III Pentecost, Year A
The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac." The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring." So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, "Do not let me look on the death of the child." And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him." Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
O LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, "Violence and destruction!" For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name," then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. For I hear many whispering: "Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!" All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. "Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him." But the LORD is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. O LORD of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.
Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Jesus said to the twelve disciples,
"A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
"So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
"For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
The lectionary omits a significant part of Matthew’s Mission discourse, the apocalyptic situation that will arise with the proclamation of the gospel. In his book The Scapegoat, Girard has detailed the ways by which the gospel proclamation has deconstructed culture, using both mythical and historical examples. Today, we can just open a newspaper to see how innocent victims are sacrificed on the altar of economics or empire and we can also see the outcry that this provokes. This outcry is the direct result of the gospel’s demystification of the victim in human culture.
The principalities and the powers must stop the spread of the gospel. Its message of life and light is poison to death and darkness. Christians, least of all, should not be surprised that mimetic conflicts will escalate as they bear witness to the Prince of Peace. Peacemaking in a culture devoted to war must be suppressed.
We do well to recall the lessons of the past two weeks, first that while we are given power to cast out the satan and heal (Matt 10), we will also inevitably find ourselves to be those who have misused this power for our own ends (Matt 7). The sayings in 10:24-25 suggest that the disciples will be ‘demonized’ for their acts of mercy and their message of good news. But has it not been said, “Blessed are you when you are falsely persecuted?” What has befallen Jesus will befall the followers of Jesus as they share in his mission and message.
In the midst of this potentially deadly scenario, the missionaries, you and I, are commanded ‘not to be afraid.’ Speak loudly, don’t hold back, your Abba in heaven cares deeply for you. He works all things for good. “In this way Matthew assigns to his community a share in the task of envoys, just as, along with the envoys, they have been addressed throughout the missionary discourse.” (Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to Matthew)
Yet, how is the church to confess (10:32 ‘homologeo’) Jesus? Our entire text makes it clear that it is the persecuted Jesus who is to be borne witness to, Jesus the victim, the innocent victim, the innocent forgiving victim. It is forgiveness that undoes persecutors; forgiveness alone has the power to break the spell of victimage. Forgiveness, healing, casting out spirits are all reconciliatory in character, they re-member us to ourselves, to one another and to God. A society built on mimesis, rivalry and scapegoating will not long survive a message of peace and reconciliation. It must be converted or die. A mimetically grounded society will not willingly die. The apparently difficult saying in vs 34-35 need no longer be exegeted as a saying that approves of violence, the fact is that the sword (that which cleaves and separates) is the message of peace itself that Jesus brings; it calls us to chose, either to follow the Victim or remain a Persecutor, a Betrayer, a Killer. Even the most basically conceived mimetic group, the family, will experience the power of the gospel as it exposes mimetic rivalries and false victimizing. Schnackenburg: “What Micah 7:6 portrays as a lamentable decline of behavior and morality among the people now appears as an inescapable consequence of the decision for or against the gospel.”
Choices will be made and allegiances tested. In the end though, there are only two alternatives, victim or persecutor, love or violence, God or the satan, Jesus the King or human culture, doomed attempts to save self or self-giving. If we will not hear this we simply ‘cannot be Jesus’ disciples.’
A mimetic theoretical reading, especially of 10:34-35 takes into consideration the larger narrative structure of the discourse. Those who tend to treat the discourse as a collection of fragmented sayings easily construe Jesus’ saying about the sword as a call to revolutionary action. This is done in complete violation of the spirituality proposed in the Sermon on the Mount as well as the preceding narrative section. The congruent peacemaking spirituality found in Matthew’s gospel and the apocalyptic consequences of proclaiming peace are the presupposition of the crisis that the gospel evokes.
Jesus does not bring peace through ‘power, violence’ (‘bia’); his peace is given as one who suffers at the hands of the powerful and violent. Here’s an example of what happens when an exegete violates the non-violent spirituality of Matthew’s gospel. “The ‘division’ Jesus brings becomes a ‘sword’ for conformity to Ezekiel 38:21: ‘every man’s sword will be against his brother.’” Because the underlying mimetic rivalry is not perceived, the sword saying is taken literally rather than the divisive act repeated in the logion (and made explicit by Luke). F.W. Beare is closer when he says, “The ‘sword’ is used metaphorically. It is the instrument that divides families. The effects produced by the preaching are given as the purpose for which Christ came…the ultimate effect of the coming of Christ is reconciliation to God and enduring peace; but the immediate effect of the preaching of peace is often strife.” (The Gospel according to Matthew Peabody: Hendrickson, 1981) Beare’s observations are consonant with Girard’s on this point: preaching gospel creates apocalypse (cultural breakdown).
John Meier notes that the division between families is a typical sign of apocalyptic associated with the time preceding Messiah. He says, “such divisions proceed from any malicious intent of Jesus, but from the malicious rejection of his good news. The sad result is again depicted by citing Micah 7:6).” Only if the saying is interpreted apart from the non-violent spirituality of the gospel tradition can we say that Jesus had some sort of violent bent toward radical revolution by human means.
Matthew Black asserts, “while not a political zealot, Jesus could perhaps be claimed as an apocalyptic zealot, proclaiming a final impending war against Belial and all his followers in heaven and on earth, even in the same family.” The problem with this is that while Black concludes this, he begins his essay “quoted out of context – as they often are – these verses sound more appropriate to the Qur’an than to the Gospels; they sound like a cry of Muhammad proclaiming a jihad or holy war, rather than a genuine utterance as the Prince of Peace.” (‘Not Peace but a Sword’ in Bammel and Moule Jesus and the Politics of His Day).
Schwager’s analysis is more suggestive and nuanced: “The real cause of the division is therefore not to be found in him. But his coming uncovers the deep seated tensions already present and thus provokes open enmities. He seems like a sword and a troublemaker because he unmasks as deliusionary the familiar forms of human harmony. Even the most natural and intimate relations cannot stand in his presence. He unveils secret discords. His appearance brings judgment, and he sets before all humans the truth that the prophet Micah proclaimed over Israel. The human being is a creature who, by spontaneous tendency, does not even get along with his own family.” (Must There Be Scapegoats?)
The very text that is so often mis-read as a justification for the use of the "sword" becomes for the peace-centered preacher a text of comfort!
Our congregations are, if they live anywhere other than a cave without cable, aware that the world around them is slowly but surely dissolving. Civility (the temporary victory of prohibition in culture) is vanishing, if not gone altogether. Political contests no longer feature debate, but the tearing of flesh. Each candidate seeks to be the last one standing at the end of a bloody campaign. Ancient national and ethnic rivalries result in greater and greater violence. Genocide is a word that only Congress doesn’t seem able to use to describe many of these conflicts. And then, there’s terrorism. Not a day goes by that a road-side bomb doesn’t take human life in Iraq. We are told that it is not a matter of "if," but a matter of "when" the next terrorist event will occur on American soil again.
This dissolution might, at first glance, appear to be the mark of the failure of all that we stand for as Christians. If we can see only an immediate view of things, this will surely seem to be true. But viewed from the viewpoint of mimetic theory, this is an unavoidable stage in the manifestation of the victory of the Gospel. Mimetic theory teaches us that, not only will the disarming of the scapegoat cause Culture to turn on the one who speaks the Truth, but it will also slowly cause the failure of the scapegoating mechanism, as it brings to consciousness a process that only works when it operates in the dark. The less efficiently the scapegoating mechanism works, the greater will be the build up of mimetic rivalry and ultimately, mimetic crisis and violence.
The violence we see around us may be frightening, but it is also a sign that the Gospel is doing its work in culture, slowly but surely eroding the false peace built on the sacrifice of the innocent. We will never be able to go back again. Only movement forward to positive mimesis, to Jesus’ rejection of violence, can bring peace now. The ground is being prepared for the seeds of peace. We have only to sow them.