Binding and Loosing and The Good Shepherd Revisited

WilliamGuestsChurch1I am not going to write much on this Sunday’s Gospel. I have already done that on my blog post Binding and Loosing. Instead, I am going to preach about the rest of Matthew 18 that did not make the lectionary. This context will shed light on Jesus’ words about binding and loosing which were read today.

I start with the Parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep and searches out the one lost sheep. We get this parable in the Year of Luke so it makes sense that we don’t get it this year. However, the contexts for this parable are very different in the two Gospels. In Luke, the parable is the first of a trilogy about God’s solicitude in searching out the lost, the other two being the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In Matthew, the context is much more complicated and disturbing.

Directly preceding this nice pastoral parable in Matthew is Jesus’ admonition to cut off our hands and feet and pluck out our eyes if any of them cause us to stumble. (Mt. 18: 8) This sounds pretty unforgiving, but let’s look at the context of these frightening words. The chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt. 18: 1) This seems to be a polite way of fighting over who is the greatest, one of the disciples’ favorite pastimes. Jesus replies by placing a small child among the disciples and telling them to be like that child and to welcome the child. Not the answer the disciples were fishing for. When Jesus warns the disciples that it is better that a millstone be fastened around their necks and they be thrown into the sea rather than cause such a child to stumble, he is warning them of the seriousness of being such a stumbling block. The same applies to cutting off hands and feet. (Paul Neuchterlein develops the relevance of Stumbling blocks on his commentary on this Gospel in his Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.)

What does this have to do with the Good Shepherd and binding and loosing? Quite a bit. When we, like the disciples, become preoccupied with who is the greatest in God’s kingdom, we are doing a lot of binding without loosing anybody. René Girard has taught us that the stumbling block, skandalon in Greek, is what rivals set before each other. That is, rivals become stumbling blocks to each other. As if that is not problem enough, the rivalry affects other people with the most vulnerable, such as the child Jesus placed before the disciples, bearing the brunt of the rivalry. The sheep that strayed has gotten lost in the shuffle. Which is to say that the lost sheep and the child placed before the disciples have been sacrificed. But what about the hands and feet Jesus would have us cut off? Isn’t that sacrificial? Yes, but with a difference. When we are engaged in rivalry and are placing a stumbling block before others, the rivalry seems as important, as self-defining, as essential to our being as our hands and feet. Jesus then suggests that it is better to enter “life” maimed or blind rather than be cast “into the eternal fire.” The thing is, it is rivalry that maims and blinds us. If we should sacrifice our rivalry, it feels like cutting off our hands and feet and plucking out our eyes. But if we do just that, we are free to walk and see. This freedom to walk and see enables us to see the little child and the lost sheep.

We are faced with the fundamental choice of sacrificing our rivalry or sacrificing other people. If we sacrifice others, we bind them and in so doing, we bind ourselves as well. So we have the power to bind or to loose. We can bind ourselves and others in rivalry, or we can loose others and ourselves by seeking the lost and welcoming the child Jesus places before us.

[For and Introduction to René Girard, see my article Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

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The Burglar Who Serves

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe first verses of today’s Gospel (Lk. 12: 32–34) pick up from where we left off last week. That reading ended with Jesus’ little parable about the rich fool who tore down his barns to build bigger barns (Lk. 12: 12–21) only to find that his life was being demanded of him. This reading begins with Jesus’ soothing admonition to “sell our possessions and give alms” and “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Lk. 12: 32-33) This is quite a contrast to two brothers fighting over an inheritance or a rich person gloating over fabulous amounts of wealth. Lest we think Jesus is asking us to make ourselves miserable, Jesus assures us that it is our heavenly Abba’s pleasure to give us a treasure that is the kingdom. If this treasure, the kingdom, is the Abba’s pleasure, then it is our pleasure as well.

It is important to see that Jesus is not telling us to give up desires. The heavenly Abba has a profound Desire for a deep union of love with each of us, a union God would have us share with each other. If God is comprised of God’s Desire, than it follows that we creatures are created with desires. What Jesus is doing here is redirecting our desires from the desires of rivalrous avarice towards God’s Desire that is without rivalry. Isn’t every fight, ultimately, over what we think we are entitled to as our inheritance? Yet aren’t we all offered the whole world to be an inheritance rather than a bone for contention? Since these rivalrous desires embroil us with our rivals, the material inheritance we are fighting for is destroyed as if by moths. Of course, each rival blames the other for being the thief that has stolen the treasure.

Jesus then shifts to an admonition to be ready for the Master’s “return from the wedding banquet.” (Lk. 12: 36) If we servants are alert and ready to greet the master, the master will wait on us as Jesus waited on his disciples at the Last Supper. This little feast shared by master and servants is an image of the treasure our hearts should be set on. The progression of vignettes and admonitions throughout this chapter suggests that the best way to be prepared for God’s coming is to set our hearts on treasure that moths cannot consume and thieves cannot steal. Fundamentally, being alert for the “master” consists of serving one another in the same way that the master serves us when he comes.

The following little parable is comical and a bit threatening. The master who serves those who wait for him is transformed into a thief breaking into a house in the middle of the night. (Lk. 12: 39–40) If our hearts are not set on the treasure of serving one another, but instead we fight over our inheritance and try to gather it into bigger barns, then the God who serves us will be quite alien to us and will be perceived as a thief, a burglar. If our rivalry deepens as it does in the still more threatening parable that follows, so that our rivalry causes us to “beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk,” (Lk. 12: 45), then the gracious master will indeed rob us of our victims.

God is both a burglar and a gracious master who serves. God only breaks in to take away all that draws our hearts away from God and from each other. What this burglar leaves in return is a treasure well worth setting our hearts on.

Healiang the Gods and the Social Body

purpleFlower1Two major YA series have just been just been completed. One is The Heroes of Olympus by Rick Riordan, the other The Unwind Dystology by Neal Shusterman. With one being a rollicking romp filled with deities and mythological monsters, the other a sober social critique, the two are very different but one thing they have in common is concluding with a strong measure of hard won reconciliation. The final volume in Riordan’s set is The Blood of Olympus and the finale of Shusterman’s is Undivided.

The Heroes of Olympus is the second set of five books dealing with adolescent demigods so it is a relief to have finished a set that is enough to give ADHD to anyone who doesn’t already have it. This second set adds Roman deities and their offspring to the Greek deities and their offspring of the first set. Not surprisingly, the demigods on each side have been feuding for a lot of centuries. The deities themselves suffer some identity crises as they are pulled from Greek to Roman manifestation back to Greek, etc. As a resentful Chronos rose up in the first set, an even more resentful Gaia is rising up in the second, sucking in the power from the long-standing resentments of giants, monsters and neglected deities. Needless to say, the demigods have to get over their feud if there are going to stop Gaia. My review of the third book The Mark of Athena in my blogpost Arachne, Athena and a Thousand Princes” explores these themes.

I discussed Shusterman’s series in my earlier blogpost “Unwinding the Judgment of Solomon.” Shusterman envisions an American society where a civil war was ended with an agreement to outlaw all abortion but allow the unwinding of troubled and troubling adolescents for the harvesting of their body parts to implant on other people. This violent, sacrificial situation accelerates in the last two volumes and this final volume brings everything to the cusp of change where several people have to respond rightly at the right time to lead to a peaceful end and not a bloody one. From start to finish, it’s a riveting and wrenching tale.

In both of these concluding volumes, tons of hate and resentment must be overcome if catastrophe is to be avoided. Of the two, Shusterman’s series is much the deepest and probing. He is among the most perceptive among all YA authors on issues of mimetic desire and rivalry. Riordan is undoubtedly a lot more fun for younger readers and the message should come across. Both series have much to offer. I’m not writing this post to analyze either series further but to draw your attention to them as important resources for young readers to help with these same issues in their lives,

Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (1): Cain and Abel

Cain_slaying_Abel,_1608-1609Fratricide is a running thread throughout Genesis. The rivalry portrayed in its stories do not involve romantic triangles as in novels and plays, but rather, the disputes are over blessings, the other running thread throughout Genesis.

In Creation God blesses humanity with all that God has created, but humanity rejects that blessing for the sake of one tree that then shrank to a barren landscape. To begin the process of re-gathering a scattered humanity after the Tower of Babel, God calls Abraham to leave his father’s house, i.e. the scattered, rivalrous civilization he was born in, and move to a land God will show him. When Abraham leaves the entanglements of mimetic rivalry behind, whole new vistas of possibilities suddenly present themselves.

God then tells Abraham:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” and by him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12: 1-3) We are so habituated to getting (or taking) blessings that we often fail to notice that God said Abraham would be a blessing and a blessing not just for him and his household but for all households. The intervening verse that God will curse those who curse Abraham is discordant. If God really is in the business of blessings, then God is not in the business of cursing. After all, Jesus did not curse those who cursed him and worse. However, we could say that when we curse someone who is a blessing, and through Abraham everybody is a blessing, then we are consumed by our own cursing.

We see all this already at play in the story of Cain and Abel who fight over a blessing and the supposed lack thereof. Genesis does not tell us why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. Girard’s theory of collective violence founding culture leads me to suggest that tilling the ground was a factor. There could have been mimetic rivalry among nomadic herders of sheep but tilling the ground like Cain was all the more conducive to rivalry over particular plots of land, such as Ahab’s coveting Naboth’s vineyard. The proliferation of vegetative dying and rising deities in mythology suggests that landed economy lead to mimetic crises and their resolution through collective violence. On the other hand, when we note the alleged zero sum blessings in the fratricidal strife that follows, maybe Cain jumped to the conclusion that when Abel was blessed, there could be no blessing for him.

What is decisive is that when Cain’s offering was rejected, or he thought it was, he embroiled himself with Abel, which was also to exile God. God called out to Cain, something God continues to do with violent humans to the end of time, but Cain would not let go of his preoccupation with his brother until he had killed him.

Afterwards, Abel’s blood cried from the ground. This is a marked contrast with the fratricidal myth of the founding of Rome where the blood of Remus was silent. Like Romulus, though, Cain was a founder of culture while Abel was the first prophet as defined by Jesus in Mt. 23:35, that is, a prophet is a victim. Abel’s blood seems to have cried for vengeance. The author of Hebrews, however, says that the blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” More proof that God is in the business of blessing and not cursing.

Essay on spiritual renewal

buddingTree1I have just posted the text of a talked that I gave at a Theology & Peace conference in Chicago a few years ago called Living by the Breath of God: a Spirituality of God’s Desire. It collects many of the ideas of I have working with on my recent blog posts & it might help some of you get a more coherent view of the vision I continue to develop. You can read this essay here.

Meet Some Desert Monastics

220px-St_Macarius_the_Great_with_CherubI have just posted an article called “The Desert Monastics ad Hidden Models.” Some of the stories in the article are stories I have already shared on this blog, but other stories are new to this blog. These are old stories so maybe some of you know them. If you don’t know them, you will be glad when you do. This paper was composed for the meeting of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) meeting at Cedar Falls, IA July 10-14.

PETER AND PAUL: The Church’s Quest for Mimetic Unity

Sts_Peter_and_PaulThe presence of two strong personalities roughly the same sphere of influence is a perfect recipe for mimetic rivalry that can tear the social fabric apart until it is resolved either through implosion or collective violence against a victim. There is evidence that precisely these sorts of tensions played out between Saints Peter and Paul but there is also evidence of attempts at reconciliation between the two and further reconciliation on their behalf in the early Church to provide a very different model for the relationship between two strong outstanding personalities.

In the Acts of the Apostles Luke seems to have taken great pains to balance the impact of the missionary work of these two apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That Peter drops out of the narrative half way through the book and the seemingly abrupt ending with Paul awaiting trial in Rome diminishes the importance of even these great saints and emphasizes their subordination to the Holy Spirit. At the momentous Council of Jerusalem where the two apostles meet, at the heart of the book, the situation is ripe for conflict, but Luke presents the Council as an amicable solution to their conflict. Luke heightens the reconciliation by having Peter speak up Paul him in with words that sound a lot like a speech Paul could have made himself. That is, Peter imitates Paul to support his position at a time when he could have become a mimetic double in conflict with him. Peter’s earlier struggle over the appropriateness of preaching to of the Gentiles resolved by his vision of a sheet coming down from Heaven with both clean and unclean animals on it sets up this reconciliation. James plays the role of the mediator who states the amicable solution that allocates a separate sphere for Jews and Gentiles so that the two groups need not compete but are given space to follow the guidance of the Spirit. Paul’s letter to the Galatians tells a different story full of tension. Although Peter and gave Paul received “the right hand of fellowship” in Jerusalem, he later found it necessary oppose Peter “to his face” for rejecting table fellowship with Gentiles. Perhaps Peter had suffered a relapse of his own tendency to be swayed by the wrong mimetic crowd, such as happened to him in the courtyard of the high priest when he was surrounded by fellow Jews were against that fellowship. We never learned if this quarrel was ever healed between them in this life before it was healed posthumously in the hagiography and liturgy of the Church but there are hints that it probably was.

In writing to the Corinthians, Paul took pains to quell rivalry that had triangulated him with Peter by taking them severely to task for using such slogans as: “I am for Paul,” “I am for Cephas.” Far from fanning the flames of conflict, Paul distances himself from it in no uncertain terms and renounces any possible gain he might get from the “Paul” Party in Corinth. Although Peter is not believed to be the author of the Second Epistle bearing his name, it is significant that he refers to “our brother Paul, who is so dear to us.” At the very least, these words attest to the Church’s corporate effort to maintain a peaceful relationship between the two apostles. Peter says that Paul wrote “with the wisdom that is his special gift,” but then he cautions his readers that some points in Paul’s letters are hard to understand and are “easily distorted by uneducated and unbalanced people.” Tension and reconciliation between the two great apostles are themselves held in close tension here. A generation later, St. Clement of Rome writes the Corinthians to rage over an “abominable and unholy schism” in the community fueled by jealousy and envy. As a counter-example, Clement describes the deaths of Peter and Paul, stressing the harmony between the two great apostles. A century or so later, St. Ireneaus called the Church of Rome “the greatest and most ancient Church, founded by the two glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.” Archaeological investigations along the Appian Way have unearthed rooms with inscriptions honoring both saints together and a bronze medal dating from the first half of the second century pictures the heads of the two saints on the same side of the medal.

The Golden Legend, a 13th century compilation of saints’ lives by Jacob of Voragine is not the book one goes to for the most accurate history of the early church or anything else, but it is one of the best books for studying the way saints have been presented as models to the faithful. In his entry on Paul, Jacob explicitly curbs the alleged rivalry with St. Peter when he says: “We find that at different times Paul is portrayed as Peter’s inferior, as greater than Peter or as Peter’s equal, but the fact is that he was inferior in dignity, greater in preaching, and equal in holiness.” Jacob seals this unity by affirming the early Church’s legend that they were martyred under Nero on the same day. Before they were parted for their executions, Jacob records that Peter and Paul exchanged benedictions of each other.

This reconciliation between these two apostles is effected by their sharing the same feast day on June 29 when the other apostles get a day each for themselves. The Magnificat antiphon for First Vespers of this feast says: “Peter and Paul were at one in their love of the Lord: neither in life nor death were they divided.” The second half of this text comes from David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:23), so that a verse referring to the protracted mimetic struggle between David and Saul is applied to another problematic relationship to heal whatever division there may have been in real life and offer the Church a model of mimetic amity.