Last revised: September 17, 2022
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PROPER 15 (August 14-20) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 20
RCL: Isaiah 5:1-7; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
RoCa: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
This week’s Gospel Reading is one of those texts that makes little or no sense — unless one knows René Girard’s Mimetic Theory. Of course, Jesus came to bring peace. But this week’s text brings out the paradoxical fact that the ultimate peace Jesus came to bring must pass through the risky emasculation of sacred violence, the thing in which human beings put their faith to contain mimetic violence.
Mimetic Theory maps out these two categories of violence and how they interrelate. Mimetic violence is the violence that descends from the way in which human beings desire, namely, mimetically. Because we catch our desires from each other, we eventually become rivals for the same objects of desire — the ultimate desire being having prestige in our communities and the power (the power of forceful control, not love) that comes with it. The path to mimetic violence runs from mimetic desire to envy and resentment to rivalry to conflict and finally to violence. When violence itself becomes mimetic, otherwise known as revenge, it typically results in a truly frightful apocalypse of violence. And because mimetic violence descends from mimetic desire, it can tend to begin with those closest to us, from whom we are catching our desires — in other words, precisely the relationships Jesus specifies in today’s Gospel: father and son, mother and daughter, etc.
Sacred violence is the sanctioned violence humankind has always counted on to contain mimetic violence. It falls into place through the Scapegoat Mechanism and becomes institutionalized as structures that help prevent the mimetic violence from constantly plaguing the relationships of those closest to us. It seeks to shunt that intra-community violence outwards toward a specified enemy, a designated Other. It operates by conspiracy theory and the satanic game of accusation, laying the blame for all problems at the Other’s feet — “satanic” because “Satan” is the ancient title meaning the Accuser. Does any of this sound familiar in today’s cultural climate and the rise of authoritarian fascism?
Jesus must cop to a possible escalation of violence within families because, in order for him to bring ultimate peace, he must begin by taking away the containment field of sacred violence from us. After two thousand years of the cross and resurrection whittling away at the effectiveness of sacred violence, humankind must face daunting challenges of violence in both categories and on many fronts. The pressure this puts on our family and community lives makes us ripe for the familiar solutions of conspiracy theories and their fascist purveyors. For much more on how MT helps us to make sense of this puzzling text, see the many resources below under the Gospel Reading.
In 2022, the unprecedented news of the week was the warrant to search Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, followed by conspiracy theory reactions against the FBI and DOJ which sparked violence and threats of violence. Talk of civil war was rife on many social media sites. The sermon began with the second portion of the Gospel about reading the signs of the times. If we do so today, it prompts a great urgency for followers of Jesus to seriously upgrade our Christian mission. We need to realize our call to be among those who understand violence and seek to bring about its end. Our world, standing on the brink of so much apocalyptic political violence, needs followers of Jesus to lead the way away from the brink. The resulting sermon is, “Reading the Signs of the Times: The World Needs Us to Show the True Way to Be Human.”
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 57. This passage — or the metaphor of vineyard, in any case — is well-used by Jesus in several of his parables, most notably the Wicked Tenants. As such it plays a crucial role in the drama of Jesus’ life and ministry. In Schwager’s elaboration of the drama, it arises in Act 2, “The Rejection of the Kingdom of God and Judgment.” A key insight is Schwager’s parsing of grace vs. judgment — that even the latter is transformed in the context of God’s grace. He writes:
With Jesus, grace and judgment are not two alternative possibilities within one single appeal; the predominance of grace is shown by the fact that the offer of grace takes place in advance of human choice. The problematic of judgment, on the contrary, emerges from the other side, from the human decision actually made. In the framework of the message of Jesus, the judgment sayings can therefore be taken completely seriously — without any weakening of the salvation sayings — only if they are related to a second situation of proclamation, which is distinguished from the first by the human rejection of the offer of salvation that is given without prerequisites. The two situations are … opposed to each other not as offer and refusal of the offer, but as offer and demonstration of the consequences of rejection of the offer. The transition to the second situation is not made by Jesus, but it results from the reaction of his hearers. Jesus only makes clear the theological consequences of their decision. (56)
In the context of an historical drama, rejection of Jesus’ message takes on greater significance than an individual’s salvation — the most common orientation of Protestant views of salvation. Rejection of Jesus’ offer of salvation at that moment in history was a moment in the drama of rejecting his overall ministry, prompting God’s ultimate response in the cross (Act 3), the resurrection (Act 4), and the sending of the Spirit (Act 5) to accomplish the work of reconciliation. It is in explaining this element of the drama that Isaiah 5 is cited:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children about me as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing, but you would not!” (Matt. 23:37) In this saying, Jesus expresses in retrospect very clearly that from the beginning his whole activity was directed toward the gathering of Israel. Rejection was therefore not merely a private matter of individuals, affecting only their personal salvation; it went directly against his task of proclamation, his will to bring about the gathering. If God really acted in a new way in the ministry of Jesus, then what was at stake for his hearers was not merely their individual salvation. The generation which he targeted with his proclamation was given a role in the history of salvation. Even the parable of the wicked winegrowers sets out that the hostile reaction against the son was aimed at possession of the vineyard, by which, it is clear from Isaiah 5:1-7, is meant the chosen people of God. The interest of this story consequently lay not merely in the individual fate of the wicked winegrowers but equally in the son’s lot and in the question of for whom the vineyard bears fruit. The winegrowers speak: “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours” (Mark 12:7 and parallels). What is involved is, in the first place, the success or failure of the mission of the son and only then the question of human wickedness and violence. (57)
One further quote from this portion of Schwager’s elaboration of the drama might provide a transition to the day’s Gospel:
The judgment sayings, which speak of resistance to Jesus’ mission, disclose the actual consequences of open or more indifferent rejection. If the kingdom of God was dawning in his activity and his proclamation, then any human will which opposed Jesus’ will for a new gathering blocked the fate of the basileia itself. The kingdom was caught up in a dramatic situation, since it was on the one hand unconditionally promised by God and yet on the other hand it was turned down by those whom it would have embraced and who should have contributed to its complete arrival. As God’s action was oriented toward including people’s actions, rejection raised not only an ethical problem. It put in question what “God’s action” can mean at all with these presuppositions. It was the aim of the kingdom of God to unite wills, the will of God with the will of people, and people among themselves as brothers and sisters of Jesus (Mark 3:31-35 and parallels). But in fact initially the exact opposite occurred. The will of people stood clearly against the will of Jesus…. (58-9)
Rejecting God’s salvation in terms of a unity of wills, or desires, between God and people leads to a lack of unity of wills between people. And since Jesus’ death and resurrection begins taking away our human means of achieving unity — namely, sacred violence — the result will be a turning against one another even within our closest relationships — the scenario depicted in today’s Gospel.
2. Michael Kirwan, Discovering Girard, p. 79. Interestingly, Kirwan cites Isaiah 5 in a section where he is summarizing Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, and it’s in connection with the same parable of the Wicked Tenants. Toward glimpsing here the bigger picture of Schwager’s magnificent work, Kirwan also uses the vineyard image in summarizing Schwager’s Act 4, God’s answering the questions the cross raises to Jesus’ life and ministry:
In Act IV, this ambivalence is marvellously resolved, with the resurrection as the conclusive judgement of the heavenly Father. For Schwager the resurrection encompasses two things: first, a divine judgement in favour of the crucified Jesus; secondly, an astonishing advance to a new and unexpected stage of God’s self-revelation. What God does, in raising Jesus from the dead, is a completely unexpected contrast to the anticipated actions of the owner in the parable of the vineyard. Not only does God refrain from vengeance, he even forgives the murder of his Son, and opens up a new avenue of reconciliation for his killers: ‘a mercy greater than which none can be conceived.’ (80)
3. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 130. Marr’s longest chapter — Chapter 5, “A Word from Above” (pp. 83-142) — is a rehearsing of Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. Once again Isaiah 5 is cited in connection with the role of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in the drama of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
4. René Girard: with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants already figuring prominently here, I can fill-in the picture from Girard’s own work, who got things off to a roaring start by discussing this parable three times in Things Hidden: pp. 178-79, 187-89, 428-29. The latter citation is nearly the climax of the book:
What, according to Paul, scandalizes believers and passes for nonsense in the eyes of unbelievers is the fact that the Cross can be presented as a victory. They fail to understand what this victory could possibly consist in. If we return to the ‘parable of the vineyard’ and the commentaries that have been devoted to it, we can see that the skandalon figures there in a very significant place.
The commentators have no idea why, after this parable that reveals the founding murder, Christ presents himself as the author of this revelation and as the person who will overturn the whole order of human culture, by occupying the position of the founding victim in a visible and explicit way. In Luke’s text, this first addition, which already seems disconcerting and superfluous to many people, is followed by an allusion to scandal that seems even more inappropriate and is said to be the result of ‘verbal (or metonymic) contamination.’ In other words, they say the symbolism of the cornerstone summons up the stone of scandal, but this connection has no rhyme or reason. This is the passage under discussion:
. . . But he looked at them and said, ‘What then is this that is written: “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner”? Every one who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one it will crush him.’ (Luke 20:17-18)
As usual, a number of commentators wring their hands about the nastiness of this passage, which supposedly does harm to the gospel message, especially since it occurs in Luke, the most kindly of the evangelists. They console themselves with the thought that the threatening phrase does not really belong in the text, but has slipped in purely as a result of verbal association.
There is more than a mere matter of words here. If by now we still fail to understand the point, we really do have eyes and see not, ears and hear not. The quintessential scandal is the fact that the founding victim has finally been revealed as such and that Christ has a role to play in this revelation. That is what the psalm quoted by Christ is telling us. The entire edifice of culture rests on the cornerstone that is the stone the builders rejected. Christ is that stone in visible form. That is why there can be no victim who is not Christ, and no one can come to the aid of a victim without coming to the aid of Christ. Mankind’s failure of intelligence and belief depends upon an inability to recognize the role played by the founding victim at the most basic level of anthropology.
…The Cross is the supreme scandal not because on it divine majesty succumbs to the most inglorious punishment — quite similar things are found in most religions — but because the Gospels are making a much more radical revelation. They are unveiling the founding mechanism of all worldly prestige, all forms of sacredness and all forms of cultural meaning. The workings of the Gospels are almost the same, so it would seem, as workings of all earlier religions. That is why all our thinkers concur that there is no difference between them. But in fact this resemblance is only half of the story. Another operation is taking place below the surface, and it has no precedent. It discredits and deconstructs all the gods of violence, since it reveals the true God, who has not the slightest violence in him. Since the time of the Gospels, mankind as a whole has always failed to comprehend this mystery, and it does so still. So no empty threat or gratuitous nastiness is involved in the text’s saying exactly what has always been happening and what will continue to happen, despite the fact that present-day circumstances combine to make the revelation ever more plain. For us, as for those who first heard the Gospel, the stone rejected by the builders has become the permanent stumbling block. By refusing to listen to what is being said to us, we are creating a fearsome destiny for ourselves. And there is no one, except ourselves, who can be held responsible. (428-30)
This parable also figures prominently in two essays included in The Girard Reader: it leads off in “Satan” (p. 195) and is cited numerous times in “The Question of Ant-Semitism in the Gospels” (pp. 212ff.).
5. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 166-67. Many Girardians make the same connection as Girard between Isaiah 5’s image of the vineyard and Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Tenants (too numerous to cite here). In JBW Alison makes the connection to Jesus’ language of the vine and branches in John 15:
The same understanding can be seen in the Johannine working of the theme of Jesus as the true vine (Jn 15:1-17). This is not a piece of ecclesiastical moralizing, but the Johannine explanation of the way in which Jesus’ foundation works. Where Israel had been God’s vine, or vineyard, Jesus turns out to be the true vine which God has been bringing into existence all along. The real construction of the people of God is to be found by building from and in Jesus. The alternative to being founded on this foundation is to be cut off, to wither and be gathered for burning. Withered branches gathered for burning is the Johannine equivalent of the Matthaean house built on sand, or the synoptic scattering rather than gathering. John goes even further, in that he makes explicit the way in which this vine is founded: it is founded in the self-giving of Jesus for his friends (Jn 15:13), and it is their imitation of his self-giving (“you are my friends if you do what I command you”) which is their abiding in him and their producing of fruit. In this way only their fruit will abide, because it is part of this new and definitive foundation: the true vine. (166-67)
1. See last week’s (Proper 14C) bibliography on Hebrews.
2. Along with Col. 3:1-2 (which we mentioned several weeks ago), Heb. 12:2 is a passage of which James Alison says in Raising Abel, “a quotation which I hope will become familiar to you,” page 41; again quoted on pp. 75 & 189. Being a favorite verse, he quotes it again in The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 229.
The first citation of Heb. 12:2 in Raising Abel comes in the midst of a remarkable chapter on Jesus’ perception of God, a perception that the apostles could only begin to understand gradually in light of the resurrection. The basic insight is that God is a God of life; we are so formed in a culture of death that we cannot see that God has nothing to do with our ways of death, other than suffering them in Jesus Christ in order to reveal God’s effervescent life. Heb. 12:2 represents a clear statement of this insight for Alison. It is well worth reading that wider context in chapter 2 on “The Living God.”
1. The parallel passage in Matthew is 10:34-36 (see Proper 7A for more); this is considered a passage from the hypothesized Q source. A crucial difference between the Matthean and Lukan parallels is that Matthew’s Jesus says he ‘doesn’t come to bring peace but a sword’ (Matt 10:34; Gr. machaira), while Luke’s Jesus says he ‘doesn’t come to bring peace but rather division’ (Luke 12:51; Gr. diamerismos).
2. Luke goes on to use the participial form of the verb that matches his noun: diamerizo, “divided,” while Matthew uses the verb dichazo, which can also mean divide, but more specifically entails splitting something in two — like one might do with a sword. Luke’s choice of diamerismos, “division,” is the lone instance of this word in the New Testament. The verb diamerizo is more common, especially in Luke-Acts. Matthew, Mark, and John use the verb once a piece at the foot of the cross where the soldiers “divided” Jesus’ clothes. Luke uses it twice in this passage but then also earlier twice in the crucial Girardian passage about Satan being divided from himself and thus causing a divided house that cannot stand (Luke 11:14-23). Luke’s version reverses the riddle talking first about the divided house and then a divided Satan. Mark’s version gives us ‘Satan casting out Satan’ and then a house divided. Mark and Matthew use the root verb merizo for “divide,” rather than Luke’s more emphatic diamerizo.
1. René Girard. This passage, and its parallel in Matt. 10, expresses one of the basic points in mimetic theory. Our human way of keeping peace is the scapegoat mechanism and, exposed as sacred violence in the cross of Christ, is gradually taken away from us as its effectiveness wanes. A basic part of Jesus’ teachings, then, were “apocalyptic” warnings that violence would increase as our way of peace is taken away — making his call for peace through God’s way of peace — love and forgiveness — even more critical. He does come to bring peace but ‘not as the world gives’ (John 14:27). Our way of peace is the Sin (definitely in the singular in John 1:29) which the Lamb of God comes to take away.
So what happens in between the taking away of our peace and our embracing of God’s peace? Sword and division — father against son, son against father, etc. Our way of peace is designed to bring peace especially in proximity of relationship such as our flesh and blood families. It is a way of peace based on us vs. them. As Jesus takes that way of peace away from us, the first casualty is the peace we have with “us,” with those closest to us.
One example of this might be the modern progress in dismantling sexism. The old way of peace meant sacrificing the desires and goals of the daughters and wives in families. As families have rightly become more equalitarian so has the discord, in many instances, increased between husbands and wives, parents and children. Divorce has increased greatly. Christ showing us the way of love is needed in order to be able to desire with one desire as husbands and wives, without having to resort to the old sacrificial order of wives deferring to husbands. Otherwise, mimetic rivalry ensues with an increase of division.
Scapegoating phenomena cannot survive in many instances except by becoming more subtle, by resorting to more and more complex casuistry in order to elude the self-criticism that follows scapegoaters like their shadow. Otherwise, we could no longer resort to some wretched goat to rid ourselves of our resentments. We now have need of procedures less comically evident. Jesus makes allusion to this, I think. It is the deprivation of victim mechanisms and its terrible consequences that he talks about when he presents the future of the evangelized world in terms of conflict between persons who are most closely related:
Don’t think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. One’s enemies will be those of his own household. (Matt. 10:34-36)
In a world deprived of sacrificial safeguards, mimetic rivalries are often physically less violent, but they insinuate themselves into the most intimate relationships. This is what the text I have just quoted specifies: the son at war with his father, the daughter against her mother, etc. The loss of sacrificial protection transforms the most intimate relationships into their exact opposites so that they become relationships of doubles, of enemy twins. This text enables us to identify the true origin of modern “psychology.”
In The Girard Reader, Luke 12 / Matt. 10 is referred to in the chapter on “Satan,” p. 209, and in the “Epilog,” p. 275. There is also citation in Evolution and Conversion, p. 237. An interesting and lesser know place where Girard discusses these themes is in a CBC Ideas radio show, “The Scapegoat,” with David Cayley, episode 5 (listen to podcast). For example:
In the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. It is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword. For I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother. . . . A person’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” The passage is puzzling. Why would Jesus’ gospel of love and mutual forbearance create division and discord? René Girard’s interpretation unlocks the puzzle. Human society, Girard says, creates order by channeling violence towards scapegoats. Envy and resentment are directed away from one another and towards a common enemy. Ritual sacrifices institutionalize this way of expelling violence. Jesus denounces the lie on which this system rests and allows himself to be crucified in order to reveal for all time the innocence of all sacrificial victims. But this revelation, by depriving people of the means to disown their violence and project it onto others, inevitably brings that violence home to roost, so to speak, setting father against son and so forth. Jesus flushes the hidden violence of culture into the open, imposing a choice on people, and it is this choice, Girard says, that constitutes the unveiling or uncovering that Christians call the Apocalypse.
The Apocalypse is not some invention. If we are without sacrifices, either we’re going to love each other or we’re going to die. We have no more protection against our own violence. Therefore, we are confronted with a choice: either we’re going to follow the rules of the Kingdom of God or the situation is going to get infinitely worse.
This either-or, in Girard’s view, is the dynamic that the Christian gospel introduces into history. The effect is gradual, exerting itself over many centuries. But this doesn’t by any means imply that the world then grows magically less violent. Sacrifice is a means of limiting violence — a single victim thrown to the gods so that everyone can live in peace. So when people no longer sacrifice but also fail to repent, violence can easily grow worse and this worsening violence, Girard says, is an effect that many contemporary people seem to hold against Christianity.
You know, I’m pretty accustomed now to these meetings about violence. Everybody’s talking about violence today. They’ve all read Voltaire’s Candide, and violence is a scandal to them. And so they ask, what kind of a God is that who is supposed to bring us peace and just look at the state the world is in? People show up indignantly, as if God were an American president who had not fulfilled his promises. But I say to them, where do you see it said in the Gospel that Christ came to bring peace? He tells you Himself that He’s bringing a sword and not peace, that He’s separating father from son, and so on. . . . Where do you find that the Christ promises immediate peace? Christ tells you you have to fight for the Kingdom of God. Otherwise you won’t have either the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Satan. Because the Kingdom of Satan, he says, is going to collapse as a result of its internal contradictions. It is going toward destruction. (The very beginning of episode 5 podcast, in Ideas presentation of “The Scapegoat”)
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 110. This passage is cited near the climax of a section entitled “The Answer of the Kingdom of God to Rejection” (pp. 101-114). Here is a relevant portion:
Objections have been made (Vögtle, Fiedler, Oberlinner, among others), as we have already briefly seen, to this way of putting the problem, stating that it is quite impossible to speak of a definitive rejection by Israel of the kingdom of God, and that therefore one has to distinguish clearly between a readiness for death, which certainly ought to be attributed to Jesus, and a certainty of death, which is not demonstrable. Consequently there are no historical grounds for the assumption that he understood his death as an atoning death and interpreted it that way to his disciples at the Last Supper. This view involves several historical judgments of detail which we have already considered and about which we came to rather different conclusions. But as the problematic of atonement is decisive for the way we understand the death of Jesus, we will have to turn to it again. If God is imagined as an eternal, unaltering sun, which shines on humankind, unmoved, with constant goodness, then it might really be difficult to speak of a definitive rejection. With such a view, there goes a corresponding understanding of time, according to which there are no outstanding moments (or at most that of one’s own death). Each hour is equally full of meaning or empty of meaning and therefore one can never say before the last moment of life that someone has definitively decided. At the most, there is a slow ripening toward goodness or a step by step falling away into evil. In line with this representation of time, one can even assume — with a corresponding doctrine of the soul — that the soul’s processes continue after bodily death and never become definitive, as Origen may have assumed. In this case, the person and message of Jesus are seen entirely in terms of general ideas.
However, things are different if one thinks not merely of the general idea “Action of God,” but of an actual action. Time appears in this case not as a continuous line, but it contains outstanding moments. With such an understanding, the kairos, the moment of fulfillment or opportunity, can be used or squandered. Now we have seen — in agreement with most critical exegetes — that Jesus announced the kingdom of God as an event, which could succeed or fail. It depended on his effectiveness — in teaching, healing, and bringing together — whether the spark actually passed from him to his hearers and whether the new assembly became an event. Jesus lived in a pressured time (expectation of the imminent kingdom), and this should have become a time of celebration [German Hoch-Zeit; Hochzeit is the common word for “wedding”]; in fact, even before the public rejection, it became for him — because of people’s lack of faith — a heavy burden, which subjectively made the time stretch out again: “O you unbelieving generation! How long will I yet be with you? How long must I yet bear with you?” (Mark 9:19ff. and parallels). So we can understand how it could weigh on him that these dark events provoked by his proclamation might soon come about: “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already burning. I must be baptized with a baptism, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:49ff.). These sayings are not easy to interpret. It is possible that fire meant in the first place the kingdom of God, which Jesus hoped would spread like a fire across the earth. But by baptism he certainly referred to something else. The disputed question, whether he was alluding to a coming baptism of judgment or whether he was more generally predicting an eschatological test, can remain open, as the sayings about baptism are enough to show that he was not proclaiming any general ideas, for which there was always a time. He found himself in a pressured train of events, and was pressed to bring things to an end himself.
Since the kingdom of God as the “time of grace” (Luke 19:44) was at the same time a time of decision, the answer was bound automatically to come out negative if the spark did not fly and the fire did not begin to burn. It was not a question of whether Israel consciously and expressly rejected Jesus by a numerical majority or whether one considers that later on many people would have given their approval. Since the event, which had its particular “time,” did not materialize, and the “fire” did not begin to spread, a negative decision had de facto occurred. Before the outward resolution to kill Jesus there lay the inner decision, and he must have picked this up keenly, as his whole effort was being expended in summoning people away from the laws of their everyday behavior. Between the inner decision, which is essentially to be understood as a nondecision in the face of the summons given out, and which perhaps occurred very early on, and the outward reaction of his direct opponents, some time may well have elapsed, in which Jesus on the one hand continued his proclamation of the basileia — even if under a heavy burden — and on the other began immediately to make clear the consequences of rejection through the judgment sayings. It is important not to set up false oppositions here.
If the proclamation of Jesus was a salvation history event, then his hearers took on a role in salvation history. From the concept of role (so once more the significance of a dramatic view is shown), we can understand more precisely what is meant by definitive rejection. If one thinks of this as a final subjective refusal of God, then very serious difficulties result. On the one hand, in this case redemption would be won by means of the hell of those who rejected Jesus; on the other hand everyone would stand under the same threat even after Easter, as it is hard to see why the grace of redemption should be easier to accept than the grace of the basileia message. Everyone would stand in danger of the final destruction, without a convincing reason for hope. But from the viewpoint of a thorough going dramatic understanding of Jesus’ fate, such an interpretation of the definitive rejection is excluded. Since Jesus’ hearers acted in a salvation history role, rejection was part of their action as role players. They made their decision, in view of the new life and the new divine standard which Jesus proclaimed, by remaining caught in the laws and forces of this world. Definitive rejection means in this case: it has been definitively shown that the forces and powers by which human history is ruled stand in fundamental opposition to that message and that life brought by Jesus. In this context, the question of individual salvation remained at first open.
One further problem can be explained by means of the idea of dramatic role in salvation history. In the investigation up until now, the rejection of Jesus appeared in one way as something monstrous. How hard-hearted must Jesus’ hearers have been if they did not open themselves to the message of pure forgiveness and unlimited goodness? In another way the rejection showed itself as something quite natural. Have not people always behaved the same way in history, and was not Jesus’ demand concerning faith and love of one’s enemy far too much for them, a utopian expectation? The idea of role allows these opposite aspects to be articulated together without contradiction. In the fate of Jesus a monstrous conflict between the kingdom of God and the laws of this world was in fact played out. But at the same time it became clear that the “players” are so ruled by strange forces that from their point of view no other decision could have been expected. Their actions were monstrous and totally banal at the same time.
The problems which are thrown up by the distinction mentioned above between readiness for death and certainty of death should consequently resolve themselves if the kingdom of God is understood as an event and seen in the context of the drama of salvation history. The question before which Jesus stood at the last meal with his disciples was not whether, after the rejection of the willing forgiveness of his Father, he should proclaim another opportunity for salvation, a “salvation on the basis of a substitute performance.” The dramatic question was rather how the goodness of his Father can reach human hearts, after it has been definitively shown what opposition existed in the forces of this world and how far people were subject to them. The surprising answer of Jesus appears in allowing himself to be handed over to the dark powers (lies, violence, diabolical self-certainty) and to be struck by them. (Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 108-111)
3. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, has a very good chapter on Girard’s theme of Apocalypse, chapter 9, “The Bad News about Revelation: Two Kinds of Apocalypses.” This passage is referred to near the beginning:
To say that victims have become more visible is also to say that the mythological rationalization of sacrifice has been progressively weakened, wherever the narratives of the crucified one have spread. This process is by no means identical with Western culture. But for a period, that culture was a major theater of this transformation, for good and for ill. Movements against scapegoating and in support of persecuted groups of many descriptions rose. But so did new kinds of violence. The process is a double-edged sword. Sacrificial mechanisms did function effectively, if unjustly, to restrain reciprocal violence. As the workings of the mechanism become more obvious, and the reality of the victims less avoidable, society is thrown into a new kind of sacrificial crisis. The old mythological scapegoating solutions can be applied only with greater effort and stress (often scapegoating must use antiscapegoating language), and with more limited success. But the nonsacrificial social alternatives presented in the gospel require radical personal and social transformations that have been at best only partially realized. Sacrificial crises can become more acute as the mythological solution fades and nonviolent alternatives struggle to be born.
This is the deep truth in the New Testament vision of apocalypse. Heightened stakes and dramatic choices are placed before the world wherever the nonsacrificial revelation comes into it. In this sense, Jesus brought not peace but a sword. Our societies can hardly live without the old myths of sacrifice and their updated versions, yet our awareness of their victimization of the innocent drains their capacity to reestablish peace among us. Our societies can hardly live with a nonsacrificial vision, for that requires a trust in transcendence, an openness to religion and conversion, which we pride ourselves on having outgrown. The paradox of the passion has become our cultural paradox. There is no way back to untroubled mythical sacrifice, and there seems no way forward to a new creation. (pp. 262-263)
4. Wolfgang Palaver, René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, p. 250. In explaining Girard’s “Apocalyptic Reading of History,” it is no surprise that the Matthean parallel to this passage is cited. Here is a particularly poignant paragraph:
Girard argues that our contemporary world offers a particularly clear picture of the apocalyptical dangers that accompany this biblical impulse. The biblical demystification of the world has given rise to modern science and technology — in particular, nuclear weapons, which have provided mankind with the capability to annihilate itself. Girard also sees the environmental catastrophes that threaten a self-inflicted end to the world as confirmation of the Bible’s apocalyptical prophesies: “To say that we are objectively in an apocalyptic situation is in no sense to ‘preach the end of the world.’ It is to say that mankind has become, for the first time, capable of destroying itself, something that was unimaginable only two or three centuries ago. The whole planet now finds itself, with regard to violence, in a situation comparable to that of most primitive groups of human beings, except that this time we are fully aware of it. We can no longer count on sacrificial resources based on false religions to keep this violence at bay” (Things Hidden, 260-261). (pp. 251-52)
5. Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian, p. 233. Bartlett cites this context in a different context: a comparison of Jesus and John the Baptist. John uses fire imagery in prophesying the Messiah. Bartlett writes:
There is, however, one saying of Jesus that switches the whole meaning of fire and it gives an indication of how he was changing John’s entire symbolic scheme. He said, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:49-50). The image of setting fire to the whole earth is very different from burning the separated chaff. It is also connected to a baptism that Jesus has yet to undergo, and so is diverse from John’s meaning. John’s promise of a baptism with “spirit and fire” refers to the final cataclysm of God’s in-breaking in history. The water baptism at the Jordan that he offered stood as a powerful symbolic alternative to fire, the possibility of entering into a repentance and purification that pre-empted this fearsome eventuality. Jesus’ putting together of “fire” and “baptism” in respect of something he had still to undergo suggests that he accepted John’s symbols but at a deeper and decisive level he opted to bring the crisis down on himself in a totally exceptional sense. He would thereby release fire on earth, but in a transformed, generative sense. Here we have the absolutely characteristic gesture of Jesus that unites an apocalyptic viewpoint with something else, something that changes the orientation and content of apocalyptic itself. It returns us again to his otherwise-than-John manifesto. (pp. 233-34)
6. Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection, p. 288:
Understanding Jesus’ ministry, as well as the danger he quite consciously put himself in, requires that we see it as an unrelenting disruption of the boundaries of pure and impure as delineated by the dominant purity map of his day. A very significant proportion of his sayings and deeds involve bringing these distinctions into crisis… [examples cited] Through these and many other sayings and deeds, Jesus undermines the subtle and overt ways human beings cultivate identity, individually or in groups, in contrastive relation to the Other. He thus brings scandal to identity. His is a ministry of healing through cauterization. (Hence the otherwise unintelligible statement, I have not come to bring peace, but a sword [Matt. 10:34; see also Luke 12:51-53; 14:26-27].) It painfully brings to light the underlying disease of mimetic rivalry and conflict. Such an operation is extremely dangerous. It plays directly, if calculatingly, into the dynamics of the scapegoating process: for when identity is threatened, when social distinctions are confused, when pollution is introduced into the system, the habitual reaction is to expel, to exterminate. (pp. 288-89)
7. James Alison, Broken Hearts and News Creations, p. 39; in an essay titled “Wrath and the gay question” (which can also be found online). He quotes this passage with the one from John 14:27, about Jesus coming to bring peace, but not the peace that the world gives us. Again, this is such a crucial insight of Girardian thought, it is developed over several pages:
Yet in fact Jesus does warn that the effect of his mission is going to be to produce wrath, in the passage I have already quoted to you. And in fact, he then gives himself to the sacrificial mechanism in a way which the Gospel writers point to as being the way proper to the great High Priest, and he becomes the lamb of sacrifice. In fact, he reverses the normal human sacrificial system which started with human sacrifice and then is later modified to work with animal substitutes. Jesus, by contrast, substitutes himself for the lamb, portions of whose body were handed out to the priests; and thus by putting a human back at the centre of the sacrificial system, he reveals it for what it is: a murder.
Now here is the curious thing. It looks for all the world as though Jesus is simply fitting into the ancient world’s views about sacrifice and wrath. But in fact, he is doing exactly the reverse. Because he is giving himself to this being murdered, and he has done nothing wrong, he brings about an entirely new way to be free from wrath. … What Jesus has done by substituting himself for the victim at the centre of the lynch sacrifice is to make it possible for those who perceive his innocence, to realise what it is in which they have been involved (and agreeing to drink his blood presupposes a recognition of this complicity). These then begin to have their identity given them not by the group over against the victim, but by the self-giving victim who is undoing the unanimity of the group. This means that from then on they never again have to be involved in sacrifices, sacrificial mechanisms and all the games of wrath which every culture throws up. They will be learning to walk away from all that, undergoing being given the peace that the world does not give.
So, there is no wrath at all in what Jesus is doing. He understands perfectly well that there is no wrath in the Father, and yet that wrath is a very real anthropological reality, whose cup he will drink to its dregs. His Passion consists, in fact, of his moving slowly, obediently, and deliberately into the place of shame, the place of wrath, and doing so freely and without provoking it. However, from the perspective of the wrathful, that is, of all of us run by the mechanisms of identity building, peace building, unanimity building over against another, Jesus has done something terrible. Exactly as he warned. He has plunged us into irresoluble wrath. Because he has made it impossible for us ever really to believe in what we are doing when we sacrifice, when we shore up our social belonging against some other. All our desperate attempts to continue doing that are revealed to be what they are: just so much angry frustration, going nowhere at all, spinning the wheels of futility.
The reason is this: the moment we perceive that the one occupying the central space in our system of creating and shoring up meaning is actually innocent, actually gave himself to be in that space, then all our sacred mechanisms for shoring up law and order, sacred differences and so forth, are revealed to be the fruits of an enormous self-deception. The whole world of the sacred totters, tumbles, and falls if we see that this human being is just like us. He came to occupy the place of the sacrificial victim entirely freely, voluntarily, and without any taint of being run by, or beholden to, the sacrificial system. That is, he is one who was without sin. This human being was doing something for us even while we were so locked into a sacrificial way of thinking and behaviour that we couldn’t possibly have understood what he was doing for us, let alone asked him to do it. The world of the sacred totters and falls because when we see someone who is like us doing that for us, and realise what has been done, the shape that our realisation takes is our moving away from ever being involved in such things again.
Now what is terrible about this is that it makes it impossible for us really to bring about with a good conscience any of the sacred resolutions, the sacrificial decisions which brought us, and bring all societies, comparative peace and order. The game is up. And so human desire, rivalry, competition, which had previously been kept in some sort of check by a system of prohibitions, rituals, sacrifices and myths, lest human groups collapse in perpetual and irresoluble mutual vengeance, can no longer be controlled in this way. This is the sense in which Jesus coming brings not peace to the earth, but a sword and division. All the sacred structures which hold groups together start to collapse, because desire has been unleashed. So the sacred bonds within families are weakened, different generations will be run by different worlds, give their loyalty to different and incompatible causes, the pattern of desire constantly shifting. All in fact will be afloat on a sea of wrath, because the traditional means to curb wrath, the creation by sacrifice of spaces of temporary peace within the group, has been undone forever. The only alternative is to undergo the forgiveness which comes from the lamb, and start to find oneself recreated from within by a peace which is not from this world, and involves learning how to resist the evil one by not resisting evil. This means: you effectively resist, have no part in, the structures and flows of desire which are synonymous with the prince of this world, that is to say with the world of wrath, only by refusing to acquire an identity over against evil-done-to you. (pp. 42-44)
8. 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,” made these reflections on this passage in 2013, “Human Swords, God’s Peace.”
10. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God. In ch. 9, “Symbol and Controversy,” Wright details how Jesus’ kingdom message clashed with the reigning symbols of his first-century Jewish culture: Sabbath, Food, Nation and Family, Land and Possessions, and especially the Temple. This passage clearly expresses the clash with the symbol of family; pages 398-403 outline Jesus’ clash with Nation and Family. On the positive side, Wright also sketches out how Jesus redefined family, pages 430-432, characterized by one of the best-known features of Jesus’ work: “his open table-fellowship with anyone who shared his agenda, who wanted to be allied with his kingdom movement.”
Wright also fruitfully features this passage within two other sections: “Warnings of Imminent Judgment on ‘This Generation,'” pages 329-333, and “Other Stories of the Return of YHWH,” pages 640-642.
11. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, a section entitled “The Cost of Discipleship: Luke 12:49-13:9; 14:25-36,” pages 36-39.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2016 I addressed the fact that, for those of us raised in the 60’s and 70’s (or earlier), the Gospel seems more challenging than it used to be. It seems to have changed, in fact. The harshness of this Gospel passage provides an opportunity, then, for a sermon that proposes, “The Gospel Is Challenging as Hell.” What has especially become more emphasized is how the Gospel proclaims human transformation (cf., the work of Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation), which involves a daily dying and rising. The rising-to-new-life part might be nice, but the dying part before it can be challenging as hell. And the most challenging aspect of the transformation can be the social dimension — namely, that Jesus came to take away our way of peace. Without that old way of peace, we can descend into everyone against everyone, especially in our families.
This brings in the second half of this Gospel Reading, too, about reading the signs of the times. For more than 50 years, the old sexist ways of keeping the peace in families has been challenged in our society. Is the increased divorce rate a sign of what Jesus predicts? Taking away the old way of keeping peace can bring more division in our families. But there are also signs of many couples, many partners, who are finding their way into new ways of peace formed on a sense of equality. Ways that involve mutual work on helping the desires of one another to be satisfied, of seeking the flourishing of one another.
2. In 2013 I had been developing the theme of sin in the cultural dimension, using an Object Lesson with the children for images and then building on it for the adults. One of the objects I had been using was a metal bowl with a crack in it. Fixing a crack in a metal bowl requires heat, fire. So I used the fire image in this Gospel to speak of Jesus “Repairing the Crack in the Container” of human culture.
3. In 2010 our congregation was fresh from a trip to San Lucas, Guatemala. We also as a parish have been trying to understand the way of the church in this age of great change, both in the church and our culture at large. Reflecting on these texts in the light of our current experience yielded the sermon “God’s Way of Peace — Through Suffering.”
4. In 2007 I used a sermon from Homiletics Online (subscription needed, which I no longer have) and modified it significantly from the perspective of Mimetic Theory, resulting in “Behold the Lamb of God Who Takes Away the World’s Peace.”
5. Are the two parts of this pericope related? Is Jesus coming to divide families related to learning to read the signs of the times? If one understands the sacrificial logic that underlies the institutions of our culture, which are most often centered on the institution of family, then I think we might relate these. The only true and ultimate peace is one for which God’s entire human family might be united, without sacrificing anyone. Jesus’ coming into the world challenges any lesser peace based on pitting some families against others. Jesus’ peace causes the destabilization of those lesser families. When we understand this, we can learn to read the signs of our times.
Link to a sermon (from 1995) based on these themes entitled “The Peace that Passes Understanding.” It begins with the story of a ‘happy’ family that isn’t so perfectly happy, after all.