Epiphany, Year B
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“Only someone who prevents us from satisfying a desire which he himself has inspired in us is truly an object of hatred. The person who hates first hates himself for the secret admiration concealed by his hatred.” “He asserts that his own desire is prior to that of his rival; according to him, it is the mediator who is responsible for this rivalry.”
Girard, Deceit, Desire and The Novel
The phenomenon of social climbing is well known. Being a king put you in an elite group. It was like being a superstar. And once enthroned on the top, nobody wants to leave. So it was with Herod.
Apparently, later in life, Jesus was not overly impressed with the Herodian family. Herod’s climb to the top of the pile in the first century BCE would grant to his family extraordinary social status and privilege. After his death, the mimetic competition in the Herodian household would lead to palace intrigues, deceptions and murders. Splitting the land of Israel into areas of jurisdiction between his sons only created new resentments. Things got so bad the Romans took over the administration of Judea and put a procurator in charge. Eventually, Herod’s legacy, the rebuilt Temple, would be wiped out.
Was Herod a legitimate king? He could hear with his own ears that he was scorned because he was Idumean. And that he had ‘bought’ his kingship (well, he did give a very expensive gift to Caesar). His right to the throne was only as good as his loyalty to Caesar and the people’s fear.
His desire to be king places him in immediate rivalry with an infant boy. This rivalry will become so inflamed that he will take no chances and order the massacre of innocents. Only one could be king, and Herod, by hook or by crook, had gotten the crown and would not let it go. How Rachel wept that day!
Girard’s observations on the dynamics of rivalry are especially appropriate inasmuch as the text reveals the inner workings of ‘human kingship.’ Matthew’s story offers political commentary that shows the darkside of worldly power. Mimetic theory shows us the anthropological side of kingship, the anthropological dark side, the king who becomes king by delaying or displacing his own victim status. The institution of kingship finds its very origins in the sacrifice of the victim, but the king manages to turn the role of victim away onto someone else, saving his life and prolonging the honor granted the victim prior to the sacrifice. For there to be a king, there must be a scapegoat.
Herod falls victim to a rivalry of his own making, a rivalry that can only exist in his imagination. Against this manifestation of mimetic rivalry God is also manifest, protecting the child. The Good News continues to be that God delivers us from violence in the midst of violence.
The gospel reading for today is taken from Matthew’s gospel. The story of the Magi is the third in a series: first, a ‘rabbinic’ genealogy. Second, the very brief birth narrative, and third the story of Jesus and Herod. The reading for today unfortunately ends at verse 12 and thus omits the terrible outcome of the Magi’s decision. When the lectionary halves the story, as it does today, it shifts the focus of the story away from the rivalrous Herod to the questing Magi. We will however take note of both.
It is to the ‘pagan Magi’ that revelation comes, not to the recognized political authority (Herod) or to the recognized religious authorities (the Chief Priests and Scribes). As we saw in Advent and Christmas, the gospel presents us with a hermeneutic alternative, the ability to ‘read from below’, from the perspective of the persecuted or the excluded. Even as God announces good tidings to shepherds in Luke, in Matthew it is a group of Zoroastrian clergy, following astrological signs, to whom God beckons. They are the unwitting protagonists of this story.
The warning to the Magi in a dream, to ignore Herod, provokes a powerful consequence, the rage of Herod and the murder of many young baby boys. Herod expected the Magi to return with the goods on this baby boy king. They didn’t. Although they could follow the stars, they did not foresee the consequence of their flight.
That ‘God’ is the author of their dream seems to be the case as it is juxtaposed with Joseph’s dream. By fleeing they save his life. Herod alone will be responsible for the Bethlehem massacre. Pent-up anger as violent as Herod’s must have a scapegoat.
It is not surprising then that Matthew’s birth narrative is dominated by this story about the true King of Israel. Matthew’s community probably had nothing but disdain for the legacy left by Herod and his sons. It had left Israel in ruins. Josephus records a fair amount of material in and around the Herodian family (Jewish Antiquities 14-18). Not much of it is of a positive nature. Herod has his good qualities, but like the rich and powerful, he could be and often was ruthless. Herod’s way of exercising kingship is a virtual archetype of the mimetic and violent tendency of those in any position of power.
“Herod, it seemed was born to rule. Endowed with strength and stamina, he accustomed himself from an early age to hardships of all sorts. He was an excellent Horseman and a good hunter. In contests he was feared. His lance went home unfailingly, and his arrow seldom missed his mark. He was trained in war from his youth. By the time he was 25 years old, he had already won a reputation by his campaign against the brigands of Galilee. And again in the last years of his life, as a man over 60, he personally led a campaign against the Nabataeans. Success seldom eluded him when he himself directed a military enterprise.” (Schurer, The History of the Jewish People In The Age of Jesus Christ Volume 1)
Similar to the Lukan infancy narrative that frames Jesus’ birth in the social world of the Pax Romana, Matthew’s choice instrument of the ‘principalities and powers’ is Herod the Great. Davies & Allison point out that for the author(s) of Matthew, “Herod matters for two reasons. First, in his attempt to slaughter the Messiah he is like the Pharaoh of Jewish tradition, who sought to kill the first redeemer, Moses. Secondly, Herod, although he could boast no royal genealogy, was a king, and our evangelist is interested in contrasting his rule and kingdom with the rule and kingdom of Jesus the Davidic Messiah.” (W. D. Davies, and Dale Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew)
Whether under Caesar at Christmas or Herod at Epiphany, the birth and manifestation of this child indicate something entirely new, something ‘wholly other’ as the younger Karl Barth would say. As we saw in the Gospel of Mark and the Fourth Gospel, so also in Matthew, the Kingdom of God comes in the midst of the alternative kingdom or rule structured by human violence. This ‘other’ is God with us whose story will be told in the pages of the gospel.
On the Social Context of Matthew’s Gospel (2002)
In Matthew’s gospel we are looking at a document that has its origins in a very Jewish community. Since the initial work of Krister Stendahl (The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of The Old Testament) and W.D. Davies, it common to see a ‘school’ behind the careful production of the Gospel of Matthew. It is a carefully textured and well thought out text. It is probable that Matthew used the document known as the Gospel of Mark. If so, it’s also possible that Matthew interprets Mark “midrashically” (Michael Goulder. Midrash and Lection in Matthew). Goulder also suggests that it is organized liturgically. Jesus and Moses are explicitly paralleled, as in Luke and the Fourth Gospel. But Matthew’s gospel is composed in a ‘rabbinic’ context with rabbinic hermeneutics and rules of exegesis. The Christian Rabbis that composed the Gospel known as Matthew’s are serious teachers in the Christian community, most probably Antioch in Syria.
Recent socio-historical exegesis of Matthew places this community in a struggle with post 70 Jewish structures of authority (David Balch, Social History of the Matthean Community). Overman has argued well that “the factor within the locale and setting of Matthew’s community which most profoundly influenced its development was the competition and conflict with so-called formative Judaism—a group which, like the Matthean community, was involved in a process of social construction and definition. Like Matthean Judaism, formative Judaism was in the process of becoming.” (J. Andrew Overman, Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism)
The new structures of self-organization and self-understanding within Judaism came about as the result of the collapse of Jerusalem and the Temple. Scholars in the past several decades, both Jewish and Christian have called our attention to the wide diversity of pre-70 C.E. Judaism. It was a faith expressed in many ways, all centered on obedience to Torah. Matthew’s gospel is permeated with the atmosphere of the relation of the community to Torah. [The debates on 5:17-20 are well known to preachers who themselves wrestle with the Christian problem of the relation of grace and law.] Post 70 Rabbinic Judaism in its very early stages had to wrestle with its identity and thus begin the process of defining itself.
William Scott Green has shown that the Jewish rabbinate “excluded others in terms of textual proximity. A preliminary effort reads as follows: The am haaretz, perhaps the rabbinic equivalent of the medieval idiotes, has no text and cannot be trusted. The Samaritan surely has the wrong text and must be watched. The outsiders have their own texts, and have no part in ‘us.’ The Epicurean discards the text. Those who utter charms over wounds, and those who pronounce the name, use the text improperly. The informers expose the text to inappropriate others. The apostates violate the text, and some sinners cause other Jews to do so. Finally, the minim, who wear phylacteries, offer sacrifices, and read and write Torah, appropriate our text and pretend to be ‘us.’ The minim appear too close for comfort, and it is hardly accidental that for them early rabbinism reserved…uncharacteristic and bitter fury.” (William Scott Green, “Otherness Within: Toward a Theory of Difference in Rabbinic Judaism”…)
Matthew’s community, perhaps minim, is also part of this larger conversation, oftentimes acrimonious, occurring within late first century Judaism. One must be careful, in reading Matthew’s Gospel, to r
ead it the same way one reads the Fourth Gospel: the current crisis of Jewish self-definition is written all over both gospels. For Matthew’s community, Jesus is the New Torah; he alone brings the Torah of the messianic age. It is the Torah of peace, of an abba who clothes lilies and feeds birds, who forgives and who heals. He even speaks to pagan practitioners of religion.
We do not have to be kings to be victims of mimetic rivalry! But all that is required for us to join Herod is that we desire the power someone else holds. It is much too easy for us as preachers to fall into the trap of condemning those in power out of our own envy. Mimetic theory asks each of us to find both the Herod and the excluded astrologer in ourselves.
The ability to step out of the mimetic trap lies in our willingness to place our confidence in the God who delivered the child Jesus from the hands of Herod’s soldiers. Only God can give us a security whose source is so limitless that there need be no rivalry over it.
I have to be careful, I find, in that I believe this administration has done great harm to the American people, but as I watch Bush’s poll numbers drop, I am also concerned that we do not end up using the Bush administration as scapegoats.
Oh, I believe, that the truth must be told, but even when the truth is uncovered, we will be called upon to forgive the likes of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and others. Will we be able to do this? We the people cannot afford to re-found ourselves on our own victims. Nor can we use the victims of other nations. We have got to stop our mimetic tendency to blame others and we can begin to perceive even ourselves as forgiven in the light of the Cross of Christ. Maybe then, we will repent and ‘take up the cross of Jesus’ which is what you would expect of a ‘Christian’ nation.
It starts with our leaders, our mimetic role models. They must chose: the form of Herod or the form of a servant.
And yet, notice how once Saddam Hussein was captured that the only mimetic rival left for GW was the non-personal ‘Terror’ upon which he has conducted a personal war. Bin Laden is no longer the ultimate Bush rival. Bush’s Manichean strategy has been to place himself on the side of good and ‘Terror’ on the side of evil. Terror is nothing more than fear of random violence. GW, in effect, is saying that he will be the savior, he will save us from the victimage mechanism that has controlled civilization for ten thousands of years. Little does he know, that his arrogation of power, his unchecked spying on Americans and subsequent justification puts him outside the law and nominally moves him from President to King. One hopes that someone preaches the gospel to him….and soon.