Last revised: August 24, 2016
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PROPER 16 (August 21-27) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 21
RCL: Isaiah 58:9b-14 (Luth.); Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
RoCa: Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30
The reflections for this set of texts have come together over a number of years, but several themes are seeming to merge together over that time: sabbath theology, creation theology, and the Girardian anthropological interpretation of Satan. When sabbath theology is based on a mythological interpretation of creation it tends to distort the latter and exert itself as the worst kind of natural law-based moralizing — which then becomes the basis for the victimage mechanism, which Jesus called “Satan casting out Satan,” to do its thing.
In Jesus’ day this manifested itself in sick people being viewed as sick morally in addition to their physical ailments and further cut-off from community. Jesus not only reached out to heal the sick but seemed to choose the sabbath as the best time — as a time to celebrate God’s continuing power of creation through healing — and refusing the moralizing interpretation of his day. In our day, I wonder if the issue of gay and lesbian marriage carries a similar mythological stygma. Instead of misusing the seven-day pattern of Genesis 1 to oppress people, do we similarly misuse the “male and female” of Genesis 1 to oppress people?
In 2013 the new resource on the Gospel Reading is from James Alison‘s essay “Inhabiting Texts and Being Discovered” in Jesus the Forgiving Victim. There is an extended reading of this passage on pages 362-71, with many fresh insights. See more below.
All of these themes (except the questions about gay and lesbian marriage, which are my own ponderings) come together brilliantly in the last resource mentioned near the bottom of the page: James Alison‘s essay “The Man Blind from Birth and the Creator’s Subversion of Sin,” ch. 1 in Faith Beyond Resentment. I want to mention it here at the top, too, because it is one of the groundbreaking essays in all of contemporary theology (a piece that has caught the eye, for example, of Stanley Hauerwas and Archbishop Rowan Williams). It is available online in pdf format as pages 26-46 in the journal Contagion, Vol. 4 (1997). There is also a briefer version of the main thesis in The Joy of Being Wrong, a section entitled “The Johannine Witness.” Enjoy!
Reflections and Questions
1. “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil…” This basically names the same ailment as Jesus names in the Gospel lesson. The hunched over woman is loaded under the yoke of oppression of the Satanic power of accusation. Girard’s work elaborates on Satan as the principal of accusation, of finger pointing and calling someone else evil, that has structured our human cultures since the beginning of time. This is the parable of Satan casting out Satan (Mark 3 and par.) in which the Satanic power of accusation is pointing the finger and identifying the other person as the evil “Satan.” Calling someone else Satan is precisely Satan’s masterful game of accusation, of Satan casting out Satan.
For more on Satan casting out Satan, see “My Core Convictions,” Part I.5.
1. See Proper 14C for a Girardian bibliography on Hebrews.
2. This is the passage which James Alison uses to close and summarize his book Raising Abel (p. 196). Here is how he introduces it:
There is, I find, a passage from the apostolic witness which is a kind of resumé of everything I have been seeking to say in these pages. And what is so extraordinary is that everything, absolutely everything, is there; insinuated by means of different images, of course, but, beyond any shadow of doubt, there. So we could say that this whole book is but a long gloss on that passage. You will find present the apocalyptic imagination as something past; its vision of God who causes trembling, also past; the world of the violent sacred, which has been overcome; and in their stead a new vision, the eschatological vision, centered on the living vitality of God which is emphasized by angels, mediated by the blood of the lamb. The passage even hints that this vision is to be understood as the definitive bringing to an end of the world order which was born with Cain, the order of the world since the first victim. And this vision is offered to those who hear as a means of nurturing their imagination so that they may live with boldness the hope opened up by Jesus. (Raising Abel, p. 196)
If you are new to Alison’s work, I recommend the opening couple sections to his argument in this book, the first two sections to chapter 2, “The Living God.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Continuing the discussion of Satan casting out Satan from the First Lesson: Jesus continues his “parable” with this observation:
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. (Mark 3:24-26)
Does this describe the shakeable human kingdoms, under the power of Satan, in the language of Hebrews 12:26-28? Because our human kingdoms are based on the Satanic game of Satan casting out Satan, they will always fall (again, see “My Core Convictions,” Part I.5). They are shakeable kingdoms because they are always divided against themselves in some fashion. The only unshakeable kingdom is the kingdom of God which Jesus ushers in by submitting to the Satanic game as the Risen and Forgiving Victim. His forgiveness breaks the cycle of Satan casting out Satan, revealing the game, so that Satan’s power is seen to fall from heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18). The kingdoms of this world are becoming the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15; the core of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”). In fact, the earthquake that preceeds these words in John the Seer’s vision of the Revelation very much fits the imagery of Hebrews 12:26-28:
At that moment there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon. Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 11:13-15)
2. The question for a Girardian is: how much of this picture might still be infected with the violent images of vengeance common to the apocalyptic genre? Is Revelation, or Hebrews, pointing to a divine violence? Or simply prophesying the human violence that will someday finally yield to the unshakeable nonviolence of the Kingdom of God? Alison‘s book on eschatology (Raising Abel) conveys the thesis that Jesus’ experience of God was about transforming the “apocalyptic imagination” into “eschatological imagination,” from an endtime featuring God’s monopolizing of violent vengeance to an endtime of the seemingly endless cycles of human violence and vengeance finally giving way to God’s forgiveness and gracious power of life. The apostolic witness in the New Testament manifests much of this tranformation, maintaining the endtime pictures of violence, but ceasing to specifically naming it as divine violence, and instead naming it as the Satanic human violence.
1. “Eighteen,” the number of years the woman has been afflicted, mentioned twice, by Luke in vs. 11 and by Jesus in vs. 16. Numbers often provide background clues in ancient texts. In the James Alison essay “Inhabiting Texts and Being Discovered,” in Jesus the Forgiving Victim, he suggests a link to a story that would have been well-known to Jesus’ Jewish listeners: the story in Judges 3:12-25 of Ehud liberating the people of Israel from an eighteen year servitude under the Moabite king Eglon.
2. “Hypocrites” (hypocritēs in Greek, from the Greek words for “under” and “crisis”). This word is actually quite rare in Scripture, appearing only in the Synoptic Gospels (a favorite word especially of Mathew’s Jesus) and two places in the Book of Job. Once again, James Alison calls attention to the Joban texts as a likely background for Jesus’ use of the word. Particularly impressive in this context is the fact that the Job 36:5-12 passage talks about being bound in fetters and afflicted, much like Jesus sees this woman. Elihu is addressing Job about a God who answers the righteous who are afflicted, those who are “bound in fetters and caught in the cords of the afflicted.” But there are those who don’t hearken to God’s help that the Septuagint translates as the “godless (hypocritēs) in heart,” who hold onto their anger, and “they do not cry for help when he binds them.”
1. James Alison, Essay 8, “Inhabiting Texts and Being Discovered,” in Jesus the Forgiving Victim, pp. 362-71, is specifically on this passage. With the above two passages from the Hebrew Scriptures in mind, Alison concludes:
[Jesus] comes into the synagogue, which is supposed to be the gathering of Israel, and what does he find? Israel bound down in affliction, symbolized by this woman here with her eighteen years of suffering. But unlike the Israel of old, is anybody crying out to the Lord for delivery? Not a bit of it! In fact the synagogue leader is behaving much more like Eglon than like Ehud. Both he and those present have become godless in heart, hypocrites, since rather than cry out and actually long for help, they would rather sit complacently gnawing over their own affliction. But this is not what the real Israel is about at all! The real Israel cried out to YHWH for delivery, and in the absence of that, well then, YHWH comes into their midst to give the afflicted their right. If they are bound in fetters, and caught in the cords of affliction, he declares to them their work … that they are behaving arrogantly. So please notice that Jesus is even now enacting in their midst what YHWH does, rebuking them for their arrogance and their weddedness to resentment which leads them to fail to cry out. But he is also delivering the afflicted by her affliction, and opening the ears of all of them through her adversity….
The overall dynamic is then of YHWH visiting his people in the midst of a synagogue meeting, so as to bring out what real Israel is really all about, as full of power and excitement as the sagas of old, showing them in three dimensions what it really is to be a child of Abraham. You can begin to get a sense then of how a synagogue full of people suddenly found itself hoicked out of its ordinary routine. All of its participants find themselves occupying different places within the stories, brought, if they could accept being urged to cry out more, to a real sense of what all the glories of Israel were really all about. These people were undergoing a visitation from YHWH, so no wonder they rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him. On the other hand, those for whom synagogue has become a Moabite cult, in which, as it says in the Book of Job, resentful people go down to their graves in shame because they don’t cry out, then, well, his adversaries were put to shame. (pp. 369-71)
2. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” audio lecture series, tape #8. These lectures are also now available online in clips; this portion is covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 95 and Part 96. Here are my notes on this portion:
- Jesus is teaching on the sabbath. It’s a set-up; we know what happens on the sabbath: someone typically comes to Jesus for healing. It’s a woman for whom a spirit had crippled her for 18 years so that she cannot stand up straight. It’s a spirit which has crippled her. Later on we will learn that it is Satan who has bound her, whose name means the Accuser.
- Remember again: an affliction in the 1st century worldview meant that you were out of favor with God.
- Jesus sees her and calls her over. A theme of this portion of Luke’s Gospel is about “sinners,” those who are metaphorically bent over from Satan’s afflictions, those who are most typically accused by others and thus stand bent over under their oppression. Jesus begins his liberation of “sinners” with a woman who is literally bent over
- He frees her, and immediately she is able to stand up straight, and she praises God. We have over the past hundred years of psychoanalytic therapy been trying to get people to stand up straight without praising God, and it hasn’t worked too well. They stand up straight and eventually curl back over again. Can ultimate healing come without the praising of God? This story offers a wonderful metaphor for what Jesus’ ministry was all about: healing others by helping them to stand up straight and praise God.
- The Pharisees are upset, as usual, about healing on the sabbath. Jesus responds with his intricate knowledge of the sabbath rules. There were elaborate rules, for example, of what knots you could untie without it being classified as work. You could untie your domestic animals to let them get water. Jesus seizes on this piece of minutia to say, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” The crowd begins rejoicing. The liberation Jesus brings is not going to be shackled by these nervous, fidgety scrupulosities.
3. Jesus names the power binding the woman as Satan. There are many great Girardian resources on the devil and Satan. Because Girard interprets things anthropologically — not otherworldly — he helps make sense of anthropological realities which go beyond flesh and blood but are still of human origin.
Satan, for example, is a powerful anthropological reality in 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). His later book, as the title of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning suggests, uses the New Testament language of Satan as his main hermeneutical tool for once again laying out his anthropological theory from yet another angle. The first three chapters give an especially close reading of the New Testament language of Satan and how it resonates with what his theory explicates in more modern categories and language that can converse with contemporary theories of anthropology. But Satan as an interpretive tool continues throughout the book, as can be seen especially in a section from Ch. 8, “Powers and Principalities,” an excellent explication of how we’ve been trying to present Satan here (including references to the Book of Revelation as we did above).
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”; and (2) Gil Bailie, from Violence Unveiled, sections both on “The Devil and Satan” and “Scandal.”
The New Testament naming of the powers behind human violence as Satanic has been among the most important hermeneutical tasks for Girardians. Once again, the power of this Girardian analysis is precisely to tie the powers of Satan to anthropological powers. (See one section earlier than above in “My Core Convictions,” Part I.4, especially I.4.4.) Satan is not a power that can be compared to the power of the Living God, the God revealed through Jesus Christ. We avoid Manichaeism — twin powers, enemy brothers, one good and one evil — when we are able to circumscribe Satan’s powers as anthropological, as depending on human reality for their survival. Satan exists because we exist. And we are unbound from Satan’s power when we come to realize the far surpassing power of the Creator’s powers of unconditional grace and life. In Jesus Christ, we have the opportunity to know the Living God and to become unbound, as surely as the woman in today’s gospel. We are able to stand up straight and finally praise the Living God.
Link to a sermon of healing and wholeness as liberation from Satan’s power, entitled “Standing Up Straight and Praising God.”
4. Another theme in this gospel lesson is that of the sabbath. James Alison links the New Testament picture of Jesus and the sabbath with its theology of Christ and Creation. A section from ch. 2 of Raising Abel subsequent to the first two section excerpted above, is a section called “Creation in Christ” which I also excerpt for you here. But it is in the next chapter, in a close reading of John’s Gospel, that Alison ties the New Testament’s creation theology to Jesus and the sabbath. Here is an excerpt of that section entitled “Opening up Creation”:
There is another dimension to what John understood of Jesus’ imagination: something less apparent but no less important. It is not so much something different from what we have described, as a different way of describing the same thing. Throughout his Gospel John scatters hints of what he said in the Prologue: that God created the world with and by means of Christ. This is especially emphasized in the way John presents Jesus as working on the Sabbath. There is a particular justification for Jesus’ work on the Sabbath which is only found in John. Jesus answers those who question this practice:
My Father carries on working until the present, and I work also. (John 5:17)
Now, please note: this is not the sort of obvious answer which “sensible people” would give, because they have a general notion of God, who, of course, works the whole time, so, why shouldn’t we carry on working as well? We have something rather more dense. Jesus is formally denying that God is resting on the Sabbath, a solemn contradiction of Genesis. God is creative effervescence, constantly and lovingly creating, so that the institution of the Sabbath, while it may be important for us humans to rest, is a symbol of creation yet to be completed, and still needing its fullness. So Jesus also works, that is to say, brings creation to its proper fulfillment, making people whole on the Sabbath. These works he does not only for the benefit of those who get cured, but as signs. Such signs are real acts which point to something more than themselves. They point to the real work which Jesus is carrying out through his creative self-giving to death as a model for us to do the same, that is to say, bringing about the possibility of the fulfillment of all history. Let us look at a further insinuation of this in the story of the man blind from birth in John 9. He was born blind, which is to say that in him creation was quite definitely not completed. On a Sabbath Jesus brings to fulfillment the work of creation, thus giving glory to God. The former blind man even goes so far as to say (and John’s literary style and subtlety are, at least for me, a source of immense pleasure):
Never since the world began (ek tou aionos) has it been heard that someone opened the eyes of one born blind. (John 9:32)
That is, Jesus is fulfilling what was missing from the beginning of creation. That this is, obviously, a sign for everyone rather than just a gift for the blind man is shown by the discussion which follows between Jesus and some Pharisees who were present at his meeting with the (now) former blind man. Jesus points out that those who know themselves to be blind receive their sight, while those who think that they see participate in the mechanism of expulsion (they have just thrown the former blind man out of the synagogue) and see absolutely nothing. Jesus insists that the works which he carries out ought to bear witness that he comes from the Father. He tells this to those who pick up stones, preparing to kill him, in John 10:31-39. For us to be able to understand that Jesus’ works give witness to the Father, I think that it is vital for us to understand what Jesus is saying to them. He is not saying: “Look here, I’ve done plenty of good works, and that means I’m a holy sort of fellow” but rather “Look, what I am doing could not be done except by the Creator of all things Himself. Even if you don’t particularly like me, at least look at the creative works and the signs. By whom else could these things be done if not by the Creator? So, He is working through me, and that does indeed authenticate the fact that I am a dependable representative of God’s.”
The fact that people hate him and seek to do away with him, even though they have seen the works which he carries out, suggests that these people are not just made uncomfortable by him, but that they are in fact locked into a profound aversion to creation itself. They are clinging on to a form, futile, useless and shot through with death, of incomplete creation, and resisting being completely created — which means coming to be completely dependently and joyfully creative, following what we saw in our discussion of Jesus’ “flexible paradigm.”
So that when, in John 16:20-21, Jesus uses the language of a woman in labour to describe his going to his death, John places in his mouth the same metaphor which Paul uses to describe the whole of creation in travail, through the persecutions which bring to light the children of God (Rom. 8:18-23). Jesus’ self-giving up to death is the fulfillment of creation, the putting of creation into a state of labour, so that we also, by our creative imitation of him in the midst of the order of death can come to be the fully-created creatures which God always wanted us to be, and with us, the whole of creation. It is because of this that Jesus’ last word before his death in John’s Gospel is telelestai: it is accomplished, it has been brought to fulfillment. This means that creation itself has been brought to fulfillment by his self-giving up to death so as to open up for us a creative way by which we may come to participate fully in creation. It can be understood, then, why the resurrection happens on the first day of the week, in the garden. Creation has started again, a creation in which the tomb is empty.
I emphasize this point, subtly hinted at by John, because if we are going to come close to recovering the eschatological imagination, I don’t think that we can do it while we imagine Jesus dragged boredly to an unnecessary death. John understood Jesus to be possessed by a completely extraordinary imagination, utterly fixed on God, in such a way that as a human being he could produce the final touch of divine creation, which consists in creatively imagining a way in which we — the rest of the human race — might be set free from what seems to be our very nature: mortality, and the way in which death runs our lives. John also gives a very important indication of how Jesus himself conceived of what he was doing: he speaks of the joy of Jesus. Jesus draws nigh to his death with joy. His creative work is perhaps — how could it be more — solemn, and in our eyes, terrifying. Perhaps it did produce a trembling and a sweat of blood, but it was conceived in joy by someone whose creative mind was fixed on an inexhaustible creative joy. This joy is something which he wanted his disciples to have:
And now I come to thee, and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves. (John 17:13)
He had told them before, that, after they have seen him at the resurrection, they will rejoice, and no one will take away their joy (John 16:22). This joy, like the peace which Jesus gives but the world cannot give, is the joy which flows from the fixing of the mind on the utter vivaciousness of the living, effervescent God who knows not death; a fixing of the mind which will be possible for them after Jesus has opened the possibility for mortal humans (shot through with death) to participate in that creative love and life by going to his death. John is not the only witness to this. We have already read in the Epistle to the Hebrews:
…[our] eyes fixed on Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2) (Raising Abel, pp. 72-75)
5. A heavy dose of James Alison this week. One of the biggest payoffs of the above insights into John’s creation theology is the linking of it to our other main theme today of Satan casting out Satan. Alison does this in his more extended and brilliant reading of John 9, a true gem of contemporary theology (one that has caught the attention of Stanley Hauerwas and Rowan Williams, for example). You will find this reading in The Joy of Being Wrong, pages 119-125, and in an essay published both in Contagion 1997 (Vol. 4), pages 26-46, and in Faith Beyond Resentment as ch. 1, “The Man Blind from Birth and the Creator’s Subversion of Sin.”
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2016, “The Day the Clouds Cleared for a Moment“; John Davies, a sermon in 2016, “The Re-Creation of the Sunday Girl.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In the recent times through the Year C cycle with Luke’s Gospel, and the Pauline readings from Galatians, I’ve highlighted the cultural dimension of human sin. In 2013 I used the image of ‘the crack in the container’ — culture as the container for our lives — and God’s salvation as sending the Messiah to begin repair of the crack. (Two previous sermons that featured this theme were Proper 8C and Proper 15C.) This Gospel Reading provides an opportunity to further explore the repair project through the cultural dimension of healing. This isn’t just the story of an individual being healed. Jesus is confronting much in their culture that impedes healing instead of furthering it. He is healing not only a person but launching the process of healing our human systems of healing. Two thousand years later we are finally beginning to reap more of the fruits of what he started. Link to the 2013 version of the sermon “Healing People as a Sign of Healing the World.”
In 2016 I had preacher earlier in the summer on all the Galatians readings, bringing out the notion of cultural sin through Paul’s critique of the law — see especially the sermons from Proper 9C and Proper 10C. The theme of the cultural dimension of sin is Thing Hidden from us since the foundation of the world — which the Gospel finally reveals and Mimetic Theory helps to focus and clarify. So it is a dimension of reading the Sunday texts which I continued to highlight most weeks in this 2016 cycling of the Year C texts. The 2016 version of “Healing People as a Sign of Healing the World” goes further that the 2013 version in emphasizing the healing of our health care systems. It also footnotes (though I didn’t include it in the sermon) the pertinent statement from Girard in Ch. 15 of The Scapegoat, “History and the Paraclete,” where he succinctly states the role of the Gospel in the evolution of modern science (and medicine),
The scientific spirit cannot come first. It presupposes the renunciation of a former preference for the magical causality of persecution so well defined by the ethnologists. Instead of natural, distant, and inaccessible causes, humanity has always preferred causes that are significant from a social perspective and permit of corrective intervention — victims. In order to lead men to the patient exploration of natural causes, men must first be turned away from their victims. This can only be done by showing them that from now on persecutors “hate without cause” and without any appreciable result. In order to achieve this miracle, not only among certain exceptional individuals as in Greece, but for entire populations, there is need of the extraordinary combination of intellectual, moral, and religious factors found in the Gospel text.
The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise in an economy, is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text. (204-5)
2. The excerpt from James Alison directly above urges us to take careful consideration of the profound depth of Jesus’ challenge to sabbath theology. I count eight distinct (not counting parallel) episodes of Jesus healing on the sabbath and/or making some sort of challenge to sabbath theology of Jewish leaders of his day: Mark 1:21-28 (par. Luke 4:31-37); Mark 2:23-28 (par. Matt. 12:1-8, Luke 6:1-5); Mark 3:1-6 (par. Matt. 12:9-14, Luke 6:6-11); Luke 13:10-17 (our Gospel Lesson); Luke 14:1-6; John 5:1-18; John 7:19-24; John 9 (the sabbath highlighted in vs. 13-17). We might note that Luke adds two accounts of his own to the three that he repeats from Mark, giving Luke the most of such accounts in the gospels with five. Mark and Luke each also include their own versions of Jesus challenging his hometown crowd at Nazareth on the sabbath, Mark 6:1-6 and Luke 4:16-30, respectively. Finally, the crucial account of the Passion and Resurrection is wrapped around the sabbath. The gospels directly note that Easter begins “after the sabbath” on “the first day of the week.” Christians have marked this benchmark of the Christian faith by moving our day of worship after the sabbath to the first day of the week. Our worship celebrates not the Genesis picture of a day of rest upon the completion of creation but the first day of the new creation in Jesus Christ, a creative force that is still coming about, in which we are invited to participate. What do we make of this apparent Chritian challenge to the sabbath theology of the Hebrew Scriptures? Is it a challenge? What is the significance of the preponderance of passages in the Gospels of Jesus and the sabbath?
3. A connection I make with the theme of Jesus challenging the reigning sabbath practice of his day is to connect it with the “orders of creation” theology today as it often leads to exclusion of gay and lesbian people. The Genesis 1 creation story already demythologizes the sacrificial violence of other creation stories, but mythological elements remain. One is the mythological element of structuring time in seven-day weeks, the basis of Jewish practice of the sabbath. (Other cultures have structured time in other ways; a seven-day week is just one possibility.) Another one of those elements might be “created male and female” (science seems to be increasingly showing that, while male-female is the most common occurrence of sexuality in nature, it is not exclusive), to the extent that it is used as an “order of creation” to rule out any other created gender orientation. If Jesus rebelled against his contemporary practice of the sabbath as oppressive, would he similarly rebel against our contemporary use of “orders of creation” theology to oppress gay and lesbian people? I raise these questions in “My Core Convictions,” Part IV.4.4.
In 2004 my sermon went from seemingly obvious cases of rules oppressing people to tougher cases in which the role of rules is a bit more of an open question, concluding with the issues of rule-making around gay and lesbian people in many church bodies. Link to “From Delight at Red Faces to Honest Questions.”
4. There is a trend these days to lift up sabbath theology in the face of our modern addiction to work, an addiction that often gets linked to having enough resources to continue feeding our addictions to the consumption of material goods. Sabbath theology, with an emphasis on rest, on time out from work for re-creation, is placed in the breech to help curb our addictive behaviors. There’s a growing number of books on sabbath theology. There’s workshops on how to observe the sabbath in the face of these addictions. Time management strategies make room for sabbath talk in order that we might include rest as part of our time management skills.
But I’m not sure that an emphasis on rest is to the point of the sabbath theology that Jesus is trying to convey to us in these Gospel pictures of Jesus on the sabbath. In the two crucial Johannine passages of John 5 and John 9, Jesus explicitly makes work the focus of the discussion. When challenged for his not observing the sabbath rest in the prescribed ways, Jesus talks about coming to do his Father’s work (John 5:17, 20, 36; 9:3, 4). (Altogether John uses the word “work” 28 times in his Gospel story of Jesus.) I’m not trying to imply that there’s no place to talk about rest when we try to answer the problems human beings have with work. But perhaps more to the point is Jesus calling us to re-orient our work, to let our experience of work be transformed. If our work can be experienced according to Jesus as joining our heavenly Father in the ongoing work of new creation, then perhaps that will be more to the point of having our work redeemed. Times of rest and prayer and renewal didn’t seem to be a problem for Jesus. Luke, especially, is constantly showing Jesus taking time for prayer and renewal. But it isn’t necessarily connected with the sabbath. I think that Jesus and the sabbath is more about the redemption of work so that we are freed from our bondages to work that lead to unhealth.
This Gospel story is a splendid one that shows Jesus unbinding someone through his work, which is portrayed not as a proper resting but as a proper sabbath work. Sabbath work is precisely work that frees us to finally do the work that we are created to do, that all of creation is created to do: praise God. This woman is able to be unbound from the burden of Satanic work so that she is immediately able to do her proper work as a beloved creature of God. She is freed to praise her Creator. Jesus seemingly gives us an example not of sabbath rest but of the sabbath work of re-orienting our work in a way that liberates it.
1. This text was formerly in the Lutheran lectionary, following the Roman Catholic one, but now that Lutherans follow the RCL it is only in the Catholic lectionary — which is unfortunate, because it is a challenging and important passage. Since it’s now an optional passage for most preachers, let me give the text for reference:
Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
2. A sermon by Matthew Duckett, Parish of Old St. Pancras, London, with Mimetic Theory very much in play.
1. I never chose to preach on this passage when it was in the Lutheran lectionary. Now that it isn’t officially in the RCL, I might choose it as an option sometime in the future. In 2010 Pastor Bob Carr (at my home church, Faith Lutheran, Livonia, MI, now closed) chose this text as the Gospel for my mother’s funeral (who had died August 30, the week of this Gospel). His main text had a wonderful baptismal theme of God the Potter molding us, from Jeremiah 18:1-6, but the Gospel text of Luke 13:22-30 seemed a strange choice. Perhaps it was an inspired one, however, since that text really hit me in a powerful way.
I avoided preaching on this text in the past because of its seeming exclusiveness. But since reading N. T. Wright and writers of Emerging Church theology (especially Brian McLaren), I have new ears to hear. In the modern era, we have tended to hear the “narrow door” as exclusive in the sense of what we need to believe about Jesus on the way to an otherworldly salvation of ‘going to heaven.’ Only those who believe in Jesus can go to heaven. In postmodern times we are trying to hear Jesus’ message of salvation in ways inclusive of the whole creation. Jesus came to launch the Way of New Creation. It is basically an inclusive message, meaning to embrace all things in the end — as the text itself indicates in its close, prophesying people coming from all corners of the earth. But the Way into this new world begins as a narrow way. Why? Because still in our sin-enslaved cultures the beguiling way of Satan is the road more travelled — Christ’s Way the road less travelled (the “narrow door”).
Something very important in our family is antiracism work. (My wife worked many years for an excellent organization, Crossroads Antiracism.) The most effective road to antiracism work is a narrow way. It understands that racism is a thoroughly institutional and cultural entity that goes far beyond personal prejudice. In today’s world, it is very easy to ‘do multiculturalism’ in racist ways if the more narrow way of organizing against racism on an insitutional basis isn’t followed. The goal of antiracism work is very inclusive, but the path to arrive there in a racist world is a narrow one.
Another analog would be peace work. The wide door of peace in our world is through superior firepower. Nations honestly believe that the way to peace will be won through a super-military victory. Christ’s way of peace through nonviolent resistance to the powers of violence is the narrow way. I’ve recently read (in 2010) James W. Douglass’s extraordinary book JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. From the perspective of a peace theologian in the tradition of Gandhi and Thomas Merton, Douglass recounts the story of JFK moving toward extraordinary breakthroughs in peacemaking when the assassination cut it short. He quotes a January 1962 letter of Merton’s:
I have little confidence in Kennedy, I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task, and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensitivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what the politicians dont have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self-forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that some day by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.
Douglass, with help from many sources declassified since the Warren Commission, shows how Kennedy was beginning to live that miracle — and how it increasingly alienated him from his military establishment. The Cold War strategy to peace of Kennedy’s National Security Council is the wide door of human history — the “Time and Life mentality.” Kennedy, even inspired by Pope John XXIII, was beginning to open Christ’s narrow door to peace — the only way that can achieve an all-inclusive peace. Again, the goal is all-inclusive, but the way to achieving it is narrow way chosen by too few people.
The original context of these musings was my mother’s funeral. And these insights work on the personal level of struggles against the powers of sin and death in our everyday lives, too. How has mimetic desire worked conflict and rivalry into family relationships? Is there alcoholism or any number of other dysfunctions that wound and cripple? The way to healing in Jesus Christ is a narrow way. It’s offered to everyone, but the way is narrow to true healing. In following the Crucified and Risen One, it generally follows through the suffering to new life. Often, our preferred, wide paths are around, or otherwise in avoidance of, the source of suffering. The narrow way of healing is through the source of suffering, trusting in the one who does give forgiveness and new life.