Last revised: September 9, 2016
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PROPER 17 (Aug. 28-Sept. 3) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 22
RCL: Proverbs 25:6-7 (Luth.); Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
RoCa: Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Reflections and Questions
1. Out of context, this is rather standard conventional wisdom. In the context of faith in Yahweh, do these verses become more than conventional wisdom? See the discussion below concerning Borg’s distinction between conventional wisdom and Jesus’ unconventional wisdom.
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
1. See Proper 14C for a Girardian bibliography on Hebrews.
2. For a more thorough Girardian assessment of the word “sacrifice,” as used in verses 15-16, see Raymund Schwager‘s essay “Christ’s Death and the Prophetic Critique of Sacrifice,” Semeia 33, pp. 109-123.
Reflections and Questions
1. In his excellent commentary on Hebrews (Interpretation), Thomas C. Long quotes (on p. 143) the third century book on church order “Didascalia,” giving instructions to the bishop:
If a destitute man or woman, either a local person or a traveler, arrives unexpectedly, especially one of older years, and there is no place, you, bishop, make such a place with all your heart, even if you yourself should sit on the ground, that you may not show favoritism among human beings, but that your ministry may be pleasing before God.”
The letter to Hebrews, in its closing remarks, reflects the kind of hospitality in the early church that Jesus suggests in today’s gospel. Long also raises a contrast with a passage from the Qumran community:
How have we done on that score since the early years of the church? Are we closer to the “Didascalia,” or to the community order reflected in this passage from a Qumran text?:
And let no person smitten with any impurity whatever enter the Assembly of God. And every person smitten with these impurities, unfit to occupy a place in the midst of the Congregation, and every (person) smitten in his flesh, paralyzed in his hands and feet, lame or blind or deaf, or dumb or smitten in his flesh with a blemish visible to the eye, or any aged person that totters and is unable to stand firm in the midst of the Congregation: let those persons not enter.” [1QSa 2:3-8, quoted by Culpepper in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8, p. 287.]
My assessment would be that, over the centuries we have fallen back closer to the latter rather than the former. Most handicapped people could not even get into our churches until the government began to require changes that finally woke us up to a renewed sense of hospitality. And what if we evaluated our hospitality in terms of ‘moral blemish’? People with addictions felt so unwelcome that they started their own communities, Alcoholics Anonymous, et al. Until recent years, getting a divorce also meant having to leave the church to avoid its judgmental rules and attitudes. A big issue in my denomination (ELCA) right now is being a “Reconciled in Christ” congregation, a congregation which is sensitive to ways in which it is welcoming or unwelcoming of gays and lesbians.
2. The more recent Girardian assessment of the word “sacrifice” allows for the more positive sense of the word, especially as transformed by Christ from the old form of sacrifice, spilling someone else’s blood, to meaning “self-sacrifice.” The Letter to the Hebrews has already explicitly noted the difference:
Nor was it [for Christ] to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then [Christ] would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:25-26)
Having already established the difference, the author of Hebrews can now speak in terms of sacrifice in 13:15-16 as the new way to live as disciples of Christ. We “offer a sacrifice of praise to God,” similar to the move that St. Paul makes in the latter part of Romans (12:1), that we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, our spiritual worship. And: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:16). Worship and an ethics of self-sacrifice are linked together in both of these passages.
3. We might make the connection, then, between the first two points. The exclusivism of the Qumran community was of the old form of sacrificial logic. The hospitality of the “Didascalia” reflects the transformation of the old sacrifice into the living of self-sacrificial lives.
Luke 14:1, 7-14
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 181, on “Reputation and Shame.” Alison makes the Girardian point that we receive our sense of worth from other human beings and takes as his basic passage John 5:41-44, where the Greek word doxa (“glory”) can be translated “reputation.” He quotes this week’s gospel during the course of making his point. Here is a portion:
*****James Alison’s Raising Abel, pp. 180-183*****
When the apostolic witness speaks of heaven, of the manifestation of God, or of the coming of the Son, there is always a word added, and it is the word ‘glory’. This word has become popularized in phrases like “May God have her in his glory”, this being understood as synonymous with “May she rest in peace”. Well, I would like to concentrate a little on this word glory, because it is much more interesting and informative than it might seem at first sight. Our word ‘glory’ translates the Greek word doxa, whose basic meaning is opinion or reputation.Let us see how this works by looking at two different ways of translating some verses from John’s Gospel:
I receive not glory from men. But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you. I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive. How can ye believe, which receive glory one of another, and seek not the glory that cometh from God only? (Jn 5:41-44)
Thus the Authorized version, slightly altered (I have replaced ‘honor’ with ‘glory’). Now let us paraphrase it like this:
I do not receive my reputation from other humans, but I know that, at heart, you do not love God. For I have come representing God’s person, and you pay no attention to me. If another were to come, with no more authority than his own, you would have no difficulty in receiving what he had to say. How can you believe in the One God if you depend for your reputation on your imitation of each other, and do not seek the reputation which God alone can give?
Not only do we lose nothing of the original in the paraphrase, but Jesus’ logic becomes much clearer to us. He takes it for granted that we, as human beings, depend absolutely on someone other to give us our sense of worth. That is, at root we all have a profound need that someone should recognize us, and how we act is deeply motivated by our need to obtain such recognition. We all need that someone should take note of us and tell us “I have noticed you, and I like what you are doing”. The problem which Jesus raises with his listeners is the same question as we have seen in other circumstances: on which ‘other’ do I depend to be noticed and told “I like you”?I think that there are two possibilities: I can depend entirely on my peers, in which case my goodness, my striving to do well, and the sort of life I lead will be a reflection of them, and I’ll have to do everything to keep myself well-considered by them, receiving those whom they receive and excluding those whom they exclude, so as not to run the risk of finding myself the excluded one. Not only all these things, which might seem superficial, like the little games of hypocrisy which we all have to play to keep our social life going, but it is also the case, perhaps without my realizing it, that all my “I” is nothing other than a construction forged by the difficult game of keeping my reputation. There is no other “I” at the bottom of it all, behind the “I” which I am acquiring through the little manipulations by which I search to keep my reputation. My “I” and my way of being related to the “other” are the same thing.
The other possibility is that I receive my “I” from God, and here’s the rub: God has an awful reputation. Which is nothing other than saying that God’s reputation and the reputation of the victim are the same thing. That is what Jesus was suggesting: in order to receive your reputation, your being noticed and recognized, by God, you have to be prepared to lose the reputation which comes from the mutually reinforcing opinion and high regard of those who are bulwarks of public morality and goodness, and find it among those who are held as nothing, of no worth. That is also what Paul says to the Corinthians:
God chose what is weak in this world to put to shame what is strong; God chose what is base and despised, even things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are. (1 Cor 1:27-28)
Now the couplet ‘glory’ or reputation, and ‘shame’ appear throughout the apostolic witness, never very far from one another. Let us see some examples: in the Lucan parable of the wedding banquet, the one who sits in a higher position is put to shame, while the one who sits in a lowly place is publicly recognized by the host, who says:
“Friend, come higher” Thus will you receive glory in the face of the other guests. (cf Lk 14:8-11)
In a place as different from Luke as 1 Peter is, we read:
If someone suffers as a Christian, let them not be ashamed, but let them glorify God in this name. (1 Pt 4:16)
That is, the shame suffered as a consequence of building the story of the victim is the way by which we give a just reputation to God. This couldn’t be clearer in a passage of the Gospel which is certainly an authentic word of Jesus, for it reappears in various places in slightly differing guises:
For whosoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and evil generation, of that one will the Son of man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26; cf also Mt 10:33; Lk 12:9)
So we see here that it is not only a matter of insisting on how we are to give glory to God, being prepared to construct a tale of ill-repute in imitation of the one who was numbered among the transgressors, but that one of Jesus’ preferred ways of speaking about heaven itself is in terms of receiving the glory, or reputation, which comes from God. Heaven will be a superabundance of a glorious reputation, the recognition with high praise of the life story that has been built by the one who was not ashamed to act in flexible imitation of the Son. If we return to the passage from John with which we began, we can now see exactly how glory works: the order of this world has its own glory, which depends on mutually rivalistic imitation, and is a glory or reputation that is grasped and held onto with difficulty. Being enveloped in the order of this world prevents us from beginning to act in solidarity with those of poor repute, because if we do so we lose our reputation. But those whose minds are fixed on the things that are above, that is, those who have begun to receive their “I” from their non-rivalistic imitation of Jesus, already begin to derive their reputation from the Father and not from their peers. This they do in the degree to which, doubtless with much difficulty, they learn to give little importance to the reputation which people give them, and thus become free to associate with those who have no reputation, just like the one who was numbered among the transgressors.
If they manage not to be ashamed of what the world treats as despicable, then, when the final revelation of the Son of man with angels appears, where it will be established beyond doubt who God really is, that is, the risen victim will be the central axis of all the life stories that are under construction; then, at that moment those who were little concerned about the loss of their reputation will receive an everlasting reputation: they will hear in the midst of a huge public what every little child wants to hear from its parents: “That’s right, little one, that’s what I wanted; I like what you’ve done.” (Raising Abel, pp. 180-183)
2. James Alison, Broken Hearts and News Creations, p. 65, in Chapter 4, “Discipleship and the shape of belonging,” also available online. Discipleship is marked by utter gratuity in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection. Alison writes, leading up to a quote of this passage:
Let us start from the end, which is in itself odd. Mostly we imitate people who are, just as we aspire to be, “on the way up,” growing, becoming more successful, more beautiful, richer, stronger, more prestigious and so on. By definition most of these people are not yet “at an end.” It is their glamour, not their cadavers, which we imitate. In the case of what Christ is offering us, it is just the reverse, for the central thing which he is offering is living without death, something which no one else, before or since, has ever offered or made available. And the form of this offer is not to push his contemporaries towards some heroic act of sacrifice, assuring them of celestial rewards, while quietly watching from the sidelines. It is to have undergone death in advance for us in quite specific circumstances so as to remove for ever the fear of it, and the way it drives us. It is, if you like, to create spacious mansions of being indwelt by the living God, there where others would see only death and loss.
I want to stress this, since it is really what is absolutely central about the discipleship of Christ. He makes no demands from us until he has created something for us first, and it is only then that he asks us to imitate him: “As I have loved you, so love one other” (cf. John 13:34, 15:12). This means that never, at any stage, will we be in rivalry with him, or with anyone else in order to survive, since survival is not what it’s about, nor do we get anywhere by trampling on anyone else. There is nowhere to get to, since the whole purpose of the imitation is to undergo death in advance of our biological finitude, so as to live thereafter as if death were not, or, in the phrase of my friend Sebastian Moore, “with death behind us.”
So, the first rule of reciprocity is already pre-broken. Gratuitous benevolence has started to turn reciprocity on its head. He has done something for us which no one could ever repay, or return. And he is not remotely interested in our repaying or returning it anyhow. What he asks us to do is to multiply the gratuity, by doing other gratuitous things to and for others without any hope of repayment. Notice what this looks like: a command to create gratuity rather than expect reciprocity, so … [quotes Luke 14:12-14]
3. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, pages 144-46. In Ch. 16, “The Language of the Kingdom,” McLaren is suggesting multiple alternatives to the “kingdom of God,” and one of his proposals is the “Party of God,” based on all the stories and parables of Jesus having to do with parties, feasts, and banquets. He writes,
Today we could say that God is inviting people to leave their gang fights and come to a party, to leave their workaholism and rat race and come to a party, to leave their loneliness and isolation and join the party, to leave their exclusive parties (political ones, for example, which win elections by dividing electorates) and join one inclusive party of a different sort, to stop fighting or complaining or hating or competing and instead start partying and celebrating the goodness and love of God. (144)
His chief illustration is a great story about Tony Campolo on the road throwing a late-night birthday party for a prostitute at the diner by his hotel. I use this story in an Epiphany 1A Sermon (2014) and decided to use it (in a different congregation) with this passage in the 2016 sermon, “Feasts, Food, and the Mission of Creating One Human Family.”
4. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, “Sacrifice Sacrificing Others!“; and a sermon in 2016, “It’s All About Ranking and Rivalry“; John Davies, a sermon in 2016, “It Cannot Stop at Soggy Bottoms: Values Beyond Bake Off in an Inhospitable World.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2013 the congregation was celebrating its 50th anniversary and had commissioned an evening prayer liturgy, based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings, by church musician Joseph Byrd. The closing canticle is on the text:
Each day tells the other: my life is but a journey to great and endless life. O sweetness of eternity, may my heart grow to love thee: my home in not in this time’s strife.
The sermon, “‘My Home Is Not in This Time’s Strife,’” was a meditation on the text, calling attention to the phrase “time’s strife.” Recent generations of Christians have thought about the heavenly home as a different place. The more Jewish way to think about it is as a different time, an era of peace that God’s Messiah would usher in. The Resurrection prompts an adjustment on that Jewish worldview, namely, that the next age of life-in-peace has already begun, overlapping with the passing away of the old age. So what does it mean to begin living according to the new age in the face of the waning powers of the old age? The Gospel Reading provides a glimpse that Mimetic Theory helps to parse. The first half deals with living without rivalry in following Jesus as one who seeks the lower place. Which leads to the second part about a transforming social reality where those who are normally left out in the old age are specifically welcomed in the new age.
2. In 2007 I extemporized a sermon around notes on the prominence of dining in the Bible, and especially surrounding Jesus, that also featured playing a song by Bryan Sirchio, “Table of Friendship & Love.” Not in the notes was concluding with a brief meditation on the Eucharist, around a story of a Muslim man who had recently come to Communion at our congregation. He was a professor at the local university who had been invited to speak about Islam at our Sunday adult class. Our lay leader was hospitable in welcoming him to attend worship, too, which he graciously accepted. The culture I strive for around the Eucharist emphasizes inclusion. But then I need to be prepared when a Muslim visitor feels welcomed to participate in the table sacrament! Strictly speaking, it doesn’t fit the rules of baptism before communion. But there was no question of my refusing someone who didn’t quite fit the rules. Afterward I asked him about it, having noticed he took the bread but not the wine (which would be against the rules of abstaining from alcohol for his faith practice). He said that he was inspired by the open fellowship and welcome, so as to not turn down the invitation out of respect, but also abstained from the wine in respect for his being Muslim, a disciple of Muhammed more than Jesus. It was a moving moment for me in many years of Eucharistic practice. I felt like this is what the Eucharist is truly about.
3. In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg put a number of things quite clearly which are helpful in reading this gospel passage. One is his characterization of Jesus as a teacher of Wisdom (and later as God’s Wisdom incarnate) and the accompanying distinction between conventional wisdom and alternative wisdom (see especially pages 75-81). In Luke 14:8-11, Jesus begins his teaching with some nifty conventional wisdom. But in 14:12-14 he is his more typical self in going far beyond conventional wisdom to an alternative wisdom that subverts the conventional wisdom.
Borg’s earlier distinction between a politics of holiness vs. a politics of compassion (see especially pages 53-56) help characterize the difference between conventional wisdom and alternative wisdom. According to conventional wisdom, where one sits at the table is a function of one’s rank of holiness or prestige; and whether one is even allowed to partake of the common meal is a function of purity. Jesus regularly bashed this purity system, a system of community order, with his behavior and teachings around common meals. This gospel gives another example.
From a Girardian perspective, one’s anthropological understanding of the purity system becomes even more clear, along with Jesus’ incarnation of God’s order (“kingdom”) based on forgiveness and compassion. Human culture always tends toward some system of purity. In primitive cultures the purity was tied to the sacrificial cult. In modern societies, purity is gauged according to the “rule of law.” While Jesus may have more pointedly challenged the sacrificial cults, I believe St. Paul to have especially extended Jesus’ gospel alternative to the developing “rule of law.” Both Jesus and Paul preached only one law, the “law of love,” which in Borg’s terms is a law of compassion.
4. In our old Lutheran lectionary we formerly had the Luke 13:22-30 passage, about the difficulty of getting in through the narrow door, for last week’s Proper 16C Gospel. It’s the same Gospel Lesson that the Catholic lectionary still uses, but one we now skip over. When we last used that lectionary in 1995 (before switching to the Revised Common Lectionary in 1996), I preached a sermon on this week’s gospel that referred back to that passage on the narrow door (Luke 13:22-20). In talking about how Jesus uses a piece of conventional wisdom in this Luke 14 passage, I used a theme of “Lest You Get Beat at Your Own Game” to reprise the narrow door parable as a way of understanding the deeper significance of the Luke 14 etiquette lesson.
5. In 1998, I used an excerpt from Madeleine L’Engle‘s Dragons in the Waters to raise the issue of things falling apart in latter half of the 20th century even to the point of noticing common manners and courtesy increasingly missing. Some take this as a cue to rev up the rhetoric for a return to traditional values. Girardian anthropology recognizes this as a symptom of something deeper, a growing “sacrificial crisis” in which the societal order maintained by the reigning sacrificial logic is breaking down. This story about Jesus, then, suggests a sermon that seeks to take us “Beyond Traditional Family Values.”