Last revised: December 10, 2022
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PROPER 18 (September 4-10) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 23
RCL: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (Luth.); Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
RoCa: Wisdom 9:13-18; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Everyone’s favorite Gospel to preach, right? Along with the one from Luke 12:49ff three weeks ago (Proper 15C) about Jesus not coming to bring peace but a sword. For those who are trying to preach a Gospel message oriented around peace, these two passages from Luke can present a challenge.
There is somewhat of an advantage in Matthew, where he combines these two passages, which Luke has split, into one in Matthew 10:34-39 (see Proper 7A). I used this fact to preach a sermon in 2022 that riffed off the Matthew 10 version by linking it to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his addressing Matthew 10 in his book Discipleship; see my sermon, “White Nationalism and the Cost of Discipleship.”
In general, Mimetic Theory helps make sense of these challenging passages by understanding that Jesus came to bring us a new way to peace that undermines our old way to peace, thus creating the danger that we don’t take up his new way fast enough to ameliorate the damage done by losing our way. In terms of human violence, probably will get worse before they get better. See the Gospel resources below, along with those at Proper 15C and Proper 7A, for a more complete idea of how Mimetic Theory helps to explain these Gospel readings.
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, “The Founding of the New Israel of God,” pp.83-88; Deut 30:15 is specifically referenced on p. 85. In our local clergy pericope study, the discussion of the text revolved around the perceived differences between this typical piece of Deuteronomistic theology and the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is interesting to me to find this reference to the text by Alison in a passage where he is trying to show the development of a new Israel. Here is the crucial paragraph [p. 85]:
In the previous section I tried to make it clear that the witnesses perceived a difference between their accession to the intelligence of the victim, a necessarily dialectical process involving their own conversion, and their awareness that this intelligence was pacifically held by Jesus (or that it was what pacifically possessed Jesus) from the beginning. They also demonstrate that Jesus applied this intelligence to Israel from the beginning. This is clear from the way in which he replied to the question about divorce: “from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8; Mk 10:6). That is to say, his attitude towards Israel was not based on a dialectical critique, but on what one might call a foundational, or gratuitous critique, which is only a critique at all by accident, because in the first place it is an understanding of what was in the beginning. (By a “dialectical critique” I mean one that is provoked into being by an opposition to what is found present, a critique that is inseparable from an attitude of ‘over against’ and is thus intrinsically violent.) This means that when he criticizes the scribes and pharisees it is, once again, not part of a new proposal that he is making in the light of which they look foolish. His concern about them is that in them, Israel is falling short of what it should have been from the beginning. Hence, in places it is suggested that they are Egyptians, who are holding up the real Exodus of God’s people. This is done with particular subtlety at Mark 3:1-6. There the way in which Moses placed before the people of Israel the choice between good and evil (Dt 30:15), the way in which God took Israel out of Egypt with mighty arm and outstretched hand, and Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, are all recalled in the incident of the cure of the man with a withered hand (which becomes outstretched) despite the hardness of the heart of the Pharisees, who did not understand the choice on the sabbath between doing good or evil, and went out to seek to destroy Jesus. (JBW, p. 85)
Reflections and Questions
1. When I read Deut 30:15 with the day’s Luke 14 passage, the choice between life and death is confusing. The Deut text seems to be saying: choose following God’s commandments and you will be choosing the reward of a blessed life. The Luke 14 text seems to be saying: choose to follow Jesus and you will be choosing the same great cost as he, carrying the cross. Perhaps Alison’s bringing in the Mark 3:1-6 passage can help sort through the confusion.
This is especially true if one considers the entire scope of the Girardian anthropology, which reveals that a misperception of the choice between life and death is precisely what has been at stake from the very beginning. At the murder which founds human culture, killing the scapegoated victim was mistakenly taken as the way to staying alive. Scapegoating is a choosing of someone else’s death in the community’s desperate efforts to stay alive. It is a choosing of life that masks the death of the victim at the heart of the sacred.
Let’s be clear about what is meant by “the sacred.” We are talking about the foundational human misperception that is at the origin of all human culture. As Andrew McKenna puts it in Violence and Difference:
I do not mean anything theological by the sacred, for in the anthropological perspective of this chapter the sacred is but the name that people give to their own violence; indeed, it is the name by which people misrepresent their own violence. In so using the term I am drawing from the “fundamental anthropology” advanced by René Girard, principally in Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. (p. 67)
Since the very beginning, then, we have been choosing death when we thought we were choosing life. But “the intelligence of the victim” (James Alison explains his use of this term in the previous section, pp. 77-83; for more see the webpage “James Alison on ‘The Intelligence of the Victim’“) is the revelation that we have been wrong from the beginning. Jesus chose death on the cross (and disciples must follow in carrying their crosses) in order to have revealed the life that God has chosen for us since the beginning. The cross appears to be a choosing of death only because we human beings have been wrong in our choosing since the beginning. God takes this wrongness, this human choice of death masked as life, and turns it into the source of true Life.
1. The theme that might connect this passage with the Gospel is Paul’s use of familiar terms: he calls himself like a father to his child Onesimus and brother to Philemon. At issue in the Gospel is proper family relations. And a Girardian resource that might lend great insight to the issues raised in both these lessons is James Alison‘s treatment on John 8 in Faith Beyond Resentment, an essay entitled “Jesus’ Fraternal Relocation of God.” John 8 deals with our fratricidal fraternities with the question of paternity at the heart of it. Beginning with whether Abraham is their father, Jesus poses the question: is your father the devil or Jesus’ Father in heaven? Only the latter can make us free; otherwise, we are slaves to fratricide. Here, for example, is a paraphrase by Alison of Jesus’ words in several of the latter verses in John 8 (esp. 55-56):
By being in fratricidal, exclusive mode, you show that you do not truly know God. I do know God, the witness that I bear to God, how I talk about God, is the true program of purification from idols, and to pretend otherwise would be to bear false witness to God, which is what you are doing. I bear true witness to God, and truly enter into the dynamic of God’s word which brings down idols. For this reason, the one whom you just referred to in an exclusive way as your father Abraham, the one who was first caught up in this project of breaking free from idols, he was delighted to think that the day would come when the process of becoming free from idols would be accomplished. This is what I am about. In fact this culmination of his project in me was what he was looking forward to. The project was the one by which the slaves learned to become daughters and sons. This means that Abraham is really the name not of an earthly and deathbound paternity under which one huddles for security over against some other, which is to reduce his project to the very fratricidal idolatry that he was called to overcome. Abraham is the name of the project of fraternity which overcomes that, and which leads to people becoming sons and daughters and sharing in God’s life forever. (p. 71)
Onesimus, in hearing that Good News in Jesus Christ, is a slave who has become a son. Philemon is urged to treat him as a brother.
2. Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. This is a brilliant reading of Paul’s letter to the Colossians in a postmodern context. But the greatest challenge to a postmodern reading of Colossians as subversive to empire are the verses 3:18-4:1 to wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters. Since Tychicus and Philemon’s slave Onesimus are mentioned as the bearers of the letter in Col. 4:7-9, Walsh and Keesmaat suggest that they brought the Letter to Philemon at the same time — to Philemon individually, who was a member in the church at Colossae. Then, they fictionalize a letter from Onesimus to Paul (pages 202-212) that gives an account of the stir Paul’s letters made when read to the Colossians.
The Letter to Philemon is insightfully used by Walsh and Keesmaat to provide context for Col. 3:18-4:1 as the overt instance (i.e., in Philemon) of Paul’s more covert expression of his radical viewpoint of liberation in Colossians. Paul is able to say privately to Philemon what he would hope to say to all slaveowners in the Colossian church, but can’t, because of imperialist repression. A letter like Colossians was intended to circulate to area churches and so was very public. In a more private letter such as Philemon, however, Paul is able to say more directly to Philemon that he wishes him to free his slave Onesimus. That is Walsh’s and Keesmaat’s overall take on Col. 3:18-4:1 — namely, that in a public circulation letter like Colossians Paul would might some supportive words of the Roman empire’s household hierarchies — though embedded in an overall message of liberation (cf. Col. 3:11, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”). But the private letter to Philemon shows Paul’s more true views on the matter: slaveowners should free their slaves. They have equal status in the Christian community.
Walsh’s and Keesmaat’s creation of “The Epistle of Onesimus the Slave to Paul the Apostle” uses Onesimus to narrate what happened when Paul’s Letter to the Colossians was first read outloud to the whole congregation (interestingly, with Onesimus’ master Philemon present as a member of the Colossian congregation). Sparking the greatest controversy in that first reading, according to their imaginative re-creation, was the section 3:18-4:1. What may seem most alien to 21st century readers was the heart of the matter to Paul’s first century readers: How does one live an ethic of liberation in the midst of an oppressive Roman hierarchy for households that provided the foundation for their imperialist civilization? Onesimus narrates the debate that ensued the first reading. Those sympathetic with the difficulty of diverging too radically from Roman politics quickly read Col. 3:18-4:1 as Paul’s endorsement of the Aristotelian politics that undergirded Roman life. Then, an older Jewish member immediately refutes that interpretation: Paul, a good Jew, would never back a pagan philosopher to such an extent. Paul’s message in Jesus Christ is not akin to the writings of Jewish syncretists like Philo or Josephus.
After much back-and-forth debate, Onesimus writes to Paul that Archippus did “complete the task that you have received in the Lord” (Col. 4:17) — which Walsh and Keesman suggest was the task of stepping into his role as trained teacher, especially as one learning and then passing on the Jewish foundation to the Christian faith. Onesimus (in this fictional letter to Paul) gives an account of Archippus’ lengthy speech to the Colossians of how Paul’s letter, that they have just heard, builds on the story of Israel as supremely a story of liberation from slavery, grounded in the story of the Exodus. In Walsh’s and Keesmaat’s imaginative rendering, Archippus begins his teaching:
“In this letter Paul appeals not primarily to the ancient philosophers, nor to the edicts of the emperor, but to the ancient stories of Israel. Those stories describe how, in the shadow of empire, Israel was called to form an alternative covenant community rooted in the Torah of a God who freed the slave, loves the refugee and cares for the widow and the orphan. As that community was called to be holy, so we are called saints, the holy ones.
“The kingdom of Jesus is just such a covenant community. Paul describes the story of that kingdom as a story of forgiveness. He began his letter to us by calling the kingdom of the Son a kingdom of forgiveness. He said that through Jesus all things in heaven and on earth are reconciled to God; he also said that God made us alive in Jesus when he forgave us our debts, erasing the record that stood against us with all its legal demands. And then he called us to forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven us, so we should forgive.
“And the story of forgiveness in Jesus is rooted in an even larger story. Remember how God decided during the exodus that the way he will deal with a stiff-necked people, who glory in a golden calf, is by forgiving them. In our Scriptures, forgiveness of sin and redemption from slavery are always at the heart of Gods dealing with the covenant people. In the community God called together to bear his image, such forgiveness and redemption were to be most obviously evident in the forgiving of debt and freeing from slavery.” (p. 206, minus the authors’ scriptural citations)
After elaborating a history of forgiveness that includes Jubilee, Archippus concludes his reading of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians:
“This is what Paul is really saying. This is our story. The letter is clear if you know the story, if you are aware of the way our God has acted in history up to now In contrast to the economics of the empire, Paul here proclaims a countereconomics of sabbath and jubilee rooted in the forgiving love of Jesus. By telling the slaves in our midst that they have an ‘inheritance,’ Paul is recalling for us the traditions of jubilee; he is reminding us that Israel’s story and now, through Jesus, our story is a slave-freeing story.
“Look closely at what Paul is doing here. First he says that there is no longer Greek and Jew; circumcised and uncircumcised, Scythian and barbarian, slave and free. Then he says that in Jesus kingdom slaves who follow the messianic Master (the Lord Christ) will receive the inheritance. We are called to fill in the missing step.” (p. 208)
Again, if we wonder why Paul himself didn’t fill in the missing step, counselling all Christian slaveowners to free their slaves, Walsh and Keesmaat cover this in their creative construction of the conversation that follows, that they themselves sum up in a footnote, using a distinction between public and hidden transcript: “While the public transcript of Colossians 3:18-4:1 might appear innocuous to an outsider, the hidden transcript — the jubilee text [i.e., the remainder of Colossians] for those who had ears to hear — was socially, economically and politically subversive.” (p. 209, note 23)
3. 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 both this text and the Gospel Reading, “God’s Kingdom as Gift.”
4. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, Ch. 2, “How to Read a Pauline Letter,” pp. 29-48. “The First Paul” is their designation for the real Paul, distinguishing him from two other Paul’s in the N.T.: the Conservative Paul, in Colossians and Ephesians; and the Reactionary Paul, in the Pastoral Epistles. The best parsing of these Paul’s in the book is on the issue of slavery: the First Paul in Philemon; the Conservative Paul in Col. 3:22-4:1 and Eph. 6:5-9; and the Reactionary Paul in Titus 2:9.
5. N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Ch. 1, “Return of the Runaway?”, pp. 3-74. Wright leads off his magisterial work on Paul with a close reading of Philemon.
Reflections and Questions
1. I find the contrast between Paul’s method here in Philemon and a letter like Galatians to be striking. They are both about slavery, but a striking feature about Philemon is that there is no theology given as background. Galatians itself might be viewed as the theological background for this letter, with it’s motto in 3:27: in Jesus Christ, there is no Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. The theology behind the motto might be said to be similar to what Alison mines out of John 8 above. Those who require circumcision are living a fraternity which is fratricidal and exclusive. Persons in Christ cannot fall back into a slavery of a false paternity under Abraham as marked by circumcision.
The manner of Paul’s argumentation is also like night and day between the two letters. Here in Philemon Paul tries to persuade Philemon that his slave Onesimus should be set free, but he leaves the decision up to him. In Galatians he is arguing against the required circumcision of Gentile converts to this Christian sect of Judaism. But there is no room left for personal decision. Paul isn’t simply trying to persuade them otherwise but then leave the final decision up to them. He puts his argument in absolute terms of forbidding them to practice such things, practices which, for Paul, amount to a return to religious slavery under the Law, after the gospel has already freed the person from such slavery.
Why the difference? It seems to me that today we would tend to reverse the forms of argument. We would stand firmly against the injustice of actual slavery within human society, and we allow ‘wiggle room’ (“tolerance”?) for religious practices, even though we may feel them to be enslaving or a step backwards in some respect. Why the difference in St. Paul’s letters? Was it a difference in audiences? I would suggest that it was related more to the authority Paul had within the communities at issue. In Galatians Paul was addressing an issue of slavery within the Christian community and the way in which its own practices affected the communal bonds. In Philemon Paul is addressing the practices of the wider human community and the manner in which they impinge on a member of the Christian community. He does not occupy a position or office of authority in speaking to the practices of the wider human community.
Does this difference in St. Paul speak to our methods today of addressing issues of justice, both within the Christian community and the wider human community at large? Not absolutely. For one thing, Paul’s situation is different from many Christians today who can speak as persons elected to positions of authority within the human community. Many of the persons who voted in the Emancipation Proclamation were Christians who saw their vote as a consequence of their Christian freedom. We also live in a democratic age where it is each citizen’s right to speak out with some measure of authority about the justice of their governance.
2. (2010) When I wrote the above reflections on Philemon and Galatians, considering the latter’s important statements on slavery, I had not yet encountered Walsh’s and Keesmaat’s book (#2 in the Resources above), with its even more vital connection regarding the slave Onesimus as named in both Philemon (vs. 10) and Colossians (4:9). Also, very close between Galatians and Colossians are the close parallels regarding the Christian erasure of typical human cultural distinctions: “Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free” in Gal. 3:27, and “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” in Col. 3:11.
The other strength of their book is to ponder what Paul’s message means for postmodern Christians of today. In this instance, they suggest that modern slavery exists through “sweatshops,” or “Economic Processing Zones,” in places like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Southern China, and the Philippines. I highly recommend their book.
1. The Greek word for “possessions” in vs. 33 is an interesting one. It is a participial noun ta hyparchonta, from the verb hyparcho, which is a compound word from the words hypo, “under,” archo, “to begin” (the noun arche can also indicate power). It’s not even listed in Kittel’s TDNT, but the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker lexicon has its most common meaning as: exist (really), be present, be at one’s disposal. Things which are at one’s disposal are one’s possessions or means. BAGD also indicates that in Homeric Greek this word is often used as a substitute for einai (inf.), the “to be” verb. I take it that this “really exist” is an intensive form of “to be.”
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of St. Luke” audio series, tape #8 (end of side 1 and beginning of side 2). These lectures are also now available online in clips; this portion is covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 101. Here are my notes / partial transcription of his comments on this passage:
*****Notes on Bailie lectures****
- Luke 14:25-33 — Jesus is not fond of large crowds (a ‘wherever two or three are gathered together’ type of guy)
- There are references in this gospel that large crowds make Jesus nervous. For example, Luke 12:1: “Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.'” Here, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, he turns around, and low-and-behold there’s this large crowd. Given the fact that Jesus is the only who knows what’s going to happen when he gets to Jerusalem (even though he has tried to tell them), he looks around at this large crowd and is disconcerted by it.
- Luke 14:25 — “Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,” — What would he say? ‘I’m glad you all came’? ‘So nice to have you’? — (Vs. 26-27) “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Now that will thin the crowd out! And that’s obviously what it’s designed to do. It tells us that there was this crowd and that he turned around to say this. Thin the crowd out.
- Why would you want to thin the crowd out? If you’re preparing a remnant, they have to be enough of a crowd so that they get caught up in the mimetic contagion. But if the crowd is too big, and the mimetic contagion too powerful, it will be too much. So this is like the recipe for the remnant. It’s like a chemist trying to come up with exactly the right combination of crowd contagion and lucidity.
- This is certainly harsh language: “hate mother, father,” “carry the cross, follow me.” Earlier he had said, ‘I come to bring division. A family of five will be divided two against three.’ (12:51-52) ‘Whoever does not gather with me will scatter.’ (11:23) There’s all this talk in here about scattering. Traditional biblical scholarship is right to say that this is oriental hyperbole. But I don’t want to water it down. Biblical language: if there are two orders of reality, and the lesser order of reality is regarded as higher than the greater order of reality, the biblical way of setting things straight is always very radical. So it will use language like “hate” with reference to something that simply needs to get put back in its place. We can make this observation on one level.
- On another level, Jesus is deconstructing the conventional family. What does that mean? That we’re all on our own now? When we get to the Prodigal Son, we realize that he reconstructs the family in an entirely new way, more powerful than ever. But here he is radically deconstructing. So the old family, the old order, will have to be broken and then fixed. That’s the way the cross does everything. It has to be broken and made whole again. Yeats says, “Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent” (from “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” [thanks to reader Molly Williams for the correct quote]). The Eucharist is broken and given. “This is my body broken for you.” The family, the world, everything has to experience that. Leonard Cohen says: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” So we want to go from hating mother, father, sister, brother to the story of the Prodigal Son, which is a redefining of those relationships.
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 a blog on both this text and the Epistle Reading, “God’s Kingdom as Gift.”
3. Paula D’Arcy and Richard Rohr, “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” (CD of presentations). Andrew Marr’s excellent blog above reminded me of one of my favorite stories to share with others — gut-wrenchingly moving. It is the kind of story that seems an almost impossible ideal, the kind that one can find out for oneself only if placed in similar tragic circumstances. First, some background.
The presentation is a companion to Rohr‘s book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, which proposes the thesis of two main forms of spirituality — a concept that has been central to me in my own spiritual life, as well as having significant bearing on my understanding of Mimetic Theory. Rohr proposes that the spirituality given to us in our cultures is a necessary one for the first half of life — though for some people they never grow out of it. It is a spirituality of a safe container, one of rules about rewards and punishment, a meritocracy. We obtain possessions on the basis of just deserts. And an important element of the safe container are boundaries between inside and outside, us and them — basic binary thinking. God presides over such a world, a God who is: on our side, keeps us safe, rewards us when we’re good, punishes those who are bad, etc.
The realities of life generally intervene at some point, though, and progressively call this spirituality into question. Often it is the most tragic of losses that move us into a spirituality crisis. But such crises are also the open door to a spirituality for the second half of life, where life itself is increasingly received as pure gift — paradoxically so, since it is so often, if not always, accompanied by loss. Binary thinking falls away in favor of experiencing the oneness of everything. Even sorrow and times of great loss can be held together in oneness with joy and the gift of life. God and God’s kingdom are experienced as grace and as the foundation of oneness.
I wonder about the seeing this sketching of a spirituality for the two halves of life in the context of Mimetic Theory and a more global, anthropological view of homo sapiens. The religious spirituality described by Mimetic Theory in terms of sacred violence seems to be the spirituality described by Rohr as the necessary spirituality for the first of a person’s life. What if it is also the spirituality necessary to our survival for the first half of our ‘life’ as a species? We needed this spirituality to survive our own violence.
But, at the same time, there are grave questions about whether it can be the spirituality necessary to surviving the long-term. We are at the crossroads, seemingly, right now of having the capability to destroy ourselves, along with this planet home. And this time our sacred violence may be the spark to put us over the edge of annihilation, instead of the right dosage to offer the temporary peace. Perhaps it is time to recognize the overwhelming odds against us and ‘send a delegation and ask for the terms of peace’ (Luke 14:32).
The Christian faith proposes that two thousand years ago God offered us a more permanent cure, the advent of God’s kingdom through Jesus the Messiah, who brings a spirituality necessary for our species to survive in the second half of the ‘life’ of our species. We were given a paidagōgos — “disciplinarian” (NRSV) or “schoolmaster” (KJV) in Gal. 3:22-29 — until the time that we might grow-up as a species. It is time to get into the spirituality for the second half of life, which is about the oneness of the human family with our home the Earth: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). And, above all, we are to live by grace, with all of life as a free gift.
Does this throw today’s Gospel Reading in a different light? We must be willing to undergo the death of the spirituality of the first half of life, to let go of those gods and the worldview of meritocracy. We must be willing to let go of all our possessions as possessions and receive them as gifts to share.
In any case, I return to Paula D’Arcy‘s story. She herself suffered an unimaginable loss in her life: at the age of 27, while pregnant with their second daughter, her husband and oldest daughter were killed in a car crash by a drunk driver. The safe container given by the spirituality in her first 27 years lay shattered in the face of such a loss. Some of her presentation is about the long, slow movement in her life into a spirituality to sustain her in the second half of life.
But the story I’m sharing here is about years later, after she has largely healed. She is visiting a good friend of hers, Susan, in another town, when Susan gets that same call all parents dread. Her 22 year-old son Mark has been killed on the way back to college by a drunk driver. Paula accompanies her friend to the hospital where her son’s body has been taken. After time alone with her son’s body, Susan asks a nurse to invite Paula into the room. Here is Paula’s account of what happened next:
Susan asked me, “He never was really mine, was he?” She had had the experience of owning things and deserving things.
“Susan, none of them are ours. It’s all gift.”
“If that is true, then he can’t be taken from me. If he was gift, then at this moment I will give him back.” And Susan took my hand and one of her son’s hands, raised her eyes to the heavens, and prayed, “God, before me is the greatest gift you ever gave me. And now I give him back. Thank you. Thank you for all these years.”
I have no idea if I could ever pray such a prayer in similar circumstances. Especially in the first few hours of such a loss. But I think being able to pray such a prayer is the goal of a spirituality for the second half of life. It is being able to experience one’s possessions, even one’s family, as pure gift. It is being able to survive death by being in oneness with all of life — and the ground of all life, God. Jesus, our big brother, came to help us grow-up into that life of grace, a way through the cross to resurrection. It is the experience of “eternal life” now because it is the experience of life as pure gift.
The sermon prompted by these reflections in 2016 is “Good News . . . of Life as Pure Gift.”
Reflections and Questions
1. The “therefore” in vs. 33 might provide the key to interpretation: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Our fallenness might be posed in terms of the problems we have with possessions. Think of the things that are most dear to us: mother and father, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself. Couldn’t our problem be defined as wanting to possess these people? We don’t want to simply live our lives as gift, we want to possess our lives as something we earn. We cling to our lives. These sayings, then, would carry a similar message as, “Those who cling to their lives will lose them, and those who give up their lives for my sake will gain them.” Life is not something to grasp after. It is something to give away and then receive back as a free gift. This goes for our relationships, too. Those we love are not something to cling to, they are something we have to be willing to give away, in order that we might be able to receive them as gift.
The Girardian anthropology helps with understanding the nature of our fallenness. Mimetic desire fallen into “metaphysical desire” is a desire that seeks to possess the Other, to make the Other into a possession, to have their Being. (The Greek word hyparcho mentioned above might be enlightening here.) Desire takes the other’s desire as its model, seeking to possess the same objects, transforming the model into a rival. Desire, then, is more about the rivalry with the Other than about the objects of desire (hence the term “metaphysical,” ‘beyond the object’). The rival becomes our stumbling block, our skandalon, the person we both love and hate. Who ends up being the most common skandalon in our lives? Parents, children, siblings, spouses. As desire descends into skandalon, it becomes possession. Each person desires to possess the Other and becomes possessed by the desire to possess. We say that we love our family. But in what ways do our desires for family descend into the realm of hatred and death? The Genesis account of the the family of Abraham and Sarah, through the story of Joseph and his brothers, is a vivid account of such distorted desire in families.
In the chapter of The Joy of Being Wrong on sin as the distortion of desire (ch. 5), James Alison is commenting on the Sermon on the Mount and has this to say:
Jesus … reveals the evil of human desire to be much more drastic than the law could fathom, and righteousness as to do with a transformation of that desire: so anger is the same as murder, a lustful look the same as adultery, being caught up in the stumbling blocks of desire much worse than any form of physical defect, not one of which can exclude from heaven. This world of drastically sinful desire is treated as a relational reality: Jesus is not talking about some sort of wicked desire locked into the solitude of an individual person which must somehow be exorcised. He is talking about a deformation of relationality such that we are scandalised by each other, and give scandal to each other. This can be shown by the remedy: freedom is to be found by not allowing oneself to be caused to stumble by the evil done to one: one must not resist evil, one must go the second mile. There is only one way not to be locked into the scandals of this world, and that is by learning to forgive, which means not allowing oneself to be defined by the evil done. It is quite clear from Jesus teaching that he considers humans to be locked into a certain sort of reciprocity, which it would be wholly consistent to identify with the skandalon, and that he teaches the way out of that sort of reciprocity into a wholly new sort of reciprocity. This new sort of reciprocity is made concrete in forgiveness and other acts of not being trapped by the skandalon, and in this way is able to begin to imitate the perfect gratuity of the heavenly Father, in whom there is no skandalon. This becomes particularly clear in Matt. 7. There we have the commandment not to judge, and the explanation that the reason is that all our judgement is scandalous, because we have already tripped over the log in our own eye. This is a rigorous revelation of the way we are tied into each other by the skandalon, and the way we must detach ourselves from it (one so important that it is taken up by Paul in Rom 2:1). Our knowledge of each other is projective, and in its mode, already distorted. Only in the degree to which we allow our own distortion to be corrected will we be able to know the other with limpidity. In case it is not clear already that this reciprocal involvement in turning each other into stumbling blocks, which is at the heart of Jesus’ moral teaching, has, at its roots, an understanding of desire, a few verses later Jesus’ further teaching on prayer makes exactly this point. In Mt 7:7-11 prayer is shown to be a learning to desire without stumblng blocks in imitation of the Father who is without stumbling blocks. We must not let our desire remain at the stage whereby we think that we will not get what we want, but must learn to believe in one who gives gratuitously what we really want. Prayer is a constant re-education of desire out of a mode of stumbling blocks and into a mode of desiring and receiving gratuitously. And this is then directly referred back to our human relationality (7:12): we must treat others in the same way, learning how to substitute a gratuitous reciprocity for a reciprocity formed by the skandalon. (pp. 143-144)
2. The Parable of the Prodigal Son also repeats these themes about possessions. The younger son demands his share of his father’s possessions. As I point out in exegetical notes for Lent 4C, the words translated as “property” (NRSV) in this parable are the Greek words ousia, “Being,” and bios, “life.” The son wants to possess his father’s Being. And the father divides his “life” in two, right on the spot, and gives it to the two sons. Notice, that the elder son does not turn down his share when offered it. Yet he treats it as something he’s earned when holding resentment toward his younger brother in the end. He, too, has clung to his father’s life as a possession rather than receiving it as a gift — otherwise, he too could celebrate his brother’s return to such unfailing grace.
Is the difference between the two brothers in this parable that the younger son acted in hatred to his father, losing everything to the extent that he had to then receive his life back as a son as a gift? While the elder brother nver comes to that same form of ‘hating’ his father? He deludes himself that he has always been the faithful, loving son. He cannot repent as his brother of having sinned against his father.
3. On the Ecunet Girard Discussion List (no longer available), Britt Johnson (Note 1160) picks up on the first part of these comments by Bailie, noting that the title of his sermon on this text is “Crowd Control.” He says,
Crowds have a certain kind of dynamic particular to crowds. We imitate each other in crowds, often leading to a kind of frenzy of imitation, often violence. The crowds gathering around Jesus likely were looking for a Messianic leader to incite them to violence. Jesus is canceling that crowd spirit by stating in the strongest terms what the cost of discipleship means. He was thinning the crowd.”
He also gives the further helpful reference: “A good book to help understand the dynamics of crowds is the Nobel-prizewinning Crowds and Power by Elias Canneti (a book that Gil Bailie also utilizes frequently).”
4. One might pick-up on the latter part of Bailie’s comments, concerning the deconstruction and reconstruction of family. Last week (in 1998) I preached “Beyond Traditional Family Values.” I tried to carefully say that Jesus was challenging us to go beyond traditional family values because, mixed with our power games of higher place and lower place, some people are left out of the families of our choosing. The family of God that Jesus came to invite us into does not leave anyone out. In fact, it especially goes out to invite those who are usually left out, the sick and the poor, et al. I then tried to deepen that theme with Bailie’s comments about deconstructing our human families in anticipation of the kind of reconstruction foretold in the story of the Prodigal Son, a resurrection story. Link to a sermon entitled “Confession and Resurrection.”
5. One could also weave in the insights from the Deut text above: that, like the Prodigal Son, we think we are choosing life when we are actually choosing death. God, the loving Father, redeems us from that wrong choice and gives us life again.
6. As has already been mentioned, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is one that looms on the horizon of this chapter in Luke. A strong element of the action in the parables of Luke 15 is that of throwing a party. Parties, or dinner gatherings, is also a strong element of the action in Luke 14. See the comments for the passages in Luke 15 in Lent 4C and Proper 19C.
7. There’s a very odd expression we sometimes use, “I love it to death.” Alison’s Girardian theology emphasizes how our desire is distorted such that we are constantly trying to possess life rather than simply receive it as the gift that it is. The results are basically that we unknowingly love things to death. Link to a sermon on these themes titled “‘Loving to Death’ . . . Hating to Life??”
It makes use of the exegetical note above, that the phrase near the end of of the Gospel could be translated in its participial form. In the sermon, I explain it in this way:
The last verse in this morning’s gospel begins with the signal of importance, the word “therefore”: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Actually, from the original Greek, we could also say “all your possessing.” “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessing.” What’s going on here? I think this: our human problem boils down to one of possessing. We don’t simply desire the things that are of value to us, the things we “love.” We also want to possess them. It’s our possessing things that turns love to hate and life to death.
This brings me to an explanation of the basic premise of mimetic theory — though I don’t call attention to the theory in the sermon; I simply explain it. It still goes by rather quickly in a sermon, of course, so I invite folks to a class to learn more. Then, I conclude:
For now, if you can’t quite get this yet, please accept that it’s a good bet of what’s behind Jesus’ strange words to us this morning. We love things to death by trying to possess them, so that the only way to true life is for each of us to be willing to give up all our possessing.How do we do that? Well, that’s the good news this morning. Jesus came and did it. Jesus became human like one of us and was able to desire, was able to love, in a way that doesn’t love us to death. Mind you, in this world in which we do love things to death, we ended up loving him to death, literally. But Jesus, in the face of our hateful way of loving, remained faithful to God his heavenly Father’s love, which is the only love that can save. For the love of God is not a possessing love; it’s a gifting love. It’s a love not bent on possessing, but one that gives, even in the face of death.
What was the last thing Jesus said before he died in Luke’s Gospel? “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” His last act was to give his own spirit of life to God. And what does this lead to? Death? No, in three days, God gifted him back his life, eternal life. He gave him the Spirit of Life to him so that he could share it eternally with each of us.
We learn and are empowered to live our lives not as something we possess, but as something that is sheer gift. Life is a gift meant to be shared with others. That’s what life and love are truly about, giving and receiving the blessings of life. When we aren’t being empowered by Jesus’ Spirit to live such lives, then we are loving ourselves and others to death. We might as well hate them. We are hating them. But in the forgiving love of Jesus, we are beginning to be empowered to truly love — to live our lives not as a possession but as a gift to share, to give away over and over again only to eternally receive our lives back again as gift. Our loving to death, which is actually a hating to death, is being transformed into a loving to eternal life. Amen