Last revised: December 11, 2022
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PROPER 28 (November 13-19) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 33
RCL: Mal. 4:1-2a; 2 Thess. 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
RoCa: Mal. 3:19-20; 2 Thess. 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19
Bonus Gospel (from old Lutheran Lectionary) below — Luke 19:11-27
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
In 2022 I preached the day before I was to attend a Theology & Peace Conference using the sermon title “‘Theology and Peace’ Is Not an Oxymoron.” In preparing for someone to lead the confirmation class I was missing, I was leaving detailed notes on my favorite Jesus movie for them to watch. What I appreciate most about this movie rendering is how well they thematically emphasize the politics of the First Century apocalyptic violence that Jesus was navigating — and offering an alternative to the usual answers on violence.
Mimetic Theory, in general, has a lot to offer on the reality of apocalyptic violence. Apocalypse has been an immediate theme in the Girardian corpus since Girard’s own first writings on scripture in Things Hidden (see, for example, this excerpt from that book, “Apocalypse and Parable“). His last major work was devoted to understanding the apocalypse of our times, the escalation of militarism that threatens our existence: Battling to the End. I recommend reading a reworked introduction to this latter book that appeared in First Things, “On War and Apocalypse.”
One of Girard’s most succinct statements of why he considers apocalyptic to be so important to understanding Jesus’ message: “Christ cannot bring us a peace truly divine without depriving us first of the only peace at our disposal. His peace entails this troubling historical process through which we are living” (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p. 186). The only means of peace at our disposal has been the myriad forms of sacred violence — violence sanctioned in our cultures to contain both the mimetic violence in our midst and the violence from and against enemies that structures our Us-vs-Them cultures. We might also consider this to be “sacrificial violence” in the old sense of ritual blood sacrifice. Jesus brings apocalypse because, as John the Baptist proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” What is the sin? “The only peace at our disposal,” namely, sacred violence.
Thus, apocalypse is also a wider theme in the Girardian corpus. Here is a list of resources on Girard and eschatology or apocalyptic:
- James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination. One of Alison’s first works, and still the only Girardian monograph entirely on the subject.
- Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, chap. 9, “The Bad News about Revelation: Two Kinds of Apocalypses,” pp. 260-91.
- Michael Hardin and Ted Grimsrud, editors. Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as a Friend. A great collection of essays of the topic collected from a Girardian perspective. Contributors include: the editors, Richard Bauckham, Barbara Rossing, Walter Wink, Anthony Bartlett, and Jürgen Moltmann.
- Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories, Story 7, “History to Its End.”
- Michael Hardin, Mimetic Theory and Biblical Interpretation, chapter 5, “Atonement and Apocalypse.”
- Pierpaulo Antonello and Paul Gifford, editors, Can We Survive Our Origins? — excellent Foreword by Rowan Williams.
- Scott Cowdell, René Girard and the Nonviolent God, chapter 3, “From Hominization to Apocalypse”; and René Girard and Secular Modernity, chapter 5, “War, Terror, Apocalypse.”
- James Warren, Compassion or Apocalypse?, chapter 12, “Apocalypse and the Contemporary Situation.”
Does our current situation — the rise of authoritarianism, the diminishment of truth, Weapons of Mass Destruction, the climate-change crisis, et. al. — make preaching on apocalyptic themes not only more viable again but also urgently necessary? Girard himself struggled to find hope in the face of the growing darkness (no doubt a too familiar feeling from his growing up in France under the shadow of the neighboring Nazi empire). Is this a “Bonhoeffer moment,” in which we look to faithful disciples from the time of Nazism? Or look to faithful disciples who lived in the shadow of empire in a myriad of places? Such as Gandhi, Latin American liberation theologians, Martin Luther King, Jr. (and many other African American leaders — currently, William Barber II), and so many others? How do we hold onto hope?
I conclude these comments with guidance from Rev. Dr. William Barber II‘s 2015 commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Call to Be Positioned as Powerful Prisoners of Prophetic Hope” (Chapter 6 in Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing). I give you several poignant excerpts, but I recommend that you read the entire sermon. Speaking on Zechariah 9:11-12, he writes,
Now, the prophet Zechariah, speaking for God, does not deny their continuing challenges or offer them some cute optimism. In fact, in verse 11, he owns where they are. They are in waterless pits. It is the metaphorical description of their despair. And this, interestingly, is a crucial step to prophetic hope: publicly owning despair. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann helps us with texts like this, when he notes in his book Prophetic Imagination that “counteracting the numbness of empire requires recognition of humanity’s passion: the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die in order to recognize the conditions that breed new worlds. To stoke such fires, the prophet must be fluent in the language of both grief and hope.” (p. 67)
There is so much inspiration and wisdom in this sermon (and the book as a whole). He riffs off of MLK’s sermon on hope in the latter weeks of his life (“The Meaning of Hope,” Dec. 10, 1967), writing,
In the sermon he defined prophetic hope not as optimism, nor desire, nor magic, nor inevitability, but as the willingness to risk defeat. The kind of hope that cares about “we” and not “I.” The kind of hope that is contagious. It is a hope rooted in the power of love and the strength of faith, a hope that believes there are moral laws in the universe. The moral arc of the universe may be long but it bends toward justice. Hope that believes that right will eventually break the chains of injustice and the foundation of evil. Hope that never gives up the call for justice but sings in every battle for justice when the odds are against it. I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. It’s sent breakers breaking, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus say to still fight on, for he promised never to leave me alone.
This kind of prophetic hope, as Dr. King would say in another place, was a call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern above one’s tribe, race, class, nationality. It was a hopeful call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all human beings. (p.69)
And the last word on prophetic hope are the last words of Barber’s sermon, his call to action:
Because when the prisoners of hope all get together, what a day. What a day when we all get together. What a day of rejoicing it will be. We need those who know the power of being prisoners of prophetic hope led by the spirit. We need you to stand up again, to speak up again, to come together again until justice is realized, love is actualized, hate is demoralized, war is neutralized, racism, classism, and religious bigotry are marginalized, and the beloved community is actualized. Until then, you who are the prisoners of prophetic hope, return to your fortresses and stand up again and again and again. (p. 83)
Reflections and Questions
1. Malachi was a contemporary of Third Isaiah in the post-exilic era, which is the time that P.D. Hanson proposes as The Dawn of Apocalyptic. Both Third Isaiah and Malachi are heavy in their tendency to divide the world in righteous and unrighteous. The material that Luke adopts from Mark in today’s gospel is often called apocalyptic. But I think we need to be careful here. Does the Gospel’s apocalyptic draw such a stark distinction? James Alison prefers to describe the Gospel as eschatological. It transforms the apocalyptic into the eschatological by redeeming the themes of violence and vengeance. More below.
2 Thess. 3:6-13
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, comments on St. Paul’s use of the Greek mimetes, p. 176, and on the wider Pauline theme: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1), pp. 174-179. St. Paul wrote quite a bit about good mimesis. See especially this section, “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified” (pp. 174-182).
2. “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus,” Willard Swartley, ch. 11 in Violence Renounced, ed. by Swartley, pp. 222ff. He says,
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but to give you an example to imitate.(2 Thess. 3:6-9)
Again, as in 1 Thess., the model to be imitated is not Paul alone, but Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, the leadership team. This appears to reflect the assumed pattern of Greek education, paideia, in which learners imitate the model of noble leaders.Three features of this text are especially noteworthy: first, it begins with a command (parangellomen) that appeals to tradition (paradosis) for its authorization. In the universally recognized Pauline writings (2 Thess. is often considered duetero-Pauline), the appeal to tradition (paradosis) is associated with central tenets of the gospel (notably 1 Cor. 15:3; 11:1; cf. 1 Thess. 4:1-2). Second, this text reflects the Hebraic halakahic concept of the moral life in its use of walk (peripateo in 3:6, which the NRSV translates living). On this basis we might observe that the NT concept of imitation is likely derived in part from the Hebrew tradition in which way (derek) and walk (halak) are foundational to paranesis on the moral life.
Third, of all the NT uses of imitation language, only this one is not linked to the conceptual field of love, forgiveness, servanthood, humility, and suffering. Work as such, avoiding idleness or unruliness, does not necessarily fit the paradigm to which the other imitation texts conform.
3. René Girard, at the conclusion of Violence Renounced, has a nice response to Swartley’s essay above and to theme of imitation in the NT and in subsequent Christian theology. Link to an excerpt of Girard on imitatio Christi.
Gil Bailie observes in his taped lectures (below) that the word lithos, stone, is featured in this part of Luke. As Jesus enters into Jerusalem he says to the Pharisees that the crowd cannot be silenced; even the stones would cry out (19:40). Shortly thereafter, Jesus prophesies to them:
“Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (19:43-44)
In the next chapter, Jesus tells the Parable of the Wicked Tenants against them, which concludes:
But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (20:17-18)
Finally, at the beginning of the passage for today, it begins outside the Temple, and we read:
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” (21:5-6)
In 19:44 and 21:6, where the English says ‘stone upon another,’ the Greek actually uses lithos twice. A more literal translation emphasizes the word: “stone upon stone.”
1. René Girard, Things Hidden. There are a number of places at which he talks about Apocalypse; the index gives us: pp. 184-190, 195, 250, 259-260. Apocalypse is a central thread that runs through Book II, Chapter 2, “A Non-Sacrificial Reading of the Gospel Text.” Girard says that the NT didn’t completely let go of the idea of apocalypse, even though it had to purge it of its divine violence, because it realized there was a strong possibility of growing human violence. As the Gospel undermines the sacrificial mechanism through history, the times of sacrificial crisis tend to grow more frequent and more severe. Link to an excerpt of “Apocalypse and Parable” (pp. 185-190).
See also the summary on the theme of apocalyptic in last week’s reflection (Proper 27C) on the Second Lesson from 2 Thess. 2, namely, the excerpt from the conclusion of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel; pp. 149-152 lays out Luke’s eschatology, including Luke 21 (see especially the section, “Luke: The Coming as Revelation”). On p. 124-130 Alison talks about the apocalyptic imagination as one that was quite popular at the time of Jesus. But here’s his main point:
The question then, is this: when Jesus talked of his coming and of the end, was he simply enclosed within the apocalyptic imagination? That is, did he accept the dualities proper to the apocalyptic imagination as part of what he was preaching and announcing? It will come as no surprise to you if I say that, as I see it, he was not. It seems to me that what we have with Jesus is precisely and deliberately the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. What I have called the eschatological imagination is nothing other than the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. That is, Jesus used the language and the imagery which he found around him to say something rather different. (p. 125)
3. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled. One of my favorite one-paragraph summaries of a Girardian view of Apocalypse is this one from Bailie, which helps explain the title of his book:
The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling.” What, then, is veiled, the unveiling of which can have apocalyptic consequences? The answer is: violence. Veiled violence is violence whose religious or historical justifications still provide it with an aura of respectability and give it a moral and religious monopoly over any “unofficial” violence whose claim to “official” status it preempts. Unveiled violence is apocalyptic violence precisely because, once shorn of its religious and historical justifications, it cannot sufficiently distinguish itself from the counter-violence it opposes. Without benefit of religious and cultural privilege, violence simply does what unveiled violence always does: it incites more violence. In such situations, the scope of violence grows while the ability of its perpetrators to reclaim that religious and moral privilege diminishes. The reciprocities of violence and counter-violence threaten to spin completely out of control. (p. 15)
4. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” taped lectures, tape #10. These lectures are also now available online in clips; this portion is covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 139, Part 140, Part 141, Part 142, Part 143, Part 144, Part 145, Part 146. Link to my notes.
5. 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,” offers this blog on the text, “The Place of Jesus.”
6. Link to a 1998 sermon that has a Girardian view of apocalyptic in mind entitled “A Vision of the Future.”
7. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “By Your Endurance in Sticking with Him You Will Gain Your Souls; a sermon in 2016, “Gaining Our Lives.”
In 2013 our congregation was emphasizing the “Time and Talent” part of stewardship with a Ministry Fair. The Luke 21 text did not fit, so we reverted to the Gospel for this day in the Lutheran Lectionary before the ELCA went with the Revised Common Lectionary. (See the Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 30.)
I used to hate preaching this text in the earlier days of my career as a preacher — a genuine puzzler. But what a difference after living with René Girard’s Mimetic Theory (MT) for twenty years! Since this passage is skipped altogether in the RCL, I have a new appreciation for what Luke has done with this parable in contrast to Matthew 25:14-30. (Did they both get it from Q?) I would now nominate this parable as the ‘poster child’ for the common interpretative move of MT to refrain from allegorizing kings and masters in the parables as God or Jesus. Luke’s version adds a number of details that seem to invite us to break our habit of allegorizing, such as:
- The nobleman must travel to apply for kingship;
- the citizens in his region hate him and go to the same arch-ruler to oppose him;
- he is made a king anyway and slaughters his opposition in the end.
Most commentators alert us to the fact that these details are a match for someone like Herod the Great’s son Archelaus, who applied to Caesar for kingship in the face of opposition. Luke’s version, in short, seems bent on having Jesus’ audience think of specific kings like Archelaus. Yet many or most of these same commentators go on to allegorize the king to Jesus, too. (Example: see Fitzmyer’s excellent Anchor Bible commentary on Luke, page 1233.) This baffles me! Why would Luke structure this parable to have the king make us think of Archelaus and Jesus at the same time??!!
The common move of MT to not allegorize kings works much better in context as well. Luke places this parable still at the table of Zacchaeus. Here is the end of the Zacchaeus story transitioning into this parable (Luke 19:9-11):
Then Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.
And what comes immediately after the parable is Jesus arising to go from Jericho to his “Palm Sunday” entrance into Jerusalem. To me, the context makes much more sense if we see the king in this story as a contrast to Jesus. The parabolic king is the ordinary human king who operates according to the standard human modus operandi of reward and punishment. Jesus, as his visit and words to Zacchaeus make clear, comes not to reward and punish but to save the lost. He comes inaugurating God’s kingdom of grace.
My interpretation of verse 11 is that the cross and resurrection are about to inaugurate this kingdom, but it will not “appear immediately.” God’s kingdom of grace will still remain hidden to most people, who will continue to operate according to reward and punishment. Only the eyes of faith that see grace will be able to see the arrival of this kingdom behind something so mysterious as the execution of a blasphemer and insurrectionist. A further detail added by Luke confirms this for me. In verse 25, the “bystanders,” who witness the giving of the third slave’s pound to the first slave, protest, “Lord, he has ten pounds!” This is Luke’s clue that the entire system of reward and punishment is bankrupt.
This parable is not just about a “wicked” slave being punished. It is also about the downfall of being rewarded — that it primarily breeds greed and resentment. Living in the world of rewards, our inclination to rivalry because of mimetic desire prompts us to find unjust rewards handed out to others. We find something to complain about and be resentful toward. When we allegorize the parable we tend to demonize the punished slave who does nothing, and so we miss the fact that Luke’s Jesus might be showing us reason to question the reward system, too. He came not to punish or reward, which brings a motivation to use our gifts based on fear or greed. He came to invite us into a wholly other world of grace, where our motivation to properly use our gifts is gratitude and joy in response to gift. Zacchaeus is the A-#1 example! In the conventional world of reward and punishment, he is a scoundrel tax collector. Invited into Jesus’ world of grace, he is the epitome of generosity and justice. He responds to Jesus’ gift of grace by pledging to give half of his possessions to the poor, and to pay back those he’s cheated fourfold. It is precisely in this context that Jesus launches into a parable that contrasts Jesus’ world with that of the conventional world of reward and punishment.
If it seems we have made this parable be mostly about negative contrast, there is at the heart of this parable one moment of positive instruction. The exchange between the king and the third slave revolves around the slave’s view of his master. He sees the harsh, punishing side of the master and so responds out of fear. (Girard actually highlights this feature of Luke’s parable in the above cited excerpt of “Apocalypse and Parable,” in order to diminish to factor of divine violence, placing the responsibility on the servant’s own expectation. But our ‘Girardian’ reading goes further here, separating the master in the parable from God altogether, and seeing him as a contrast to a gracious, nonviolent God.) In short, how we see our master makes a difference as to how we use our gifts. The other option in the parable of viewing the master is to see him potentially as one who rewards. Is that how we are supposed to see God our Lord? Is the message of the parable that we are supposed to see God as a rewarder and not a punisher?
Again, I believe we have to go beyond the parable to get a full answer concerning how we view God. The wider context invites a more outside-the-box view of God as the one who offers us grace — unconditional love and forgiveness. Jesus is urging us to view God our Lord in light of the gracious way that he has just reached out to Zacchaeus — and not in light of the king in this parable who punishes and rewards.
God is visiting us with an invitation into the true way of peace, and the conventional world of the king in this parable is keeping it blind to us, as the next story (Luke 19:41-44) makes clear:
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
The objection to my reading might be that it makes the parable into something that, taken by itself, might do more to keep us stuck in the conventional world of reward and punishment. Where is the enlightenment in the parable? One response to this objection is the admittedly unsatisfying one of remembering what Jesus himself says about teaching in parables: they are not necessarily by themselves told for enlightenment. We recall that Jesus himself quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 about things remaining hidden to us because we have eyes unseeing and ears unhearing (Matt 13:10-15; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:9-10).
A more positive response to this objection is to reiterate the element of contrast through context. We shouldn’t be reading these parables as stand-alone teachings out of the context of Jesus’ life. I believe that Luke carefully places this parable in a context which gives us enlightenment by placing a clearly recognizable scoundrel king like Archelaus in deliberate contrast to both what Jesus has just done with Zacchaeus, and what he is about to do in the Passion. Via contrast, we see that Jesus is not the standard king of reward-punishment in this parable, but he is God’s king come to usher in the kingdom of grace.
Link to the 2013 sermon “The King Is Not Jesus — Jesus Is the King.”