Divergence on the Lectionary – Proper 22, Year A (track one)

First Reading

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12–20 (omitted verses included in italics)

And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 

You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 

but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

“You shall not murder.

“You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” (ESV)

Second Reading

Philippians 3:4b–14

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (ESV)

Gospel Text

Matthew 21:33–46

“Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

	“‘The stone that the builders rejected
		has become the cornerstone;
	this was the Lord’s doing,
		and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. (ESV)

Comments and Questions for Discussion

First Reading

I’d like to take a different approach to our reading from Exodus for this week. (I do call these “Divergences” after all!) I’m going to try to tackle these verses, known widely as the Ten Commandments, from the point of view of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory. I’ve written about mimetic theory elsewhere. Some in other Divergences, some in other papers on this blog, so I’ll give some thumbnail sketches of it here and then ask you to read more elsewhere if you need/want more detail. 

Rene Girard was a French literary critic who realized that there was a pattern to be found in all the literature he read, a pattern that explained the roots of human violence. He recognized (he abhorred the word “discovered.”) that human beings learn what to desire by imitating the desires of others. His favorite illustration was this. Put two toddlers in a room with several toys and sooner or later there will be conflict over one of them. We look at what other people want or have, and it is our natural (an early survival technique) reaction to desire it. 

This, of course, leads to conflict. The trouble with this conflict is that humans seem to lack an “off” switch for the rivalry that results. Other animals, when rivalry becomes dangerous to the survival of the community, simply give up the mimetic desire. The pack comes before the desire. Not so for humans. We will allow these rivalries to spiral until they are ready to destroy the community in the war of “all against all.” 

Somewhere in our distant past, humans discovered a way to vent the pressure that threatens to explode. We choose a scapegoat (an innocent scapegoat) and release all that wrath on that one. Everyone participates in the stoning or the lynching or the tossing into the volcano, and after this terrible violence the anger abates and peace returns.

Because this works, humans preserve the process and build institutions around it to help keep the peace in the future. There are basically three “pillars of culture” that emerge from this ritual murder.

  1. Myth. We create a story that hides our own guilt for the killing and makes the victim deserving of what happened to them. Strangely, because their death brought peace, the victim is also divinized in the myth making.
  2. Ritual. We re-enact the ritual killing on a regular basis so as to benefit from the ongoing release of mimetic tension and rivalry.
  3. Prohibition. We enact certain prohibitions to limit the frequency and intensity of mimetic rivalry. It doesn’t stop it from happening, but it does limit how often it occurs and the violence that results.

When we look at the Decalogue with mimetic theory as our lens, several things become clearer. First, the Ten Commandments fall entirely within the third pillar, “Prohibition.” Their purpose is to rein in mimetic violence within the community of God’s people. It very specifically prohibits the “coveting” of that which belongs to a neighbor. Yes, it also forbids stealing and adultery, that is the “taking” of that which belongs to another, but even the desire is forbidden. The desire is recognized as dangerous. How different this is from our modern day, when advertisers have learned to use that dangerous desire to make us go out and buy what another has. 

But recognizing that simply prohibiting desire, even stealing, cannot prevent them from damaging community, the Ten Commandments also prohibit violence/murder. Later, the law will make provision for the release of mimetic anger, but through the sacrifice of animals rather than other humans. This is one of the points of genius of the Israelite people. They were able to divert that wrath onto something that wasn’t human while their neighbors continued to sacrifice their kindred. I believe that this turn from human sacrifice is made visible in the story of Abraham and his near sacrifice of his son, Isaac. 

I find the opening verses of the Decalogue particularly interesting because, although they don’t deal directly with desire and mimetic rivalry and violence, they do attack that process at its root. What we so often overlook when we consider the “Ten Commandments” is that they begin not with a commandment, but with a statement, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God begins by declaring who He is and what He’s done. In so doing, He also defines who we are by what He’s done for us. 

He is the God who saves. Our identity is bound up with the reality that we are those whom God has saved. This is important to me for two reasons.

First, quite apart from anything to do with mimetic theory this says that God is a God who saves first and then describes what living “as one who has been saved” looks like. God does not lay out commandments to be obeyed in order to be saved, He shows us what life looks like when we live into our identities as saved persons.

Second, within the realm of mimetic theory, God confers identity first, then describes that identity. This is important from a Girardian standpoint because the reason that we imitate the desires of others is that we perceive that the person desiring/having the object of our shared desire enjoys a greater sense of being from having it. We want the object not for itself, but for the greater sense of being we believe that it will give. 

This is what I meant above by the way that the opening sentences of the Decalogue attack the root of the problem of mimetic rivalry. They attack it by attacking our sense of non-being, by conferring identity as those precious to God and worthy of salvation. So God’s commands to have no other gods before Him are doubly meaningful. They describe what it looks like to know who God is and who we are to Him. We will want no other gods. But they also rightly declare that it is only in Him that we can eradicate the root of mimetic violence. God pours out love and salvation in such a way that in confers the being that we long for, and in so doing makes Himself the object of desire (that conveys being) that we can all imitate and yet all can have, without rivalry. 

The post on this site that goes into mimetic theory most deeply (though hardly deeply enough)  is my paper on worship – Worship, the Redemption of Desire. If you search the site for “Girard” or “mimetic theory” (there’s a search bar at the top of every page) you can turn up other pages that also make use of Girard’s work as a key to interpretation of Scripture.

Second Reading

When I read this week’s passage from Philippians in the context of Paul’s use of citizenship/military duty as a corrective to the divisions in the congregation in Philippi (for more on that see Divergence on the Lectionary – Proper 20, Year A, where I tried to write an introduction to the whole letter) I recall the words of a new friend who was giving me a tour of the Air Force Academy, from which he’d graduated some years ago. It went something like, “We all get torn down to nothing so that we can be built back up as a unit.” 

Paul isn’t bragging on his heritage or his accomplishments, he’s using those things that many would have counted as valuable as foils to point to the greater value of being “found in Christ.” He’s saying that the “tearing down” process for him was enormous, but the surpassing worth of being found in Christ was/is so much greater.

There is, I think, one significant difference between Paul’s experience and that of the Academy cadet. Paul did all the tearing down. He didn’t have it done for/to him. Paul, after Jesus’ self-revelation on the road to Damascus, pursued Jesus at the expense of everything else. That’s how God works. He doesn’t grind us to nothing apart from our invitation to do so. We get to know, to experience something of the value of being in Christ first, so that we might then choose to surrender our false identities rather than have them taken from us.

That isn’t to say that God’s removal of that which hinders our life in Christ isn’t often painful. It certainly has been in my life when I’ve dared it. And the last paragraph of our reading can be a little daunting as Paul reminds us that the process isn’t just a one time thing. Even the Apostle to the Gentiles experienced that surrender as an ongoing thing. Ouch. (I keep thinking of Aslan’s removal of all the dragon skins from poor Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.) 

Paul’s example though, is one of surrender of individual rights for the sake of the greater, and it fits neatly into his exhortation to behave as citizens/soldiers of Christ.

Gospel Text

Jesus’ parable of the vineyard in this week’s readings is a direct descendent of Isaiah’s parable concerning God’s vineyard, in Isaiah 5:1-7. That’s the first reading for “Track 2” for this week in the Lectionary, so I do wish we’d had that in this Divergence, but that’ll have to wait until I go through Track Two three years from now.

Even so, it’ll be good to have Isaiah’s words in our ears as we study Jesus’ parable. Here they are.

Isaiah 5:1–7

	Let me sing for my beloved
		my love song concerning his vineyard:
	My beloved had a vineyard
		on a very fertile hill.
	He dug it and cleared it of stones,
		and planted it with choice vines;
	he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
		and hewed out a wine vat in it;
	and he looked for it to yield grapes,
		but it yielded wild grapes.
	And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
		and men of Judah,
	judge between me and my vineyard.
	What more was there to do for my vineyard,
		that I have not done in it?
	When I looked for it to yield grapes,
		why did it yield wild grapes?
	And now I will tell you
		what I will do to my vineyard.
	I will remove its hedge,
		and it shall be devoured;
	I will break down its wall,
		and it shall be trampled down.
	I will make it a waste;
		it shall not be pruned or hoed,
		and briers and thorns shall grow up;
	I will also command the clouds
		that they rain no rain upon it.
	For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
		is the house of Israel,
	and the men of Judah
		are his pleasant planting;
	and he looked for justice,
		but behold, bloodshed;
	for righteousness,
		but behold, an outcry! (ESV)

Obviously, the parables are very different. But when Jesus began to speak of a vineyard owner and the owner looking for fruit from the vineyard, His hearers would have immediately remembered the song from Isaiah 5. And when the people heard the parable, the differences would leap out to His audience. Indeed, the differences were, I think, the point.

When Isiaiah sings his song of the Lord’s vineyard, Israel is judged as a whole. Everyone is responsible for the wild grapes that are produced. Jesus’ audience would remember this, and God’s decision to uproot the entire fruitless vineyard. But when Jesus turned the responsibility for frustrating the Owner’s desire for fruit to the caretakers, the people would have understood that they were not the ones Jesus intended to criticize. 

So when He asks them, “What will the owner do to those tenants?” their response is aimed no less at the chief priests and Pharisees than is the parable itself. This is just not one of those parables whose meaning is shrouded in mystery. It is an interpretation of a story familiar to Jesus’ hearers, and it places the responsibility where it belongs, on the ones whose job it is to care for the vineyard, the tenants. Elsewhere Jesus refers to them as the “shepherds.” 

You can almost see everyone nodding knowingly as Jesus spins out the story and then giving the response they know Jesus wants. Everyone is in on the joke. Especially those the story intends to critique. They want to arrest Jesus, to silence Him, but they daren’t. Everyone there is reveling in the new parable that places the “Owner’s” wrath on the leadership, not on themselves.

When I think about this, I remember my reaction to folks who lament the state of the church. So little enthusiasm, so little influence on the surrounding culture. In other words, so little fruit. All too often I hear these complaints from my fellow clergy, and I think, “Gang, if the church isn’t doing what we think it should be doing, that’s on us, not on them!” What’s more, when I hear Christians whinging about the culture in which they find themselves, I want to say to them, “Guys, that’s on us, no on them!” The church has been entrusted to us, the clergy, the leadership. The world has been entrusted to the church. If we have any complaints, I don’t think we need to look any farther than this parable for our answer.

Is is possible that the decline is church attendance is God’s way of taking the vineyard from us in order to give it to others?

2 Responses

  1. My church just voted to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. Do you think ‘denomination’ go ing away with your make room for this new?

    1. Hi, Judy. I’ve been trying to come up with an answer to your question, but I find that I’m just not sure I understand it (the question).

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