of violence and Gene Sharp’s three moments in nonviolent action. The latter match up with the former thus (p. 118):

Steps in the Cycles of Violence and Nonviolence Stages Violence
Horsley Nonviolence
Sharp 1 injustice (injustice) 2 protest, resistance nonviolent confrontation 3 repression repression 4 revolt nonretaliation

One can then match Mark’s plot with Sharp’s three moments, especially around the key word lestes, “robbers”: nonviolent confrontation — Mark 11:15-19 (“You have made my house a den of robbers“); repression — Mark 14:43-52 (“Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?”); nonretaliation — Mark 15:27-32 (“And with him they crucified two robbers one on his right and one on his left”). Mark thus presents a direct contrast between Jesus and lestes, violent revolutionaries.

It is worthwhile, especially since it presents the main theme of the book, to give you Beck’s discussion of “Garden to Cross: Nonretaliation”:

The time of nonretaliation begins at the arrest. Because Jesus refuses to reply with a third “raid,” the falling action continues, but with a difference. Though the repressive response of his opponents continues, they are not as much in control of events as they might appear to be. Jesus submits to arrest without submitting to their claims. He surrenders his body but not his struggle. He continues to withhold his consent. Although events are not under his direct control, his deliberate nonretaliation is a positive move, lending purpose to the subsequent events. The narrative manages this by showing us a Jesus in apparent control insofar as he accepts the destiny scripted for him.Submitting to the arrest is presented as a conscious, purposeful action (Mk 14:38). Whereas the opponents’ reaction to Jesus’ initiative was to “destroy him,” Jesus’ reaction to the opponents’ response is clearly one of nonretaliation. In Mark, Jesus’ acceptance of this pattern is seen in his behavior at the arrest. His elected response (14:49) is juxtaposed to that of the disciple who attempts a violent defense, severing the ear of one of the guards (14:47). In the heat of confrontation, the impulse to violent self-defense, not to mention the defense of a loved one, is deliberately thwarted.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, each in its own way, reinforce this reading by their additions to Mark’s text. Each has inserted into the pattern, precisely at the moment of immediate response to the garden arrest, an interpretive detail that supports the nonretaliatory meaning. Matthew records Jesus’ saying to the disciple who acted to defend Jesus by cutting off the ear of the guard: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52). This saying of Jesus’ is often cited as a recommendation of nonviolence as a policy. Now, we see that its context, as the proper moment of retaliation in the main narrative pattern of the Gospel, lends it additional significance.

Luke expands the same scene in another way. After the guard’s ear is severed, Luke writes: “But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him” (22:51). Apart from the tendency by some to see here an example of Luke’s interest as a physician, the narrative touch supplies a contrast between false and true power — the sword versus healing. Nonviolence can be understood negatively, as the refusal of violent force or power, but the Gospel has prominently displayed the alternative and contrasting image of power as healing. Such power cannot be controlled for the purposes of domination, as can the application of coercive violence. Against the dynamic of severing, it presents the alternative dynamic of knitting the wound.

In the movement from garden to cross events move at two levels. Donald Juel tells us that “the use of double-level narrative makes possible the use of the most prominent literary feature of the passion story: irony.” Pilate’s phrase “king of the Jews,” which he decides to post on the cross itself, has a double meaning for the Christian reader. The royal charade of the Roman soldiers, decking Jesus in purple and crown, both spitting and kneeling, acts out the irony. The reader winces, knowing the truth divulged by the narrator — this is indeed the Messiah.

The irony reaches its strongest statement in the mockery directed at Jesus as he hangs upon the cross. As with the soldiers, the taunting scene at the cross combines the verbal irony of sarcasm with the situational irony of deceptive appearances. The sarcasm of the passers-by and the chief priests proposes to deflate the protagonist’s royal pretensions. However, the situation as revealed to the reader by the narrator shows that Jesus is no pretender, and so the irony is turned back upon the mockers, victims of their own sarcasm.

As we have seen earlier, the messianic issue, which Jesus debated with Peter, concerns the nature of authentic power. The hidden king, unknown to those inside the story but disclosed by the narrator to the reader, operates with a hidden power. The messianic designation is intimately associated with Mark’s narrative project. Situating Jesus in a sustained narrative conflict is equivalent to presenting a thesis about power relations. The narrative irony that says appearances are not what they claim to be is of a piece with the dramatic claim in this narrative that power is not what it seems. We see here, at the level of the narrative, the cultural skepticism that denies the possibility of power without violence, such as we saw at the beginning of this book. It is the confidence in violence that becomes an article of faith: the gods are on the side of the biggest battalions. It is precisely the false belief that the prophet Second Isaiah strove to overcome among the Israelite exiles in Babylon, in the 550s B.C.E.,as he developed the theme of the suffering servant, so prominent in the passion account of the Gospel. (pp. 125-127)

4. Andrew Marr, “The First Supper: In which the Servant Is Betrayed” (online article).

5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, ch. 2, “Disclosure of the Sacred,” pp. 35-59. In his commentary on Mark, Hamerton-Kelly, a leader in mimetic theory, has a substantial commentary on Mark’s Passion narrative (Mark 13:1-16:8) from the perspective of mimetic theory. Link to an excerpt of Chapter 2, “Disclosure of the Sacred.”

In 2006 I also stumbled onto a key verse, Mark 15:10 (see reflection #1 below), and Hamerton-Kelly has some helpful things to say. The appearance of “envy” (phthonos) in the Passion narrative does not escape his notice. He says, for example,

The trial before the Sanhedrin is the key to the passion narrative and one of the keys to the whole Gospel. (29) Here the innocence of the victim is revealed. The scene is carefully prepared in all that precedes (e.g., 3:6, 19; 10:33; 11:18, 27; 12:12; 14:3-9, 21, 25, 32-42), and there is reference back to it in what follows (15:10, 14). The reference in 15:10 to the envy (phthonos) of the Sanhedrin underscores the unfairness of the trial and reveals the real, mimetic motivation of the priests. Jesus is the innocent victim of envy, and envy is the essence of mimetic violence; the verdict has been decided beforehand (14:55); the judges collude and no viable evidence is presented; the witnesses are suborned and contradict each other (14:56), and even the quotation that they attribute to him is inaccurate because, although he spoke of the destruction of the temple, he never said that he personally would be the one to destroy it. (30) This court has all the impartiality of a “people’s tribunal” in a revolution. (p. 53)

Hamerton-Kelly’s follow-up on the trial before Pilate, the passage in which “envy” appears, is worth quoting at length:

As Peter was the counterpart to Jesus in the action before the high priest, so Barabbas is the counterpart in the action before Pilate. They are not doubles but opposites, showing how distinctions are made by the sacrificial mechanism. Once again the authorities are named, in a slightly different order: the chief priests, the elders, the scribes, and the whole Sanhedrin. They bind Jesus, lead him away, and hand him over to Pilate. With the advent of Pilate, the roll call of the powers of this world is complete.The juxtaposition of Jesus and Barabbas makes the point of the contrast between the two orders so vivid that it is almost a caricature. Barabbas is an insurrectionist and a murderer, a creature and a leader of the mob. We are reminded of the situation of the war that we saw clearly in chapter 13. We are told that Pilate sees the envy (phthonos) of the priests. Envy is the essence of mimetic desire and rivalry; it reveals the extrinsic nature of values with special clarity in that it is the urge not so much to have the object oneself as to deprive the other of it; the possession of the object is not the important thing, the rivalry with the other is. (33) The condemnation of Jesus arises only indirectly out of the Sanhedrin’s envy. They do not desire something Jesus has; rather, their own inner-group rivalry can only be contained by the unanimous condemnation of the victim. Jesus attracts their envy to himself and so enables them to survive as a group. We have a clear statement of this phenomenon in Lk 23:12, “And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other on that day; for formerly they had been enemies.” Jesus has done this all along as the roll of all the leaders shows. Leaders who otherwise would have been in competition with one another act in concert against him. The solidarity between the collaborationist Sanhedrin and the insurrectionist Barabbas trumpets the truth of the uniformity of violence across political divisions, and its shameless opportunism.

The priests incite the mob to choose Barabbas. Mark rubs our noses in the fact that we prefer the murderer to the man of peace, the sacrificial order to the spirit of God. Pilate tries to withstand the demands of the mob, knowing that Jesus is innocent. He cannot, because his power, like that of the priests, arises out of the mob and must respect its source. And so he sacrifices Jesus to the mob. The text is quite explicit on this; it reads, Ho de Pilatos boulomenos to ochlo to hikavov poiesai (15:15). The phrase hikavov poiesai reflects the Latinism, satisfacere alicui. (34) “To satisfy the mob” means to propitiate it by throwing it a victim. The very language of the text, therefore, shows that it understands the mechanism at work between Pilate and the mob.

Far from Pilate’s being exonerated, as averred by those who claim that the Gospels whitewash the Romans and shift blame to the Jews, he is shown to be in exactly the same boat as the Jewish authorities, only somewhat weaker than they because he is unable to manipulate the crowd. His one attempt to do so, by offering to release a prisoner on the occasion of the Passover feast, fails because the Sanhedrin owns this particular crowd. Pilate is coerced by the mob, like every politician before or since, and has to give it the victim it demands. There is no attempt to exonerate Pilate, only a demonstration of the fact that those who control the mob control the source of power; Pilate’s weakness reflects only this relative disadvantage: it is not his mob. If this were an attempt on the part of the text to ingratiate itself with the Roman state, it would be ludicrous; it shows political opportunism instead of the due process of law. To be sure, it condemns the Jewish authorities — not because they are Jews but because they are, like Pilate, the agents of violence. The text sees no essential difference between Pilate and the Jews. This fact alone should be enough to silence the claims that the Gospel is anti-Jewish. (pp. 54-55)

Reflections and Questions

1. A verse in the Passion narrative that should catch the eye of a person schooled in mimetic theory is Mark 15:10 (par. Matt 27:18): “For [Pilate] realized that it was out of jealousy [Gr: phthonos] that the chief priests had handed [Jesus] over.” The only occurrence of the word phthonos, “envy,” in all of the four Gospels is this verse (and its Matthean parallel). Yet, to my knowledge (as of 2006), no theorist of mimetic theory has singled out this verse for special attention. (See Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s remarks above, however.) It finally caught my eye as the “Link of the Week” (in 2006) at, a link to the essay “‘It Was Out of Envy That They Handed Jesus Over’ (Mark 15:10): The Anatomy of Envy and the Gospel of Mark,” by Anselm C. Hagedorn and Jerome H. Neyrey. This is not a Girardian analysis, but it provides an excellent in-depth analysis of the role of envy in the Passion narrative, bringing in commentary from a broad spectrum of Christian history of exegesis on this verse.

2. Something else that has brought home the role of the crowd to me is that in our congregation we use a Palm/Passion Sunday liturgy by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (from Ragman), called “The Cry of the Whole Congregation,” which movingly gets the congregation to participate as the crowd. How did the “Hosanna!”‘s of Sunday turn to the “Crucify Him!”‘s of Friday? Were they that mistaken about Jesus? Or does the whole story say more about the crowd than it does about Jesus? If the latter, then it calls for an anthropological interpretation. It is the crowd’s need for a scapegoat that sets events in motion. Typically, one finds explanations that opt for the former, focusing on Jesus and people’s mistaken views about Jesus. One often hears the line of argument, for instance, that Zealots were hoping for a Messiah to lead them into victorious battle over their enemies and simply mistook Jesus to be that kind of Messiah, turning on him by Good Friday. In the past, I’ve indulged in those kinds of musings myself. But now they seem beside the point to me. Whether one was a Zealot, or Pharisee, or simple peasant, or Roman soldier, or Sanhedrin official, whether Herod or Pilate, they all came together out of their need to find some measure of peace through a scapegoat. It is the unity of an otherwise diverse crowd that is most telling. It is in the crowd that we locate the universal scope of the cross. Link to a sermon on these themes entitled “Brief Reflections on the Passion.”


John 18-19

Reflections and Questions

1. An interesting verse from a Girardian perspective: John 19:11 “Jesus answered [Pilate], ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.'” Power “from above.” The assumption would be, given just the first half of this statement, that the power from above refers to God. Some translations even insert God. But then what do we say about the second half of Jesus’ statement: “therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” God isn’t the one guilty of a greater sin, right? We could separate these two parts and simply concede that they are referring to different persons, the first part to God and the second part to someone like Caiaphas or Satan. But if we do that, why the “therefore”?

The other choice is to say that the entire statement is referring to the same person: Satan. Pilate’s power comes “from above” in coming from Satan. The Girardian reading of John makes this even more clear, I think. The typical Girardian reading of John highlights chapter eight where Jesus is defining two different paternities: to his Father in heaven and to the devil. Based on this distinction one can see how Satan is in charge of the kingdoms from this world, while Jesus kingdom is from another source, the true God, his Father in heaven (cf., Jesus’ response to Pilate earlier in chapter 18 about his alleged kingship).

Another place to consider, however, is John 3. The key word in John 19:11, anothen, is also the key word in John 3, the pivotal word that causes the ambiguity with Nicodemus. anothen can be translated as either “from above” or “again.” In John 3, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must be born “from above,” and Nicodemus hears it as born “again.” In John 19:11 Jesus clearly means “from above,” but now we also have another category of “from above” that was primarily introduced in chapter 8. Which suggests to me that the ambiguity in born anothen is still in play. Pilate, as are all of us, was born into the power of this world under our earthly father, Satan, the Accuser. We are born enslaved to that power “from above.” And so we also need to be born again from above to another Father, Jesus’ Father in heaven.

2. Also catching my interest is the last cry of Jesus in John’s Gospel, “It is accomplished!” Not only is there Gil Bailie‘s good work on this word from the cross (Violence Unveiled, chapter 12, cited above) but James Alison has some interesting things to say on it in Raising Abel, when discussing the way in which the Resurrection leads to the truth of Creation in Christ. “It is accomplished” speaks to the fulfillment of creation itself.

Alison begins his section on Creation in Christ by noting that on two occasions Jesus heals someone in John’s Gospel and comments on doing his Father’s work: “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17); and “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4-5). The implication in both these passages is that Jesus’ healing was revealing God’s continuing power of creation.

This comes to a climax in the cross with the healing of our sin, which, from the Girardian perspective, is having who we are as humans being founded in the scapegoat mechanism. Creation cannot begin again in earnest until we are refounded in something else, God’s forgiveness. So the cross accomplishes, fulfills, creation in a profound way. Alison writes:

We have seen that Jesus knew from the beginning what he was doing, completely possessed as he was by his quickened imagination of the ever-living God. It was this which enabled him to stage a solemn mime in the midst of this death-based culture, so that he might be killed as a way of leading people out of that culture based on death, allowing us to come to be what God always wanted us to be, that is, utterly and absolutely alive with Him. What Jesus’ entirely living imagination means, then, is that he was working so as to bring to existence what God had always wanted, but which had become trapped in the violent and fatal parody which we have seen, and which we tend to live out. So what Jesus was bringing into being was the fulfillment of creation, and this he knew very well as he was doing it. We will look in the next chapter at one of the most remarkable passages in Scripture, in which John portrays Jesus doing exactly this, with full knowledge of what he was doing.This means something rather important: the understanding of God as Creator changes from someone who once did something to someone who is doing something through Jesus, who was in on what the Father was doing through him from the beginning. Creation is not finished until Jesus dies (shouting tetelestai — it is accomplished), thus opening the whole of creation, which consequently begins fully, in a completely new way, in the garden on the first day of the week. This means, and here is the central point: we understand creation starting from and through Jesus. God’s graciousness which brings what is not into existence from nothing is exactly the same thing as Jesus’ death-less self-giving out of love which enables him to break the human culture of death, and is a self-giving which is entirely fixed on bringing into being a radiantly living and exuberant culture. It is not as though creation were a different act, something which happened alongside the salvation worked by Jesus, but rather that the salvation which Jesus was working was, at the same time, the fulfillment of creation. This was the power and the authority in Jesus’ works and words and signs. Through him the Creator was bringing his work to completion. The act of creation was revealed for what it really is: the bringing to existence and the making possible of a human living together which does not know death; and Jesus was in on this from the beginning. Such is our world that God could only be properly perceived as Creator by means of the overcoming of death. (p. 54-55)




Notes from Hamerton-Kelly

29. Lührmann, “Christologie,” 461.

30. Ibid., 459.

33. Envy thinks that it will walk better if its neighbor breaks a leg.

34. W.Bauer, Lexicon, ad loc.

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