Last revised: September 16, 2022
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SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR C
RCL: Gen 15:1-12, 17-18; Phil 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
RoCa: Gen 15:5-12, 17-18; Phil 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36 (See Transfiguration Sunday)
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
The story of salvation begins with the covenant to Abraham and Sarah — three times, no less! This day’s First Reading comprises the second iteration (the other two are in Gen 12 and 18), and it’s the one that includes the ratification of a ritual blood sacrifice. Which is more than ironic! In light of Mimetic Theory, the journey of the Bible can read as a movement from ritual blood sacrifice to self-sacrifice, or sacrament. To my way of thinking, the reason God needs to make a covenant with someone is that it’s going to take centuries to gradually lead human beings, through revelation to these covenant people, to see that the true God has nothing to do with sacrifice. All that blood sacrifice of archaic societies is due to our evolution with false gods of sacred violence who command sacrifice as a means of social cohesion. To break through all those centuries of evolving false experiences of God, it’s going to take a sustained relationship with someone over many centuries. That someone is Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.
In 2022, the sermon brings out the irony of this passage of making a covenant through blood sacrifice as the beginning of the long journey away from sacrifice. The story of the Bible is the story of God saving us from sacrifice. See the 2022 sermon, “The Covenant with Abraham and Sarah: Witnesses to the Journey Out of Blood Sacrifice.”
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
1. This lection cuts off in mid sentence, before naming all the other lands that the Lord will give Abraham: “the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” I think the background to this passage is polytheism. Implied behind all those other peoples are their gods.
Abram may seem bold in challenging the Lord to give him a proper heir. But does it seem quite so bold if seen against a background of polytheism? Abraham seems to be implying that he might go try out one of the gods of his neighbors; maybe he would have better luck getting an heir with one of them. And the Lord seems to be replying, “No, you don’t have to do that. In fact, I’ll give you so many heirs your descendants will crowd out all those other losers and their gods. How effective are those other gods if I give you all their lands to boot?”
2. This story of a covenant ritual is about as bloody a sacrificial affair as there is in the Old Testament. Why is it in the lectionary? What is it saying if we read it alongside the Gospel, and the two texts shed light on each other?
1. symmimētai mou ginesthe, “join in imitating me” (NRSV). This is actually a quite complex phrase. The simpler Greek word for imitator is mimētēs, from which Mimetic Theory derives its name. Why not just call it “Imitation Theory”? We might cite this verse from Paul to witness to the complex nature of our mimesis — as something more complex than the common notions of imitation as simply watching someone and repeating their actions. This phrase from Paul witnesses to something much richer.
An image that comes to mind is a grove of aspen trees. Above ground they appear as other groves of trees that grow up together but singly. Underground the reality is that it is more like all one tree growing from a single root system. The Pando Forest near Fish Lake, Utah, contains what is considered the largest living thing discovered on earth: one grove of over 47,000 aspen trees that are genetic clones of each other and all interconnected through a central root system. Mimetic Theory testifies to a similar reality for homo sapiens. On the surface we appear to be “individuals” — even much more so from the lens of the modern ideology of Individualism. But on the unseen spiritual level we are much more interconnected than we think. The reality of mimetic desire is such that our spirits are mingled with each other’s in highly complex, unseen ways, and our very sense of “self” is thus constructed as bound up with the desires of those around us. Mimetic Theory thus proposes that we are “interdividuals,” not individuals.
We might suggest there is something similar with Paul’s modification of language in this verse. He extends mimētēs to symmimētēs, occurring only in this verse (throughout both the N.T. and LXX). Sym, “with,” heightens the togetherness factor, or intersubjective element, of mimētēs. Recall that this letter is anchored in the early Christian hymn of Phil. 2:5-11 (which climaxes every Lenten season as the Second Reading on Passion Sunday):
Let the same mind be (touto phroneite, more literally, “Have the same thinking”) in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
Phil. 3:17 should be read with this verse in mind, as well as a couple other habits of Paul: (1) his constant use of phrases such as “in Christ Jesus” (en Christō Iēsou) and “in the Spirit” (en pneumati); and (2) his complete disuse of the word mathētēs, “disciple.” I would suggest that his use of the mimētēs word group is an element in talking about discipleship as a spiritually mutual indwelling that leads to living in the way of Christ. What Mimetic Theory talks about as a spiritually mutual indwelling with each other, a situation of “bad mimesis,” might be what Paul circumscribes with his phrase “in the flesh” (en sarki). Christ’s being born in human likeness, obedient to God’s kenotic loving desire, gives birth to being able to live in Christ’s “good mimesis” — Paul’s life “in the Spirit” (en pneumati).
So we might translate Philippians 3:17 as: “Be reborn (ginesthe) as imitators with me, and so mark those who walk in the way (peripatountas) of the example (typos) you have in us.” (See the resource from Willard Swartley immediately below for more on Paul’s use of the mimētēs word group.)
1. Willard Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus/Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” in Violence Renounced. Swartley does a superb job of taking on too long of a tradition of downplaying the role of imitation in the New Testament. Here, he argues for example (with a citation Phil. 3:17 along the way):
In this chapter I seek to show that major strands of NT teaching are directed specifically to just this reality: transformation of desire that enables a positive, nonacquisitive mimesis. This study seeks to show how foundational and ubiquitous this idea is in the New Testament. Further, I develop this thesis: that the NT use of imitation/discipleship language carries contextual emphases that prevent, even repudiate, the mimesis of acquisitive desire. Rather, this stream of NT paranesis (i.e., counsel, exhortation, instruction) sets forth another type of mimesis, one antithetical to the mimetic desire that generates rivalry and in turn leads to violence. The mimesis enjoined by the NT canonical literature is grounded in the Jesus cross event, an event that exposes violence and, from Jesus’ side, manifests the freedom and power of new creation.
In developing this thesis, this chapter also sheds fresh light on the long-standing issue in biblical studies of the role of imitation in Christian character formation, a point in the modem debate initiated by Martin Luther’s strong reaction to imitatio Christi because it threatened to undermine his central and precious doctrine of justification by faith alone. (1) Any effort to imitate Christ, says Luther, invites through the side door a works righteousness into the salvation experience, and thereby mitigates God’s grace and salvation extra nos.
Much Protestant exegesis has continued in Luther’s footsteps, spurred additionally by atonement theology that sets off Jesus’ suffering and death as so unique in its salvific purpose that it disconnects discipleship from salvation. This produces lamentable moral results and invites through the side door the old acquisitive mimesis under the guise of protecting salvation. Consequently, the liberating gospel of peace is substituted with a self-serving redeemer myth. Further, one or both of these factors often play into the exegetical comments that argue down the importance of NT imitational/example language.
The influential article by Michaelis in Kittel’s TDNT work demonstrates the point. Disagreeing with Oepke and Larsson in their important and full-length studies of the topic, (2) Michaelis argues against any genuine imitation in Paul:
First, there is simple comparison. The older example seems to be imitated, but there is no conscious imitation. This type occurs in 1 Th. 2:14 and 1 Th. 1:6. Then there is the following of an example. This use is found in 2 Th. 3:7, 9; Phil. 3:17, and Paul is always the example. Recognition of the authority of Paul is plainly implied in these passages, so that following his example carried with it obedience to his commands. In the third group obedience is predominant, so exclusively so in 1 C. 4:16 that the thought of an example is quite overshadowed, and in 1 C. 11:1; 1 Th. 1:6; Eph. 5:1 it is quite obvious that the main stress falls on the element of obedience. In this third group alone are Christ and God associated with Paul as authorities in relation to whom one must be a mimetes. (3)
Given this reductionism of mimesis in Paul to a command-obedience paradigm, it is easy to see why Elizabeth Castelli, in her recent study of Paul’s imitation language, (4) concludes that Paul’s call/command to imitation functions to imprint the hierarchical structure of power on Christian thought and conduct. But, as Fodor points out, Castelli’s wider study of mimesis in Greek literature, and her own caution against reductionism of its meaning, should have prevented her narrow conclusion. (5)In view of this mimetic error in NT scholarship, one purpose of this chapter is to resolve this problematic by doing fresh exegetical commentary on the mimesis texts in light of Girard’s theory. Indeed, if Girard’s theories are correct, mimesis in the NT can be very bad news, given Castelli’s thesis that it reinforces a conservative hierarchical power structure, or it might also be very very good news, if the call to imitation is securely linked with renunciation of acquisitive mimetic desire, through Jesus’ own model, so that the spiral of rivalry and violence is decisively broken.
If the Girardian thesis is correct, that mimetic rivalry is the generative power behind the scapegoating mechanism that led to Jesus’ violent death, and if Jesus’ life-death breaks this spiral of violence empowered by rivalry — the thesis that I will argue — then it should be possible to show exegetically that Jesus’ teachings on discipleship and the early church’s teaching of imitation (later called imitatio Christi, see also note 8) function as antidote to aspirations of rivalry. They are analogous to Jesus’ own refusal to play the mimetic game that feeds destructive impulses and leads to violence, sacralized under the guise of having made peace (a counterfeit to true peace). Further, if it is exegetically possible to demonstrate this point, then theological quarrel among biblical scholars about the relationship between discipleship and imitation in the NT will be resolved via a fresh perspective on the topic. (pp. 219-221)
Philippians 3:17-18 thus becomes one of the crucial passages that Swartley deals with:
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. (Phil. 3:17-18)
The context of this admonition is Paul’s counting as loss his Jewish credentials and achievements — which he labels as “confidence in the flesh” — and then he owns a righteousness based on the faith of Jesus Christ, a righteousness which is from God based on faith (3:9). What Paul then desires, as mark of this righteousness, is to know the power of Jesus’ resurrection and to share in Jesus’ sufferings, thus “becoming like him in death” (3:10). These twin points of analogous experience are pursued further in vv. 11-16. Then follows this language of imitation and example in w.17-18. Clearly, given the preceding context of sharing in the sufferings of Christ and the immediately following reference to the cross of Christ, this use of imitation and example is oriented to the cross and suffering. It is also striking that Paul completes this thought by pointing to a heavenly reward for this kind of earthly life (vv. 20-21). He then addresses a conflict between two sisters in the community, Euodia and Syntyche, a manifestation of mimetic rivalry in the sisterhood. He speaks highly of their contribution to the missionary enterprise and is confident that this conflict can and will be resolved.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him …. (Phil. 2:5-11)
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.” (pp. 225-226)
Reflections and Questions
1. As I’ve mentioned before, I see positive mimesis as a central theme of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We will hear from this letter two more times before Easter: 5th Sunday in Lent and Passion Sunday. For this week’s passage, note that the Greek word behind “imitating” in 3:17 is symmimetai. The NRSV reads, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me…” A more literal rendering, following the word order in the Greek, would be, “Fellow-imitators of me be you, brothers…” symmimetai is actually a noun with the sense of “one who joins in following the example of another.” So is Paul asking them to imitate him? Or does this phrase have more a sense of “Be fellow-imitators with me [of another, i.e., Christ]”? In the latter instance, Paul is calling for the Philippians to join in imitating Christ with him, as he already did in 2:5: “Have the same mind of Christ…”
It is possible to see this passage as another passion prediction, albeit disguised. Jesus is talking about what will happen when he goes to Jerusalem, so it is helpful to place this in the context of the passion predictions Luke has borrowed from Mark. The central one, which Mark and Matthew place in the significant political setting of Caesarea Philippi, Luke modifies to an anonymous setting of “Jesus praying alone” somewhere (9:18). He also removes the negative half of the exchange between Peter and Jesus, paring down the interaction to:
Jesus said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9:20-22)
It is important to remember that that passage comes before this one, in order to see that with this uniquely Lukan prediction we get the subtle but similar adjustment to messianic expectations. To the image of Herod as a fox Jesus juxtaposes not the Lion of Judah but a hen protecting her chicks under her wings. Jesus, “the Messiah of God,” will not protect his people through a greater sacred violence. He will sacrifice himself to the violence, letting the fox get sated on him.
The Human Being of Daniel 7, “Son of Man,” has come to show us a new way to be human by giving us a way out of sacrificing others as a means of gathering ourselves together in peace. It is so shockingly different that Jesus knows it will do no good to ask others to believe in it — not until he lives it out on the cross. He maintains this strategy of non-dialog about it to the end, his moment before the Sanhedrin:
They said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” (Luke 22:67-69)
Why is this so difficult? Because we need a God who protects us from our enemies with an effective counterforce. It takes incredible faith to believe in a God whose protection is to die to our enemy’s violence, even with the promise of resurrection life. We want the Lion of Judah, not the Lamb slain or the mother hen. (See also Reflection #1 below.)
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” tape lecture series, tape #8. These lectures are also available online in clips; this portion is covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 99, Part 100, Part 101. Here are my notes on these verses:
Luke 13:31-35 — The Hen that gathers
- 31-33: “At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.'” There’s a hint of the story of Peter admonishing Jesus for his first passion prediction and, in the other gospels, Jesus responds, “Get behind me Satan!” Here, Jesus responds, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.'” Herod Antipas is in Galilee. The Pharisees seem to be telling Jesus that he needs to speed up his itinerary to Jerusalem.
- But the Lukan Jesus is on a schedule. There’s a rendezvous he’s going to have, the coordinates of which are Jerusalem geographically and the Passover temporally. He’s not going to be rushed. Biblical scholars roll their eyes and say, ‘Well, obviously, the historical Jesus had no notion of this.’ I have no problem with the gospels telling us that Jesus knew what he was doing. He knew what he had to do, where it had to happen, when it had to happen, and he began to prepare the ground for it (the metaphor of digging around the tree, 13:8). He says here, ‘I’m not going to rush it. And it’s not going to happen in Galilee; it’s going to happen in Jerusalem.’ There’s almost an element of him choreographing the event.
- There is an important theological point here: that Jesus went to the cross voluntarily. This passage seems to emphasize the intentionality and clarity of Jesus’ understanding. It’s not just a question of getting crucified, or victimized by the crowd. Jesus could have been victimized by the crowd in Luke 4 by getting pushed off the cliff outside Nazareth or by the people of Gerasa when he took away their scapegoat. There are instances when Jesus is threatened by the crowd, but he sneaks away. It’s not the right time or place. Millions of people have died innocently at the hands of the mob. But if you’re going to break it, the way Jesus broke it, it has to be at a certain time and place. Jesus knows when and where, and he’s not going to have some insignificant, moral reprobate like Herod Antipas screw up the schedule.
- v. 34a: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” This is like those night vision binoculars. With them, you can see all these others things that you can’t see without them. Most people, when they looked at Jerusalem, they saw the shining city on the hill, the great Temple, etc. Jesus is looking at it and seeing something else. He’s seeing the inside of its sacral status, seeing it as a place where the prophets are stoned. And he says, ‘I’m going there,’ because he knows how the sacrality is generated and regenerated. The Lukan Jesus knows this, and I don’t have any doubt that the historical Jesus knew it.
- v. 34b: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” A beautiful metaphor, and the best feminine image we have of Christ. One of the major themes of this gospel is scattering and gathering, Luke 11:23b: “whoever does not gather with me scatters.” The old way of gathering is going to be destroyed. The only other way to gather will be Jesus himself. Here, he is expressing his desire to gather, but not in the old way.
- Apropos of this gathering and scattering, there’s a passage in the Gospel of John, chapter 11, which refers to the gathering and scattering in a very complex and fascinating way. It’s the famous passage [for Girardians!] that expresses the Caiaphas formula for the victimage mechanism. It goes like this:
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the scattered children of God. (John 11:49-52)
- Everything is there: The old way of gathering is the sacrificial one, to create a social unanimity in the act of expelling. But Jesus is going to use the old way to destroy that form of unification and to become the new, non-sacrificial gathering point. If humankind is going to begin to gather in a non-sacrificial way, he will be the exemplar of that. The new glue will not be the prohibition and rituals and expulsions, but will be forgiveness.
- v. 35: “See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'” The latter is a faith proclamation. As you get closer to Jerusalem, the problem which it represents becomes more palpable. Jesus is beginning to enter into the zone of Jerusalem. It’s like a twilight zone. He knows that the people following him don’t quite get it and are as subject to the mimetic contagion as anyone else in the world. So he’s saying, ‘We’re walking into the twilight zone, and in a few minutes you’re not going to see me. You won’t really see me for who I am when you’re waving your palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” And the other way in which you are not going to see me is when you shout “Crucify him!” One way or another, gradually all of you won’t see me. The next time you really see me is when you make a faith proclamation. There’s this image of stepping into the mist, where the epistemological power of the old system takes over and one gets caught up in it so that you can’t really see what’s happening, until that epistemological power is broken by the cross. Then, you can see him again and make such a faith proclamation as ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’
2. René Girard, Things Hidden, p. 262. 13:35a: Jesus says, “See, your house is left to you.” In a section on “Science and Apocalypse” (pp. 253-262), Girard argues that the Gospel has opened the way for science to do its thing, but in doing its thing without an awareness of what made it possible, it falls right back into the same sacrificial reasoning that has put us on the brink [in the 1970’s] of a nuclear holocaust and apocalypse of violence. He concludes this section by commenting, “We wished for our house to be left to us. Well, so it has been (Luke 13:35).”
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from March 11, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).
4. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, ftnt. 41 on p. 52.
5. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 129. In a chapter titled “Apocalyptic Imagination and Delayed Parousia,” Alison writes this concerning the Lukan witness toward a movement into eschatological imagination (as opposed to apocalyptic imagination):
What I am proposing here is no more than a further aspect of what we have already seen about how the presence to the apostolic group of the crucified and risen Lord knocked down the social duality between Jew and gentile, as is set out in the book of Acts. There is no doubt there about the difficulty of the process by which the universality of the new people was brought into existence by the risen victim. Peter had to be pushed by God into baptizing Cornelius; there were endless conflicts about circumcision; Paul had to fight for years for it to be absolutely clear that there now exists no social duality thanks to the work of Christ. That is to say, the consequences of what was already embryonically present at Pentecost and in Peter’s declaration which we saw in the last chapter, were not grasped immediately, and the apostolic witness offers evidence of the arduous process by which a truth inherent in the resurrection of the crucified victim came to be ‘received’ or incarnated in the life of the Church. No one now suggests that it was ‘the weight of reality’ (hordes of gentiles forcing their way in, shoving against the Berlin Wall of an obstinate apostolic clinging to a mistaken belief of Jesus’ that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel) which provoked the development from Judaism to Catholicism. The inner coherence between the resurrection and the universality of the new faith has become apparent, however difficult it may have been to perceive it at the beginning.What I am suggesting is that exactly the same slow and conflictual process by which it came to be understood that what God is calling into existence is universal, without frontiers, is at work in the relationship between the apostolic group and ‘time’. That is to say, there was a big gap before the full force of the consequences of the eschatological imagination which Jesus already had, and which was accessible to the apostolic group starting from the resurrection, was able to carry through the subversion of the prodigious inertia of cultural comprehension (and of the apocalyptic imagination proper to small and threatened groups), and thus enable that eschatological imagination to be received by the Church. Of course, and as we have seen in the apostolic texts, there were Christians, probably many Christians, who did indeed think in terms of the imminent arrival of the End, and for whom its delay was a cause of stumbling (just as there were those who thought that all Christians should be circumcised). However, the apostolic teaching about this matter was not the slow justifying of something embarrassing, but the gradual understanding and development of a coherence which was internal to the presence of the crucified and risen victim, accessible through the ‘mind fixed on the things that are above’, part of the irruption into the here and now of the definitive eschatological presence of God, and of the new human relationality made possible by this presence.
I do not think that it is by chance that the same author among the apostolic group who most fully sets out the birth of the universal dimension of the new salvation is also the one who gives most hints of the existence of a new notion of time. I’m thinking of Luke. Matthew and Mark could be read as though they were suggesting that Jesus’ eschatological discourses referred to what was to happen to Jerusalem, and that after the destruction of the Temple, then the Son would come. In Luke something different is seen. In his vision, Jerusalem is already abandoned by God before its destruction:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold your house is left unto you desolate. (Luke 13:34-35a)
Then, when he predicts the destruction of Jerusalem in his eschatological discourse, Jesus adds something very significant:
And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the time of the Gentiles be fulfilled. (Luke 21:24)
That is: the whole of Jesus’ eschatological discourse referred to this living in the times of the Gentiles, of the nations. When Jesus described how people must take heed – how not to meditate upon what they are to say when they are led before tribunals and so on, he is talking about life in the midst of the time which came into being at the same time as the revelation moved outside the frontiers of Judaism. The transformation of Israel into “the Israel of God,” which comes about through the new creation of an universality without frontiers, is simultaneous with the creation of a new quality of time. Following this reasoning we can see what happens in John’s Gospel. There the element of the future coming of the Son has disappeared, and there is, already present, thanks to the belief opened up by Jesus, access to life without end, and at the same time a promise of a resurrection on the last day (John 6:54). I do not see why this promise of resurrection on the last day has to be an addition by a different redactor so as to reintroduce the eschatological element which John of himself would have omitted (cf. the opinion of R. Bultmann, one of the great fathers of modern critical theology). Rather it seems to me to be totally coherent with what we have seen of the way in which the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination by Jesus’ eschatological imagination developed, that the time after Jesus be, in fact, the time in which those who are called to Jesus by the Father have access to eternal life, and construct a counter-history whose fullness will be revealed and crowned on the last day. Please notice that this last day is no longer the Day which we have seen in the apocalyptic imagination, a day of fulminating vengeance. Rather the last day is a new reality, inconceivable both for the apocalyptic imagination and for the paganism of the eternal return: the end of the human story, not produced by a divine intervention but by the winding down and the tendency towards dissolution that is proper to human time abandoned to itself. That is to say: any historical ‘apocalypse’ will be purely human, and the responsibility for it purely our own. (pp. 128-130)
6. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, ftnt. 7, p. 218.
7. 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, “The Prophet Between the Fox and the Hen.”
8. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by friends and members of Theology & Peace: John Davies in 2016, “Scattering and gathering: brooding over Jerusalem“; Tom Truby in 2016, “Sorting Out the Week“; and in 2019, “When Will We See Jesus Again.”
9. Link to a listing of passages on “Gathering” and “Scattering” in Luke / Acts.
Reflections and Questions
1. The crucial connection in this passage is Jesus mentioning Herod as a fox and then later using that of a hen for himself. His audience might have expected something more like the Lion of Judah (see also Rev. 5:5-6, where John the Seer expects to see the Lion of Judah and instead sees the Lamb slain since the foundation of the world). No trouble taking care of the fox Herod then. (See also the Exegetical Note above.)
Barbara Brown Taylor has a great sermon making use of this connection, entitled “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood” (no longer available online). Here’s an excerpt:
If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world — wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.Given the number of animals available, it is curious that Jesus chooses a hen. Where is the biblical precedent for that? What about the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? What about the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a mother hen does not inspire much confidence. No wonder some of the chicks decided to go with the fox.
But a hen is what Jesus chooses, which — if you think about it — is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks.
Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.
Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her — wings spread, breast exposed — without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.
2. In 2016 it was my first Sunday at a new interim assignment in Saginaw, MI, where a primary task would be examining the congregation’s welcome statement and seeking to better live into it. The sermon began with a contemporary scenario of seeking protection from a mass murderer (which tragically was taking place in my hometown of Kalamazoo that same weekend), transitioned to the mystery of Jesus’ non-protection, and concluded with ponderings about welcoming in ways that take risks — “Words of Comfort, Words of Courage.”
3. Our first impulse is to interpret the image of the hen as one of protection, under the wings. But Luke never speaks of protection explicitly. The verb he uses is episynaxai, one of his words for “gather.” When there is a fox lurking about (Herod), is there really hope that the hen can protect her chicks from the fox? Perhaps only in the sense that under her wings, the fox will not pick off the scattered chicks one-by-one but will instead have to attack the hen first and so get his fill, leaving the chicks alone. There is also the chance that the fox will still get the chicks after first taking care of the hen.
In any case, Luke uses the verb for “gather,” which Gil Bailie in his lecture series on Luke has pointed to as a crucial concept for Luke, one which he often pairs with “scatter.” There is Luke 11:23b: “whoever does not gather with me scatters.” The cross will reveal the conventional manner of gathering people into community around the victim. Witness Luke 17:37b: “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather (Gr: episynachthesontai).” Moreover, in the revealing, the cross begins to break down that traditional mechanism, whose beginning Luke places immediately following the cross: (23:48) “And when all the crowds who had gathered (Gr: symparagenomenoi) there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.” They had gathered for the traditional spectacle to reconstitute their social gathering but were instead scattered. Instead of that delicious self-righteousness gained in witnessing the victim getting his just desserts, they return home beating their breasts. This previews the long-term effect of the cross: the mechanism for our conventional means of being gathered is breaking down so that we are scattered, both socially and psychologically. Jesus came to offer us a new means of being gathered, but it is as the victim, not as the victimizer. Jesus will gather us like a hen, not a fox.
Notes from Swartley excerpt
1. This, however, is not the first time that mimesis plays a crucial role in Christian theological dispute. Jim Fodor, in a manuscript, “Imitation and Emulation: Training in Practical Christian Judgment” (For Stanley Hauerwas, The Divinity School of Duke University), observes that Augustine’s controversy with the Arians hinged on the issue of the Incarnate Son’s relation to the Father, as to whether or not the Son’s being is a true mimesis or only a pale reflection. Further, the issue arises in describing the interrelation of the Father, Son, and Spirit more broadly, and is thus intrinsic to the disputed doctrine of perichoresis (Fodor, 40).
2. A. Oepke, Nachfolge and Nachahmung Christi im NT, AELKZ 71 (1938), 853-69, and Edvin Larsson, Christus als Vorbild: Eine Untersuehung zu den paulinischen Tauf- and Eikontexten, Acta Seminarii Neotestamentici Upsaliensis XXIII (Lund-Uppsal: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1962).
5. Fodor, “Imitation and Emulation,” 47-48. Worth noting in this regard is that clearly in the thought and life of Ignatius (early second century), who profoundly emulates Paul, the concept of imitatio Christi is central. See Willard M. Swartley, “The Imitatio Christi in the Ignatian Letters,” Vigiliae Christianae 27 (1973), 81-103.