The reflections for this set of texts have come together over a number of years, but several themes are seeming to merge together over that time: sabbath theology, creation theology, and the Girardian anthropological interpretation of Satan. When sabbath theology is based on a mythological interpretation of creation it tends to distort the latter and exert itself as the worst kind of natural law-based moralizing -- which then becomes the basis for the victimage mechanism, which Jesus called "Satan casting out Satan," to do its thing.
In Jesus' day this manifested itself in sick people being viewed
as sick morally in addition to their physical ailments and further
cut-off from community. Jesus not only reached out to heal the
sick but seemed to choose the sabbath as the best time -- as a
time to celebrate God's continuing power of creation through
healing -- and refusing the moralizing interpretation of his day.
In our day, I wonder if the issue of gay and lesbian marriage
carries a similar mythological stygma. Instead of misusing the
seven-day pattern of Genesis 1 to oppress people, do we similarly
misuse the "male and female" of Genesis 1 to oppress people?
In 2013 the new resource on the Gospel Reading is from James
Alison's essay "Inhabiting Texts and Being Discovered" in Jesus the Forgiving Victim.
There is an extended reading of this passage on pages 362-71, with
many fresh insights. See more below.
All of these themes (except the questions about gay and lesbian marriage, which are my own ponderings) come together brilliantly in the last resource mentioned near the bottom of the page: James Alison's essay "The Man Blind from Birth and the Creator's Subversion of Sin," ch. 1 in Faith Beyond Resentment. I want to mention it here at the top, too, because it is one of the groundbreaking essays in all of contemporary theology (a piece that has caught the eye, for example, of Stanley Hauerwas and Archbishop Rowan Williams). Enjoy!
Reflections and Questions
1. "If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil..." This basically names the same ailment as Jesus names in the Gospel lesson. The hunched over woman is loaded under the yoke of oppression of the Satanic power of accusation. Girard's work elaborates on Satan as the principal of accusation, of finger pointing and calling someone else evil, that has structured our human cultures since the beginning of time. This is the parable of Satan casting out Satan (Mark 3 and par.) in which the Satanic power of accusation is pointing the finger and identifying the other person as the evil "Satan." Calling someone else Satan is precisely Satan's masterful game of accusation, of Satan casting out Satan.
For more on Satan casting out Satan, see "My Core Convictions," Part I.5.
1. See Proper 14C for a Girardian bibliography on Hebrews.
2. This is the passage which James Alison uses to close and summarize his book Raising Abel (p. 196). Here is how he introduces it:
There is, I find, a passage from the apostolic witness which is a kind of resumé of everything I have been seeking to say in these pages. And what is so extraordinary is that everything, absolutely everything, is there; insinuated by means of different images, of course, but, beyond any shadow of doubt, there. So we could say that this whole book is but a long gloss on that passage. You will find present the apocalyptic imagination as something past; its vision of God who causes trembling, also past; the world of the violent sacred, which has been overcome; and in their stead a new vision, the eschatological vision, centered on the living vitality of God which is emphasized by angels, mediated by the blood of the lamb. The passage even hints that this vision is to be understood as the definitive bringing to an end of the world order which was born with Cain, the order of the world since the first victim. And this vision is offered to those who hear as a means of nurturing their imagination so that they may live with boldness the hope opened up by Jesus. (Raising Abel, p. 196)If you are new to Alison's work, I include a link to the opening couple sections to his argument in this book, the first two sections to chapter 2, "The Living God."
Reflections and Questions
1. Continuing the discussion of Satan casting out Satan from the First Lesson: Jesus continues his "parable" with this observation:
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. (Mark 3:24-26)Does this describe the shakeable human kingdoms, under the power of Satan, in the language of Hebrews 12:26-28? Because our human kingdoms are based on the Satanic game of Satan casting out Satan, they will always fall (again, see "My Core Convictions," Part I.5). They are shakeable kingdoms because they are always divided against themselves in some fashion. The only unshakeable kingdom is the kingdom of God which Jesus ushers in by submitting to the Satanic game as the Risen and Forgiving Victim. His forgiveness breaks the cycle of Satan casting out Satan, revealing the game, so that Satan's power is seen to fall from heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18). The kingdoms of this world are becoming the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15; the core of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus"). In fact, the earthquake that preceeds these words in John the Seer's vision of the Revelation very much fits the imagery of Hebrews 12:26-28:
At that moment there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon. Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever." (Rev. 11:13-15)2. The question for a Girardian is: how much of this picture might still be infected with the violent images of vengeance common to the apocalyptic genre? Is Revelation, or Hebrews, pointing to a divine violence? Or simply prophesying the human violence that will someday finally yield to the unshakeable nonviolence of the Kingdom of God? Alison's book on eschatology (Raising Abel) conveys the thesis that Jesus' experience of God was about transforming the "apocalyptic imagination" into "eschatological imagination," from an endtime featuring God's monopolizing of violent vengeance to an endtime of the seemingly endless cycles of human violence and vengeance finally giving way to God's forgiveness and gracious power of life. The apostolic witness in the New Testament manifests much of this tranformation, maintaining the endtime pictures of violence, but ceasing to specifically naming it as divine violence, and instead naming it as the Satanic human violence.
1. "Eighteen," the number of years the woman has been afflicted,
mentioned twice, by Luke in vs. 11 and by Jesus in vs. 16. Numbers
often provide background clues in ancient texts. In the James
Alison essay "Inhabiting Texts and Being Discovered," in Jesus
the Forgiving Victim, he suggests a link to a story that
would have been well-known to Jesus' Jewish listeners: the story
in Judges 3:12-25 of Ehud liberating the people of Israel
from an eighteen year servitude under the Moabite king Eglon.
2. "Hypocrites" (hypocritēs in Greek, from the
Greek words for "under" and "crisis"). This word is actually quite
rare in Scripture, appearing only in the Synoptic Gospels (a
favorite word especially of Mathew's Jesus) and two places in the
Book of Job. Once again, James Alison calls attention to
the Joban texts as a likely background for Jesus' use of the word.
Particularly impressive in this context is the fact that the Job
36:5-12 passage talks about being bound in fetters and
afflicted, much like Jesus sees this woman. Elihu is addressing
Job about a God who answers the righteous who are afflicted, those
who are "bound in fetters and caught in the cords of the
afflicted." But there are those who don't hearken to God's help
that the Septuagint translates as the "godless (hypocritēs)
in heart," who hold onto their anger, and "they do not cry for
help when he binds them."
1. James Alison, Essay 8, "Inhabiting Texts and Being
Discovered," in Jesus
the Forgiving Victim, pp. 362-71, is specifically on this
passage. With the above two passages from the Hebrew Scriptures in
mind, Alison concludes:
[Jesus] comes into the synagogue, which is supposed to be the gathering of Israel, and what does he find? Israel bound down in affliction, symbolized by this woman here with her eighteen years of suffering. But unlike the Israel of old, is anybody crying out to the Lord for delivery? Not a bit of it! In fact the synagogue leader is behaving much more like Eglon than like Ehud. Both he and those present have become godless in heart, hypocrites, since rather than cry out and actually long for help, they would rather sit complacently gnawing over their own affliction. But this is not what the real Israel is about at all! The real Israel cried out to YHWH for delivery, and in the absence of that, well then, YHWH comes into their midst to give the afflicted their right. If they are bound in fetters, and caught in the cords of affliction, “he declares to them their work ... that they are behaving arrogantly.” So please notice that Jesus is even now enacting in their midst what YHWH does, rebuking them for their arrogance and their weddedness to resentment which leads them to fail to cry out. But he is also delivering the afflicted by her affliction, and opening the ears of all of them through her adversity....
The overall dynamic is then of YHWH visiting his people in the midst of a synagogue meeting, so as to bring out what real Israel is really all about, as full of power and excitement as the sagas of old, showing them in three dimensions what it really is to be a child of Abraham. You can begin to get a sense then of how a synagogue full of people suddenly found itself hoicked out of its ordinary routine. All of its participants find themselves occupying different places within the stories, brought, if they could accept being urged to cry out more, to a real sense of what all the glories of Israel were really all about. These people were undergoing a visitation from YHWH, so no wonder they rejoiced “at all the glorious things that were done by him.” On the other hand, those for whom synagogue has become a Moabite cult, in which, as it says in the Book of Job, resentful people go down to their graves in shame because they don’t cry out, then, well, “his adversaries were put to shame.” (pp. 369-71)
2. Gil Bailie, "The Gospel of Luke" audio lecture series, tape #8. These lectures are also now available online in clips; this portion is covered by "The Poetry of Truth," Part 95 and Part 96. Here are my notes on this portion:
Satan, for example, is a powerful anthropological reality in Girard's work. The power of Satan is not the power of an individual, superhuman being but of a power rooted in human communal life. I refer you once again to his essay on Satan in The Girard Reader (link to my excerpts here). His latest book, as the title of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning suggests, uses the New Testament language of Satan as his main hermeneutical tool for once again laying out his anthropological theory from yet another angle. The first three chapters give an especially close reading of the New Testament language of Satan and how it resonates with what his theory explicates in more modern categories and language that can converse with contemporary theories of anthropology. But Satan as an interpretive tool continues throughout the book, as can be seen in this excerpt from Ch. 8, "Powers and Principalities," an excellent explication of how we've been trying to present Satan here (including references to the Book of Revelation as we did above).
Two other excerpts of note from Girardians, both which deal with the temptation passage, are: (1) James Alison, from The Joy of Being Wrong, a section entitled "Excursus on the Devil"; and (2) Gil Bailie, from Violence Unveiled, sections both on "The Devil and Satan" and "Scandal."
The New Testament naming of the powers behind human violence as Satanic has been among the most important hermeneutical tasks for Girardians. Once again, the power of this Girardian analysis is precisely to tie the powers of Satan to anthropological powers. (See one section earlier than above in "My Core Convictions," Part I.4, especially I.4.4.) Satan is not a power that can be compared to the power of the Living God, the God revealed through Jesus Christ. We avoid Manichaeism -- twin powers, enemy brothers, one good and one evil -- when we are able to circumscribe Satan's powers as anthropological, as depending on human reality for their survival. Satan exists because we exist. And we are unbound from Satan's power when we come to realize the far surpassing power of the Creator's powers of unconditional grace and life. In Jesus Christ, we have the opportunity to know the Living God and to become unbound, as surely as the woman in today's gospel. We are able to stand up straight and finally praise the Living God.
Link to a sermon of healing and wholeness as liberation from Satan's power, entitled "Standing Up Straight and Praising God."
4. Another theme in this gospel lesson is that of the sabbath. James Alison links the New Testament picture of Jesus and the sabbath with its theology of Christ and Creation. A section from ch. 2 of Raising Abel subsequent to the first two section excerpted above, is a section called "Creation in Christ" which I also excerpt for you here. But it is in the next chapter, in a close reading of John's Gospel, that Alison ties the New Testament's creation theology to Jesus and the sabbath. Here is an excerpt of that section entitled "Opening up Creation":
There is another dimension to what John understood of Jesus' imagination: something less apparent but no less important. It is not so much something different from what we have described, as a different way of describing the same thing. Throughout his Gospel John scatters hints of what he said in the Prologue: that God created the world with and by means of Christ. This is especially emphasized in the way John presents Jesus as working on the Sabbath. There is a particular justification for Jesus' work on the Sabbath which is only found in John. Jesus answers those who question this practice:5. A heavy dose of James Alison this week. One of the biggest payoffs of the above insights into John's creation theology is the linking of it to our other main theme today of Satan casting out Satan. Alison does this in his more extended and brilliant reading of John 9, a true gem of contemporary theology (one that has caught the attention of Stanley Hauerwas and Rowan Williams, for example). You will find this reading in The Joy of Being Wrong, pages 119-125, and in an essay published both in Contagion 1997, pages 26-46, and in Faith Beyond Resentment as ch. 1, "The Man Blind from Birth and the Creator's Subversion of Sin."My Father carries on working until the present, and I work also. (John 5:17)Now, please note: this is not the sort of obvious answer which "sensible people" would give, because they have a general notion of God, who, of course, works the whole time, so, why shouldn't we carry on working as well? We have something rather more dense. Jesus is formally denying that God is resting on the Sabbath, a solemn contradiction of Genesis. God is creative effervescence, constantly and lovingly creating, so that the institution of the Sabbath, while it may be important for us humans to rest, is a symbol of creation yet to be completed, and still needing its fullness. So Jesus also works, that is to say, brings creation to its proper fulfillment, making people whole on the Sabbath. These works he does not only for the benefit of those who get cured, but as signs. Such signs are real acts which point to something more than themselves. They point to the real work which Jesus is carrying out through his creative self-giving to death as a model for us to do the same, that is to say, bringing about the possibility of the fulfillment of all history.
Let us look at a further insinuation of this in the story of the man blind from birth in John 9. He was born blind, which is to say that in him creation was quite definitely not completed. On a Sabbath Jesus brings to fulfillment the work of creation, thus giving glory to God. The former blind man even goes so far as to say (and John's literary style and subtlety are, at least for me, a source of immense pleasure):Never since the world began (ek tou aionos) has it been heard that someone opened the eyes of one born blind. (John 9:32)That is, Jesus is fulfilling what was missing from the beginning of creation. That this is, obviously, a sign for everyone rather than just a gift for the blind man is shown by the discussion which follows between Jesus and some Pharisees who were present at his meeting with the (now) former blind man. Jesus points out that those who know themselves to be blind receive their sight, while those who think that they see participate in the mechanism of expulsion (they have just thrown the former blind man out of the synagogue) and see absolutely nothing.
Jesus insists that the works which he carries out ought to bear witness that he comes from the Father. He tells this to those who pick up stones, preparing to kill him, in John 10:31-39. For us to be able to understand that Jesus' works give witness to the Father, I think that it is vital for us to understand what Jesus is saying to them. He is not saying: "Look here, I've done plenty of good works, and that means I'm a holy sort of fellow" but rather "Look, what I am doing could not be done except by the Creator of all things Himself. Even if you don't particularly like me, at least look at the creative works and the signs. By whom else could these things be done if not by the Creator? So, He is working through me, and that does indeed authenticate the fact that I am a dependable representative of God's."
The fact that people hate him and seek to do away with him, even though they have seen the works which he carries out, suggests that these people are not just made uncomfortable by him, but that they are in fact locked into a profound aversion to creation itself. They are clinging on to a form, futile, useless and shot through with death, of incomplete creation, and resisting being completely created -- which means coming to be completely dependently and joyfully creative, following what we saw in our discussion of Jesus' "flexible paradigm."
So that when, in John 16:20-21, Jesus uses the language of a woman in labour to describe his going to his death, John places in his mouth the same metaphor which Paul uses to describe the whole of creation in travail, through the persecutions which bring to light the children of God (Rom. 8:18-23). Jesus' self-giving up to death is the fulfillment of creation, the putting of creation into a state of labour, so that we also, by our creative imitation of him in the midst of the order of death can come to be the fully-created creatures which God always wanted us to be, and with us, the whole of creation. It is because of this that Jesus' last word before his death in John's Gospel is telelestai: it is accomplished, it has been brought to fulfillment. This means that creation itself has been brought to fulfillment by his self-giving up to death so as to open up for us a creative way by which we may come to participate fully in creation. It can be understood, then, why the resurrection happens on the first day of the week, in the garden. Creation has started again, a creation in which the tomb is empty.
I emphasize this point, subtly hinted at by John, because if we are going to come close to recovering the eschatological imagination, I don't think that we can do it while we imagine Jesus dragged boredly to an unnecessary death. John understood Jesus to be possessed by a completely extraordinary imagination, utterly fixed on God, in such a way that as a human being he could produce the final touch of divine creation, which consists in creatively imagining a way in which we -- the rest of the human race -- might be set free from what seems to be our very nature: mortality, and the way in which death runs our lives. John also gives a very important indication of how Jesus himself conceived of what he was doing: he speaks of the joy of Jesus. Jesus draws nigh to his death with joy. His creative work is perhaps -- how could it be more -- solemn, and in our eyes, terrifying. Perhaps it did produce a trembling and a sweat of blood, but it was conceived in joy by someone whose creative mind was fixed on an inexhaustible creative joy. This joy is something which he wanted his disciples to have:And now I come to thee, and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves. (John 17:13)He had told them before, that, after they have seen him at the resurrection, they will rejoice, and no one will take away their joy (John 16:22). This joy, like the peace which Jesus gives but the world cannot give, is the joy which flows from the fixing of the mind on the utter vivaciousness of the living, effervescent God who knows not death; a fixing of the mind which will be possible for them after Jesus has opened the possibility for mortal humans (shot through with death) to participate in that creative love and life by going to his death. John is not the only witness to this. We have already read in the Epistle to the Hebrews:...[our] eyes fixed on Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2) (Raising Abel, pp. 72-75)
Reflections and Questions
1. The excerpt from James Alison directly above urges us to take careful consideration of the profound depth of Jesus' challenge to sabbath theology. I count eight distinct (not counting parallel) episodes of Jesus healing on the sabbath and/or making some sort of challenge to sabbath theology of Jewish leaders of his day: Mark 1:21-28 (par. Luke 4:31-37); Mark 2:23-28 (par. Matt. 12:1-8, Luke 6:1-5); Mark 3:1-6 (par. Matt. 12:9-14, Luke 6:6-11); Luke 13:10-17 (our Gospel Lesson); Luke 14:1-6; John 5:1-18; John 7:19-24; John 9 (the sabbath highlighted in vs. 13-17). We might note that Luke adds two accounts of his own to the three that he repeats from Mark, giving Luke the most of such accounts in the gospels with five. Mark and Luke each also include their own versions of Jesus challenging his hometown crowd at Nazareth on the sabbath, Mark 6:1-6 and Luke 4:16-30, respectively. Finally, the crucial account of the Passion and Resurrection is wrapped around the sabbath. The gospels directly note that Easter begins "after the sabbath" on "the first day of the week." Christians have marked this benchmark of the Christian faith by moving our day of worship after the sabbath to the first day of the week. Our worship celebrates not the Genesis picture of a day of rest upon the completion of creation but the first day of the new creation in Jesus Christ, a creative force that is still coming about, in which we are invited to participate. What do we make of this apparent Chritian challenge to the sabbath theology of the Hebrew Scriptures? Is it a challenge? What is the significance of the preponderance of passages in the Gospels of Jesus and the sabbath?
2. A connection I make with the theme of Jesus challenging the reigning sabbath practice of his day is to connect it with the "orders of creation" theology today as it often leads to exclusion of gay and lesbian people. The Genesis 1 creation story already demythologizes the sacrificial violence of other creation stories, but mythological elements remain. One is the mythological element of structuring time in seven-day weeks, the basis of Jewish practice of the sabbath. (Other cultures have structured time in other ways; a seven-day week is just one possibility.) Another one of those elements might be "created male and female" (science seems to be increasingly showing that, while male-female is the most common occurrence of sexuality in nature, it is not exclusive), to the extent that it is used as an "order of creation" to rule out any other created gender orientation. If Jesus rebelled against his contemporary practice of the sabbath as oppressive, would he similarly rebel against our contemporary use of "orders of creation" theology to oppress gay and lesbian people? I raise these questions in "My Core Convictions," Part IV.4.4.
In 2004 my sermon went from seemingly obvious cases of rules oppressing people to tougher cases in which the role of rules is a bit more of an open question, concluding with the issues of rule-making around gay and lesbian people in many church bodies. Link to "From Delight at Red Faces to Honest Questions."
3. There is a trend these days to lift up sabbath theology in the face of our modern addiction to work, an addiction that often gets linked to having enough resources to continue feeding our addictions to the consumption of material goods. Sabbath theology, with an emphasis on rest, on time out from work for re-creation, is placed in the breech to help curb our addictive behaviors. There's a growing number of books on sabbath theology. There's workshops on how to observe the sabbath in the face of these addictions. Time management strategies make room for sabbath talk in order that we might include rest as part of our time management skills.
But I'm not sure that an emphasis on rest is to the point of the sabbath theology that Jesus is trying to convey to us in these Gospel pictures of Jesus on the sabbath. In the two crucial Johannine passages of John 5 and John 9, Jesus explicitly makes work the focus of the discussion. When challenged for his not observing the sabbath rest in the prescribed ways, Jesus talks about coming to do his Father's work (John 5:17, 20, 36; 9:3, 4). (Altogether John uses the word "work" 28 times in his Gospel story of Jesus.) I'm not trying to imply that there's no place to talk about rest when we try to answer the problems human beings have with work. But perhaps more to the point is Jesus calling us to re-orient our work, to let our experience of work be transformed. If our work can be experienced according to Jesus as joining our heavenly Father in the ongoing work of new creation, then perhaps that will be more to the point of having our work redeemed. Times of rest and prayer and renewal didn't seem to be a problem for Jesus. Luke, especially, is constantly showing Jesus taking time for prayer and renewal. But it isn't necessarily connected with the sabbath. I think that Jesus and the sabbath is more about the redemption of work so that we are freed from our bondages to work that lead to unhealth.
This Gospel story is a splendid one that shows Jesus unbinding
someone through his work, which is portrayed not as a proper
resting but as a proper sabbath work. Sabbath work is precisely
work that frees us to finally do the work that we are created to
do, that all of creation is created to do: praise God. This woman
is able to be unbound from the burden of Satanic work so that she
is immediately able to do her proper work as a beloved creature of
God. She is freed to praise her Creator. Jesus seemingly gives us
an example not of sabbath rest but of the sabbath work of
re-orienting our work in a way that liberates it.
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