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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Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (3)

lakeGray1All of the biblical types of baptism that I have reviewed in the first two posts of this series stress the social nature of this sacrament. In the Paschal Mystery, we die to one way of relating (or misrelating) with people to live to a totally new way of relating to others. The traditional triad of renunciations of the world, the flesh, and the devil confirms this social element of baptism. The three are nearly synonymous but their varying shades of meaning are illuminating.

The New Testament word kosmos (world) has mainly negative connotations, especially in John’s Gospel where it means, not the material world as created by God, but the social world organized in opposition to God. In baptism, then, we renounce organizing ourselves socially around scapegoating and persecution. It is important to remember, though, that it was this very kosmos that God loved so much that God gave his only son so that this kosmos might not perish. As Jesus was overwhelmed by the kosmos in his death, we, too, may be overcome by it if we renounce it.

Flesh does not refer to the material aspect of our existence, but rather to the tendency live our embodied lives without reference to God. When we live in the flesh, our social lives are dominated by mimetic rivalry that consumes us. The contentions that Paul denounced in his first letter to the Corinthians was cited as an example of living by the flesh. If we renounce the flesh, we renounce this contentious way of relating and we allow our embodied lives to be guided by the Holy Spirit in whom there is no rivalry or resentment.

Renouncing the devil does not mean renouncing a wicked supernatural creature with horns and a pitchfork. The New Testament word skandalon refers to no such thing. Rather this word means a stumbling block, an obstacle. When we live according to the flesh, we allow other people to be stumbling blocks to our desires and we do the same to them. That is, our rivals become the organizing principles of our life rather than God. In scripture, the Satan is also the accuser, which is what rivals do. They accuse each other endlessly as opposed to praising God endlessly.

The renunciations as formulated in the 1976 Book of Common Prayer amount to much the same thing. Renouncing “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” may seem to imply supernatural forces. I do not rule out such angelic beings who, themselves, put themselves into mimetic rivalry with God, but the anthropological level is what is most important to us in renouncing skandalons in this life. The opposition of such stumbling blocks can seem so strong that they seem transcendent but are really an accumulation of human desires out of control. Renouncing “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” acknowledges the systemic evil of the kosmos which we must renounce and “the sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God” point to our own responsibility to do what the fourth question asks of us, to “turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [our] savior” and “put [our] whole trust in his grace and love.”

As noted in my last post, the new beginnings promised by the deliverances from the Flood and from the Red Sea were so daunting that, in both cases, those who were delivered returned to the old way of relating with each other and the same has happened with the Church. Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime sacrament in the sense of being an initiation, that is a beginning. A beginning is just that; it is not the middle and certainly is not the end. Baptism is a beginning that must be sustained day by day, hour by hour. St. Paul’s admonition to “take off” the old person and “put on” the new person are verbs used for taking clothing on and off. Living by the Spirit in baptism, then, is allowing Christ to clothe us rather than the rivals who are usually the ones who define us. Being renewed in Christ leads us into a quality of life that we don’t easily imagine. These new clothes seem much too big for us and we get lost in them. Can we allow Christ to stretch us to fit into the new clothes of the resurrected life?

See Baptism: Overwhelmed by the Love of Christ (1)

See Baptism: Overwhelmed by the Love of Christ (2)