Last revised: July 9, 2016
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PROPER 9 (July 3-9) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 14
RCL: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:(1-6) 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
RoCa: Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20
Reflections and Questions
1. This paints one of the most nurturing pictures of God in the Old Testament — not uncoincidently, also one of the most feminine. (See Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, p. 64.)
But, then, we should also deal with the two verses that follow immediately after this passage, Isaiah 66:15-16: “For the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury, and his rebuke in flames of fire. For by fire will the LORD execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh; and those slain by the LORD shall be many.” How does one put together two such disparate images of God?
I agree with Paul Hanson (Dawn of Apocalyptic) that Third Isaiah manifests movement into the genre of apocalyptic literature. It easily divides between the righteous and unrighteous, between the redeemed/vindicated and the destroyed/judged. This would help to explain Isaiah 66:10-16: God playfully nurses the wounded remnant of Israel and then slaughters her enemies with vengeance. Again, this is an example of René Girard‘s “text in travail” (i.e., on its way to full revelation in the gospel) and James Alison‘s thesis about Jesus transforming the apocalyptic imagination into the eschatological imagination (Raising Abel) by subverting the theme of vengeance.
2. V. 12: “For thus says the LORD: ‘I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream.'” I’ve heard that Adam Smith had this passage in mind when he chose the title of his book, “The Wealth of the Nations.” Some musings on capitalism might be appropriate this holiday weekend. Clearly, the dual god of blessings and curses has worked well for us, justifying both our accumulation of wealth and the slaughter of our enemies, i.e., those who stood in the way of, or threatened, our accumulation of wealth.
Galatians 6:(1-6) 7-16
1. Last week I gave an excerpt from an address given by James Alison to a theological conference in Mexico — entitled “Theology amidst the stones and dust” (title based on Psalms 102:14: “For your servants hold its stones dear, and have pity on its dust,” a reference to the Temple laying in rubble), now ch. 2 in Faith Beyond Resentment — in which he begins with three scriptural moments of what he calls a “theological blush.” The first of those scriptural moments is the story of Elijah’s victory over the priests of Baal and then his struggles afterward at Mt. Horeb (last week’s first lesson). The second of those moments is the Babylonian exile; and the third is St. Paul’s conversion, especially as related in his letter to the Galatians. As we conclude our serial reading of Galatians this week, I thought I’d pass along Alison’s usual keen insight, with another excerpt from this paper.
Another dimension you might look for in this excerpt is the radical nature of change indicated. In 2010 I am fully into the so-called “Emerging Church” movement, seeking guidance to better understand this change through which we are moving. I am also reading the Bonhoeffer’s Works version of his Letters and Papers from Prison in which he talks about a “religionless Christianity.” Alison might be elaborating on what Bonhoeffer was intuiting as he sat in prison less than one year from his execution by the Nazis. Alison gives us such language below as “collapse of the sacred,” “not the foundation of a new religion” in opposition to a message of preaching, and a call to build something new out of the ruins with the help of the Spirit.
*****Excerpt from Alison’s “Theology amidst the stones and dust”*****
The third biblical moment which shares this same structure and which I wish to examine with you is the conversion of Saul. I say the same structure, because Paul himself points it out. In his letter to the Galatians, when he describes his own conversion (Gal. 1:11-17), Paul narrates it with allusions to the story of Elijah: he used to persecute with great violence, and he advanced beyond his compatriots in having a zeal (the word is key) much greater than theirs. After his experience of conversion, he didn’t consult with anybody, but immediately went off to the desert, like Elijah, and from there he returned to Damascus, where Elijah had to go, after his experience with the still small voice, to anoint Jehu. So, Paul narrates his experience within the framework provided by Elijah’s collapse of zeal that we have just seen. His whole life and apostolic experience afterwards is marked by the collapse of a sacred world within which he had been an especially ferocious militant, a collapse produced by the recognition that in his zeal to serve God, it had been God whom he had been persecuting. For him the still small voice was the voice of the crucified and risen victim whose breath is the Holy Spirit.
I emphasize this for a simple reason: as a backdrop for the theological discussion which I wish to begin with you, I want to bring out a very important dimension of the experience of the resurrection which normally doesn’t get its due hearing: the experience of the novelty, vitality and exuberance of God which was provoked among the apostolic witnesses by the appearances of the risen Lord, and which little by little changed their whole perspective and imagination, was not only an experience of an addition to a pre-existing good. To each step of the clearer and more complete revelation of God, that is to say, to each purification of faith, there is a corresponding and simultaneous collapse of a whole series of elements which seemed to have been indispensable bulwarks of faith. For these turn out to be parts of an idolatrous order of things which had previously been confused with the worship of the true God. This emphasizes something which I imagine to be obvious, though little understood in Catholic treatises on faith, which is that faith in the living God automatically introduces into the world a process of unbelieving. Someone who begins to believe in the living God automatically begins to lose faith in the inevitability of things, in fate, in the sacredness of the social order, in inevitable progress, in horoscopes and so on, because the moment the imagination and emotional and mental structures begin to absorb what is meant by the vivaciousness of the Creator God who brings into being and sustains all things, all those other elements start to be revealed as part of a dead sacred order, as attributions of divinity and thus of fixity, to things which are human, which are structured socially, culturally and economically, and are for that reason dependent on human responsibility and potentially mutable through the exercise of that same responsibility.
There is more. The resurrection, as it was received, incarnated and understood by Paul, not only provoked a purification of the human perspective on God, but that purification was shown to be absolutely inseparable from the presence of a crucified and risen human victim, whose presence inaugurates and keeps perpetually alive a process of de-sacralization of the religious matrix within which the crucifixion and resurrection had occurred, and within which Saul had been a certain sort of participant. All of Paul’s preaching, all of his theology, is characterized by the process of the collapse of a certain sacred structure, and by the slow discovery of the perspective given by a new focus on Yahweh, the Pauline equivalent of Elijah’s still small voice. Paul’s whole argument about the Law is nothing other than the attempt to make it clear that, from the moment when the resurrection makes present the crucified one as a constant hermeneutical companion in our living of the religion of Yahweh, even that which had seemed sacred and untouchable in that religion, the very Torah of God, is de-sacralised. It has to be understood according to whether it contributes to the sacrifice of other victims within a sacred order, or whether it is interpreted in such a way as to deconstruct the world of sacrifices and sacred orders.
I would like to suggest something else. Paul understood very well that, starting from his experience, what was wanted was not the foundation of a new religion, which might forge a new sacred order more in accordance with the new perspective on Yahweh, but the preaching of the constancy in our midst of the presence of God as crucified and risen victim. The very fact of that presence opens up the possibility of living in the world by means of the continuous de-construction of the artificial sacred in all the forms of life in which we find ourselves, contributing in this way to the construction of a new form of human social life where every apparently sacred social distinction begins to be knocked down, leading to an as yet unimagined fraternity.
So this experience, the experience of the collapse of the sacred which we saw in the case of Elijah and in the Jewish exile, is not a moment of the past, but a constant part of the process of the faith which is being brought into being. We cannot understand the preaching of the resurrection if it is understood as a miraculous moment which founds a new religion. If it is taken thus, we are in fact denying the force and efficacy of the resurrection, for the resurrection brings about the definitive installation in our midst, as a constructive hermeneutical principle, of the cult of Yahweh who knows not death, and who is worshiped in a continuous apprenticeship in participating in and not being scandalized by, the collapse of the sacred, a sacred whose secret is always the victims which it hides, and on whose sacrifice it depends.
This, then, is what I understand by making space for a blush: the space where we learn to forge a way of talking about God in the midst of the ruins of the forms of the sacred which are in full collapse; a space where we recognize our own complicity in the sacred forms of the past, with all their violence and their victims, a space where we are coming to understand that God has nothing to do with all that, but also a space where we learn, precisely in the midst of the deconstruction of all that, new ways of speaking words of God so as to participate in the new creation. That is to say, it is the Eucharistic space par excellence, where Christ is present as the crucified one, and we as penitents learning to step out of solidarity with our multiple and varied modes of complicity in crucifixion; but where Christ is present as crucified and risen Lord, so not as accusation of our participation, but as fount of, and power for, a new, unimagined, and unending reconstruction.
If I’ve taken my time to get to this point, which is perhaps far too obvious, it is because it seems to me that we find ourselves in the midst of just such ruins. At the end of this millennium, and at thirty something years from the end of Vatican II, we find ourselves in the midst of a shouting match between two sorts of sacred, two types of sacred zeal. On the one hand the restoring trumpet blasts of a Catholicism nostalgic for a sacred and stable past, upholder of purity of doctrine and of customs, of sacred differences and sacrificial techniques for the maintenance of order and unity. On the other hand, a no less sacred trumpet blast, that of those who adopt the position of victims, who make of positions of authentic marginalization sure platforms for protest, for the vindication of innocence and of sacred status. Both these sacred blasts have their priesthoods capable of pointing the finger at those who do not conform, demanding the sacrifice of those who do not participate in the unanimity of the group. In one case as in the other, the question which gives away the sacrificial mentality underlying group belonging is the same: are you for us, or are you one of them? It is the question which reveals the impossibility of the blush, and thus the impossibility of Eucharist. What I would like to suggest is that both trumpet blasts are phantoms, the noise of those who do not accept the reality of being in the midst of ruins, who don’t accept that Jerusalem has been razed to the ground, and who do not know how to take delight in its stones, nor are capable of being moved by pity for its dust, so as, with these unpromising remains, to take part in the building up of the new Jerusalem. (Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 31-35)
*****End of Alison Excerpt*****
2. 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,” reviewed in 2013 Brigitte Kahl‘s Galatians Re-Imagined, with an excellent summary of this groundbreaking book: “‘Stupid’ Galatians, Stupid Us.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2016 I concluded a series of sermons preaching on the Galatians texts. It was 4th of July weekend, and it seemed like a prudent move, with all the serious challenges facing us as a nation, to include an honest, critical look at our nation in light of the idea of cultural, institutional sin. Paul paints the struggle with the powers of sin not just on the level of individuals. In fact, his section on individual sin in chapter five (last week’s text) is in the broader context of this letter’s view of how sin infects the law itself. So the conclusion of Paul’s addressing individual sin in this week’s text gives a startling different response to it: seek healing for persons in sin, not punishment.
Similarly, with our nation, the solutions to the ills that challenge us go beyond fixing individuals. We need to see how the power of sin also infects our version of law. In preaching on these Galatian texts in 2016, the theme of how our American criminal justice focuses totally on punishment, and next to nothing on healing and restoration, has already arisen. It is the fitting way to end the sermon on this concluding text from Galatians that falls the week of the 4th of July, a sermon titled “A New Creation Is Everything — Including America!”
2. In light of reflections like these from Alison, a key verse in this passage might be 15: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” Distinctions such as circumcised or uncircumcised represent the old sacred order for St. Paul (and for Girardians the foreskin of the penis is a clear substitute victim on which the sacrificial bloodletting marks a culture), and so he emphasizes “new creation.”
It is fitting to add here that Girard’s anthropology reveals myths of creation to be more about the founding of human culture than about the coming-into-being of the physical universe. A “new creation” thus designates the founding of a new human social order, one founded in the crucified and risen body of Christ (not, for example, the dismembered body of Tiamat), who is the innocent victim (as opposed to the guilty enemy or god).
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
1. The title of one of René Girard‘s later books, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, is taken from Luke 10:18. He begins his conclusion with these comments:
As already noted, Simone Weil suggests that the Gospels are a theory of humankind even before they are a theory of God. Even though she sees no role for the Hebrew Bible, the positive aspect of her insight corresponds to what we have discovered in this series of analyses.To understand this evangelical anthropology, we must complete it with the Gospel statements concerning Satan. Far from being absurd or fantastic, they use another language to reformulate a theory of scandals and the working of a mimetic violence that initially decomposes communities and subsequently recomposes them, thanks to the unanimous scapegoating triggered by the decomposition.
In all the titles and functions attributed to Satan, we see reappearing all the symptoms of desire and its sickness, the evolution of which Jesus diagnoses. These titles and functions include the “tempter,” the “accuser,” the “prince of this world,” the “prince of darkness,” the “murderer from the beginning,” and all of them together explain why Satan is the concealed producer-director of the Passion.
This dynamic concept of Satan enables the Gospels to articulate the founding paradox of archaic societies. They exist only by virtue of the sickness that should prevent their existence. In its acute crises the sickness of desire generates its own antidote, the violent and pacifying unanimity of the scapegoat. The pacifying effects of this violence continue in the ritual systems that stabilize human communities. All of this is epitomized in the statement “Satan expels Satan.”
The Gospel theory of Satan uncovers a secret that neither ancient nor modern anthropologies have ever discovered. Violence in archaic religion is a temporary remedy. The sickness is not really cured and always recurs in the end.
To identify Satan as mimetic violence completes the process of discrediting the prince of this world; it puts the finishing touch on Gospel demystification; it contributes to that “fall of Satan” that Jesus announces before his crucifixion. The revelatory power of the Cross dispels the darkness that the prince of this world must have to preserve his power to make us believe he really exists. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 182-183)
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. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 184-186)
2. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” audio lecture series, tape #6; These lectures are also now available online in clips; this portion covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 55, Part 56, Part 57, Part 58. The portion on “Satan falling like a flash of lightening” is in Part 57, for which he offers the following little midrash (my notes of it):
Satan is the prince of this world, the Accuser in charge of ordering human society. Jesus’ comment is a passion prediction in terms of the effect that the crucifixion will have on Satan’s reign. But what if one has their back to the event of Satan falling, so to speak, and so they only see the illuminating flash of the lightning. It’s perhaps a bit like the Seventy saying that the demons submit to us.Or it’s like the Enlightenment. We are aware of the illumination, and it goes to our heads. It must be because we’re smart. But we don’t see the actual event that causes the illumination, Satan falling from heaven because of the cross. It’s like Girard’s quip: we didn’t stop burning witches because we invented science; we invented science because we stopped burning witches (The Scapegoat, p. 204). The sacred system was broken. As it ground down, its mythic power faded, and gradually we were able to poke our heads outside of it and to begin to see the real world. But we don’t see what has caused the illumination.
3. James Alison, Undergoing God, pp. 97ff., “Priesthood and penitent messianism,” a talk originally offered November 2005; in a section entitled “Consider your call” (1 Cor 1:26). He quotes the returning of the seventy portion, Luke 10:17-20, and writes,
I think that but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven and consider your call mean the same thing: they are getting us to turn our imaginations towards the one who calls or who writes our names rather than to what we achieve. In other words, there is a constant tension between our grabbing a bit of new identity and running with it, often using it for coinage in an economy for which it was not made, and the arduousness over time of discovering ourselves on the inside of the One who gives us reputation, esteem, glory and so on, and allowing that One to call us further into his kingdom.
What indeed does it say that I was called? Not about me, but about the one calling? What does it say of his spaciousness, his power, his gentleness, the security which he offers, that it becomes possible not to have to construct a story which makes clear sense, not because of a paucity of meaning, but because of an excess. What delicacy is able to pick an individual human being as such and make that one special without putting anyone else down? What does it mean that a reputation and even a boasting, a dwelling in my story with delight should not be over against anyone elses, need exclude no one else, need have no frontiers, need provoke no one? What abundance of creativity is there constructing a story of me discovered in us which is even more miraculous than what Miguel de Cervantes did with his madman as he retired him from fake meaning? An Author even greater than he is, after all, writing me in. (pp. 97-98)
Reflections and Questions
1. Once again, I take issue with the omitting of verses. The woes on the Jewish towns, in the omitted verses 10:12-15, might be the whole point of this passage, with the sending out and return of the 70 forming an inclusion around it. Last week’s story showed the disciples desiring a divine firestorm upon a Samaritan town and Jesus rebuking them. This week the omitted verses have Jesus telling his disciples that the time of judgment will actually be worse for Jewish towns than for Samaritan towns. I think this fits in well with the theme of my paper concerning the insider/outsider dynamic (see comments on last week’s Gospel). Those who play the insider/outsider games will find themselves judged by them. In other words, they eventually bring judgment on themselves. There is even the sense of a special responsibility borne by God’s chosen people “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (below, Luke 19:44).
I think these woes on the Judean towns relate to the prominence in Luke of Jesus’ woes on Jerusalem, Luke 13:34:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
and Luke 19:41-44:
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
We might especially want to read ourselves into these woes, as Christians who bear a special responsibility to see and hear what God is revealing to us in Jesus Christ. If we see these only as woes against Jewish people, then we have fallen into the Satanic trap that Jesus came to help us to avoid. We are making ourselves the insiders and the Jews our expelled outsiders. But as Jesus speaks these words of special responsibility to Jewish brothers and sisters, so he now speaks them to us: it will be easier for Jerusalem in those days than it will be for Rome or London or New York. As followers of Christ, we bear extra responsibility for desisting in the outsider/insider games altogether. The only reason for making any distinctions between these places is to highlight the responsibility for ceasing to order ourselves by them. Jesus scandalously places the responsibility with “us,” not “them.” He is subverting our usual way of founding culture and society.
For a sermon that makes use of the omitted verses, both here and in Isaiah 66, link to the sermon entitled “Reflections on Missing Verses.”
3. Very close to the idea, I think, behind Jesus’ proclaiming, “I see Satan fall like lightning from heaven,” is the battle of Michael and the angels against Satan in the Book of Revelation (Rev 12:7-12):
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world– he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
The idea is that the power of violence is losing its transcendence. Human beings typically divinize violence against their enemies as god-commanded violence. But Jesus has come to expose that supposedly sacred violence as not from God the Creator, his heavenly Father, and so that violence loses its transcendence for us. Jesus exposes it as satanic violence, not sacred violence. It falls from heaven like lightning.
Interesting to note in Rev. 12 is that this battle is ‘nonviolent.’ It is won by the blood of the Lamb and the witness of his followers’ martyrdom. There is also the warning to those yet on earth that the devil’s wrath has not yet been spent. Is that what the image of lightning is about in Luke 10?