Last revised: September 14, 2019
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PROPER 13 (July 31-Aug. 6) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 18
RCL: Hosea 11:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
RoCa: Eccl. 1:2; 2:21-23; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
1. James Alison, Broken Hearts and News Creations, ch. 6, “‘Like Children Sitting in the Marketplace'” (and see an online version). Alison plays with the close relationship between this and other texts in Ecclesiastes and an earlier passage in Luke, 7:18-35, John the Baptist sending disciples to Jesus and Jesus’s response to them.
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 37. In a crucial section of the book, “God’s Turning toward His Enemies (excerpt),” Schwager cites Hosea 11 as an Old Testament passage with “graphic language about the divine mercy.”
Reflections and Questions
1. This passage truly is special in its depiction of divine mercy. Perhaps even more remarkable is that it completely refrains from divine violence. The people turn away and will suffer the consequences, but the raging sword (v. 6) is not said to be wielded by God. Rather, God reaches out to them in compassion.
2. The struggle in this passage, however, seems to be the question of how God will woo them back. Is it the divine compassion that they return to? Finally, it seems to be the roar of the lion (v. 10) that calls them back. This passage comes so close to the Gospel, falling a bit short, I think, with the lion image. When John the Seer looks up to see the Lion of Judah, he instead spies the Lamb of God standing slaughtered (Rev. 5:5-6). It is the Lamb of God who brings us back.
1. This passage is the beginning point for James Alison‘s eschatology in Raising Abel. You will find it on the dedication page as well as the opening to chapter 1 (p. 15), which bears the title “Fix Your Minds. . .”, and on the first page of ch. 6 (p. 117).
2. Another possibility for a Girardian reading of these lessons presents itself from chapters 7 and 8 of James Alison‘s The Joy of Being Wrong. In the section titled “Creativity and Creatureliness” (pp. 203ff.), he describes a certain human creativity as shot through with “vanity,” the main word from the Ecclesiastes passage. He then describes being set free from that vanity beginning on page 220 with a reference to Col 3:1-5. (The Col 3 passage is then referenced and quoted three more times over the next several pages [to p. 227].)
3. Alison also places his writing of Raising Abel into a moving autobiographical context in the recent paper from which I’ve previously shared portions with you (regarding Elijah and Paul’s letter to the Galatians on Proper 8 & 9), “Theology amidst the stones and dust,” now ch. 2 in Faith Beyond Resentment. He concludes the following autobiographical portion with the theme of dying and rising with Christ in Col 3:
***** Excerpt from Alison’s “Theology amidst the stones and dust” *****
Some years ago, in a Latin-American republic which I will not name, I found myself in a strange situation. I had arrived to take up a new job as a teacher of theology. After three days, my boss called me in and said: “Bad news, James. I’ve received a ‘phone call from fourteen religious superiors who are meeting in another country to tell me that if I don’t sack you immediately on the grounds that you are a militant homosexual, then those superiors will not send any pupils to our course” — a threat which implied the non-arrival of the money necessary for the course to function. Now please note this: the superiors made no allegation of a homosexual practice on my part, and at no time in the investigation which followed did they raise that as a question. The accusation was one of, let us say, a political or ideological militancy. My boss, an honest heterosexual, who found it difficult to understand the force of the violence unleashed by the gay question in the ecclesiastical milieu, absolutely refused to sack me, offering to resign his post rather than to accept such blackmail. A higher superior intervened, suggesting to the fourteen superiors that they had acted without the proper procedure, and that each one should put into writing and sign any accusation that he might have against me, so that the accused could answer his accusers. That is, the superior insisted on due process. No written charge was made. When an informal enquiry wondered whether there might be some accusation that one of them might like to mention, but not write down, again there was no accusation, though one or two apparently said “Of course, I don’t know the guy personally, but I have it from a very good source that…”Well, this is the story of a fairly brutal piece of violence, and I could embellish it in such a way as to win your sympathy, presenting myself as a victim. In that case the very act of telling the story would be something like a denunciation, and there would be goodies and baddies in the story. If that were the case, I would have learnt nothing from the incident, but would have adopted one of the perspectives which our culture offers us, that of the sacred victim; and I would have adopted that perspective as a weapon with which to attack one of the stereotypical “baddies” with which our culture also supplies us, the obscurantist and violent group of ecclesiastics. Thank God, much though I would have liked to present things in this way, God did not indulge me. Some weeks later, still devastated by what had happened, I went off to make a Jesuit retreat, and in the midst of that retreat something totally unexpected reached me: a perspective which I had perhaps understood intellectually, but which had never got through to my gut. It was the absolute separation of God from all that violence. I understood something new: that God had nothing to do with what had happened, and that it was simply a mechanism of human violence, nothing more. What enabled me to reach this, and here I am talking, of course, of the human means, was the realization that, since of this group of fourteen, I had only ever met three, all that violence (and apparently they had worked themselves up over this for a couple of days, finding it difficult to get round to the agenda of their meeting) could not be taken personally. Rather it was a mechanism within which the participants had got themselves caught up in such a way that they couldn’t perceive what they were doing. The moment I realized that I was dealing with a mechanism whose participants were its prisoners, at that same moment I was able to take distance from what had happened, and forgiveness started to become possible.
However that perception was not all. For, when I understood that God had nothing to do with all that violence, I began to understand something much more painful: the degree of my own participation in the mechanism of violence, not as its victim, but as a manipulator. For the charge that I was an “Internationally known homosexual militant” did not fall like lightening from a clear sky. Rather this incident was the third time that my behavior and attitudes in different countries had provoked a similar rejection. In fact, even though I have been “out” since I was eighteen, I had always denied being a militant, answering those who had been enraged by my attempts to open the possibility of honest and open speech, that they should indicate to me a correct and non-militant way of speaking with honesty about a matter which affects so many people in the ecclesiastical milieu, and which leads to gossip, accusations, and frequent injustice. Of course, within the ecclesiastical milieu, there is no such correct way. The very fact of suggesting that there is, in this field, something real in which we are involved, and about which we must try to speak if we are to have a modicum of transparency and honesty as Catholic Christians, the very suggestion is only perceived, and can only be perceived, as a threat. Where denial, mendacity and cover up are forces which structure a reality, the search for honest conversation is, of itself, the worst form of militancy.
Well, my reply, while formally correct, allowed me to hide from myself something which my various accusers had perceived perfectly clearly: that I was myself on a sort of crusade, that I had a zeal, and that this zeal was of a prodigiously violent force, powered by a deep resentment. In fact, I was wanting to create for myself, taking advantage of the ecclesiastical structures which sustained me, a space of security and peace, of survival, so as to avoid what I had seen happen to gay people in country after country: social marginalization, destruction of life projects, emotional and spiritual annihilation. That is to say, my brave discourse was a mask which hid from me my absolute cowardice of soul, for I was not prepared to identify myself fully with that reality, which I knew to be mine, with all its consequences. At root, I myself believed that God was on the side of ecclesiastical violence directed at gay people, and couldn’t believe that God loves us just as we are. The profound “do not be” which the social and ecclesiastical voice speaks to us, and which forms the soul of so many gay people, was profoundly rooted in my own being, so that, au fond I felt myself damned. In my violent zeal I was fighting so that the ecclesiastical structure might speak to me a “Yes”, a “Flourish, son”, precisely because I feared that, should I stand alone before God, God himself would be part of the “do not be.” Thus I was absolutely dependent on the same mechanism against which I was fighting. Hiding from myself the fact of having despaired of God, I wanted to manipulate the ecclesiastical structure so that it might give me a “self”, that it might speak to me a “Yes” at a level of profundity of which the ecclesiastical structure, like any human structure, is incapable. For the “Yes” which creates and recreates the “self” of a son, only God can pronounce. In this I discovered myself to be an idolater. I had been wanting to negotiate my survival in the midst of violent structures, and negotiation in the midst of violent structures can only be done by violence. The non-violent, the blessed of the gospels, simply suffer violence and perish, either physically or morally.
I am attempting to describe for you the form taken in my life by the irruption of the extraordinary grace which I received during my Jesuit retreat. Of course, I am describing schematically something which was a non-schematic whole, and which I have taken several years to begin to understand. First there was the perception of the absolute non-involvement of God in all that violence, then the perception of my non-innocence, and of my idolatrous and violent manner of having been caught up in all that. And then, at root, what began this whole process of beginning to untie myself from the idols I had so assiduously cultivated, what I had never dared to imagine, the profound “Yes” of God, the “Yes” spoken to the little gay boy who had despaired of ever hearing it. And there, indeed, I found myself absolutely caught, because this “Yes” takes the form, not of a pretty consolation for a spoiled child. Rather, from the moment it reached me, the whole psychological and mental structure by which I had built myself up over all the previous years, began to enter into a complete collapse. For the whole structure was based on the presupposition of a “No” at the center of my being, and because of that, of the need to wage a violent war so as to cover up a fathomless hole. The “I”, the “self” of the child of God is born in the midst of the ruins of repented idolatry.
A further point in this narrative, if you can bear it. In the months following this incident, I had to give a theology course. I called the course: “Fix your minds on the things that are above,” taken from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Ironically, I managed to give the whole course, which has even been published in book form, without tumbling to the significance of the verse which follows the one I had chosen:
“for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:1-3)
But it was exactly this that, at last, I was learning. The whole of my previous life had been marked by an absolute refusal to die. The absolute refusal to take on my baptismal commitment. Of course, because I was unable to imagine that my “self”, the “I” who will live forever, is hidden with Christ in God. And that was why I had to fight all those battles. The “I” who was present in all those battles was the old Adam, or Cain, a “self” incapable of understanding that it is not necessary to seek to shore up for itself a place on this earth, to found a safe space, to protect itself violently against violence. The “I”of the risen one only becomes present when, at last, the old “I” is put to death. And, thank God, this was exactly what the fourteen superiors had managed to set up for me. With the force of what Paul calls the Law, that is the mechanism of violent exclusion dressed up as the word of God, they had at last managed to kill that resentful old man. In its place, being something rather like a still small voice, something which I can in no way possess, nor grasp, is the “I” from which I now start to live. The “I” that is hidden with Christ in God, little by little, and somewhat tentatively, begins to build a new life story in the midst of the ruins of the previous collapse. (Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 36-40)
*****End of Alison Excerpt*****
4. Willard Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus / Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” ch. 11 of Violence Renounced, ed. by Willard Swartley; deals with the Pauline lists of vices, including Col. 3:5-9, pages 236ff.
5. Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, chs. 6-8 on Col. 3:1-4, chs.9-10 on Col. 3:1-17. This is a brilliant reading of Paul’s letter in a postmodern context. In conversation with both our contemporary culture and Paul’s first century Jewish experience of Roman imperialist culture, they provide targum readings of the text through Col. 3:4. The remainder of the Colossians is dealt with under the heading of Christian ethics. Check out this book and the excellent commentary that surrounds the targums. It is quite simply one of my favorite monographs on a book of the Bible.
Reflections and Questions
1. A good illustration for this passage might be the contemporary movie “Remember the Titans,” based on the true story of a high school football team coming together in the first year of legislated integration. Their past high schools, one white and one black, are dead, but they resist living in the new reality. Their coach has to take them out of town for a pre-season training session to help them form and live in a new identity. He tells them that he’s even going to have them walking and talking in new ways. They will need a complete makeover. They have put on new uniforms, with new names. And ‘in that renewal there is no longer white and black…’
2. What does it mean to say that our lives are hid in Christ? Does this mean our identities are hidden? Unlike the Titans football team, we don’t wear our name on our jerseys or an emblem on our helmets. We were the invisible sign of the cross on our foreheads. Is this what it means to have our lives hid in Christ? What should show, though, are the vices we’ve put off and the fruits of the Spirit that we’ve put on, right?
3. The last two vices named in the first part of Paul’s list, vs. 5, are epithymian kaken, “bad desire,” and pleonexian, “greed” or “covetousness.” Paul also makes sure we know that greed is idolatry. epithymeo is the word used to translate “covet” in the LXX versions of the Decalogue, and pleonexian is in common with the Gospel lesson of the day, as Jesus tells us to “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” More on this below.
4. Fixing our minds on things above rather than on the earth might also be another way of capturing the life-in-dialogue-with-God vs. life-in-dialogue-with-oneself that I develop below.
1. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, p. 207:
Take, for example, Jesus’ parable of “the rich fool” (Luke 12:13-21). The story comes in response to a family feud between brothers dividing an inheritance. Jesus says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (v. 15). The word “life” evokes the whole constellation of terms that serve as synonyms for “life in the kingdom of God” — eternal life (or life of the ages), life to the full, and “the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19). (Note: Interestingly, it is also Paul who preserves for us a saying of Jesus unrecorded in the Gospel accounts, but utterly consistent with them. It also has to do with money and is recorded by Luke in the book of Acts: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” [20:35].)
In the parable, Jesus doesn’t even give the rich man credit for his wealth: it is “the ground of a certain rich man” that “yielded an abundant harvest” (v. 16). Jesus then conveys the man’s social isolation through a monologue in which he speaks only to himself. Withdrawn into the world of his own self-interest, he neglects the common good.
What goal arises from his internal conversation? Exactly the goal of everyone in the theocapitalist economy: “Take life easy. Eat. Drink. Be happy,” and store up savings for future enjoyment. God names this man, not as a shrewd businessman or captain of industry, not as a successful entrepreneur with a good portfolio of securities, but simply “you fool.” This fool who only speaks to himself, neglecting the needs of others, proves incapable even of storing up things for himself, because at his untimely death, all he owns will be taken from him and given to the others he previously ignored. His economic system is, in the most ultimate sense of the word, unsustainable. Jesus offers this commentary: “This is how it will be with those who store up things for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, and sermon from August 1, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
4. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2016, “The Problem with Brothers“; a sermon in 2019, “Storing Up Treasures Rich toward God.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2016 the theme of greed in both the Epistle and Gospel Readings seemed a good time to introduce to this congregation (at which I was interim) to the basics of Mimetic Theory, resulting in the sermon, “Moving and Resting in God’s Desire” (borrowing the title from Andrew Marr‘s book, which had just been published).
2. Isn’t this story an illustration of somewhat desiring more than simply his daily bread? Last week’s gospel teaches us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” Part of this man’s foolishness involves not being satisfied with that prayer. Instead of praying to God for “daily bread,” this man talks to himself about stockpiling his bread well into the future.
As mentioned under Col. 3, the word pleonexian, “covetousness,” is held in common between the Second Lesson and the Gospel. The word link gives the preacher the opportunity to connect covetousness with the Tenth Commandment and help them to understand mimetic desire (without necessarily calling it that). René Girard opens his latest book (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning) with the Tenth Commandment. Among his insights is the pivotal role of the neighbor. The commandment begins listing things of the neighbors that thou shalt not covet. Finally, it gives up, almost in exasperation, and simply says, “everything that is thy neighbors’.” Obviously, it’s not the objects that matter most; it’s the fact that your neighbor desires them, so you desire them. Is this what it means to be rich toward God? We finally get out of the game of comparing wealth to neighbors and focus on being rich toward God. Once again, prayer becomes central. (See an excerpt of Chapter 1, “Scandal Must Come,” in a page on Girard’s reading of skandalon.)
In 2001, then, the sermon linked these insights, extemporizing around notes for “Praying in Christ as Antidote to Greed.”
3. For me, the key insight into the Parable of the Rich Fool is that he talks to himself. His only dialogue partner throughout the parable is himself, until God’s voice intervenes with reality. I take it that this isn’t just an incidental narrative choice since the man even goes to the rather comic point of formally addressing himself as psyche, “Soul.”
In mimetic theory, does this represent the extreme consequences of the primary “misrecognition,” that is, the self-delusion that our lives are not lived according to the desires of others? We fool ourselves into thinking that we are masters of our own desires, and we act out that ruse by talking to ourselves. But death has the habit of breaking into our self-made plans, and we are reminded that we share the objects of our desire with others: “Whose will they be?” When trapped in such self-dialogue, does it take death to snap us out of it?
Or can our lives be opened to the God who suffered death that we might be offered true life, a life in constant, creative dialogue with others? It is the Life of the God whose life is itself the constant creative dialogue we call the Trinity. Even God doesn’t simply talk to God’s self. God’s life is that of the Father and Son whose creative dialogue is mediated to us by the Holy Spirit.
4. In both 1995 and 1998 I preached this text by bringing together three biblical stories: the parable of the rich fool, Genesis 2-3, and the thief on the cross who is granted Paradise in Luke’s gospel. The twin themes that ran throughout were that of Paradise and the contrast of dialogue with creature/self vs. dialogue with Creator.
In 1998 I placed a greater emphasis on the Paradise theme, because the big news story of the week involved a $295 million power ball lottery. We have these great conversations with ourselves about how we would use that money. We, of course, would give most of it away, wouldn’t we? We fool ourselves about being beneficent, loving people by how we would reach out to others from our own little Paradises where we are in complete control.
The fact that we have this habit of talking to ourselves about what we would do with such lottery winnings is a great clue that we are in the same boat as the rich fool, when we allow ourselves to play such games. How did we get into such a state? Genesis 2-3 shows us. First of all, it shows us that Paradise is living life in creative dialogue with the Creator. The man and woman walk and talk with God in the garden. But one of the creatures intervenes as a rival to God, and the man and woman listen to it instead, placing themselves in rivalry with God. We lose Paradise when our primary dialogue partners become other creatures or ourselves.
But through Jesus Christ, right at the moment of death, the one thief opens his life to dialogue with God and is immediately in Paradise. Isn’t this of what Paradise consists? Life in dialogue with God’s desire? Does the situation of the thief on the cross also signal the insight of the Alison excerpt, and of Col 3:3, that this opening up takes a baptismal dying and rising with Christ?
Link to the 1998 sermon entitled “Paradise Lost . . . and Re-Opened.”