Last revised: January 5, 2021
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PROPER 21 (Sept. 25-Oct. 1) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 26
RCL: Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
RoCa: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32
I tend to preach the parables of the two previous weeks to be invitations into nothing less than a world of grace. That means it’s a world entirely different than the world we are enculturated to live in. We are raised in a world where debts are kept not forgiven, and where justice is dispensed according to measures of deserving.
But how does one actually begin to live in an entirely different world? I’m convinced that it cannot be done without practices of contemplative prayer. So, similar to last week, the teachings of Richard Rohr — and his many teachers and colleagues in contemplative practice — are again crucial.
The follow-up to preaching the Gospels of the past two weeks, then, is to preach the Second Reading on how to ‘let the mind of Christ be in you.’ Contemplative practice is itself a process of self-emptying, kenosis. In one of his books dedicated to making the case for contemplation, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Rohr has an Appendix that features Philippians 2, “Appendix 6 / The Prayer of the Self-Emptying One” (pp. 173-74). He writes:
Philippians 2:6-11 is thought to be an early Christian hymn to the Christ journey: a path of kenosis (self-emptying), incarnating in the “slave,” “as all humans are,” and even all the way to the bottom of total “acceptance” and “even humbler yet” (the cross). This allows God to raise Jesus up in God’s time and God’s way, and “name” him anew in a glorious state of transformation.
This hymn can be taken as a rather precise guide for the process of contemplative prayer, if we apply to the soul the same mystery that was in Christ Jesus. As mentioned throughout the book, take it as a rule: “Everything we can say of Jesus, we can say also about the soul.” This is exactly how he becomes the icon of transformation for us, and why he says “follow me.”
Taking twenty minutes a day for silent prayer — wildly unproductive time spent by today’s fast-paced standards — is itself a form of dying to the world we are raised in and rising to new possibilities for living in a world of grace. Rohr puts it this way:
Even the sitting down, dying for twenty minutes, and still standing up afterward is a perfect metaphor for what is happening in prayer — always the mystery of death and resurrection.
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 135-136. Ezekiel 18 has a prominent place in Alison’s rereading of the Old Testament in light of the Resurrection.
***** Alison excerpt *****
If the Law was born as part of a social project of nationhood subversive of victimary practice, remarkable in itself, then even more remarkable, and comparatively little commented on, is its role as an epistemological instrument. By this I mean that, over a long period of time, the attempt to live by the Law, and to be faithful to it permitted two quite different sorts of discoveries. In the first place it is highly probable that it was fidelity to the Law that permitted the discovery of monotheism (as opposed to monolatry). Exegetes agree that the period of the Babylonian exile and immediately thereafter was a crucially rich period for the development of Israelite theological understanding. It was the crisis provoked by seeking to be faithful to the Law and God’s promises in the circumstances of the apparent powerlessness of God in the face of the greatly superior Babylonian culture and pantheon, and perhaps especially by the fact that the return from exile was owing to Cyrus’ benevolence, that led to the awareness that there is only one God. The monolatry enshrined in the Law (thou shalt have no other gods before me) became the instrument for the discovery of monotheism under the circumstances of the exile. It is not only that the God of Israel punishes Israel’s enemies (dealing blows at Assyrian armies, for instance), but the one, universal God can even use a gentile emperor to further His plan of love for Israel. Faithfulness to the Law under the circumstances of complete defeat opened the possibility of a re-conceptualization of God. Were it not for the possibly fanatical, and at least ‘imprudent’, adherence to the legal monolatry of the Jews, they could not have made the great discovery of universal monotheism!
In the same way, the Law was an epistemological instrument in the discovery of sin. As the prophets (especially) sought to call back Israel to faithfulness to the covenant, (and therefore to the law), so there developed an anthropological understanding of sin. Thus there is a shift from representations of God hardening the heart (for instance, of Pharaoh, Ex. 4:21, etc) to the notion of God testing and tempting human beings (Gen 22:1), and finally this too is put to question and denied in the Wisdom literature (for instance, Sirach 15:11-17). The book of Job can be read as a struggle with this set of ideas, where Job wrestles with the much more primitive theologies of his “friends”, even though there are only hints at a decisive break with an understanding of God as torturer. A similar development occurs in which a tribal notion of sin, and therefore of diffused punishment of sin is gradually broken down in favor of a view that God does not punish the children for the iniquities of the fathers (Ezek. 18), but seeks individual responsibility and turning aside from sin.
At the same time as these shifts were occurring, we have a fundamental discovery in ethical terms: the discovery of the human heart. Here I do not mean merely a discovery of emotions or passions, but a properly theological discovery: that of the relationship between the seat of human attitudinal patterns and God. If there is such difficulty in keeping the Law, if Israel has so much difficulty in keeping faith with the covenant, is this not because of the human heart? The human heart is understood to be something “desperately corrupt” (Jer 17:9). Of particular importance in the understanding of the heart is the relationship between envy and violence. This is clear in the account of the murder of Abel. It is clear again in the reaction of Joseph’s brothers to Joseph. Ahab has Naboth killed for no less. The formidable violence exercised by the “friends” in their discourses against Job is shot through with envy. Some one hundred of the one hundred and fifty psalms indicate or hint at a situation where a group of enemies, filled with envious violence, are arrayed around a single just man (see the analysis of R. Schwager in Must there be Scapegoats, pp 91-109). This discovery of the human heart as a theological reality, only possible within the cultural growing frame provided by the Law and the discovery of monotheism is intrinsically linked with the development of a concept of subjective guilt, of which the evidence is to be found in the psalms (for instance 32, 38, 51). The depth of sin and the awareness of God’s capacity for forgiveness grow together, as can be shown by the penitential exhortations of the prophets (for instance, Isa. 1:16ff; Jer. 18:11; 25,5; Ez 18:21, 31; Hos 6:1ff; Joel 2:12ff.). This theological development culminates in the awareness that for Israel to be able to live the covenant, it will actually be necessary for God to give the people a new heart, as Ezekiel prophesies in 36:26.
If envy is its motive force (see Wisdom 2:23-24), far more time is spent in the Old Testament pointing out that violence is what is really abominable. The flood came in Genesis 6 because God could tolerate no longer the violence that abounded on the face of the earth. The priestly codex clearly interprets the sin of humankind as violence (see R. Schwager op.cit. pp 48-49). Many of the prophets rail against violence and bloodshed (e.g. Hos 4:2; Mic 7:2, 5-6; Is 59:2-7; Ez 7:10-11; 22:1-27) And it is important that in these quotations they are not railing against the violence of other nations (which they also do abundantly), but are pointing the finger at the presence of violence in Israel. It is not any sort of violence, but what is usually described is an escalating ladder of violence building up from swearing and lying to murder. The particular horror of this is that murder is fratricidal. The Jewish commentator Pinchas Lapide has pointed out that for the Jewish tradition, taking as its starting point Gen 9:5 ff, all sins of murder are fratricide (The Sermon on the Mount, Maryknoll N.Y.: Orbis 1986 p 49).
It is from this perception that the same process of inspiration is able to understand sin as essentially a relational matter. Rather than being a matter of failure of observance of prescriptions (though there is no exaggerating the importance these play in the Old Testament), sin is to do with relational disturbances which lead to violence among the whole community. Hence the arrival at simple universal ethical prescriptions such as Leviticus 19:17-18: if the problem is fratricide, then the solution is love of neighbor as self.
Some of the prophetic critique goes further, in understanding that the presence of fratricidal violence, the reign of death, is an universal phenomenon, which is a veil of blindness that is over all peoples (Is 25:7-8). When therefore Isaiah talks of the darkness (9:2; 42:16; 59:9; 60:2; etc) out of which God will lead his people, it is a particular form of darkness to which he is referring — a darkness related to the reign of death — to the boot of the tramping warrior and the garment rolled in blood (Is 9:5). This theme is not greatly developed, but there is enough of it present to suggest that prophetic insight went as far as to see sin as related to the reign of death precisely in the measure in which God is increasingly perceived as entirely foreign to death.
None of this is to suggest that there is a theology of Original Sin in the Old Testament. There is in fact no unitary understanding of sin in the Old Testament, nor a unified hermeneutic key by which to interpret the many different understandings of sin which are to be found. It is to suggest, however, that the Law and the Covenant played a role in Israel’s self-understanding such that real conquests were made in the subversion of myth, and thus real insight gained simultaneously into the understanding of God and an ever less mythical anthropology. This permitted an ever greater separation of divine and human violence, an ever sharpening view of the latter, and an ever less easy admission of the former. A perception was able to be developed of the human heart as involved in violence, and needing to be trained away from that. There are hints of an etiology of sin in the Genesis account (though the Adam story scarcely reappears at all in the rest of the Old Testament) and a reference to Eve’s sin in Sirach 25:24. However, Jewish tradition considers Sirach apocryphal, not part of their canon of scripture.
The subversive process of the discovery of sin, which is the same as the discovery of freedom, reached a certain point in the Jewish tradition: moral life involves the struggle between an evil impulse (yetzer ha-ra) and a good impulse (yetzer ha-tov). The former is active from birth, the latter comes with the age of discretion and can control the former if the person feeds himself on the Law (see R. Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p 89). Once again, it is the positive framework of knowledge, the Law, which permits it to be understood in what sin consists. The understanding of sin as original required a further sharpening of perspective, which was also simultaneously a further deepening of the drastic character of the human condition and a heightened awareness of God. We are back to the double insight into God’s deathlessness and human deathfulness provided by Jesus resurrection. It is now clear not only that man must struggle against evil so as to avoid death, but a step further has been reached. The resurrection reveals that man is already shot through with death in a way that no amount of struggle can avoid. It is not that we are sick, but that we are dead. Life is not something fought for, but something given. There is no real freedom that does not pass through a recognition of complicity in death.
***** End of Alison excerpt *****
2. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment; ch. 5, “Moving On: The Exilic Transformation of Anger into Love,” features a reading the Book of Ezekiel, commenting on Ez. 18 especially on pages 114-115.
3. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 154. Here’s Alison’s summary of Ezekiel’s message, with Ezekiel 18 once again prominent:
Finally, Ezekiel, the conservative Temple priest, centred on the vision of God in the Holy Place in the Temple. We can get some sense of how sheerly different the Hebrew religion was in Jerusalem before the exile from what came after it: Ezekiel’s visions of God, recognizably part of the same world as those of Isaiah from over a century previously, have an untranslatable mixture of gender and number involved (and indeed the textual difficulties of Ezekiel are enormous). He reports two different Passovers of the Lord in Jerusalem, yet neither of these makes the slightest reference to what we understand as the Passover — linked to Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. Ezekiel was carried off into exile, and as a priest managed the extraordinary feat of undergoing the vision of God leaving the Holy Place, the Temple, and indeed Jerusalem, thus opening up the possibility of the reality of God’s presence being lived independently of a particular holy place, and a new Temple beginning to be imagined. Keeping the priestly vision whole in a time of exile has also proved to be one of the definitive structuring forces of the Hebrew experience. And curiously for those of a modern temper, this strongly priestly bent, no less than the lay, legal bent of Jeremiah, was a way into what we would now call a secularizing tendency: it is in Ezekiel (chapter 18) that individual ethical responsibility is clearly taught for the first time, breaking away from a sense that God might be punishing the children for the sins of their fathers. The priestly sense of the permanently and contemporarily alive nature of God caring now for each of God’s children refuses to go down the road of making God the backer of moral fatalism. (153-54)
4. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, & the Sacred; comments on Ezekiel are on pages 145-146, 156-157.
1. René Girard, especially with Gianni Vattimo. An important philosopher who has picked up on Mimetic Theory quite a bit is Italian Heideggerian Gianni Vattimo, who began to influence Girard after his wonderful little book Belief in 1996.
Girard first speaks of kenosis in the interview at the end of The Girard Reader (1996), responding to a question about “bracketing out” one’s faith:
I don’t think you can bracket out a faith which is responsible for the best in the modern world. That is totally artificial. I don’t think you can bracket out any idea or ideal that you really hold — or that holds you. If you bracket out something that is central to your life, you become a shadow of yourself and your intelligence is not effective. There is no science without faith. Everything great is always a question of faith. Of course, I suppose you could speak of a kind of kenosis of faith, that is, emptying yourself of mimetic rivalry as you approach others and your intellectual work. This is a sort of kenosis from below, as contrasted to the kenosis of Christ from above according to Philippians 2. As your faith grows, the more you empty yourself of rivalry and self-aggrandizement and the more you feel impelled to communicate to others, with others, the truth you have experienced. This belongs to the essence of Christianity. (287)
By the later book Evolution and Conversion (2004 in French; 2007 English), the theme of kenosis is very much in dialogue with Vattimo’s work — in chapter 7, “Modernity, Postmodernity, and Beyond,” especially a section titled “The Kenosis of God” (pp. 253-62). Here’s a pointed portion of the conversation:
Question: In recent years, Gianni Vattimo has shown a particular interest in your work. He has read your theory on Heidegger, relating the dissolution of metaphysics to the death of God. In his account, there would be a similarity between the idea of the incarnation as kenosis of God and the vocation of weakening of Being. Do you think there could be any proximity between your approach and the philosophy of the late Heidegger? Could we relate the idea of weakening of Being to your conclusion regarding Christianity and modern times?
The texts that interest me most in Heidegger are the ones written immediately after Sein and Zeit. I am really concerned with his essays on ‘the Greek beginning,’ his Introduction to Metaphysics and the texts on Hölderlin. Even though Heidegger in many ways is a thinker with whom I do not identify, the idea about the loss of Being, the forgetting of Being, and the forgetting of forgetting is essential to the modern age. This idea seems to me to be related to the role of the victimary mechanism, and I would agree with Vattimo who says that it represents the death of God in the sense of the end of the sacred.
I think Vattimo offers considerable insight. Nonetheless, in my view, he puts forward too optimistic an interpretation of a situation fraught with ambiguity. The so-called kenosis of God is not linear and progressive as Heideggerians seem to imagine. Vattimo is using a conceptual framework and a kind of formulation which is purely confined to a philosophical understanding of Christianity. He simply equates the weakening of Being as the kenosis of God to the dissolution of ontological categories, whereas my point of view stems from Christian anthropology, which not only accounts for this kenotic process of God, meant as the end of the sacred order, but also discloses the danger of this very process. The end of ontologically grounded ideologies does not necessarily mean that we have done away with violence and with the risk of unleashing satanic elements.
This is the reason why one has to see this process from the mimetic perspective and in Christian apocalyptic terms, in the sense that the more there is an opening in a world where ritual is dead, the more dangerous this world becomes. It has both positive aspects, in the sense that there is less sacrifice, and negative aspects, in that there is an unleashing of mimetic rivalry. As I said, we live in a world where we take care of victims in a way no other society or historical time ever did, but we are also in a world that kills more people than ever, so we have the feeling that both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ are increasing all the time. If we have a theory of culture, it has to account for this extraordinary ambivalence of our society. I think that, at a certain moment, Vattimo comes close to this. In Belief, he uses Max Weber’s formula of the disenchantment of the world due to secularization, saying that this ‘disenchantment has also produced a radical disenchantment with the idea of disenchantment itself.’ I agree with him: Max Weber went only halfway in the discovery of this paradoxical process. Ours is a world in which there is a paradox created by the co-presence of great improvement and a great deal of disintegration, and many other paradoxes that become more fascinating as they keep on intensifying. (253-55)
Two years later these themes were important enough to Girard that he and Vattimo got together to elaborate their conversation into a co-authored book: Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue. (Full disclosure: this is a book I haven’t read yet but hope to someday, especially because of its reflections related to this crucial Christian notion of kenosis.)
2. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 153, 216-18, 293-94, 310. For example:
The clearest biblical witness for how God exercises power (and doesn’t) is in the great hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians, where Jesus “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:6– 11) Some religious thinkers, particularly process theologians, have suggested that God’s power is limited. This idea gets God off the hook in the sense that we can’t blame God for not blasting our enemies out of the water at our convenience. But if God can’t exercise such power (and process thinkers usually have problems with Creation and sometimes even with the Resurrection), then God is not modeling the renunciation of power as a moral and spiritual virtue. One might as well give me a medal for not beating up a body builder. The vulnerability of God, then, is an amazing divine virtue only if God chooses to be vulnerable to Creation, even to death on a cross. In this vulnerability, there is no longer any room for projecting the violent power of worldly potentates onto God. (216)
More pertinent to the theme struck in the Opening Comments are Marr’s reflection on Contemplative Prayer and Loving Action around this passage:
In contemplative prayer, we empty ourselves of our thoughts and wishes and desires so as to be filled with God, even when God’s fullness feels empty. In a small way, we are acting out the kenotic action of Christ, who emptied himself of his divinity so as to become a human being. (Phil. 2:6-11) This kenotic aspect of prayer should extend to life as a whole so that, in our actions with other people, we empty ourselves for their sake in the way we empty ourselves in prayer. Paul’s exhortations, especially in 2 Corinthians, about the collection for Jerusalem he had initiated, gives us a powerful model of the self-giving that should flow from our prayer. Many times, Paul speaks about the joy of giving, not only with money (which Paul had in short supply) but in time and energy and concern for others. It is Paul who passed on Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) It amuses me that the joy Paul would have us take in giving generously and joyfully is hilarotes. That is, we should give with hilarity. (2 Cor. 9:7) I realize the Greek word doesn’t have the boisterous connotations of our English word, hut I still like the joy expressed by “hilarity.”
This appeal is much more than a plea to help the needy in Jerusalem. Paul points to the Christological depth of giving when he makes it clear that contributing with enthusiastic hilarity is modeled on Jesus. Though he was rich, for our sakes he became poor that we through his poverty could become rich. (2 Cor. 8: 9) This verse is used in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in one of the collects for saints who followed the religious life. Once again, we have an echo of the hymn in Philippians, where Christ humbled himself to enter the human condition and suffer the same vulnerabilities, including death, which humans suffer from. We can’t compete with Christ in generosity, but we can at least empty ourselves of what we do have for the sake of others.
In both deep prayer and in action, our self-emptying is modeled on Christ. Faith is receiving what we renounce with infinite resignation. When Jesus poured out his divinity to become human, Jesus received back his divinity. (Actually, Jesus could not ever have lost his divinity.) We pour out our humanity as a gift to God and in return receive Christ’s divinity as a gift. Many early Church Fathers, among them Irenaeus, said that God became human so that humans could become God. Eastern Orthodox writers call this deification. (2 Pet. 1:4) This does not mean we become God; it means that we are filled with the non-rivalrous love of God so as to become more fully human than ever. It is a powerfully sober thought to reflect that Jesus chose to enter our humanity because walking on this earth as a human is a good thing. (293-94)
3. Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, especially the section “Emptiness Alone Is Prepared for Fullness, pp. 90-91, but also on pp. 127 & 153. Rohr writes,
Could this first stanza of the great Philippian hymn, in its fullness, be applied not only to Jesus but also perhaps to the entire Trinity? I believe so.
The Three all live as an eternal and generous self-emptying, the Greek word being kenosis.
If you’re protecting yourself, if you’re securing your own image and identity, then you’re still holding on. Your ego remains full of itself. The opposite of kenosis. . . .
I hope this does not surprise or disappoint you, but I have often noticed these divine qualities in people who are marginalized, oppressed, “poor,” or “mentally disabled” — more than in many others.
They have to trust love. They need communion. They know that only the vulnerable people understand them. They profit from mutuality. They’re always in relationship. They find little ways to serve their community, to serve the sick, to serve those poorer than themselves. They know that only a suffering God can save them.
You can take such a pattern as the infallible sign that one lives in God, People filled with the flow will always move away from any need to protect their own power and will be drawn to the powerless, the edge, the bottom, the plain, and the simple. They have all the power they need — and it always overflows, and like water seeks the lowest crevices to fill. (90-91)
4. Willard Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus/Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” in Violence Renounced, pp. 225-226. After quoting this text, he comments:
Even though this text does not use either of the key terms, imitation or type, it clearly portrays the believers patterning their conduct after the suffering and obedience of Christ Jesus. Hence this important text takes its place in this list. Further, this text is joined to imitation in Philippians 3:17 (see p. 225) by the similar exhortation, “be of the same mind” (touto phroneite in 2:5 and touto phronomen in 3:15).The context of this foundational confession on Jesus’ self-emptying and humbling to the cross is Paul’s admonition in vv. 3-4 to put away conduct that proceeds from mimetic rivalry: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Then follows: “let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.”
6. James Alison, Broken Hearts and New Creations, chap. 13, “The priestly pattern of Creation and a fraudulent reading of St Paul,” pp 209-29. (It is also available online.) This essay offers the most extraordinarily different reading of this passage, pairing it with Philippians 3:1-16 (next week’s Second Reading) and the “priestly pattern of Creation” in light of Margaret Barker‘s work on first temple theology as the background to the Christian movement. (Alison cites Barker’s The Great High Priest and Temple Themes in Christian Worship.)
7. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 103, 139, 154, 210.
8. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 172, 176, within the wider section, “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified,” pp. 174-182.
9. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 46, “Spirit of Service.” Philippians 2:1-11 is listed as a background passage to a chapter where most the paragraphs begin, “If you listen to the Spirit, here’s what will happen to you. . .” [fill-in an action of selfless service].
10. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 29, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
11. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 55. In making preliminary comments on Christology, Alison states:
It becomes possible to see Jesus’ human self as being “suggested” (or called, or loved) into being by the Father, exactly through the normal human physical means. It is to just such an intelligence of who Jesus was that John gives witness in the way in which he portrays Jesus as being utterly dependent on the Other who called him into being (John 5:19ff), and yet utterly one with his Father. A completely non-rivalistic imitation is at work (“I do everything which I see my Father do”). There is no sense in which Jesus tries to forge his own identity over against that of his Father, there is no grasping in Jesus’ mimetically formed self (cf Phil. 2:5-9). Thus the purely gratuitous self-giving of the Father is completely imitated in the life-story of the Son. This enables us to affirm the hypostatic union as being the “hypnotizing” into historical being of the person of the Son, and makes sense of the insistence of theology after the Third Council of Constantinople that Jesus is not a human “person” but a divine person in a human nature.
The consequence of this approach to the question of the hypostatic union is that it enables us to see Jesus as having a human desire, human will, human intelligence, and so on, so that it is not necessary to postulate anything humanly “special” about Jesus, in whose case all these are formed by a non-rivalistic mimesis, which is in principle a possibility for us. Thus it becomes possible to see Jesus not as a god, with the implications of a special sort of difference in his humanity, but as God, precisely as a fully human being. The reason why this is important is that the imputation to Jesus of something “special” in his humanity, something which we could never be, is to present Jesus as urging upon us a particular form of human imitation of the sort “imitate me/do not imitate me”. That is to say, Jesus would, for us, remain stuck within the double-bind of distorted mimetic desire, from which he would thus not be able to release us. However, part of the point of the doctrine of the Incarnation is exactly that it shows that here is a human we can imitate fully, have our relationality completely transformed in his following, such that we too are able to become sons of the Father in a dependent, but not in a limited way. It is not true that, “yes you can become sons, but no, not in the way that I am the Son”. Christology undergirded by an anthropology of pacific mimesis is able to yield the sense in which humans are called out of the double bind. In Christ there is no “Yes” and “No.” Only “Yes.” (2 Cor 1:19)
Reflections and Questions
1. I’ve suggested before that Paul’s letter to the Philippians is perhaps the biblical exhortation par excellence to “good mimesis.” Paul in numerous places calls the Philippians to imitation, both implicitly by holding himself up as an example (last week’s text) and explicitly, for example, Philippians 3:17: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating (Gr Sum-mimetai) me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Having the same mind of Christ is the heart and soul of good mimesis. Through the cross and resurrection of Christ, the kenosis unto death and the cross and the subsequent exaltation, Christ is able to live in us and we in him.
1. This passage sets up the parables to follow, giving the setting and audience and establishing the thematic question:
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (Matthew 21:23-25a)
The setting is the temple, the audience is the leaders of the people, and the thematic question involves authority (exousia, which can also be translated as power). Jesus begins to parse the subject of authority with a crucial distinction regarding from whence it comes: from heaven or from human origin, ex ouranou or ex anthropon. This distinction will remain prominent in the ensuing parables.
1. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 108. He leads off the section of “The Parables” with the short parable in this periscope:
One brief parable Jesus told are about two brothers, asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One said he would go but he didn’t, the other said he wouldn’t go but then he did. Which did the will of the father? (Mt. 21:28-32) Jesus’ listeners took the bait and took sides, but I don’t think that is the way to respond. Short as this parable is, it suggests that the two brothers are embroiled in mimetic rivalry to the extent that they always say the opposite of what the other says and do the opposite as well. That is, they react to each other and not at all to the father. Both then, have failed to respond to the father and both are in need of forgiveness and mercy. When Jesus responds to his listeners by pointing out that tax collectors and prostitutes believed John the Baptist and they didn’t, he is hinting that the victims of their mimetic rivalry are entering the Kingdom ahead (and maybe instead) of them.
3. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “Joining the Believers“; a sermon in 2017, “The More I See, the More I Believe.”
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 25, 2005 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).