Last revised: September 16, 2022
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FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR C
RCL: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
RoCa: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
In 2022, I was officially beginning a new call, so I began with ‘personally sharing’ about what drives me these days: how we can revitalize our Gospel messaging that not only is more welcoming to the younger generations who are missing from church, but also happens to be more faithful to the New Testament’s Gospel message than “justification by grace through faith.” What grace looks like in this world is the true heart of the Gospel message, and that manifestation of grace can be summed up as New Creation. For human beings that primarily means God creating one new humanity in place of the two (Eph 2:14-15). God through the cross and resurrection of Jesus is healing our divisions. In today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus does battle with the forces of division represented by Satan. The resulting sermon is “Doing Battle Against Satan: A Personal Conversion Story.”
1. In verse 11, the NRSV translation is, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” A better translation might be, “All those who have faith on him will not be put to shame.” The Greek of the first phrase is pas ho pisteuon ep’ auto, the latter two words being the preposition most often translated as “on,” with the dative pronoun.
What is significant for me is that this is another instance in which wording from St. Paul is translated as “faith in Christ,” a good Protestant rendering that emphasizes our having faith in Christ. But the most reliable writings of Paul never use the most common Greek word for “in,” which is en. Eph 1:15 and Col 1:4 use the preposition en for “faith in Christ,” but the Pauline authorship is contested. Most often in the uncontested letters of Paul, he uses a genitive construction pisteos Christou (e.g., Romans 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16, 3:22; Phil 3:9), which can be translated either as “faith of Christ” or “faith in Christ.” The former is the more typical way to translate a genitive construction, but the latter is the way that all modern translators choose to translate this particular one. A similarly structured genitive construction is used by Paul with regards to Abraham in Romans 4:16 and to the gospel in Phil 1:27, and the translators switch back to the usual way: “faith of Abraham” and “faith of the gospel.” (It wouldn’t make sense to say “faith in Abraham”!) Our passage, Romans 10:11, uses another construction that still avoids the most straightforward way of saying “faith in him,” using the preposition en. I want to argue below that this exegetical matter signals a common mistranslation of Paul.
1. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God, pp. 771-74, 795-821. Campbell reads Romans 9-11 as another key place where Paul is debating an opposing Teacher through the rhetorical device of Diatribe. The first key place is in Romans 1-4. Then, according to Campbell, Romans 5-8 is primarily Paul speaking in his own voice to give his preferred way of articulating the Gospel. Romans 9-11 reprises the debate around the key question of what does this mean for Jewish identity, the promise of being the chosen people, which presents a challenge to Paul’s side of the debate. The entire section is structured by questions that Paul anticipates from the Teacher.
This particular passage is the answer to a series of questions:
But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? (Romans 10:6-8a)
These questions themselves are a Christocentric reinterpretation of Deuteronomy 30:11-14
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
Paul is no doubt aware of his tradition having already reinterpreted Deut 30 in terms of Wisdom (in the feminine)
Who has gone up into heaven, and taken her, and brought her down from the clouds? Who has gone over the sea, and found her, and will buy her for pure gold? (Baruch 3:29-30)
All of this functions for Paul to deepen Jewish responsibility for following Jesus the Messiah, or not. The Messiah, like the word in Deut 30 has come close. It is not something far off. It has been made readily available.
But the key to understanding this passage is what Campbell calls Paul’s “participatory” view of faith. Is v. 9 a conditional in the sense that one must choose faith in order to be saved? No, says Campbell.
Faith in a Christian stems from participation in the faithful one and indicates that resurrection is therefore guaranteed; resurrection is simply the further part of the story of Christ that the Christian has yet to experience. But Christ has been resurrected and enthroned, so this hope is certain. Hence, faith is functioning in this reading as evidence that the Christian is in fact and indeed presently a part of this programmatic unfolding story. It is a marker of divine involvement, not the fulfillment of a contractual condition. And, as such, it must be mediated by divine involvement, at which point all of Paul’s claims elsewhere about the role of the Spirit become more comprehensible. (His repeated suggestion that God has come in person to Israel also becomes more comprehensible.) In short, only this participatory account of Paul’s argument explains fully the symmetry between the faithful and resurrected Christ and the believing Christian who will hopefully be resurrected in the future. (820)
. . .It is important to recall that the Roman Christian auditors would process this analysis of “belief” in terms of assurance, not appropriation. They do not need to undertake the appropriate acts of belief and confession in order to be saved; they enact them already (see esp. 1:2-4; 6:17; 15:14-15). So Paul’s account of saving belief in Romans 10 affirms them in their current saved location rather than presenting them with a condition that they need to fulfill in order to be saved. As evidence of salvation, not its appropriation, belief in the Lord Jesus Christ is therefore a necessary criterion, but not necessarily a sufficient criterion. So the way is cleared for Paul to make much more extensive ethical requests of his converts. (That is, we are no longer committed to the constricting sola that is often associated with fides.) (821)
How might we further interpret this “participatory” view of faith? Through the lens of Mimetic Theory as outlined immediately below.
Reflections and Questions
1. Why such a big deal between “faith in Christ” and “the faith of Christ,” or more simply “Christ’s faith”? There is a big difference between our being saved by our faith in Christ as opposed to being saved by Christ’s faith.
This came home to me again recently [in 1998] when the local Rabbi spoke to our ministerial group. He characterized the difference between Judaism and Christianity in this way: Judaism focuses on what we do and Christianity focuses on what we believe. He emphasized that Jews talk about beliefs hardly at all but talk a great deal about what you do.
As far as his assessment of Christianity goes, I would agree to the extent of what I see as the typical, especially Protestant, misinterpretation of St. Paul which pits works against faith. Essentially, it pits the Rabbi’s doing against believing. But I think this is a misinterpretation of Paul. Our righteousness comes from neither what we do or what we believe. It comes from Jesus Christ, both from what he did and from the relationship with God which he faithfully lived out. I think that Paul’s short-hand way of saying this is pisteos Christou, the faith of Christ. When we translate this phrase as “faith in Christ” it too easily becomes a matter of our being saved by virtue of what we believe. When we translate it as “the faith of Christ” the emphasis more properly remains on Christ, instead of on us. What saves us is Christ’s faith, which is commuted to us through the Holy Spirit so that his faith might live in us. It is his faith living in us that saves us and makes a new creation. Christ’s faith living in us definitively affects both our doing and believing.
I believe that our passage here reflects this latter interpretation rather than one that might emphasize our believing in Jesus as the means to salvation. Pistis in St. Paul means so much more than “belief,” and we need to always take that into account.
Mimetic theory accounts for this difference in interpretations through its Trinitarian pattern of relationships. Modern, romantic theories of relations see only the subject-object split. Personal states of being, such as beliefs, are thus simply a matter of each person’s control in relationship to the object. We either believe in Christ, for example, or we don’t. Strictly personal choice.
Mimetic theory, on the other hand, sees personal states of being such as desire or belief in terms of the triangle of relationships between subject — model/rival — object. The model, who is always potentially our rival, comes between us and the objects of desire or belief. We come by things like belief via the Other. So the question is not simply a matter of choosing between beliefs; it also involves being in relationship with the right model of belief. For St. Paul this meant faith on Christ, i.e., being in relationship with the right model for one’s whole life, for one’s very being. The genitive construction pisteos Christou can thus be interpreted, under the light of mimetic theory, in both the objective and subjective modes at the same time. Christ can be both our model for faith and the object of our faith at the same time. With the dualistic interpretation of subject-object, the depth of relationship is lost, and it simply becomes a matter of my believing (subject) in Christ (object). I no longer fit Christ’s faith into the web of relationships as the entire key to my being able to come to faith in Christ in the first place.
This is what has happened, I think, to the Christian faith. It has lost its depth and become, like everything in the modern world, simply a matter of personal choice. My believing in Christ becomes its own form of works righteousness, something I must do to earn righteousness from God. The Rabbi is correct. But he is correct because we Christians incorrectly understand Paul’s notion of salvation through the faith of/in Jesus Christ. Mimetic theory can provide the corrective to our understanding of faith, I think, just as its has done with desire.
1. William Martin Aiken, “Luke and the Opportune Time: Reading the Temptation Story as Preface to Kingdom and Prologue to Passion,” an insightful paper presented to the 2002 COV&R meeting on Luke’s temptation story. It subsequently has been published in the volume Sacrifice, Scripture, & Substitution, as chapter 16, pp. 360-83.
2. There are many great Girardian resources on the devil and Satan. Even though he interprets things anthropologically — not otherworldly — he can help make sense of anthropological realities which go beyond flesh and blood.
Satan, for example, is a powerful anthropological reality in René Girard‘s work. The power of Satan is not the power of an individual, superhuman being but of a power rooted in human communal life. I refer you once again to his essay on Satan in The Girard Reader (link to my excerpts here). There are also his chapter on “Satan Divided against Himself” (ch. 14) in The Scapegoat and the chapter on “Satan” (ch. 3; excerpt) in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning — a book whose title makes clear that Satan is a key concept.
Two other passages of note from Girardians, both which deal with the temptation passage, are: (1) James Alison, from The Joy of Being Wrong, a section entitled “Excursus on the Devil” (pages 156-161); and (2) Gil Bailie, from Violence Unveiled, sections both on “The Devil and Satan” and “Scandal” (pages 201-210).
In the essay “My Core Convictions: Nonviolence and the Christian Faith,” I have a substantial section on “Falling into the Way of Satan” and then “Satan Casting out Satan.”
3. 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 2013, “Stumbling Blocks in the Desert“; and in 2019, “On Living with Temptation.”
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from March 4, 2001 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from February 21, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
5. Sermons from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby in 2016, “Contending Voices“; and in 2019, “Entertaining a New Story.”
6. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke,” tape #3 (in a 12-tape audio lecture series). These lectures are also available online in clips; this portion is covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 9. Here are my notes / transcription of his comments on Luke 4:1-13:
*Beginning of notes from Gil Bailie’s lectures on “The Gospel of Luke”*
Luke 4:1-13 — The Temptation
- The profound call is followed by the profound question: what does it mean? How does one live out this call? Jesus goes to the desert and is tempted by all the traditional ways of living out this call.
- Taken to the desert by the Spirit.
- The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God…” Right away, he has been called the Son of God by the voice from heaven, now the devil says, ‘Oh, if you are, prove it.’ Here’s how.
- Second temptation: Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
- There’s nothing to contradict the devil’s claim that all these kingdoms are his. The gospel assumes that it’s true; it assumes that all of these kingdoms are satanic kingdoms.
- Luke’s gospel: “the devil” (diabolos) all the way through. In Matthew’s gospel he is called Satan at the end of the story.
- Satan means the Accuser. Satan is the power behind all kingdoms because all kingdoms are based on scapegoating processes that bring social solidarity into being in the first instance, so that we still do generate our social solidarity at the expense of enemies and victims. In that sense, Satan is the mastermind behind the kingdoms of this world. So his claim is absolutely legitimate.
- Jesus is going to bring another kingdom into being, but it’s precisely not that kind of kingdom.
- Jesus quotes scripture in both these temptations. This goes back to last week’s lecture (tape #2) about Mary erupting with song from the Hebrew scriptures. Quoted Benard: “So here [namely, the Magnificat] the words, as well as the thoughts, are those of a high-souled Hebrew maiden of devout and meditative habit, whose mind has taken the tone of the Scriptures in which she has been nurtured.” Associated with swaddling. Here Jesus speaks as the product of a religious culture. We need to appreciate what it means to be shaped by culture.
- The devil plays a role exactly like the serpent in the garden. He tries to get Jesus interested in the kingdoms of this world. Is Jesus going to imitate the devil, or vice versa? Jesus is not going to imitate the devil in any serious way. But for the third temptation the devil imitates Jesus by quoting scripture: for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’
- Jesus is human and he is seriously tested. These are not mock tests. And he realizes this is not what he is called to do.
*End of notes from Gil Bailie’s lecture on Luke 4:1-13*
Reflections and Questions
1. Taking a cue from Marty Aiken‘s paper, “Luke and the Opportune Time: Reading the Temptation Story as Preface to Kingdom and Prologue to Passion,” my 2004 sermon, “‘Lead Us Not into Temptation,'” reads this temptation story into our Lord’s Passion story — and then also into the ministry through which we are invited to participate in the coming of God’s Kingdom into this World.
2. In 2010 the sermon was titled “A Win-Win Scenario.”
3. In 2013 the sermon was titled “Big Picture, Little Picture,” using a great illustration from the Raven Foundation on “The Evolution of Religion” to capture the big picture of Satan having power over all the kingdoms of the world and how Jesus conquers that power. The little picture involves how you and I fit into that big picture of God conquering Satan — in this case, with Lenten fasting that stands in solidarity with the victims of Satan’s reign.
3. In light of our reflections on Romans 10 above, could the preacher talk about our succumbing to the devil’s temptation for making a works righteousness out of belief? Link to a 1998 sermon entitled “The Last Temptation,” in which I pose the post-modern temptation to think everyone’s faith in God to be a matter of personal choice as the last temptation. It could literally be the last temptation if everyone succumbed to it so that Christ’s faith was no longer passed on. But I set that up with a “next-to-last temptation”: being overly forceful with sharing one’s personal faith in a way that has now led us on the verge of the last temptation, i.e., the other extreme of not sharing our faith at all. I suggest that behind all this is the “oldest temptation”: the temptation that the first man and woman succumbed to, i.e., the temptation to be like God. Our modern version of this oldest temptation revolves around the interpretation of Romans that I’ve lifted up here. We place too much emphasis on our own personal faiths rather than looking first to the faith of Jesus Christ. It is this misplaced emphasis on our own faiths in Christ that has led first to the next-to-last temptation of too forcefully pushing our own faiths, such that we are now crossing over into what could be the last temptation of not sharing faith at all because we discount all faith as a matter of personal choice. No, sharing faith is still essential. But let it be Christ’s faith that we share, not just our own. How do we share Christ’s faith? Like St. Paul says: By continuing to tell the Gospel story of Jesus Christ as a word of faith on our lips.