Last revised: November 10, 2019
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PROPER 27 (November 6-12) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 32
RCL: Job 19:23-27a; 2 Thess. 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
RoCa: 2 Mac 7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thess. 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
November in the lectionary is often a month of apocalyptic images, or to use the fancier theological term, eschatological — having to do with “end times.” James Alison employs both of these terms in his book Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination in order to make a vital distinction regarding human vs. divine violence. Homo sapiens begins with gods who restrain mimetic violence with sacred violence. The hope for peace within that worldview is for divine violence that will end violence — an apocalyptic violence. Humanity, in short, is born with an apocalyptic imagination with an ultimate hope in divine violence.
Jesus, in Alison’s brilliant eschatology, is the beginning of a revelation, an apocalypse, of an entirely different God, a God of love who is utterly void of violence. Jesus begins to cultivate an eschatological imagination for which the only violence is humanity’s. Alison’s explanation of this shift in imagination begins with our Gospel Reading for this day, as he uses Luke 20:27-38 (and its Markan parallel, 12:18-27) to establish the deathlessness of God as the starting point for a God ‘pruned of violence’ who is love. (Chapter 2, “The Living God,” in Raising Abel is a must read in the Alisonian corpus; see more below under the Gospel.)
The other place of explanation comes shortly after citing 2 Thessalonians 2 in Chapter 6 of Raising Abel, “The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Delayed Parousia.” It is worthwhile to quote Alison at length for his explanation of the shift in imaginations:
You will have noticed, on reading the passages which I quoted, and above all those from Thessalonians, that they use a great deal of violent language: the day of vengeance, of punishment, of affliction, and other such expressions. None of this seems to sit well with what I’ve been trying to set out in previous chapters about the coming about of a perception of God that is pruned of violence. Let us face up to this apparent contradiction. The passages which employ this violent language make use of a literary recourse that was widespread in the eastern Mediterranean at the time of Jesus, and is called by its students the “apocalyptic” genre. When we talk of a literary genre we are talking about a way of imagining things that enjoyed a certain popularity, that is we are talking about an imagination. Now, this literary genre, which had been in development since the late prophetic literature (and which can be found well-developed in, for example, the book of Daniel, as well as in other books which we do not usually have in our Bibles, like those of Esdras), has certain characteristics. Normally there is a heavenly vision, mediated by angels, and the end of this world is promised, along with a consolation of the just, among other things. It was in this ambience that the vision of the resurrection of the Maccabee boys which we have already looked at was born.
According to Wayne Meeks, a student of this subject, the apocalyptic genre, and for that reason, the apocalyptic imagination, is characterized by the presence of certain dualities, which can be characterized as follows: a cosmic dualism, that is between heaven and earth (with heaven becoming known through visions mediated by angels); a temporal dualism, between this world, or age, and the world, or age, to come which will begin with the end, probably the destruction, of this one; and a social dualism, that is a division between the good and the bad, the righteous and the impious, the afflicted and the persecutors. This dualism, which imagined the present distress of the righteous and afflicted, would of course be reversed in the age to come. The language which Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians seems to fit exactly into this explanation.
Now, what vision of God and of time lies behind this imagery? It is clear that we are not looking at a pagan version of the eternal return, that is a vision which flows from death to death. The Jews knew very well that such an understanding of time is incompatible with belief in the One Living God. They understood full well (and this had come about during the time of the prophets along with the birth of the understanding of human responsibility and of the possibility of choosing between this or that course of action in a particular historical circumstance) that time runs towards a judgement; this conception is only accessible in the degree to which linear time came to be born. What I suggest to you is that the apocalyptic imagination understands this time-running-towards-judgement still within an understanding of a partial God, just towards the righteous, and implacable with the iniquitous, and that the apocalyptic imagery serves as a way of imagining an ultimate eschatological vengeance in favour of those who feel they are victims, those who resent the present order of things. That is, while the apocalyptic imagination is a huge advance over the pagan imagination, it is still stuck within a notion of a violent God.
The question then, is this: when Jesus talked of his coming and of the end, was he simply enclosed within the apocalyptic imagination? That is, did he accept the dualities proper to the apocalyptic imagination as part of what he was preaching and announcing? It will come as no surprise to you if I say that, as I see it, he was not. It seems to me that what we have with Jesus is precisely and deliberately the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. What I have called the eschatological imagination is nothing other than the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. That is, Jesus used the language and the imagery which he found around him to say something rather different. . . .
It is evident that Jesus did not simply accept the social duality of his time, the division between good and evil, pure and impure, Jews and non-Jews. In fact, his practice and his teaching add up to a powerful subversion of this duality. Neither did he accept the cosmic duality, as can be seen in his announcing the coming about now of the Kingdom of God. . . .
There is then a good prima facie reason for thinking that the subversion of the apocalyptic imagination by what I have called Jesus’ eschatological imagination is something proper to Jesus rather than something invented by a disconcerted early community in the face of the indefinite postponement of the Day. This prima facie evidence deepens somewhat when we discover that at the root of the subversion which Jesus was making of these dualities, the criterion of the victim is to be found. Jesus offers a prophetic criterion in terms of ethical demands that are capable of being carried out as the basis of his subversion of these dualities: the social duality is redefined in terms of the victim, so that the victim is the criterion for if one is a sheep or a goat (Matt. 25), or if one is a neighbor (Luke 10); it is victims and those who live precariously who are to be at the centre of the new victim people, to whom belongs the kingdom of God which is arriving (Matt. 5-6). No one can be surprised that this insistence, more in the line of the prophetic imagination than the apocalyptic, comes also to be subversive of the cosmic and temporal dualities. It is thus that the forgiving victim, the crucified and risen one, comes to be, himself, the presence of the kingdom in the here and now.
If we consider it in this light, it doesn’t seem surprising that there should have been a development among the members of the apostolic group in the period after the resurrection. If we take the notion of the “end” understood as vengeance, just as it is found in 1 Thessalonians, it is a vengeful end which depends exactly on there being insiders and outsiders, so that the afflicted are vindicated, and the persecutors punished. But in the degree to which the perception of God changes, becoming, as we have seen, shorn of violence, two realities are altered simultaneously: the separation between goodies and baddies, insiders and outsiders, enters into a process of continuous collapse and subversion, and at the same time the “end” cannot remain as a vengeance if there is no longer any clarity about who’s an insider and who an outsider, and under these circumstances the notion of the end itself changes . . . : it becomes a principle of revelation of what had really been going on during the time that has been left for the changing of hearts. . . . That is, as God is shorn of violence, of necessity a new conception of time is discovered, the time in which the new universality is built. In this way the End, rather than being a vengeful conclusion to time, comes to be a principle, operative in time, by means of which we may live out the arrival of the Son of Man, the being alert for the thief in the night, the whole time. (pp. 124-27)
Alison goes on to name this time as the “time of Abel” — “The time in which the innocent victim is made present to us as forgiveness, and thus, little by little, allows us to let go of all the sacred mechanisms of which we lay hold so as to fortify ourselves against our own truth” (pp. 134-35).
There is one further resource I’d like to bring forward in these opening comments: Scott Cowdell‘s recent important work of Girardian theology, René Girard and the Nonviolent God. He places Alison’s “Time of Abel” into the wider context of Hans Urs von Balthasar‘s pioneering work on Theo-Drama — which Raymund Schwager melded with Girardian anthropology in his main work Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. Cowdell builds on Schwager’s work to offer his own version of a five part Theo-Drama, expanding it to encompass all of evolutionary history:
- The Pre-Human Paradise of Savage Innocence. Natural processes in the universe give rise to a habitable planet and to the emergence of life, which advances in complexity to the brink of consciousness through an evolutionary process that includes natural selection, entailing a great sacrificial cost in terms of animal suffering and death.
- Hominization, the Primal Murder, and Providence. The Genesis story illustrates “the fall” into mimetic entrapment of our legendary first parents, Adam and Eve, who allowed themselves to be drawn mimetically from freedom into a posture of rivalry with God, pointing forward to the primal murder of Abel by Cain at the foundation of settled human existence.
- The Breakthrough. There are glimpses of awareness concerning this sacrificial mechanism in the tragic literature of Western antiquity and in Eastern religions. However, from the beginning of its unmasking in the Hebrew scriptures to its complete exposure in the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Holy God is revealed in human history and a new way of being human emerges beyond false-sacred solidarity at the expense of victims.
- The Best of Times. The Worst of Times. This assessment of the revolutionary age, with which Charles Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities, captures the modern paradox according to Girard: a world of both greater good and greater evil than ever before.
- The Un-Theorized Eschaton. Christian eschatological . . . promises a final resolution of history’s conflicts and the peace that the gospel prefigures, as a fitting end that will illuminate and transform our complex and conflicted experience within the Theo-drama. But because this final consummation of God’s kingdom is quite outside the purview of mimetic theory, the eschaton remains un-theorized by Girard. (A shortened version of Cowdell’s sketch on pages 130-33)
We are living in Part 4 of this Theo-Drama. Let me conclude by filling out Cowdell’s elaboration of this era in which we live, an overlapping of the “present evil age” and the “age to come.” He writes,
This assessment of the revolutionary age, with which Charles Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities, captures the modern paradox according to Girard: a world of both greater good and greater evil than ever before. The Word makes its way in this world through the wider cultural impact of Judeo-Christian revelation, including but not limited to the church’s mission; the Holy Spirit — the “advocate for the defense” of victims — begins to undo the previously unquestioned antipathies and pathologies of violent exclusion lying at the root of human culture. This yields an inexorable drive toward secular modernity as the false sacred contracts. Human rights and justice for those formerly disdained and marginalized grow in the modern West as a result of the Judeo-Christian breakthrough, with previously unimagined blessings for individuals, categories of persons, and societies at large. It is a time in which generosity and forgiveness proliferate, beyond the pagan norms of blood feud and scapegoating, so that victims and victimizers can be reconciled. Because it is about undoing the legacy of primal murders, James Alison calls it “the time of Abel.”
Yet this undermining of the false-sacred mechanism also has a dark side. It threatens social cohesion as scapegoat victimizing loses its former efficacy, releasing a potentially dangerous instability into world history. The peace and unity that came with scapegoating and the prolongation of its effect through religious myth and ritual can only now be held in check by newer versions of the katéchon/katéchōn (2 Thess. 2:6-7) such as the modern nation-state and consumer market. The escalation to extremes of military conflict from the time of Napoleon, as discerned by Clausewitz, threatens the end of human history under the sign of New Testament apocalyptic. Humanity’s violent mimetic tendencies are most likely to win out against the Christian revelation — an outcome that early Christianity itself foreshadowed with its apocalyptic literature. Girard insists that history remains open-ended (freedom again), dismissing the historical determinism that he finds in modern thinkers from Hegel to Francis Fukuyama, though he admits to being terrified by the possible prognosis at which he has arrived. (p. 132)
With the rise of authoritarianism and racist versions of nationalism, we are definitely seeing the worst of times. How can disciples of Jesus help lead us into better times? My primary criticism of Girard is that when he commented on the times we live in, he highlighted things like militarism but never mentioned its counter-force, movements of nonviolent resistance. I am finding Jim Wallis‘s new book Christ in Crisis to be an excellent guide for discipleship in these times.
1. René Girard, Job: The Victim of His People, chapter 19, “‘My Defender Lives,'” pp. 138-145 (quoted specifically on p. 140). Also, Girard wrote summary versions of this book-length monogram published in two places: Semeia #33: René Girard and Biblical Studies, “‘The Ancient Trail Trodden by the Wicked’: Job as Scapegoat,” pp. 13-41; and in The Voice from the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job, ed. by Leo Perdue and Clark Gilpin (Abingdon, 1992), “Job as Failed Scapegoat,” pp. 185-207 (with his most specific comments on Job 19 on p. 203). In the Semeia volume, Baruch Levine has a response to Girard’s essay, “René Girard on Job: The Question of the Scapegoat,” pp. 125-133.
2. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, ch. 6, “Job: The Failed Scapegoat,” pp. 163-184, especially p. 168. Williams has another version of his essay in the same Perdue & Gilpin volume above, “Job and the God of Victims,” pp. 208-231.
3. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories, Story 5, “Victim to Vindication,” pp. 146ff. Lesson 1 in this Story is entirely on the book of Job, and Lesson 2 is on that central term go’el, “redeemer” or “vindicator,” as in, “For I know that my Redeemer lives . . .” (Job 19:25). After a thorough reading first of Job and then of Go’el in the Hebrew Scriptures, Bartlett sums up his findings for Jesus and the New Testament:
How does all this work? It has to be because the truth of the nonviolent victim is established before God, and in the very same moment the victim becomes a source of forgiveness and is restored by God. There are only hints given us and they are muddled at best. But the Bible is striving toward a new meaning of redeemer and vindication. It is moving from the victim demanding vengeance through a reciprocal murder, to the victim bringing life through the truth of nonviolence and forgiveness. The Bible is, therefore, not simply about recognizing the victim. In the end it is about the nonviolence of the victim and the victim’s restoration by divine means other than violence. In this way the character of God too is changed, from the use of violence, to one who vindicates nonviolence.
In the New Testament Jesus himself acts as redeemer in the Old Testament sense (all the healings are examples, but see especially the raising of the dead son of the widow of Nain in Lk 7.11-17). Then in his own life he dramatically fulfills the Biblical arc of the victim, in the cross and resurrection. He becomes a forgiving victim raised up physically and historically by the power of God. In this sense he becomes the definitive go’el. Through his resurrection and its vindication of nonviolence all are redeemed. (p. 161)
4. For a reading by a student of Girard’s whose reading of Job diverges on key points, see Sandor Goodhart, Sacrificing Commentary, ch. 6, pp. 168-212.
3. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 97.
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 11, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. A key Girardian insight into this particular passage, and the controversy over the Hebrew word ga’al, “redeemer,” “avenger,” “vindicator,” is that it might have a similar sense as the John’s word for the Holy Spirit, Paraclete, which means Defender of the Accused. Girard understands the Paraclete as the opponent of Satan, which does also fit into this context of the canonical form of Job. Girard himself argues that the opening and closing chapters are additions to the original dialogues of Job, and that they distort the original meaning of those dialogues. Nevertheless, these additions do give us a glimpse of Satan in the familiar role of Prosecuting Attorney, the Accuser, to which Job 19:25 might be translated as, “I know that my Defender lives,” or, “I know that my Paraclete lives.” Link to the page “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.”
2 Thess. 2:1-5, 13-17
1. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p. 186. In a brilliant summary section on the notion of apocalyptic violence, Girard refers to St. Paul’s notion of katechon that is featured in two of the verses skipped over in this lection, 2 Thess. 2:6-7. In two short sentences I think he states the matter in a worthy ‘sound bite’: “Christ cannot bring us a peace truly divine without depriving us first of the only peace at our disposal. His peace entails this troubling historical process through which we are living.” The peace which the world gives us is the relative peace of sacred violence that maintains order by virtue of the victimage mechanism. The cross slowly and inexorably takes that away from us. But if God’s peace in Jesus Christ does not take its place at the same pace, then violence increases to threateningly apocalyptic proportions.
I give you this entire section on apocalyptic violence, which also ends with the question of world religions and the uniqueness of religious traditions around the Gospel:
The word of the gospel is unique in really problematizing human violence. All other sources on humankind resolve the question of violence before it is even asked. Either the violence is considered divine (myths), or it is attributed to human nature (biology), or it is restricted to certain people or types of persons only (who then make excellent scapegoats), and these are ideologies. Or yet again violence is held to be too accidental and exceptional for human knowledge to consider. This last position is our good old philosophy of Enlightenment.As we stand before Joseph, on the other hand, or before Job, before Jesus, before John the Baptist and still other victims, we wonder why so many mobs expel and massacre so many innocent persons. Why are so many communities caught up in madness?
The Christian revelation clarifies not only everything that comes before it, the religion and culture of myth and ritual, but also everything that comes after, the history we are in the process of making, the ever-growing disintegration of archaic religion, the opening into a future joining all humankind into one world. It is more and more liberated from ancient forms of servitude, but by the same token, it is deprived of all sacrificial protection.
The knowledge we have acquired about our violence, thanks to our religious tradition, does not put an end to scapegoating but weakens it enough to reduce its effectiveness more and more. This is the true reason why apocalyptic destruction threatens us, and this threat is not irrational at all. The rationality enters more profoundly every day into the concrete facts of contemporary history, questions of armament, ecology, population, etc.
The theme of apocalypse has an important role in the New Testament. It is not at all the mechanical repetition of Jewish preoccupations that would make no sense in our world. This is what Albert Schweitzer thought, and many biblical scholars continue to assert it. To the contrary, apocalyptic is an integral part of the Christian message. If we are not aware of this, then we amputate something essential from this message and destroy its coherence. The preceding analyses lead to a purely anthropological and rational interpretation of apocalyptic expectations, an interpretation that does not ridicule them but understands their relevance.
By revealing the secret of the prince of this world, the Passion accounts subvert the primordial source of human order. The darkness of Satan is no longer thick enough to conceal the innocence of victims who become, at the same time, less and less “cathartic.” It is no longer possible really to “purge” or “purify” communities of their violence. Satan can no longer expel Satan. We should not conclude from this that humans are going to be immediately rid of their now fallen prince.
In the Gospel of Luke Christ sees Satan “fall like lightning from heaven” (10:18). Evidently he falls to earth, and he will not remain inactive. Jesus does not announce the immediate end of Satan, not yet at least. It is rather the end of his false transcendence, his power to restore order through his false accusations, the end of scapegoating.
The New Testament has quite a repertory of metaphors to signify the consequence of the Christian revelation. We can say about Satan, as I’ve stated, that he can no longer expel himself. We can say likewise that he can no longer “bind himself,” which amounts basically to the same thing. As the days of Satan are numbered, he tries to gain the most from them, and quite literally, he unleashes himself.
Christianity expands the range of freedom, which individuals and communities make use of as they please, sometimes in a good way but often in a bad way. A bad use of freedom contradicts, of course, what Jesus intends for humanity. But if God did not respect the freedom of human beings, if he imposed his will on them by force or even by his prestige, which would mean by mimetic contagion, then he would not be different from Satan.
Jesus is not the one who rejects the kingdom of God; it’s human beings who do so, including a number of those who believe they are nonviolent simply because they benefit to the utmost from the protection of the principalities and powers, and so they never have to use force themselves. Jesus distinguishes two types of peace. The first is the peace that he offers to humanity. No matter how simple its rules, it “surpasses human understanding” because the only peace human beings know is the truce based on scapegoats. This is “the peace such as the world gives.” It is the peace that the Gospel revelation takes away from us more and more. Christ cannot bring us a peace truly divine without depriving us first of the only peace at our disposal. His peace entails this troubling historical process through which we are living.
What delays the “unbinding of Satan”? St. Paul, in the letter to the Thessalonians [2 Thess. 2:6-7], defines it as a katechon, as that which contains the Apocalypse in the twofold sense of the word as noted by J. P Dupuy: to have within itself and to hold within certain limits. This “containing” is made up of a set of qualities that contradict one another, and in particular the force stemming from the inertia of the powers of this world, their inability to understand the Revelation of Christ in spite of their worldly intelligence and adaptability.
True demystification has nothing to do with automobiles and electricity, contrary to what Bultmann imagined. Real demystification comes from our religious tradition. We “moderns” believe we possess intuitive knowledge solely because we are completely immersed in our “modernity.” Let us not confuse true enlightenment with the idolatry of the here and now.
Why is the true principle of demystification stated fully only in one religious tradition, the Christian tradition? Isn’t this intolerably unfair in the era of “pluralisms” and “multiculturalisms”? Isn’t the main thing to make no one jealous or envious? Aren’t we supposed to sacrifice truth to the peace of the world in order to avoid the terrible wars of religion for which we must get ready everywhere, so it is said, if we are going to defend what we believe to be the truth?
To respond to these questions I will let Giuseppe Fornari speak:
The fact that we possess a cognitive tool unknown to the Greeks does not mean we have the right to think ourselves better than they and the same is true in regard to non-Christian cultures. Christianity’s power of penetration has not been its particular cultural identity but its capacity to redeem the whole history of man, summing up and surpassing all its sacrificial forms. This is the real spiritual metalanguage that can describe and go beyond the language of violence. . . . This explains the prodigiously rapid spread of Christianity in the pagan world, absorbing the living force of its symbols and customs. (1) (I See Satan, pp. 184-187)
2. On the subject of the katechon from 2 Thess. 2:6-7, Girard cites: Wolfgang Palaver, “Hobbes and the Katechon: The Secularization of Sacrificial Christianity,” in Contagion (spring 1993): 57-74.
3. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 120, in discussing the so-called problem of the delayed parousia. See more above in the opening comments.
4. Scott Cowdell, René Girard and the Nonviolent God, p. 132. See more above in the opening comments.
5. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 87, 146. On p. 87 he says,
According to the witness of Paul, it seems that there was at that time the idea that the adversary of the end-time exalts himself and even “proclaims himself to be God” (2 Thess. 2:4). If Jesus’ opponents saw in him a figure who was in league with Beelzebub and ruled by the spirit of lies, then it was not hard to understand his claim in connection with the adversary of the end-time, and to interpret it as blasphemy.
6. N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, pp. 145-52. I especially like his description of the “Lawless One,” which sounds all to familiar at our moment in history:
Most us of have met people who create a web of lies around themselves, and come to believe in the false world they have invented. Sometimes, alas, such people are deeply religious, and their devotion convinces them that they cannot possibly be mistaken. . . . There comes a point, it seems, when someone sinks so deeply into lies and wickedness that they pass beyond any further ability to recognize truth and goodness. (pp. 146-47)
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 35-41. This synoptic passage has a very prominent place is Alison’s presentation of eschatology. It is basically Alison’s “leadoff hitter” in showing how Jesus’ mind was fully into the eschatological imagination. To me, the key paragraph is:
So when, earlier, Jesus had said to the Sadducees that they didn’t understand the power of God (Gr: Ten dynamin tou theou), now we begin to understand what this power might consist in. Jesus isn’t talking about some special power to do something miraculous, like raising someone from the dead. Rather he’s giving an indication of the sort of power which characterizes God, something of the quality of who God is. This ‘power’, this quality which God always is, is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let’s put this another way: for us ‘being alive’ means ‘not being dead’; it’s a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death. [p. 38]
See the first two sections in ch. 2, “The Living God,” which contain Alison’s rather extensive comments on this passage.
2. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 164. In an essay primarily on the Hebrew Scriptures, there’s a section making the transition from monotheism to creation-out-of-nothing to resurrection. After quoting from 2 Maccabees 7, he writes:
It is noticeable that, as in Isaiah, it is this facing down of a persecuting human order, a moment of victimization, that enables witness most fully to be borne to the inexhaustible life of God. It is also clear here that when we talk about the doctrines of “creation” or of “resurrection from the dead” we are not talking about a description of processes which are somehow internal to things existing in the universe. Instead, we are talking about aspects of the singular vivacity of God. And it was of course in those terms that Jesus answered the Sadducees (in Mark 12.18-27 and parallels). The Sadducees were a rather elite group which held that there is no resurrection of the dead. They invited Jesus to comment on the issue in a manner which was clearly taken from the story of the Maccabees, the “poster boys” for popular belief in the resurrection, since the question they pose to him is about seven brothers who die, one after the other. Jesus’ reply to them: “Is not this why you are gone astray, for you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” brings to light exactly the fullest consequences of the discovery of monotheism — creation out of nothing and the deathlessness which flows from God — which we have been glimpsing at work throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Sadducees had couched their question ironically, within a familiar Maccabean backdrop. Jesus, in reply, gives as his example of the Scriptures and the power of God the story of Moses and the Bush from the book of Exodus, where God says to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Jesus’ point is that for God who knows not death, those people, long dead in terms of the supposed historical chronology of Moses’ life, were alive. If they were alive to God, contaminated as it were with God’s utter aliveness, held in presence by one whose presence is beyond time, then they are alive. It’s God’s aliveness that counts in understanding all these things. (pp. 164-65)
3. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” taped lectures, tape #10. These lectures are also now available online in clips; this portion is covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 139, Part 140, Part 141, Part 142, Part 143, Part 144, Part 145, Part 146. In the midst of commenting on Luke’s apocalyptic section, Bailie does an excursus on 2 Thess. 2 and the katechon (Second Reading above). Link to my notes.
4. 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,” wrote a brief essay on this passage in 2013, “Jesus Explodes with Life: His Reply to the Sadducees.”
Reflections and Questions
1. I consider these ideas about life and death the key to understanding Alison’s Girardian take on theology. It challenges me a great deal. And, if my understanding is correct, I think Alison might say that this is the key to understanding the full impact of the Christian message. His first chapter in laying out what original sin consists of (link to an excerpt of The Joy of Being Wrong, chapter 4, “The Resurrection and Original Sin”) also centers on this notion that our human experience of death is so distorted that we completely misunderstand who God is, thinking that God somehow has a role in death, when God is completely a God of Life.
I wonder about a so-called “natural” view of death. We are mortal creatures who die, after all, right? But I think that Alison is trying to get us to see that our experience of death is completely cultural, so that there is no such thing as a “natural” experience of death. And at the heart of human culture is murder — violent, ‘unnatural’ death carried out by human beings. The Resurrection starts us on the road of being able to finally catch a glimpse of these truths. At the same time as it shows us our cultural experience of death, it shows us that there is also a birth to New Life through the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. We could never admit our enslavement to death if we were not already forgiven it.
How does one begin to preach such themes regarding our being completely mistaken about death and life? This Gospel text, according to Alison, assumes the revelation to which we human beings are most resistant: the fact that we are absolutely and completely wrong about death — which is the controlling factor in our fallen human existence. (This is where Ernest Becker‘s Denial of Death might have some real bearing on a Girardian foray into Christian theology such as the one Alison has given us. Heidegger also concludes philosophically that we are “Beings-toward-Death.”) As such, it is the sermon which we would least like to hear. I’m not sure how to preach it, though I gave it a shot in 2001.
2. Pastor John Davies of Liverpool preached his 2004 sermon based on these reflections on James Alison’s interpretation of this passage, a delightful sermon entitled “To God all are alive.”
3. Link to a sermon based on these themes, especially Alison’s reading of this passage, entitled “Stewards of Life.” (It was Stewardship Sunday that day, the occasion to renew annual commitments of time, treasure, and talents to the shared ministry.)
Note from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning