Last revised: September 17, 2022
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PROPER 14 (August 7-13) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 19
RCL: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
RoCa: Wisdom 18:6-9; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:32-48
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
If we are to revitalize the Gospel message — from a focus on believing certain things about Jesus in order to get to heaven, to a focus on trusting in Jesus as the way to a new way of being human in the here and now — then contending with the New Testament word faith, pistis in the Greek, is crucial. Hebrews 11 presents an ideal opportunity to contend with exactly this issue around the word faith. pistis appears in Hebrews 11 twenty-four times!
Half the battle is to translate this passage in fresh ways. I tend to translate pistis as “faithfulness” and “trust,” rather than as “faith” or “belief.” I’ve learned to at least ask the question of what key Hebrew words might be behind the key Greek words, since the early apostles and evangelists had the task of translating the Hebrew/Aramaic message of Jesus into the common language of the Greco-Roman world context. My guess or proposal from the Hebrew word behind the Greek word pistis is the word hesed, most often translated as “faithfulness” or “steadfast love.” hesed is a word a that speaks to the quality of relationships between persons, especially persons in covenant with each other.
Here, for example, is an alternate translation of today’s text that I may offer:
1Now faithfulness is the substance (ousia) of hope; the proof of events not seen. 2For in this our ancestors gave witness. 3By faithfulness we understand that the ages were being prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of what does not appear.
8By faithfulness Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faithfulness he immigrated to the Promised Land, a foreigner, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faithfulness Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she judged the one faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
13All of these died in faithfulness without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and even migrants on the earth. 14For people who speak in this way reveal that they are seeking a homeland. 15Indeed, if they had been remembering that land from which they had gone out, they would have been able to return at an opportune time. 16But rather, they long for a better homeland, their heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
See an elaboration of these themes in the 2022 sermon, “‘Faith’ Means Steadfast Love — Not a System of Beliefs.”
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
1. The Letter to the Hebrews has been one of the most controversial books of the Bible in Girardian circles. Its heavy orientation around sacrifice appears suspicious in the face of the Girardian analysis of sacrifice. Girard’s own first assessment of it was negative in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (written in 1978), pp. 227-231. He retracted these criticisms in an interview with Rebecca Adams in November 1992 (“Violence, Difference, and Sacrifice: A Conversation with René Girard,” in Religion and Literature 25, no. 2, 1993, pp. 9-33). Here’s a portion of that interview:
RG: I say at the end of Things Hidden — and I think this is the right attitude to develop — that the changes in the meaning of the word “sacrifice” contain a whole history, religious history, of mankind. So when we say “sacrifice” today inside a church or religious context, we mean something which has nothing to do with primitive religion. Of course I was full of primitive religion at the time of the writing of the book, and my theme was the difference between primitive religion and Christianity, so I reserved the word “sacrifice” completely for the primitive.RA: So you scapegoated Hebrews within the canon of Scripture.
RG: So I scapegoated Hebrews and I scapegoated the word “sacrifice” — I assumed it should have some kind of constant meaning, which is contrary to the mainstream of my own thinking, as exemplified by my reading of the Judgement of Solomon in the book [Things Hidden, pp. 237-245]. This text is fundamental for my view of sacrifice.
2. Other Girardians have thus made more positive uses of the Letter to the Hebrews. James Alison makes plenty of positive use of it in Raising Abel, quoting it numerous times throughout and even giving it the last word. He closes with a quote of Heb. 12:18-24 (pp. 196-97) as a way of summarizing his entire argument in the book.
3. Raymund Schwager offers an extensive exposition of Hebrews in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 182ff. In a major “Systematic Consideration” entitled “Redemption as Judgment and Sacrifice,” Schwager basically uses Hebrews to anchor his argument. The concluding section of this part is “The Sacrifice of Christ and the ‘Conversion’ of Evil,” and Schwager uses Hebrews to show how the Cross works that transformation.
4. In Violence Renounced, edited by Willard Swartley, there are two articles with a Girardian perspective on Hebrews: “Sacrificial Language in Hebrews: Reappraising René Girard,” by Michael Hardin (one of the authors for PreachingPeace.org), pp. 103-119; and “‘A Better Sacrifice’ or ‘Better than Sacrifice’? Response to Michael Hardin’s ‘Sacrificial Language in Hebrews,'” by Loren L. Johns, pp. 120-131.
5. I recommend Thomas Long‘s commentary on Hebrews in the Interpretation series (John Knox Press) as a standard, i.e., non-Girardian, commentary to consult for preaching. Long considers Hebrews to be a sermon, not really a letter, and so his rich homiletic exposition of Hebrews also includes wonderful commentary on the art of preaching itself. Moreover, Long himself is an artful preacher and brings a beautiful flare for language and metaphor to his commentary.
6. Another good commentary is N. T. Wright‘s Hebrews for Everyone. Wright is excellent for bringing a new lens to reading familiar terms. In this passage, for example, Christians have become accustomed to reading “heaven” and thinking about a place we go after we die. Wright, in his Everyone commentaries, nearly always takes the opportunity to offer an updated way of reading “heaven.” This passage provides an example:
At this point many readers have been content to say, simply, that the city is in heaven, and that this is a way of speaking of the place to which God’s people go, in one simple move, after they die. Hebrews does not develop very much its view of the destiny of God’s people after death; it does not, for instance, spell out what Paul makes clear, that final resurrection is a future stage after ‘life after death,’ a new embodiment following a period of disembodiment (except for those still alive when the Lord returns). Nor does it make clear, what Revelation insists upon in its picture of the ‘heavenly Jerusalem,’ that at the last this new city will come down from heaven to earth, as part of God’s whole project of recreating and so reuniting the entire cosmos. But the emphasis on resurrection which begins in verses 17 and 18, and is continued in verse 35, added to the key passages we shall examine towards the end of chapter 12, incline me to think that the writer has the same sort of thing in mind. He is clear, at least, that until the coming of the Messiah none of the men and women of faith from days gone by could be ‘made perfect,’ could have their hopes brought to completion. Even after death, they were still waiting. Having hailed the hope from far off, they were content to stare death in the face and continue to believe. No wonder God is not ashamed to be called ‘their God.’ They are taking him seriously as the creator, the life-giver, the one who can and will raise the dead. (137-38)
Reflections and Questions
1. In 1992, I had only ‘discovered’ Girard’s work three months before encountering this lectionary group of texts. (Note: the Lutheran version of the Revised Common Lectionary chooses Gen. 15:1-6 for the First Lesson, a story of the promise to Abraham that goes with this Second Lesson.) I was surprised to find that I think it was already impacting my reading. The big news stories of the week pertained to Hurricane Andrew in Miami and the famine in Somalia. I used these to talk about the challenges of suffering to faith, mostly using the flood story from the skipped over verses in Hebrews 11, which nonetheless fit better with the hurricane story. I centered on a Girard-influenced reading of the flood story for a sermon entitled “The Heart of Faith.”
1. Redactionally, Luke 12:22-34 is from Q and is parallel with Matthew 6:25-34, 6:19-21; Luke 12:35-38 is somewhat unique to Luke and most closely parallels parts of Matthew’s Parable of the Ten Maidens (25:1-13); and Luke 12:39-40 most closely parallels verses in the Markan apocalypse (13:33-37) also transmitted in Matthew 24:42-44. Most clear is that Luke, and the lectionary editors, have brought together seemingly disparate materials, if we go by Matthew’s placement of the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the apocalyptic material from the end of Jesus’ ministry. Who is more original? If Matthew, then why did Luke bring these materials together? Or can we take the approach of someone like N. T. Wright and say that, as an itinerant preacher and prophet, Jesus delivered the same material in differing contexts and times?
2. Luke 12:34 and Matthew 6:21 can be translated exactly the same in English: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” But there is a very subtle difference in the Greek:
Luke 12:34 — hopou gar estin ho thesauros hymon, ekei kai he kardia hymon estai.
Matthew 6:21 — hopou gar estin ho thesauros sou, kai he kardia sou.
In short, the main difference is “your,” which is plural in Luke (hymon) and singular in Matthew (sou). What kind of difference does this make to our understanding of the passage in its context? Does Jesus addressing his audience as a plural body make for a more political reading? Is he addressing them as one body of folks in order to challenge their most cherished joint values? And if a more political reading is intended, does that make more sense for Luke to join this with some apocalyptic material?
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 121; The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 214. The ‘coming like thief in the night’ motif of Luke 12:39-40 is quite common in the New Testament. Alison highlights it in taking on the contemporary criticism of the NT that it had false eschatological expectations which needed to be reshaped. This view of modern scholarship places the impetus of the changing expectations within the apostolic community and their feelings of disappointment in the Lord’s Day not coming as soon as they thought. Many contemporary scholars even place the blame of the ‘mistake’ with Jesus himself. Their view is that Jesus spawned the original view of an immanent return; and when that didn’t come about, the apostolic community needed to adjust their hopes.
Alison suggests another scenario: Jesus himself had already ‘adjusted’ the kinds of hopes found in popular apocalyptic literature of the time into “eschatological” hopes. Jesus already had an “eschatological imagination” during his lifetime. What we see in the New Testament is a gradual process of the apostolic witness adjusting their imaginations in the aftermath of the resurrection. This is basically the main theme of Raising Abel, as can be seen in its sub-title, “The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination.” Alison takes on the New Testament scholarship, incorrect in his view, in ch. 6, “The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Delayed Parousia.” The closing section of this chapter, entitled “The Time of Abel, or the Inhabitability of Time,” relates a parable of a risen Abel returning to Cain as a thief in the night — which is, of course, a parable of how Christ comes to each of us.
In The Joy of Being Wrong, Alison brilliantly summarizes the argument of Raising Abel in ch. 8, “Hope and Concupiscence,” especially the section “The Eschatological Imagination.”
2. On the first part of the Gospel Lesson on heavenly treasure, Alison makes some interesting comments on the Matthean parallel (Matt. 6:21) to Luke 12:34 in The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 228. Over a several paragraph development of what he calls “An Infantile Morality,” this parallel to Luke 12:34 is even linked up with next week’s Second Lesson, Heb. 12:1-2:
The approach to Christian morality that I am attempting to set out might justly be called “infantile,” for it suggests that, rather than the child being dissuaded from participating in a noisy gang of children by the threat that, if the child does not cease to participate in the noisy gang, then the ice-cream that the parent was going to give it back at home will not be given to it after all, the parent comes to the scene of the noisy gang, and starts to unwrap the ice-cream in sight of the child. The child sees the ice-cream beginning to be unwrapped. Desire is awakened in the child by the parent’s suggestion. The desire for the ice-cream re-centers the child’s behavior, and the child is able to leave the gang pretty painlessly.Notice that what has happened, entirely in line with mimetic theory as set forth by both Girard and Oughourlian, is that an anterior desire, for the good of the child, has made use of an object, an ice-cream, to suggest into being a new desire in the child that effectively modifies its behavior. Mutatis mutandis this model seems to be exactly what is at work in the way in which the New Testament appeals to the eschatological imagination as that which permits the modification of our behavior. It is worth stressing that it depends on an entirely positive view of desire: We can desire things that are good for us, and should, and that these desires will not be frustrated. This, rather than having us engage in any purely voluntaristic struggle with our desires, which very struggle remains within the mode of the desire that is to be overcome.
In the light of this understanding of the reality of the closeness and urgency of the new creation that is made available by our imaginations being nourished by the death-less creativity of God, it then becomes possible to see the dynamic behind much of Jesus’ teaching and practice with regards to the Kingdom. Jesus’ phrase about laying up for yourselves treasure in heaven, “for where your treasure is, there also is your heart” (Matt. 6:21), is manifestly not an exhortation to a self-denying asceticism whereby, if we were really adult, we would not be moved by treasures, whether here or anywhere else, but would, out of the very dignity of our adult sense of justice (or whatever) do the right thing. Jesus assumes that our need for treasure is not something which can be lobotomized by any amount of high-mindedness: we must have our desires re-formed around a more fulfilling treasure. If our eye (notoriously in Matthew’s gospel formed in mimetic rivalry, or not, as the case may be: Matt. 7:1-5; 20:15) is sound (rests on the goodness of one giving, and is able to desire without frustration), then the whole body is sound; whereas if the eye is not sound (formed in mimetic rivalry) then the whole body (and thus all behavior) is full of darkness (Matt. 6:22-23).
That this understanding is not unique to Matthew can be shown by the way in which Jesus’ pedagogy with his disciples in Mark’s Gospel has recourse to children. First, so as to give the disciples a new model for desire, in the wake of their dispute as to which of them is greatest, Jesus places a small child in their midst, and takes him in his arms (Mark 9:34-37). Shortly afterwards Jesus has to rebuke the disciples for hindering the access of children to him: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15).
Finally, James and John request places of honor, and the jealous indignation of the other disciples boils over (Mark 10:35-45). However, Jesus does not rebuke James and John for their desire — merely indicating to them the sort of tribulations they will have to go through before inheriting it. It is the other ten who are given a lecture presupposing the rivalistic nature of their own desire. James and John seem to have learnt from the child. It is not of course that children are “innocent” in any way at all: it is just that they are less complicated and calculating about knowing what they want, running for it, and insisting on getting it. It is just such a pattern of desire that is able to receive the kingdom of God.
Did Jesus himself desire in this way? That is to say, was it the ability to imagine an urgent good for himself that enabled him to live as he did and give himself up to death? Apart from what we may deduce from the parables, there is at least one indication that the apostolic witness saw him as desiring in exactly this way, and in this being the model for our desire:
…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God. (Heb. 12:1b-2; my emphasis)
We cannot, it seems, run away from the fact that the apostolic witness presents Jesus as having, in fact, taught in terms of heavenly rewards, a superabundance of heavenly rewards indeed, and expected these to be a motivating factor in the lives of those who were to follow him, and a motivating factor without any sense of shame that one is following him so as to get something, and something good for me. I hope I have shown that this does not depend on a crude “pie in the sky” theology, but is an essential part of the eschatological imagination that Jesus was opening up for the disciples, and the beginnings of the possibility of a morality based on the calling into being and satisfaction of real desires, rather than the castration of, or weird fencing matches with, the desires that already drive us. This eschatological imagination is intrinsically related to the opening up of the vision of God. There remains the question of whether or not this vision is automatically hostile to any serious participation in human history. (The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 227-229)
4. 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 a blog on this text in 2016, “The Burglar Who Serves.”
Reflections and Questions
1. This passage gives the opportunity to adjust or reinterpret the sense of ‘apocalyptic’ urgency present in the Synoptic Gospels. Recent generations of Christians have come to hear the urgency in the framework of God’s decision of individuals’ fates when they die: It is urgent to ‘make a decision for Christ’ before one dies, or you will find yourself banished to eternal torture in hell. That does sound urgent!
But the most recent N.T. scholarship (e.g., N.T. Wright) is guiding us into a very different reading of that urgency: follow the way of peace of Jesus, or another hellish experience of human violence is around the corner. Today, with the advent of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the urgency is more along the lines of Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s, last sermon (March 31, 1968):
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…. I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t goin’ study war no more.”
This is very much in keeping with Mimetic Theory’s view of N.T. apocalyptic — that it is about increasing episodes of human violence, not some consummation of the world via divine violence. The Son of Man came unexpectantly into our human violence, like a thief in the night, to give us a very different way to peace. It becomes increasingly urgent to choose that peace, beginning with the Jews choice to find a different way to freedom than the one they pursued in 66-70 CE, a generation after the Son of Man’s coming. Two thousand years later, it becomes more urgent with each passing day.
N.T. Wright‘s Everyone commentaries generally provide a necessary corrective on the familiar readings. This passage is no exception:
Not only is Jesus engaged in a running battle with the powers of evil. Not only is he issuing a challenge to total loyalty in the face of opposition. Not only is he saying that God’s kingdom now demands a complete reordering of priorities. He is now warning that a crisis is coming, a great showdown for which one must be prepared in the same way as servants who listen eagerly for their master’s footfall and knock at the door. Jesus seems to have envisaged a coming moment at which the forces of light and darkness would engage in a terrible battle, resulting in his own death, and a devastating catastrophe for Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular. Though this passage and others like it have often been taken as predictions of Jesus’ final return, Luke throughout his gospel seems to suggest that they refer principally to a complex of events which Jesus knew would happen within the lifetime of his contemporaries.
…This picture looks forward to 19.11-27, which is not about the second coming of Jesus but about the return of Israel’s God to Zion – which was happening, Jesus believed, then and there. The master came back, but the servants were not ready. (Luke for Everyone, 156, 157)
2. In 2016, I worked the above eschatological reflections into a blog, “‘You also must be ready’: An Urgent Call to White Friends to Join the Fight Against Racism,” which was also the basic strategy for the sermon that Sunday.
3. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (par. Matt. 6:21) The “romantic” view is that our heart defines our treasure. Jesus tells us that it’s the other way around. We need to find our treasure in heaven (vs. 33), and our heart will follow. Isn’t this a Girardian turn-around of our usual thinking about desire? Our desire comes from the model for our desires, not from our hearts. And in order to steer clear of mimetic rivalry, we need to locate the model for our desires in heaven. Earthly models of desire lead to rivalry. The Genesis 3 story of the fall shows us the choice between earthly and heavenly models of desire. The man and woman are living in Paradise as long as they follow God’s heavenly desire. But they eventually go with the earthly models of desire and fall into rivalry. Jesus comes as the Son of Man from heaven to model godly desire for us. Ultimately, when we make him our treasure, our hearts begin to follow.
One could follow the themes in the past two weeks concerning prayer for God’s desire. Last week’s parable sets up the first several verses of this week’s gospel by showing us someone who was not rich toward God, someone who did not find his treasure in heaven.
4. In 2004 the difference in the Greek between Luke 12:34 and Matthew 6:21 (see above) loomed larger for me than the small detail would seem to warrant. But mimetic theory helps one to understand the difference between the clash of our many individual desires as opposed to being able to be of one desire with God’s desire. When “your treasure” points to a plurality of persons discovering together their common treasure in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then “your heart” can point to the oneness of many hearts together in one desire to serve God. See the sermon “The Treasure of Becoming One Heart.”