Last revised: November 23, 2013
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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
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. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 97.
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.
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. 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. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 120, in discussing the so-called problem of the delayed parousia.
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.
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)
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