Proper 24A

Last revised: October 17, 2020
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PROPER 24 (October 16-22) / Ordinary Time 29
RCL: Exod. 33:12-23; 1 Thess. 1:1-10; Matt. 22:15-22
RoCa: Isa. 45:1, 4-6; 1 Thess. 1:1-5; Matt. 22:15-21

Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation

One of the modern tenets of politics, the Separation of Church and State, also derives from Reformation theology that makes it comfortable for imperialism to reign without prophetic critique from followers of Jesus. Theology of the New Reformation must find itself once again in the biblical middle between the two extremes. The original extreme is that of human culture in which theology and politics are intertwined, justifying one another. Protestantism was right to react against the theology of Christendom to the extent that the latter expressed the theology/politics of our human origins. But Protestantism moved to the other extreme with its Separation of Church and State such that the politics of Empire could continue without significant dissent.

In his chapter on this week’s Gospel Reading in Law in the New Testament, J. Duncan Derrett explains how the passage stands as the biblical middle ground against the extreme of the Separation of Church and State. By the end of the Nineteenth Century the Roman Catholic Church was completely on-board with the Protestant Separation:

In [Pope Leo XIII’s] encyclical Arcanum (10 February 1880) he says: “No one doubts but that Jesus Christ, the Church’s founder, intended the spiritual authority to be distinct from the civil, each free and untrammelled in the pursuit of its own concerns.” In his encyclical Immortale Dei (1 November 1885) he says: “God divided the administration of the human race between two powers, namely the ecclesiastical and the civil, the former supreme in spiritual, the latter in secular affairs. . . . Therefore whatever in human affairs is in any manner sacred, whatever appertains to the salvation of souls or the worship of God . . . is entirely within the power and jurisdiction of the Church; but it is right that whatever falls within the category of the civil and political should be subject to the civil authority, since Jesus Christ ordained that the things of Caesar should be rendered to Caesar and those which belong to God should be rendered to God.” (quote from Derrett, 313)

The biblical position represented by Jesus’s famous response in this passage holds human law as separate from God’s sovereignty but doesn’t vacate that sovereignty by too radical of a separation. God’s law, especially as fully revealed in the love of Jesus the Messiah, remains as a prophetic critique of human law. This becomes even more crucial in the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus brought about: that the fallenness of human law is finally fully revealed as under the power of the sin — the power of the Scapegoat Mechanism in light of Mimetic Theory.

That’s why the movement of secularism is actually a consequence of the Gospel in the West. Secularism is the corrected worldview which separates everything human from theological justification. Human law is simply human; human politics are simply human; etc. But secularism goes too far to the other extreme from the biblical middle ground if it completely removes all that’s human from any possibility of critique from a transcendent perspective. This is tricky business, because any reassertion of theological perspective that lacks humility can easily collapse back into a false theological justification of the human.

And that’s why prophetic critique can be more effective if it is offered in terms of anthropological hypothesis — which is once again a benefit of Mimetic Theory. A Christian prophetic stance against the status quo doesn’t have to settle for an authority based solely on, “Because God says so.” Rather, it can offer an analysis of what it means to be more truly human from the perspective of Jesus the Messiah, an hypothesis that becomes part of the conversation on matters of best politics, economics, ethics, and so forth.

‘Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’ can thus be understood as an anthropological hypothesis. Jesus asks whose image (eikon) is on the coin. This recalls the Imago Dei, being made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). Yes, it’s a theological statement. But even more so it’s an anthropological statement. In a secular age, the emphasis is on the latter such that it becomes a proposal for understanding what it means to be truly human, or human-at-our-best. It is the ongoing conversation of what it takes to fully flourish as individuals and as a species.

My favorite example of a prophetic critique today is the Poor People’s Campaign, standing against a laissez-faire capitalism which sacrifices the poor. They call out especially the GOP as the main proponents of the current laissez-faire capitalism. In the secular realm, too, there are plenty of economists who critique this current version of capitalism — Paul Krugman (Arguing with Zombies), Joseph Stiglitz (The Price of Inequality), Thomas Piketty (Ideology and Capitalism), and Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (Poor Economics). These economists argue for a capitalism in which government invests strategically in people, especially the less advantaged, and for the role of government to maintain a social safety net against poverty. It is an economics that more closely approximates the ‘sheep nations’ in the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25:31-46 (see Christ the King Sunday A).

* * * * *

In 2020 I didn’t preach on the ins and outs of the Separation of Church and State or Secularism, as the essay above reflects. But I did spin-off the Imago Dei in the last paragraph to fit the theme of preceding weeks — Jesus saving us from our own violence (see, for example, “Jesus Is Saving Us from Our Violence“) — into a stewardship theme of being generous. The win-lose scenario of the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus reveals the thing which blocks generosity: win-lose thinking trapped in scarcity thinking. Jesus comes to save us from this violence, too — hence, the sermon, “Jesus Is Saving Us from the Violence of Win-Lose Thinking” (and it’s video version).

Exod. 33:12-23

Reflections and Questions

1. The end of ch. 32 leaves the Israelites in a sacrificial crisis in the aftermath of the golden calf incident. Will Yahweh destroy them or abandon them? This chapter portrays a reconciliation of sorts from several different perspectives. The most interesting in light of mimetic theory, I think, is the portion that comes before this lection, 33:1-6. Here, the condition for a reconciliation is that they must now strip themselves of all ornamentation. Previously in Exodus, they were to plunder the Egyptians of much of their jewelry and gold. Now, after making an idol of their booty, they are to plunder themselves. The condition for Yahweh continuing in relationship with them is to forego objects of mimetic desire that they have carried away from their rivals. This may also relate to the ban that was later in place in the conquest of Canaan (see Bailie, “Violence Unveiled,” pp. 160ff.).

2. The authors of the New Interpreter’s Bible make this comment on the issue of God’s presence in Ex. 33:12-23 (V. 1, p. 941): “the survival of a durable cultural system depends on the known, acknowledged power of holiness in its midst.” The author seems to be arguing positively for the place of religion. Mimetic theory, however, shows the role of holiness in forming culture; it marks the differentiation of sacred and profane, a false differentiation that serves the scapegoating mechanism. I see the strong emphasis on holiness as problematic for knowing the true God. Yet the drama in the text seems to be, at the same time, mediating that divine holiness through the mediator Moses. Moses dares to barter with God and to even attempt looking on God’s face.

Isa. 45:1, 4-6


1. James Alison, “Contemplation and Monotheism,” a talk published to the James Alison website. Second Isaiah represents the height of Jewish monotheism, and Alison puts it to use in this important paper about both the benefits and dangers of montheism.

2. Tony Bartlett, the seventh study in a series on Second Isaiah (on 44:9-45:17). These studies are among the finest examples of how Mimetic Theory is a key to opening the revelation of Scripture.

Reflections and Questions

1. This passage is recognized as a decisive breakthrough in monotheistic theology: a God who is so in control of everything that God even manipulates one’s enemies. Cyrus is doing the Lord’s work of freeing his people from exile. But is this such a decisive step forward to where we want to be in our knowing the true God? Mimetic theory helps us to understand the nature of gods who bring both blessings and curses. The latter is often a cover for our own human violence. Or natural disasters that befall a person are seen as “acts of God.” (In 2005 the world has suffered through numerous so-called “Acts of God.” For a different take, listen to the Aug. 14, 2005 “Grace Matters,” with Lutheran Disaster Response Chaplain Gary Harbaugh, entitled “God, We Need to Talk.”) Is that the true God we come to know in Jesus Christ? Mimetic theory, it seems to me, prompts us to differentiate between a God who identifies with the victims of human violence and the perpetration of human violence itself. Human violence is the responsibility of humans. And acts of nature are part of the randomness built into Creation in order to enable, at a higher level of complexity, human freedom.

Another way to get at this is through the last line of the text: “I make weal and create woe.” Is it God who creates so much of the woein this world, or is it us? The notion that there is only one true God is a momentous breakthrough in religion, but the anthropological tendency to idolatry still places pressure to experience that one God with the traits of one’s past idols. A god who both blesses and curses is the god of the human constructs of the sacred. Instead of gods who bless and gods who curse, there is now one all-powerful god who does both. Compare Isaiah 45:7 — “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things” — with 1 John 1:5: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.”

1 Thess. 1:1-10


1. Willard Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus/Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” in Violence Renounced, pp. 221-222:

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, because you received the word with much affliction/persecution/suffering with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you have become a type/example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. (1 Thess. 1:6-7, WMS trans.) (1)

This text is crucially important for two reasons: first, it is likely the earliest extant Christian writing. Second, this early paranesis sets up an identity grid by which the Thessalonians believers are assured of their authentic Jesus character. Daniel Patte, in his structural analysis and explication of Paul’s letters, regards this second factor as most crucial. That these believers received the word in suffering marks them in type (typon, the word translated example). The fact that they suffered like their Lord Jesus, and like Paul and his coworkers before them (note the plural us, referring back to “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy” in the salutation) (2) marks them as genuine. It certifies and assures them that they belong to Jesus. (3)My translation suggests that en thipsei polle should be taken as an instrumental of manner, i.e., in affliction denotes the manner in which they received the gospel. This affliction specifies the mimetic relationship (mimetai in 6a) to the Lord Jesus. There is, as it were, a double marking, first in mimetai, in that their experience stands in continuity with that of Jesus, and second, in typon, in that they become a type for others who likewise undergo similar suffering in receiving and living out the gospel.

2. René Girard, Violence Renounced; link to an excerpt on the importance of Imitatio Christi.

Reflections and Questions

1. “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” Last week, I said that Philippians as a whole seems to strike the chord of positive mimesis more than any other book in the NT. As a single passage, this is not far behind. The Greek word for “imitators,” BTW, is mimetai.

2. “Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” Wrath. How do we interpret wrath in the NT? There are several Girardian references on this subject, with the basic biblical text being Romans. Gil Bailie has some good reflections in his tape series on Romans. James Alison has important work on this subject in both his latest two books (Raising Abel and The Joy of Being Wrong). In RA, for example, he sums things up (p. 48):

This is the process we see in Paul and then in John. First language is kept and ironized. Then when this language can be abandoned without fear of scandalizing people, it is replaced by a new, simple and positive, discourse. So, God’s wrath, a real concept in the Old Testament, becomes God’s wrath, an ironic concept whose content is purely human violence, and then this is reduced to ‘the wrath’ by itself. Finally the language is abandoned as it becomes clear that violence is always and only human, and that God has nothing to do with it, and so we end up with the sort of language we see in the Johannine texts.

In JBW he traces the development over more texts, including 1 Thessalonians; see pp. 126-128. As the earliest work of Paul, he wonders if 1 Thess is closer to the O.T. view and Romans shows the later development of “wrath.” Of Romans Alison says:

The word wrath (Gr: orge) appears ten times in Romans. Only once does it appear as the wrath of God (Rom 1:18). On the one occasion where it appears to be something inflicted by God on people as a result of our wickedness (Rom 3:5) Paul expressly indicates the mythical nature of the terminology (“I speak in a human way”). On all the other occasions where the term appears (2:5, 8; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4, 5) it is impersonal. Even in the first case, where the orgé is linked to theou, the content of the wrath of God is itself a demythification of a vindictive account of God (whose righteousness has just been declared). For the content of the wrath is the handing over by God of us to ourselves. Three times in the following verses the content of the wrath is described in terms of handing over: 1:24; 1:26; and 1:28. That is to say that the wrath, rather than being an act of divine vengeance is a divine non-resistance to human evil (see Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p 101). However, I would suggest that it is more than that. The word “handed over” (paredoken) has, in primitive Christian sources a particularly subtle set of resonances. (Note: This word is vital and recurrent in all the Gospels, where much is made of the irony of God handing over Jesus, Judas handing over Jesus, and Jesus handing over himself respectively.) For God is described as handing over (paredoken) his own son to us in a text no further from our own than Romans 8:32. The handing over of the son to us, and the handing over of ourselves to sin appear to be at the very least parallel. The same verb (paredothé) is used in 4:25 where Jesus was handed over for our trespasses, and raised for our justification. I would suggest that it is the handing over of the son to our killing him that is in fact the same thing as handing us over to our own sins. Thus wrath is life in the sort of world which kills the son of God.

So what is “the wrath that is coming”? For Girardians, the apocalyptic days of wrath are entirely about increasing human violence in a deepening sacrificial crisis, i.e., the crisis that is coming because the Gospel continues to deconstruct our sacrificial means of keeping the peace.

Matt. 22:15-22

Exegetical Notes

1. NRSV: V. 16, “for you do not regard people with partiality.” The Greek is, ou gar blepeis eis prosōpon anthrōpōn, which more literally translates as, “for you do not look upon the face of a man.” The phrase means what the NRSV indicates, but the literal translation is interesting since the episode involves the face of the emperor on a coin.

2. V. 17, kēnson, more specifically, a “census tax” paid directly to the emperor, not an ordinary tax. The more general Greek word for “tax” is phoros (used in Luke’s version of this story, Luke 20:22). The census tax might have been more controversial to students of Torah because it’s paid to the emperor using coins with his image on it. Ordinary taxes are covered in the Torah as a common part of life.

3. NRSV: V. 20, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” Why translate eikōn as “head” rather than “image”? Yes, it was probably just the emperor’s head on the coin, but it causes the reader in English to miss the vital connection that I believe Jesus wants us to make: God makes each one of us in God’s image. This coin may bear Caesar’s image, but you and I bear God’s image. So now what does it mean to render unto the Emperor or God? The Emperor may get a few of these coins, but God invites us to give ourselves. Bottom line: God has the ultimate sovereignty over us, not Caesar. For Roman listeners, they hear Jesus say that taxes should be paid. But for some Jewish listeners, who will immediately hear the connection of “image” to Genesis 1, these are ‘fighting’ words about Yahweh’s sovereignty over Caesar. Except Jesus’ way of ‘fighting’ is totally unexpected (more below).


1. James Alison, a video homily for Proper 24A (Ordinary 29); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. (Note: Background to Alison’s reading of this parable is J. Duncan Derrett‘s Law in the New Testament, chap. 14, “‘Render to Caesar. . .'”)

2. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” offered these reflections on this passage in 2020, “Who Owns You?

3. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “Whose Image Drives Us“; and a sermon in 2017, “Jesus, Who Rescues Us from the Wrath That Is Coming, Constantly Coming.”

Reflections and Questions

1. Jesus asks his inquisitors concerning the image on the coin (see exegetical note above). The key insight for me relates Caesar’s image on the coin to God’s image in us. Rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s implies the coin (an idol); rendering to God what is God’s means giving ourselves. I also wonder about the relationship of image (Gr: eikon) to imitation (Gr: mimesis). Does the idea of being made in the image of God have to do with our being able to imitate? To take God’s desire as our model? Our choice, as always from the very beginning, is to imitate Creator or creature, God or Caesar. Link to a 1996 sermonImaged to Imitate Christ,” and a 2005 versionStewardship as ‘Making Disciples.’

2. In 2014 the crucial issue to jump out at me is sovereignty (also crucial in the Isaiah 45 reading). Paying taxes to the emperor implies a certain amount of sovereignty. But Jesus’ answer, to Jewish ears, implies that Yahweh’s sovereignty trumps Caesar’s. Caesar may have sovereignty over some of our money, but Yahweh has true sovereignty over us. But the dynamic in Matthew is to understand how completely different Yahweh’s sovereignty is in Jesus the Messiah. A crucial passage in this regard, one that is skipped over in the Year A Revised Common Lectionary is Matthew 20:25-28:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Yahweh’s sovereignty issues in loving service, not lording over. This insight resulted in the sermonGod’s Coins” (preached extemporaneously from notes).

3. In 2002 I found myself reading this parable in its wider context: in the aftermath of his Palm Sunday entrance and cleansing of the Temple, Jesus is engaged by the “chief priests and elders of the people” as to his authority. Jesus tells them three parables: the Two Sons, the Wicked Tenants, and the King’s Son’s Wedding Feast — which have preceded this passage in the three previous weeks of the lectionary.

In this context, I read the above insight regarding the image of God into the context of controversy as being Jesus’ invitation to draw a win-win solution out of our usual win-lose way of approaching things. The context of the contemporary audience was to be standing on the brink of war in Iraq. War represents our usual win-lose way of approaching things — though with modern weaponry it is increasingly resulting in a lose-lose scenario. What would represent a win-win solution to peace in the face of terrorism? How about using our strength as a nation to call the nations of the world to rebuild Afghanistan? Link to the 2002 sermonA Win-Win Answer to a Lose-Lose Question.”

4. In 2008 this week fell in the midst of the September 2008 market crash, the bank bailouts, and the November election which brought Barack Obama into the presidency. Fear and anxiety was contagious. I felt the need to preach about contagious faith in a sermonContagious Fear — Contagious Faith.”

5. The Pharisees are called “hypocrites.” Gil Bailie in one of his tape series has an interesting discussion of “hypocrisy” as “under crisis.” He sees it in the sense of a sub-crisis or lesser crisis. Hypocrites are those who are always trying to shift the ultimate crisis of our all-out human rivalry and conflict to lesser crises. They focus on their own penultimate judgments, which trap someone else in judgment, in order to throw the focus off the ultimate judgment, which would include themselves. In other words, they scapegoat.

Notes from Swartley

1. In the printed Scriptures I normally follow the NRSV. The bold print for imitation and example language is mine.

2. Elisabeth Castelli, in her effort to reduce imitation to a rhetorical strategy that utilizes Paul’s position of power in a hierarchical structure in order to valorize sameness, resists the true import of this plural construction. Even though she recognizes it, she shifts back to the singular: “became imitators of me and of the Lord” (Imitating Paul, 95, 91-92). Obviously, this first use of the concept in the plural, which puts imitation in a communal type context threatens her entire project, to argue that Paul’s exhortations, as well as this reference to historical experience, function so that “he constructs a hierarchical community of sameness” (p. 117).

3. Patte, Paul’s Faith and the Power of the Gospel: A Structural Introduction to the Pauline Letters (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983),134-40.

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