Last revised: August 9, 2020
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PROPER 13 (July 31-Aug. 6) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 18
RCL: Gen. 32:22-31; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
RoCa: Isaiah 55:1-5; Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14:13-21
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
The miracle in today’s Gospel Reading is sometimes called the “Multiplying of the Loaves.” In much of what I write below I suggest imagining this event in a way for which a more appropriate title would be the “Miracle of Opening Hearts to Abundance.” Inclined to scarcity-thinking, human beings are more often in need of having our hearts opened to abundance-thinking than we are of having more stuff. The reality of creation which Jesus signals in today’s miraculous feeding is that there is enough to go around — if only abundance-thinking shaped our ‘economics’ of making sure everyone has enough.
Scarcity is an experience that Mimetic Theory helps us to understand on a number of levels. On the level of interpersonal relationships, mimetic desire creates the perception of scarcity even when there is a surplus of desired objects. The typical illustration is that of children playing in a room full of toys. Because they catch their desires from each other, they often end up fighting over the same toy — sometimes even when there’s an identical toy present. (Some miniscule difference will be found even between identical toys.) The toy they are fighting over appears scarce to them. So it is on the macro-level of interpersonal relationships. Human beings are prone to rivalry over the objects of desire (especially ‘metaphysical’ ones like honor and prestige and ‘wealth’) such that those objects are perceived to be scarce, even though it’s most often the case that they aren’t. This is why our consumerist society seemingly goes deeper into fear of scarcity even as our stuff multiplies at unsustainable levels — exemplified by a billionaire we all know whose niece wrote a book about him called Too Much and Never Enough.
Making this an even more poignant moment in our human history: We have been descending into the epidemic of “Affluenza” long before being hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which now multiplies the fears of scarcity. (I recommend the excellent PBS commentary on Affluenza.) And so this is an ideal moment for followers of Jesus to have our faith in abundance multiplied. It might require a miracle.
Mimetic Theory also helps us to understand Scarcity as a false transcendent at the heart of modern economics. In other words, scarcity is also experienced as transcending interpersonal relationships to be on the level of human institutions and systems. Scarcity is a concept that modern economists are very clear about as a reigning principle in capitalism. One of the founding assumptions is that capitalism is an economic system for the fair distribution of scarce resources. I once asked an economics professor during his opening lecture what would happen if we instead assumed abundant resources, like Jesus apparently did in the miraculous feedings. He was flummoxed. He said that he couldn’t go on with laying out the rest of capitalist economics unless we assumed scarce resources.
From the perspective of Mimetic Theory, the go-to resource on Scarcity as central to modern sacred violence is Paul Dumouchel‘s The Ambiguity of Scarcity and Other Essays. He unveils how our modern experience of scarcity is an example of Girard’s méconnaissance, “misrecognition,” on all levels of human experience. We misrecognize scarcity on the level of interpersonal relationships: “we have to abandon the concept of scarcity as a relationship linking people to things. We have to explain scarcity in terms of relationships among people” (352, n. 16). This is, of course, the corollary of the move MT makes to understanding desire: to see desire in terms of relationships among people rather than relationships linking people to things. We have already spoken above about how the misrecognition of mimetic desire leads to a misperception of scarcity as present in our interpersonal relationships. (For an analysis of how this basic misrecognition of scarcity leads to problems throughout capitalist economics, see André Orléan‘s The Empire of Value: A New Foundation for Economics.)
The power of Dumouchel’s analysis is in taking us to the level of human experience transcendent of interpersonal relationships, to the level of institutions — economics having become the dominant institution of our age. It is worthwhile to consider at-length a summary of Dumouchel’s argument from the introduction to his book:
What is scarcity then, and how should we understand its role and function? Interestingly enough, it is only at a certain point in time and in one particular social and cultural area that the “fact” that goods and resources are insufficient to satisfy the needs of every member of the community came to be seen as the fundamental issue around which the entire social organization was progressively made to revolve. Furthermore, this society later, paradoxically, reached general levels of abundance never before seen in the world. My claim is that this “fact” — namely, that goods and resources are insufficient to satisfy the needs of everyone, independent of whatever quantity of goods and resources are actually available — is socially instituted rather than “discovered,” for this “fact” is a question of distribution, access, and responsibility, all of which are important issues in economics, but none of which is naturally given.
The central thesis of this essay, which makes it essentially Girardian, is that the means through which scarcity is instituted also protect us against our own violence. Scarcity is thus a means of protection against violence, and, like the sacred, it is a violent means of protection against violence. Scarcity came about through a transformation of the moral ecology of human relations. More precisely, scarcity was socially instituted by the progressive abandoning of traditional obligations of solidarity, obligations that constrained agents to shoulder duties to help and support specific individuals among those in need. As many anthropologists have noted, in principle, as long as such obligations are binding, no member of the group is in danger of dying of hunger unless all are. Of course, there must be many situations in which this ideal of solidarity has not actually been achieved. However, in such cases scarcity has not been the problem, but the failure of various individuals to fulfill their obligations. It is only when many individuals start to distance themselves from their reciprocal obligations of solidarity in general, when they become sufficiently detached from the duties those obligations entail, that scarcity, want, lack of resources can come to be seen as the problem. The more these obligations are abandoned, the more scarcity is viewed as the “real” cause of the difficulties so many agents face.
These duties to help are, however, also obligations of violence. They force agents to take part in the conflicts of others, of their brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, lords, and vassals, conflicts that originally did not necessarily concern them in any way whatsoever. These obligations, which in normal times protect agents from violence, in times of crisis can easily fuel the conflagration. Because they burden individuals and groups with responsibilities to help and take revenge, they tend to spread violence and extend conflicts. Abandoning these obligations can prevent conflicts from extending to others. The strategy of protection against violence involved here is the inverse of what is at work in the sacred. The sacred is organized around rituals that seek to restore the troubled social order, prohibitions that forbid actions leading to conflicts and violence, and obligations that tie agents and groups to one another for their own protection while simultaneously providing an outlet of permissible violence that they can exert outside of the group.
Scarcity, on the contrary, has neither rituals nor obligations; each individual is simply sent back to his or her own “initiatives” and interests. It does not seek to protect agents from violence or hardship by making them reciprocally responsible, but to prevent the spread of violence by removing each person’s incentive to participate in the conflicts of others. Instead of protecting agents from violence and prohibiting violence among them, scarcity, the abandoning of obligations of solidarity, reduces the contagious dimension of violence, which in traditional societies is reinforced by the obligations that draw agents into conflicts even when they were neither present at the triggering events nor concerned by them.
Scarcity is nonetheless like the sacred in that it protects us against our own violence violently, though that violence takes a different form. It is indirect rather than direct, and tends to be impersonal. Abandoning reciprocal obligations of solidarity is equivalent to abandoning others to whom we were previously attached by these obligations, allowing the evil, whatever it is, to befall them. . . . Once abandoned by their group of solidarity, individuals simply fall through the net of reciprocal duties and obligations. They are left to fend for themselves alone. It follows that the victims of scarcity are in many cases not the victims of anyone in particular; often no one has threatened or attacked them. They are just in need, but no one will help them; mainly, they are the victims of everyone’s indifference. . . .
This transformation in the moral ecology of human relations structures our societies and determines the forms that violent conflicts take among us. It is important to insist on the fact that this is a real transformation. This change in the moral ecology of human relations does not primarily concern the way people think about or view their obligations toward one another; it mainly concerns the obligations that there are and the way in which they exist — that is to say, which obligations people have toward one another and among one another, which obligations they are held responsible for, which are they expected to discharge, and which they are allowed to ignore. What makes scarcity arise and become real in our social life does not depend on what people think but on what they do. It is in consequence of these changes in action that goods and resources in whatever quantity become insufficient to satisfy the needs of all. . . .
Because the changes in question are real, the economic discourse on want and scarcity is founded and justified to the extent that it corresponds to a real situation, even if it fails to describe it adequately. The problems it raises are real and need to be addressed. The same applies to the moral issue of social justice. In a world where scarcity constitutes the basic arrangement, such a question cannot be avoided. It is thus both scarcity and the knowledge that bears on it that are socially instituted by the abandoning of reciprocal obligations of solidarity; both the reality of want and the economic, social, political, and moral discourses that try to deal with the challenges it raises are “made real,” instituted, by this transformation in the moral ecology of human relations. Note, however, that it is not these discourses that “construct” the social reality of scarcity. Scarcity is instituted. It is not “socially constructed,” at least not in the sense that peoples’ beliefs concerning the “parsimony of nature” or the importance of economic activity “create” scarcity. What comes first here is action, not discourse or beliefs: innumerable acts of fulfilling or abandoning one’s obligations. These actions do not mainly or essentially concern the “economic domain.” They relate to the total range of human behavior. The subsequent arrival of scarcity on the social scene is in every sense an unintended, unforeseen consequence: the result of human actions, but not of human design. Scarcity does not come from people having certain beliefs concerning wealth and poverty; on the contrary, it is because scarcity has been instituted by the transformation of the moral ecology of human relations that people come to have the particular beliefs that they have about wealth and poverty. (xi-xiv)
Rev. Dr. William Barber speaks of the need for a moral revolution. I believe that Dumouchel’s analysis of Scarcity helps to guide the way to another real transformation “in the moral ecology of human relations.” Since we acted our way out of “obligations of solidarity,” we need to act our way back into them. Those who make Matthew 25:31-46 the template for morality are well on their way to such an action-oriented moral revolution. But it must be done as more than isolated charity, taking seriously this passage as a judgment on a nation’s politics and economics (see our reading of Matthew 25 at Christ the King A). Unless it becomes a mass movement that shapes policy in a democratic society, like Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign calls everyone to participate in, it will not be enough to act our way back into instituting “obligations of solidarity.”
And this global pandemic presents the opportunity this time around — different than our ancient ancestors — to operate “obligations of solidarity” on a more global basis. Dumouchel’s analysis of Scarcity shows how scarcity was not a significant experience in primitive societies because they operated under strong obligations of solidarity. But those obligations only operated on the scale circumscribed by the clan or tribe; inverse negative obligations generally prevailed toward those outside the group. The next stages in human history saw the gradual diminishment of those obligations as communities grew larger, up to the stage we are in with a global economy dominated by the sanctioned violence of Scarcity.
Does this moment in history present us with the opportunity of a moral revolution to gain back obligations of solidarity but this time in a way that circumscribes the whole human family? On a global basis and not just a tribal basis? Can we at least begin to take steps back in that direction? These readings fall during a week in 2020 when the U.S. Congress is negotiating relief measures to replace the initial package put into place during the first weeks of the pandemic. There is resistance to doing so under mutterings of scarcity-thinking. Can our hearts be opened with compassion for those in dire need due to this pandemic such that we can act our way into abundance-thinking?
The reality is that there is plenty of food, wealth, and resources to go around in this wealthiest of all nations in human history. We don’t need a miracle of multiplying the wealth. We need the miracle of opening our hearts to believe in abundance rather than scarcity, solidarity rather than division. Where is Jesus when you need him? Hopefully, in the hearts, minds, and actions of his modern-day disciples. Jesus is present with us in the Eucharist to feed us with his abundant life that was broken and poured out for us, so that we might share it with others in the same spirit of self-sacrifice. May our generous actions and advocacy help lead to a miracle of hearts opened to abundance so that we meet the challenge of this moment.
1. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 423 (Book 4 of 4). Two weeks ago (Proper 11a) Essay 9 on “Prayer” was excerpted on the Romans 8 reading. This week we find Isaiah 55 cited further into this same essay. Prayer, from the viewpoint of Mimetic Theory, is part of a therapy of human desire that God makes possible through discipleship of Jesus. And a crucial aspect of this therapy, one that’s spot on for today’s readings, is being unhooked from scarcity for a worldview based on abundance. This is the aspect for which Alison enlists Isaiah 55. He leads up to quoting this passage, saying,
Or again, what does it mean to be looked at through eyes that only know abundance, for whom scarcity is simply not a reality, for whom there is always more? Think of the rupture this produces in my patterns of desire! “If you want more, there won’t be enough to go round,” or “There’s no free meal at the end of the universe,” or “Grab what you can before it all runs out,” or just the gloomy depressed “euugh” of disappointment with things, life, and so on not matching up to expectation, the way of being in the world and perceiving everything which the ancient Hebrews referred to as vanity, or futility. What does it look like to spend time in the regard of One for whom it is not, as the whole of our capitalist system presupposes, scarcity that leads to abundance by promoting rivalry, which we then bless and call competition? Rather it is a hugely leisured creative abundance that is the underlying reality, and an endless magis, “more,” is always on the way.
What does it look like to spend time in the regard of one for whom daring and adventure, not fear and caution, underlie the whole project of creation, for whom everything that is is open-ended and pointing to more than itself, and for whom we are invited to share in the Other’s excitement and thrill, to want and to achieve crazy and unimaginable things?
What is it like to sit in a regard which is bellowing at us “something out of nothing, something out of nothing”? Our pattern of desire says “Unnhh, nothing comes from nothing” and feels sorry for itself. Yet the heart of the difference between atheism and belief in God-who-is-not-one-of-the-gods is not an ideology, but a pattern of desire which thrills to “something out of nothing.” The wonderful verses of Second Isaiah, fresh from the great breakthrough into monotheism in the sixth century BC shout this out… (422-23)
And after quoting this passage makes these comments:
This is a definition of God as quite outside the pattern of desire into which the social other inculcates us: “something out of nothing.”
Well, these terms — deathlessness, abundance, daring and something out of nothing — are just a few of the sorts of phrase by which the Scriptures attempt to nudge our imagination into spending time undergoing a regard that is not the regard of the social other, one which has a wish, a longing, a heart that is for us, much more for us than we are for ourselves, one which we can trust to have our long-term interests at heart. And in each case, spending time in the regard of the Other other [Alison’s term for God] will work to produce in us a way of being public which seems to go directly counter to the expectations of the patterns of desire which the social other produces in us. Our temporary abstraction from public life will not have made us private. It will have empowered us to be public in a new way, whose precariousness and vulnerability rests on an unimaginable security. (423-24)
Reflections and Questions
1. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” This seems to me to be the question for our time. When we try to talk about things like “Affluenza” (link to PBS website on “Affluenza”), this is the number one question. We are caught up in mimetic entanglements that cause us to spend our labor and money on things that are mostly about those rivalries in which we are entangled. Far from satisfying, those rivalries lead to conflict and ultimately to death, not life. Listen, says Yahweh, I can truly satisfy your desire. What is it that can truly satisfy? Listening to Yahweh is a good start! This whole thing got out of whack when the first Adam and Eve listened to the other creatures rather than to their creator. It is the loving desire of the Creator which can get us our of those mimetic entanglements. And it all starts by listening first to God, by choosing God as our model for desiring, instead of choosing each other. We might honestly ask ourselves: Who is it we spend our time listening to? How often do we listen to God in prayer as opposed to the time listening to advertisers, for example?
We have a young woman in our congregation who returned from a year of study in Ecuador. She is having a difficult time re-entering our society and its crazy pursuit of unsatisfying bread. She is going through a re-examining process of what is truly satisfying. She is asking the question of this text. Hopefully, the preacher can engage the others in the congregation to be seriously asking the same question. Of course, the preacher needs to constantly be wrestling with this question her/himself.
For me, personally, a symbolic version of this question often is, “Can I live without my TV?” Especially when I observe its influence on my children, I am seriously challenged to do completely without it.
2. The element of being a witness is again prominent. A witness to what? Certainly not to being powerful in the conventional sense. Second Isaiah has needed to explain to a people in exile, whose high point in history had come 500 years earlier under David, how their God was still the true God, despite all outward appearances. David’s example, in fact, is lifted up not as the mighty conqueror, but as a witness to the nations. They still are called to play that same role, despite 500 years of apparent national decline since David. What this text begins with, of course, is a challenge to the criteria by which we normally measure success. What is truly satisfying? What is truly life-giving? Perhaps those who are the footstools for other ‘successful’ nations are in a better position to find out, and to thus be witnesses to the other nations about what is truly satisfying. The above example of the young woman in our congregation who spent a year in Ecuador sheds light here, too. We, from our most ‘successful’ nation, often go to lesser countries these days to help them and instead find ourselves helped much more. We find things like solidarity in community — things that mimetic rivalry have increasingly broken down here in the U.S. in consumerist society of “keeping up with the Joneses.”
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, & the Sacred, ch 2. is on the “Enemy Brothers”; a section entitled “Jacob’s Encounters with God and Esau (Genesis 32-33),” pp. 46-54.
Psalm 145:8-9, 15-22
Psalm 145:16: “You open your hand, satisfying the desire (Heb: rson) of every living thing.” This verse is the perfect complement to the themes of the day. Not only is it about God satisfying our desire but it speaks of God’s desire itself — namely, satisfying the desire of others. We fall into rivalries when the satisfaction of our desires comes into conflict with others satisfying their desires. As we model one another’s desires, we reach for the same objects of desire. But we do well to model God’s desire because it means working to satisfy the desires of others.
1. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren suggests a theme for making a unified reading of Romans that I think works well — namely, Jews and Gentiles being able to live together in Christ, who is “the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). This theme coincides with my own choice for the clearest statement of the Gospel in Ephesians 2: grace manifests itself chiefly as God creating one new humanity in place of the two. This is the context for McLaren as well, since this chapter comes as his response to one the “Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” Question #5 is, “What is the Gospel?” (chap. 14). For more on this centrality of this question and its answer, see my Opening Comments for Proper 6A.
Chap. 15 is McLaren’s reading of Romans in light of the Gospel as Jesus’ Kingdom of God manifesting itself as Paul’s bringing together of Jews and Gentiles. See the citation on this book in Proper 4A for a more complete description of the theme and McLaren’s Seven Move outline for Romans.
This passage comes within his Fifth Move: Address Jewish and gentile problems, showing God as God of all (Rom. 9:1-11:36), of which he writes:
What is Paul’s problem? This glorious new way of the Spirit that he has celebrated in the previous move is truly accessible to both Jew and Gentile. But Paul is brokenhearted because so many of his fellow Jews are not walking in the new way, not living the new life, not experiencing the “no condemnation and no separation” of the kingdom of God. (pp. 152)
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, “The Dialectical Role of the Jews in the History of Salvation,” pp. 129-139. He concludes, for example:
One can only understand this doctrine theologically. It is appropriately called a mystery (Rom 11:25) and should not be carelessly revealed. Unfortunately it cannot be kept only to the mature; therefore we must make determined efforts to interpret it properly. According to Paul the Jews have performed a hard service for the world; they unveiled the founding mechanism of sacred violence once and for all in the crucifixion of Christ and the refusal of the gospel. In that work they represented all of us, and exposed the darkest shame of us all. Therefore, we hate them and load upon them the very violence that they uncovered in us. When we call them the “Christ killers,” pretending thereby that we, of course, are on Christ’s side, and would not have participated in this crucifixion had we been on hand, we treat them as they treated Christ and thereby show that we are their mimetic doubles, and more than that, that we have taken their place and they have taken Christ’s. This is the theological cause of the continuing Christlike suffering of Jews at the hands of Christians, a mimetic reversal of roles that Paul in his robust theology of the divine purpose sought to forestall.
Both the positive and the negative poles of the drama of salvation are necessary until the end of history; Christians must continue to accept the messiah and Jews to reject him. In the dialectic of that relationship between the two groups each must accept the necessity of the other if they are to avoid the devastating mimetic rivalry that has marked the history of the relationship up to now. That means that Christians must affirm the Jewish existence of the Jews, because it is as such that they serve the divine purpose. The dark side of this is that that service is the service of the negative pole; the darker side is that mimesis causes the two roles to interact resulting in mutual recrimination and violence when power permits. The record shows more such violence on the part of Christians. This may be due to the lack of opportunity on the part of Jews because of their exclusion from political power. The record of the state of Israel under the pressures of state responsibility does not suggest that Jews are inherently less violent than gentiles, or that the Jewish religion less militant than others. (p. 137)
Hamerton-Kelly has an ‘appendix’ to this section in which he outlines his misgivings about the doctrine of election in two main categories: (1) anthropologically, in its pitting one group against another as with sacred violence; and (2) theologically, with a God so much in control behind the scenes that this God ends up seeming responsible for violence that is of human origin. His concluding words:
There is, therefore, a major flaw and inconsistency in Paul’s thought. It is no wonder that Jews are for the most part unconvinced by the far-fetched dialectical argument that makes them the divinely appointed killers of Christ. It would be better simply to identify them in that role as the representatives not of God but of us all, bringing to light the sacred violence of the world. (p. 139)
3. René Girard, “A Girardian Review of Hamerton-Kelly on Paul,” Dialog 32:4 (Fall 1993), pp. 269-274. Girard gives a very positive review of Hamerton-Kelly’s book, grateful for its skillful extending of mimetic theory to the writings of St. Paul. His only disagreement is on the doctrine of election. Here are several paragraphs that might be overlooked in this little known article by Girard but which I think are very important to the Girardian corpus:
If “mimetically” interpreted, the Gospels put our Christian failure in the only appropriate perspective, maximum responsibility, at the very top of the spiral. When the Christians face their own failure, their reaction must not be one of fatalism: “well this is the way all human beings have always behaved; why should we be expected to behave differently?”
The expectation will seem legitimate only if it is tied to what all people who belong to the biblical tradition call an “election.” According to the apostle’s doctrine, the Jews are the first recipients of the favors of God and the Gentile converts follow. As co-participants in the Jewish election they are expected to do better than their predecessors. Who would dare to assert that they have done better? Is not their failure the specific revelation of our age?
Ours is the most colossal failure in the history of the biblical revelation. There cannot be any worse failure than the failure of those who received the most. Only from a Paulinian perspective does it become possible to write a theology of the Holocaust that would measure up to the magnitude of the event.
Paul’s doctrine of the election is one of responsibility as much as privilege. The election is inseparable from some great task that the elect are supposed to perform but never manage to perform. Contemporary Christians must therefore apply to themselves Paul’s warnings to his converts:
So do not become proud but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches [the Jews], neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God; severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off. (Romans 11:20c-22)
Provided you continue in his kindness is the most important phrase here. Have we continued in the kindness of God?…Who can answer this question positively? If we continue Paul’s line of thinking, if we extend it to include our time, the doctrine of the election is revealed as a call to repentance, an intensified awareness of our guilt, not a narcissistic contemplation of some imaginary superiority.
It is a Paulinian idea, in Romans, that the Jewish election is cancelled neither by the crucifixion nor by the subsequent refusal of the Jews to acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). “Israel as a whole will be saved.”
Robert Hamerton-Kelly sees the election as a dangerous and misleading doctrine that tends to promote mimetic rivalry and therefore leads to scapegoating. Being a student of contemporary nationalism, he finds many such beliefs in the modern world that confirm the noxiousness of whatever sanctifies the collective narcissism of ethnic, national, and religious groups.
I can see his point but a distinction must be made between election as mere collective narcissism and the Paulinian doctrine which has genuine historical depth. If we apply the idea of the election to ourselves, today, our sense of guilt will be such, at the thought of our failure, at the thought that we too, are persecutors — Paul’s own discovery at the time of his conversion — that the entire doctrine will appear in a new light.
The total Paulinian idea must be retained, I feel, in order to balance the sense of guilt with a sense of hope. The continuation of hope is the same thing as a belief in the significance of history. If we do away with hope, we run the risk of turning the sense of guilt into the destructive despair that is a negation of history.
Thanks to the Paulinian doctrine of the irrevocable election, contemporary Christians can acknowledge the dreadful failure of Christianity and instill a proper sense of guilt in themselves without losing sight of the hope without which this sense of guilt would become sterile and worse than sterile.
Paul tried to make sure that he would not instill this sense of guilt in anyone, but the later Christians have done their best to instill it into the Jews, while behaving themselves in even worse fashion. The Jews now should not retaliate and try to return that same guilt to the Christians. Only if we all maintain the notion of election, I feel, can we make sense out of Paul’s magnificent statement in Rom 11:32 which Robert Hamerton-Kelly quotes: “…God has shut up all people in unbelief in order that he may have mercy on all.”
4. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship for those who take seriously Campbell’s dismantling of justification, and his arguing that Paul’s language of justification was a secondary way of speaking for Paul when in debate with a version of Christianity that is conditional in its grace. And because we misread Romans 1-4, according to Campbell, Protestantism has often lapsed into the conditional grace that Paul is trying to undo. Paul’s primary language of unconditional grace is a language of deliverance elaborated in Romans 5-8. This is now the definitive book, in my opinion, that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page. The most controversial thesis involves his contention that Paul used the Roman rhetorical convention of Diatribe, meaning that it contains Paul voicing his opponent’s views within the text of Romans which we thus need to sort from Paul’s own views. In short, for twenty centuries after Paul delivered this letter to the Roman church, training the carrier to read it properly in two voices, subsequent generations have read two opposing views in the text all as Paul’s view only. I find this thesis compelling and vitally important; here is my own explanation and plotting of the opposing views in a translation of Romans 1:1-4:3.
5. N. T. Wright is another important resource to consult for Romans. See, first of all, his commentaries: The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10; and his Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Romans 1-8) and Part 2 (Romans 9-16). See also The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, Resurrection in Paul (Outside the Corinthian Correspondence),” sec. 7 on Romans; and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. His ‘big book’ on Paul in his Fortress Press series “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” was published in 2013, Paul and the Faithfulness of God; the most sustained section on Romans 5-8 are pages 1007-1026. Wright’s more recent book on theology of the cross, The Day the Revolution Began, devotes more space to Romans than any other book of the New Testament, chapters 12-13; see also my review of this book, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”
6. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #5.
Reflections and Questions
1. I considered writing on these chapters after attending the 2002 COV&R Conference at Purdue, which had the theme, “Judaism, Christianity, and the Ancient World: Mimesis, Sacrifice, and Scripture.” A relationship occurred to me as we discussed matters between these sibling religions. They both are part of the process of being chosen to reveal the one true living God from the origins of human religion in the idolatries of the Sacred. The Jewish people give humanity a solid start on historically bringing this revelation about. But the last and toughest nut to crack is what Sandor Goodhart has aptly called the “idolatry of anti-idolatry” (see his brilliant article oh Jonah in Sacrificing Commentary). This is when we are so zealous against idolatry that we fall into the same idolatrous patterns of sacred violence. St. Paul, as a zealous Pharisee persecuting the new messianic Jews called Christians, had to be confronted in his idolatry of anti-idolatry. It is something to which the book of Jonah already was giving insight.
But it comes to its zenith of revelation in the Cross of Christ. This is why it had to be among the Jews that the Christ event took place. The idolatry of anti-idolaters can only take place among a people who are anti-idolatrous. The people whom God has chosen to reveal the ways of idolatry are the Jews. To get to the point of revealing the idolatry of anti-idolatry could only have happened through them.
So how have Christians done in taking up the task of God’s chosen people to reveal the idolatry of anti-idolatry? In our history of violence, I would say that we have only continued the slaughter of anti-idolatrous idolatry to levels far exceeding the cross, while mostly remaining blind to it ourselves. Our brother and sister Jews have so often been made to stand in the place of the Cross, becoming our victims of anti-idolatrous idolatry. As Hamerton-Kelly points out, there has been a “mimetic reversal of roles”: “we treat them as they treated Christ and thereby show that we are their mimetic doubles, and more than that, that we have taken their place and they have taken Christ’s.”
I also resonate very much with Girard’s article above when he says that Christianity has been a “colossal failure in the history of the biblical revelation.” We need to join with our Jewish friends in the faith in finally fulfilling the calling to put away all idolatry, especially that most pernicious one of anti-idolatry.
2. Sandor Goodhart‘s notion of an idolatry of anti-idolatry actually sheds light on all of Romans, made even more clear by Douglas Campbell‘s startling proposal for rereading Romans in The Deliverance of God. Romans 1 starts out on the topic of idolatry in 1:18-32, with Paul setting up his Jewish readers to fall into a lather of anti-idolatrous idolatry, so that he can then reveal to them their brand of idolatry in 2:1-2:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.”
Campbell has amplified this reading by suggesting that, in using the Roman rhetorical convention of Diatribe, Paul voiced the position of his opponents in order to argue against it. Campbell’s proposal is that the clearest instance of Paul speaking the argument he’s opposing is Romans 1:18-32! This reading makes it even more clear that Paul is saying that when we think we know God’s judgment on idolaters, it is itself a form of idolatry. I find that Goodhart’s nomenclature of the “idolatry of anti-idolatry” to be tremendously helpful in getting a handle on what Paul is doing in Romans.
Matthew 14:14: “When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion (Gr: esplagchnisthe) for them and cured their sick.” The New Testament Greek word for “compassion,” splagchnizomai, has a fascinating derivation out of ritual blood sacrifice and through the Septuagint translation of Hebrew words. The noun form splagchna was used in the earliest Greek literature to designate the inner parts of the sacrificial victim ripped out during a ritual blood sacrifice. Eugene Peterson, in his The Message translation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, translates the phrase as, “his heart went out to him” — which is a remarkable capturing of the derivation. Originally, of course, the heart was literally ripped out of a person. For Jesus the term is subverted from within to mean its opposite, compassion — namely, an intentioned ‘heart-going-out’ to someone in mercy rather than the merciless ripping out of a heart. We once again clearly see the Gospel reversal: instead of the heart coming out of the sacrificial victim, compassion means one’s heart going out to the victim.
For more on this New Testament word for compassion, see the page on the Parable of the Good Samaritan for Proper 10C. I also stumbled onto a Flannery O’Connor short-story that helped me in illustrating the term (see further down the same page for Proper 10C).
2. Is there an underlying connection in this parable to the first temptation in Matthew’s story of temptation (Matt 4:1-11)? Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread to address his hunger. Is it a similar temptation here to respond to people’s hunger by miraculously multiplying bread? Or is the real miracle, as I suggest below, opening human hearts to the spirituality of abundance rather than scarcity?
1. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 213-215; link to an excerpt on “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.” Also, there are his lectures on the feeding miracle in both his John and Luke audio series.
2. René Girard on Herod and the death of John the Baptist. In all three synoptic accounts, this feeding miracle follows directly after the death of John the Baptist and his entanglement with Herod (most elaborate in Mark, shortened in Matthew, briefly summarized in Luke). Girard first elaborated on Herod and John in ch. 11 of The Scapegoat, but has continued to lift up the importance of this passage in subsequent articles. A sampling of the articles are: two in The Girard Reader on “Satan” (ch. 13) and “The Question of Anti-Semitism in the Gospels” (ch. 14); and an article in the journal First Things called “Are the Gospels Mythical?” (No. 62, April 1996, 27-31).
3. Paul Dumouchel, The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays; this is the primary Girardian resource on the economics of scarcity.
4. James Alison, offers a video homily for Proper 13A (Ordinary 18); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. Alison begins with background that fills in between the end of the parables last week and this new passage about a miraculous feeding. Jesus’ major teaching to the general public is now over. He will give signs, as we shall see. He tells parables and gives teaching to the disciples and other when prompted, but not simply a time of teaching to the general public.
Jesus goes the Nazareth and is rejected there. While Luke puts this at the beginning of Jesus ministry, Matthew places it in the middle as another sign of the incomprehension of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. Next is news of John the Baptist’s execution, which brings the response of Jesus of getting away from the crowds to a deserted place, presumably to mourn and rethink what this means. The crowds follow him. He has compassion for them and begins healing them. This is the beginning of acting out signs.
In this first sign, he is going to reenact Moses feeding the people of Israel in the desert. The five loaves represent the Torah, which means this points beyond a feeding to satisfy physical hunger. As Jesus responds to the devil in the temptations, using words of Moses, “We live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In this Jesus surpasses Moses. Whatever actually happens that day, the irruption of this sign is greater than the facts. All eat and are satisfied. And God’s abundance will extend beyond reconstituting Israel (symbolized by the twelves basket). He will also feed and satisfy a crowd in Gentile country (with the numbers of 4000 and 7 symbolizing the nations). Jesus goes beyond Moses and Joshua in reconciling all people.
5. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “Take, Bless, Break, Give“; and a sermon in 2017, “The Overwhelming Abundance from Which Jesus Feeds Us“; Suella Gerber, a sermon in 2017, “Wilderness Feasting.”
Reflections and Questions
1. I have my own experience of a trip to the Holy Land in 2000 which provides a personal basis to imagining this miracle in a different fashion. I’m a bit of a geography geek, or map nerd, so I was greatly surprised when our tour bus came to the rim of the Sea of Galilee. Since my childhood I had known geographical facts like that the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth — 1300 feet below sea level! What I had never realized in all my reading of the Bible is that the Jordan River runs between the Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee, placing them roughly on the same plain, with Galilee being upstream but still well below sea level (illustrated in this cut-away view, the Dead Sea in the far lower-left corner).
So it was quite a shock to arrive at what look likes the rim of a deep crater when you pass Nazareth in the plain of Megiddo and need to descend to the Sea of Galilee region. It looks like this:
The accompanying surprise, then, is the change in climate as you descend. It becomes more arid and the temperature rises more than 10 degrees. This is when the tour-bus guide began to repeat incessantly that we should never leave the bus or hotel without water and food. Bottles of water and snack foods were available in the bus and hotels.
Well, that puts another spin on this story. If modern tourists need to learn never to wander around without food and water, then how could people who lived in this region fail to know this? Isn’t it improbable for the multitude of people following Jesus into the “desert place” to not have plenty of food? And wouldn’t both Jesus and the disciples have had a pretty good idea that there was food out there in satchels and purses?
So why does the narrative initially proceed under the assumption that food is not available? Because there are at least two good reasons why hording would be presumed. (1) One is the idea of kosher, clean and unclean, that not only applied to food but more importantly to who you eat the food with. Eating with unclean people makes you unclean. (It was like pandemic conditions all the time under kosher laws!) So one didn’t typically eat with strangers in proximity. (2) Second is the prevalence of scarcity-thinking that has plagued humanity ever since the serpent convinced Eve that God was holding out on her. Even if the folks are vaguely aware that it’s foolish to be there without food stashed away, the tendency to perceiving scarcity has them anxious that there isn’t enough to go around. They keep their own food stashed away lest they get it out and cause the conflict of people fighting over not having enough.
Jesus is moved by neither of these fears. He takes the five loaves and two fish, blesses them as if they are a feast for five thousand . . . and what is it that happens next? Are the loaves and fish magically multiplied (akin to what the serpent tempts Jesus to do with stones in the Temptation)? Or are the hearts of the folks there that day miraculously opened to abundance and solidarity? I vote for the latter as the more impressive miracle.
2. In his weekly gospel notes on Ecunet (see the one for Proper 13A), Brian Stoffregen distills the following five approaches to interpreting the Feeding of the Five Thousand from Eugene Boring‘s commentary on this passage in the NIB‘s “Matthew”:
- A miraculous event of feeding hungry people actually happened in the life of Jesus (and, according to Matthew’s account, sick people were healed).
- A sacramental explanation from Albert Schweitzer where Jesus distributed bits of bread in the wilderness as a symbolic meal for a multitude of his followers. In time, this proleptic, “hungry feast” of the eschatological banquet, was elaborated into the miraculous banquet of more than enough food for all.
- A lesson in unselfishness from H. E. G. Paulus, as Jesus and his disciples shared the little food they had, which shamed others into sharing their food, so that there was enough for all.
- Similar to Schweitzer’s interpretation above, Ernst Renan suggests that Jesus led his followers into the desert for a time during which they lived frugally on skimpy rations. This event later developed into a miracle story.
- A symbolic representation of the meaning of the Christ-event as a whole, with overtones of the eucharist and the eschatological pictures of fellowship and plenty for all. The story has no basis in any particular event in the life of Jesus.
Gil Bailie‘s take on this miracle gives a Girardian version of the third line of interpretation here. This line of interpretation is not intended to discredit or explain away the most literal approach (#1 above), but to perhaps deepen our experience of miracles. Similar to the first lesson, we might ask of miracles what is most truly satisfying about them. Bailie offers, “Curing a crippled leg is not as miraculous as curing a hardened heart or a despairing soul” (VU, p. 213). It’s not that one should doubt Jesus’ ability to multiply food supplies out of thin air, it’s that curing thankless, stingy hearts might be the more significant miracle, in the first place.
Bailie gives a Girardian version of this interpretation because he further puts it in the context of the Sacred. The people there that day were conditioned to be thankless and stingy by sacred dietary laws that put more emphasis on the separation of clean from unclean than it does on the justice of sharing one’s bread.
Have things really changed in our version of the Sacred? Our version of cleanliness is decided by productivity. If you are a productive member of the economy, then you deserve your fair share of the bread. And all those who are productive will get their fair share. Those who aren’t productive have only themselves to blame. Such are the justifications we use in not graciously sharing our bread.
3. I thought that Regina Schwartz‘ basic theological distinction a God of scarcity vs. a God of abundance, in her presentation to the ’99 COV&R meeting, has a lot of merit. In a Girardian context, it is easy to see why versions of the Sacred generally postulate gods whose creation presume a scarcity. The perception of scarcity arises out of mimetic rivalry. Think of that most common Girardian illustration: in a room full of toys, even of duplicate toys, two children will still perceive a scarcity of the toy they mutually desire. When our sacred justifications come into play to decide between who gets that perceived scarce resource, those gods will be the keepers and deciders of scarce resources.
But the Bible is trying to introduce us to the true God, a God of abundance, even in the face of scarce resources. The preeminent text of the Old Testament is the story of manna in the wilderness; and the preeminent story in the New Testament is the feeding of the five thousand.
I believe that this is a key concept of the theologizing of James Alison, as well. The God we meet in the resurrection of Christ is a God who “gratuitously” (a favorite word of his) showers us with life. Other gods lead to the cross, gods who have only enough grace to shower on some while heaping curses upon the others, gods whose grace is scarce.
4. Interpretation #5 above might fit Schwartz’ theological distinction, then, though I wouldn’t necessarily go along with the part about these feeding stories not pointing to any particular events in Jesus’ ministry. But I do find them to be symbolically central, especially if we also combine it with the preceding story of Herod and John the Baptist, which Girard finds to be so symbolically central. Herod and Jesus throw two very different kinds of banquet: one which leads to a mimetically entangled execution in the face of an extremely wealthy banquet by the standards of that day, and the other which finds a true abundance in the face of an apparent scarcity. The angle of a miracle of curing hardened hearts only adds to this contrast, I think, since the opening of those hardened hearts to true graciousness is the beginning of being saved from the results of our mimetic entanglements, the likes of which is Herod’s beheading of John. It is a salvation, however, which is only a precursor to the abundant life of the resurrection in the same way that John’s beheading is only a precursor to the justifying salvation of the cross.
5. Believing in scarcity as a foundational human belief can be seen, for example, as embedded in our human economics. Check out a typical economics textbook from the standpoint of capitalism, for example. You will find a fundamental assumption about fair distribution of scarce resources — which from the standpoint of mimetic theory can be seen as highly ironic: the economic system that has led human beings into mass production par excellence is founded upon an assumption of scarcity. Is belief in scarcity, in fact, the economic engine to a paranoid drive to mass produce and consume?
I make the link between scarcity-thinking and capitalism in the 2002 sermon “The Miracle of Changing Hearts Fearing Scarcity into Hearts Believing in Eternal Life,” telling the story of the time I was invited to a ‘propaganda’ seminar for pastors on capitalism. I used the miraculous feeding stories as a counter-example to scarcity-thinking.
6. In 2014, there were several more recent experiences or insights that added to my ‘traditional’ approach to this text as outlined above:
- Contemplative Prayer is becoming more crucial to my practice and faith life, especially through Richard Rohr‘s guidance and influence. He speaks of silent prayer as a means to unthink our dualistic thinking — such as good and evil, us and them, scarce and abundant. (See, for example, his recent little book Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation.) Jesus in this passage begins in silent prayer away from everyone but is interrupted. He is able to bring this perspective to the crowd with compassion, and through his public prayer of thanksgiving is able to bring them into his perspective of abundance.
- Rohr’s insights into dualistic thinking matches the version of falling into sin that I’ve gleaned in the last year through Mimetic Theory — primarily through James Warren‘s chapter on Genesis 3 in Compassion or Apocalypse?: A Comprehensible Guide to the Thought of René Girard, for which he relies on Jean-Michel Oughourlian‘s reading in The Genesis of Desire. Here the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the fall into dualistic thinking. We go from a creation created good in Genesis 1 to the perception created by mimetic desire of good and evil — which align themselves with our other dualisms like us and them, abundant and scarce.
- The prevailing news story was the crisis at the Mexican border of thousands of unaccompanied children crossing into the U.S. from Central American countries. Do we perceive this event through a lens of scarcity or abundance?
- A youth-led service the Sunday before used readings from off the lectionary. I didn’t want to miss reading Romans 8:26-39, so we used it with these readings in place of 9:1-5. I then concluded the sermon by reading the ending of Romans 8 as Paul’s version of silent prayer in the Spirit helping us to unthink dualistic thinking in favor of the experience of God’s love as that which heals all separations and brings us into Oneness.
The resulting 2014 sermon, I feel, is one of my best: “Abundance Is a Spiritual Matter.”
7. A strong theme of Gil Bailie‘s which has made an impression on me involves the eucharistic action around the breaking of bread, that was also modeled in the feeding miracles. Jesus takes the bread and says, “This is my life — now here’s what you do with it: you give thanks to God, because it isn’t yours, in the first place; you break it; and you give it away for others.” My addition to this, especially in the context of the miraculous feedings, is to highlight faith in a God of abundant life. We can let our lives be broken and given away because the Living God is an eternal source of life. We give our lives away and receive them back, just as our Lord received his life back on Easter. Just as there was enough bread there that day for everyone. Eternal life is the experience of giving your life away and continually receiving life back.