Epiphany 6C

Last revised: February 12, 2010
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SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY — YEAR C
RCL: Jeremiah 17:5-10; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26
RoCa: Jeremiah 17:5-8; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26

Jeremiah 17:5-10

Resources, Reflections and Questions

1. Girard’s work clarifies the problems of mimetic desire, but passages such as this one are a good example of how the Judeo-Christian scripture are on the way to increasingly clear insight. This passage sees desire, the human heart, as problematic (v. 9), and sets that all up in terms of our choosing the wrong model. We trust in human flesh rather than turning our desires toward God. That is precisely the problem of mimetic desire: when God isn’t our ultimate model of desire, then we turn to each other and fall into rivalry and sin.

2. One of Gil Bailie‘s main themes (cf. his article “The Vine and Branches Discourse: The Gospel’s Psychological Apocalypse,” in the 1997 volume of Contagion), a theme which he one proposed for a book Changing the Subject from “Self” to “Person”: From a Secular to a Sacramental Anthropology of Human Subjectivity (working title), is that of being rooted ontologically in God’s desire. In his book proposal, for instance, he writes:

When the distinguished French theologian Henri de Lubac speaks of the waning of “ontological density,” or when the existential philosopher Gabriel Marcel speaks of the loss of “ontological moorings,” or when the novelist, Milan Kundera, entitles his celebrated book “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” what is the underlying issue to which they are alluding? How widespread is it? And what might be its moral and social fallout? (Is there any relationship, for instance, between this growing existential tenuousness and, say, the fact that a man who argued in print that “killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person” was subsequently given the Chair in Bioethics at Princeton University from which to espouse his views?) What are the historical origins of these confusions, their cultural implications and their spiritual meaning? The rigorous realism of Girardian thought, and its tenacious attention to social and psychological nuance, make it possible not only to recognize this otherwise nebulous feature of our present crisis but to explore its anthropological roots and spiritual meaning.Today’s psychological predicament can be understood only in historical and anthropological perspective, a perspective to which only the briefest allusions can be made in this prospectus. Perhaps one way to catch a quick glimpse of the historical onset of the present crisis is simply to compare the opening lines of two of the Western world’s literary milestones, the Confessions of St. Augustine and Jean Jacques Rousseau respectively.

St. Augustine’s Confessions is one long prayer, the first paragraph of which ends with Augustine’s justly famous declaration of his dependence on God: “Our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” What is rarely, if ever, noticed about this often quoted remark of Augustine’s, however, is that the restlessness of which he speaks is an historical, not a natural, phenomenon.

For the biblical revelation from which Augustine was still reeling has the effect of sending those it impacts reeling. It has a confounding, relativizing and destabilizing effect on both conventional cultural structures and conventional forms of identity. As perplexed by restlessness as Augustine was, he knew that the renunciation of familiar social and psychological reassurances was a central biblical theme, and that, as a result, restlessness — or at least the danger of it — was one of the exigencies of biblical faith. Unlike Montaigne in the 16th century and Rousseau in the 18th, who rhapsodized about the “noble savage” precisely because of his lack of restlessness, Augustine didn’t want to escape from restlessness; he wanted to uncover the spiritual hunger by which it was driven and turn that hunger toward its true goal.

Bailie’s reference to the “noble savage” of Montaigne and Rousseau alludes to the relative lack of restlessness that is won through the “noble savage’s” reliance on idols who demand a strict societal order. Montaigne and Rousseau obviously didn’t recognize where the noble savage’s lack of restlessness comes from, because the other part of their prescription for modern individualism was about being free from the oppressive demands of traditional societal order. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t both be free from the oppressive demands of traditional societal order and find a relative lack of restlessness, because the former leads to a situation of heightening mimetic rivalry, a recipe for growing unrest.

The only option, as recognized by Jeremiah and St. Augustine, is to have our hearts turn to God’s desire, the only place where our restless desiring will ultimately find peace. Montaigne and Rousseau’s prescription for modernity is like the shrub in the desert. Jeremiah and Augustine prescribe turning our hearts’ desire to God, so that we may be like the tree planted by the water, sending its roots by the stream.


1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Resources

1. As last week: James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. The Resurrection is the foundation for all of Alison’s theologizing. Pages 70-83, encompassing two sections entitled “The Resurrection” and “The Intelligence of the Victim,” lay important groundwork for Alison’s entire approach. They provide helpful background for St. Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection.

Reflections and Questions

1. Is simply an afterlife at stake here with the resurrection, or something deeper, more fundamental? “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” I think that this line is one of the indications that something more fundamental is at stake. The Girardian anthropology helps sharpen the meaning that the Resurrection lends to the Crucifixion (the indispensable pillar of faith with which St. Paul begins this letter). We preach Christ crucified, which looks to the world as utter foolishness and weakness. That’s because the world relies on its order by so designating its victims of sacred violence as those rejected from the thrones of wisdom and power. The cross completely flips this order by designating the Lamb slain since the foundation of the world as the true source of God’s wisdom and power.

But none of this can be revealed without the Resurrection! If Christ is not raised from the dead, then he is simply another in a long line of victims before and since. His victimage simply blends in with all those other victims. It is only his return to the apostles as the Risen Victim which can truly create faith in God and begin to liberate us from the power of Sin. If we do not believe in his Vindication, then there is no hope for any of the other victims throughout history, either. And there is no hope for another kind of life that no longer is founded on the death of our victims.


Luke 6:17-26

Resources

1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” lecture series, tape #4. Here are my notes on his reflections for this passage:

Luke 6:17-26 — The Sermon on the Plain: a new ethic

      • It’s the Lukan version of the Sermon on the Mount, which is a revelation about how the world really works, and a presentation of the ethics that this new community will have to adopt. The ethics that exist have to do with the way the cultural structures are. The ethics that Jesus is pronouncing have to do with the way the world is. Matthew has a much more elaborate sermon, and it on the mount, the place of revelation and transcendence. Luke has the sermon on the level place, among the people, talking to them about how to live in this world.
      • There’s two categories: the multitude and a crowd of disciples. The disciples are those who believe, while the multitude are the curious. These categories are important to keep in mind for vs. 20: “Then he looked up at his disciples and said…” He’s only talking to the disciples. When we hear this passage, it’s almost instinctual for us to assume that it divides between how Christians behave and how non-Christians behave. But in directing this to the disciples, he’s talking about the Christian community. Luke’s community has lots of rich people, lots of well-fed people. He’s not saying this is the way we live, and that’s the way the pagans live. There is a sense of judgment that has more to do with Christians than non-Christians. (More on this later.)
      • It’s a diptych of four parallel blessings and woes. The last blessing and woe sum up everything. The first is also important: blessed are the poor points to a whole range of impoverishments, including Matthew’s “poor in spirit.” It’s also present tense: yours is the Kingdom. The next two are future: the hungry will be filled and the weeping will laugh.
        • What will the hungry be filled with? Filled with a sense of joy and meaning once you know what your life of simplicity, poverty, even hardship means in the larger context.
        • Laugh at what? That all the weeping will pay-off and earn a few compensatory laughs? I don’t think so. A story from a student: she had gone on a retreat at which an exercise was to chart the emotional peaks and valleys in your life. The next task was to locate in your life when you were closest to God. Lo and behold, those times were in the troughs. God was closest when one was broken, and sad, and outside of it. Isn’t this the same answer the biblical text provides? It says, “Look back, and you will be amazed. You will laugh at what you used to weep over. You will realize that it was when you were in the desert that God was there with you.” This isn’t a Pollyanna operation in which you say, “Gee, that wasn’t sad, after all.” It could have been terrible; nevertheless, you realize something that you didn’t when you were in the midst of it. It’s the mystery of liberation which says to us, “You don’t have to be afraid.” It says what the Cross says, loud and clear, “Even here, the God revealed by Jesus is present.” Jesus cry of “My God, why have you forsaken me?” is a prayer. If it was a true forsakenness, then the prayer is a non sequitur (i.e., Why cry out to someone who isn’t actually there?). This verse is not so much a compensatory justice as it is the divine comedy: the tragic and comic can never quite be separated. When you see that suffering and joy are not at war with one another, you are free. It’s a program of liberation, because the spooks we’ve been running from do not have true substance.
      • The first three woes are parallels. And, again, they aren’t aimed at another group of folks, the unbelievers. They are still aimed at the disciples. Like that student’s retreat exercise: we all have both valleys and peaks. In these verses, we’re looking back at the peaks, and we see that these are generally the times we’re usually, spiritually speaking, dumb as a post. We’re brain dead. We’re having a nice time. (Recalls old poem he wrote about the fear of dying by a pool at a patio party.)
      • A passage from Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

 

          And last, the rending pain of re-enactment

            Of all that you have done, and been; the shame

 

              Of motives late revealed, and the awareness

Of things ill done and done to others’ harm

            Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

 

          Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
    • The fourth blessing and woe have to do with the social element in these things. Rich and poor, hungry and well-fed, weeping and laughing all have social consequences, particularly in first century Palestine. To be poor, hungry, suffering meant that you were out of favor with God, because the old moral economy was based on a divine reward system. It is an economy that floats to the surface even today, after centuries of a gospel which tries to counter it with grace. Recent book: “Jesus C.E.O.,” on how to use faith in Jesus to make it big. When Jesus forgave and healed these outcasts, it had enormous social consequences.
    • Vs. 26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” This is the false ontology that was dealt with in Gil’s series on “The Famished Craving.” If everyone speaks well of you, there’s nothing more intoxicating than that. There’s nothing more capable of sinking us in a delirium about what’s really happening. This is the social approval that can substitute for God (which is why we tend to be spiritually brain dead at these times).
    • Simone Weil’s work on affliction as the way in which we come to know the true God. Quote: “The social factor is essential. There is not really affliction unless there is social degradation, or the fear of it in some form or another.”
    • Vs. 22-23 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” The true prophets are expelled. In Violence Unveiled, he tries to show that the prophet’s calling has to do with the fact that he is already a social outcast. He is able to see what it is he’s trying to tell them about because he is the victim of their scorn — what Andrew McKenna calls the victim’s “epistemological privilege.” The prophet tries to share the insights that that privilege has made available to him with the people who are in the process of victimizing him.
    • “On account of the Son of Man.” What if they revile me because I’m a jerk? My reward in heaven won’t be all that great. Nevertheless, if I’m a jerk, and I’m excluded in a unanimous way such that it is socially generative (Hamerton-Kelly’s GMSM), then I am experiencing it in some way on behalf of the Son of Man, even if unaware of it. The gospel is trying to make us aware of it. Example: John 16:2: “Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” That’s when the generativity is operating.
    • Even more profound is Colossians 1:24: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Suggests this reading: each person in the role of the victim does have the opportunity to experience expulsion and reviling on behalf of the Son of Man. As the gospel continues to work in history, these episodes will continue to occur. These kinds of passages are saying, “Don’t run from that. Don’t be too quick to join the crowd. Realize that in that suffering for the Son of Man you are part of the gospel in ways you never dreamed of.” An intimacy with the Christ experience is revealed, so, looking back, it is a joyful thing. The joy doesn’t erase the tremendous sadness at the heart of the gospel, but the sadness and joy exist at the same moment. There are medieval spiritualities that got too caught up in the morosity of the cross; likewise, there is a bubbly resurrection spirituality that isn’t grounded in the crucufixion.
    • “Your reward will be great in heaven” Is God some sort of scorekeeper? The kingdom, or heaven, and this world are not separated chronologically. Our experience of them might be chronological: we experience one and then the other. But the kingdom and the world are not themselves separated chronologically. We were closer to this when we used the language of the supernatural (a term we’ve hardly used in fifty years).

2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from February 15, 2004, and sermon from February 11, 2001 (both at Woodside Village Church).

3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 32.

4. Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes for Luke 6:17-26. Stoffregen’s notes are generally of high quality; this week’s notes are particularly rich in insight. For example, after laying out several meanings of makarios, “blessed,” he summarizes the typical Greek usage in contrast to Jesus’:

In all of these meanings, the “blessed” ones existed on a higher plane than the rest of the people. They were gods. They were humans who had gone to that other-world of the gods. They were the wealthy, upper crust. They were those with many possessions.Jesus uses this word in a totally different way. It is not the elite who are blessed. It is not the rich and powerful who are blessed. It is not the high and mighty who are blessed. It is not the people living in huge mansions or expensive penthouses who are blessed. Rather, Jesus pronounces God’s blessings on the lowly: the poor, the hungry, the crying, and the hated. Throughout the history of this word, it had always been the other people who were considered blessed: the rich, the filled up, the laughing. Jesus turns it all upside-down. The elite in God’s kingdom, the blessed ones in God’s kingdom, are those who are at the bottom of the heap of humanity.

Reflections and Questions

1. The second and third blessings are in the future tense, the first one is in the present tense: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Is there something more basic about the division between poor and rich which these beatitudes are immediately overturning? If we understand that God’s kingdom, God’s culture, is one not based on such divisions, then we are already blessed. We are already beginning to live in God’s culture, even in the midst of those worldly cultures which continue to rely on a division between poor and rich. Our worldly cultures also rely on idolatrous gods who are seen as blessing the rich. This beatitude is obviously a direct challenge to those idols. The true God blesses the poor.

2. I said that God’s culture does not rely on divisions between rich and poor at all. So why does Jesus speak a woe to the rich? Does God bless the poor in exclusion to the rich? Does the true God simply play our same games but in reverse order? Is Jesus still presuming a culture that divides between poor and rich but simply turns the blessings and woes upside-down? I think that Christian liberation groups have often assumed the latter, and so have even gone along with a violent overthrow of the rich of this world, an attempt to turn upside-down this world’s order. And God is seen as justifying their brand of justice and the sacred violence used to establish it. In other words, God does end up playing all our same games, including the violent ones.

I feel it is crucial to let the Girardian anthropology give us another angle on this passage. God’s cultural order does not depend on divisions between rich and poor. The miracle of the fishes and loaves are among those signs from Jesus that God is a God of abundance. There is enough for everyone. We don’t have to presume a scarcity (which capitalism, for example, still does presume), which also presumes that some will be among the haves and some among the have nots.

Then why the woes to this world’s rich? In the present tense, they are the ones most likely to continue to live by this world’s consolations. They already benefit from this world’s cultural order and are not likely open to living by God’s cultural order. An order based on anything other than the current system, which benefits them, will be viewed as woeful.

3. Gil Bailie‘s noticing of Jesus turning his attention to his disciples is also important here. Luke’s audience of disciples is generally agreed upon to have contained the greatest number of wealthy folks, compared to the audiences of the other gospel writers. It is not a coincidence, then, that Luke’s gospel has by far the most challenges to disciples about material possessions. It would seem strange for Luke to direct a message to his wealthy congregants that describes some new order that ultimately leaves them woefully on the outside. It makes more sense that he would lift up a pen-ultimate reversing of this world’s order as a needed challenge to coax such members into beginning to live in God’s order today. Their wealth is a woeful stumbling block to their opening themselves to God’s cultural order. If they ultimately end up on the outside in God’s order, it will be because they have refused to come in.

4. Wealth and poverty are relative situations both within the human world order based on credit and debt. God’s reign features the release of debt, the forgiveness of sin. Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels are rich in the language of credit-debt. Matthew 18:21-35 links the matters of sin and debt through Jesus’ “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” (see Proper 19A). Luke has the parables of the two debtors (7:41-43), which he uses with Simon the Pharisee, and the Dishonest Steward (16:1-13), who writes off his master’s debtors. A key to understanding this second parable is that indebtedness involves more than economics; especially in the ancient world such indebtedness was always linked with the system of a person’s social honor (see Proper 20C). And Jesus’ conclusion ties in the more general issue of wealth as of a different world order than God’s: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13).

Perhaps most crucial to Matthew’s and Luke’s use of debt language is that they both phrase the petition on forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer using that language:

And forgive us our debts (opheilemata), as we also have forgiven our debtors (opheiletais). (Matthew 6:12)And forgive us our sins (hamartias), for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted (opheilonti; participle of opheilo, “owe”) to us. (Luke 11:4a)

The word “forgive” in the Greek, aphiemi, has the more general meaning of to “release,” “let go,” used of both sins and debts. In both Greek and English the words sin and debt have synonymous connotations. The world of keeping debts goes far beyond economics. Every manner in which we hurt one another as human beings marks another debt for which vengeance is the “pay-back.” Forgiveness breaks that cycle of inflicting hurts by releasing the debt. The human world order is based on keeping debts, vengeance; God’s world order is based on releasing debts, forgiveness.

5. My question about the reversal indicated in these blessings and woes is whether they indicate a reversal within the human world order: those poor who are indebted to the wealthy become their rich creditors. Or does the apparent reversal represent the advent of God’s world — in which case it isn’t really a reversal within the human order. Rather, the poor are blessed because they are much more inclined to give up living in the human order in favor of God’s order. Woe to the rich because they are more inclined to turn down the invitation.

But if Luke’s Jesus is simply giving us a reversal within the human ordering of things, then this really isn’t such Good News, is it? Link to a sermon, “A Whole New Ball Game,” which uses the metaphor of keeping score to spin out these themes involving rich-poor, credit-debt. My point is that the Good News is not so much about a reversal as it is about the invitation to enter a whole new ball game in which we leave our score-keeping ways behind.

6. Another example in the modern world of such worldly orders vs. God’s order is that of racism. As a white person, I benefit everyday from our cultural institutions that for hundreds of years have been slanted in my favor. It is like bicycling with the wind at my back: I’m not even aware of the privileges. But people of color are bicycling with the wind in their faces and are constantly aware of the privileges working against them. If God’s cultural order is about transforming such orders based on privilege, an order in which the wind of Spirit is working in everyone’s favor, then people of color will hear that message much more readily than me and open themselves to living in its blessings. To me, such a call to live in a new order will seem like a call to give up the privileges of this world’s order. Such a call will appear as a woe to me, not a blessing. It is only when I give up this world’s way of ordering altogether, a way which is always founded in some manner of sacred victimage, that I can count myself as blessed. To this world, I will perhaps still need to talk about it in terms of giving up privilege, which will seem like a woe. Jesus does not immediately give up the blessing and woe language in speaking to a world that still relies on it. But he will be about the business of transforming our language and our experience into an ultimate experience of abundance and life, an order in which all will be filled and all will know joy.

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