XIII Pentecost, Year A
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM Who I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.
O LORD, you know;
remember me and visit me,
and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
In your forbearance do not take me away;
know that on your account I suffer insult.
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O LORD, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.
Therefore thus says the LORD:
If you turn back, I will take you back,
and you shall stand before me.
If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless,
you shall serve as my mouth.
It is they who will turn to you,
not you who will turn to them.
And I will make you to this people
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you,
but they shall not prevail over you,
for I am with you
to save you and deliver you,
says the LORD.
I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,
and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”
“This passage brings together two of Girard’s most poignant themes from scripture: Satan and the skandalon. It’s no surprise, then, that this passage figures prominently throughout his work. Here’s a partial list: Things Hidden, p. 418; The Scapegoat, p. 157 (chapter on “Peter’s Denial”); The Girard Reader, pp. 199-200; within his article “Are the Gospels Mythical?”, First Things, No. 62 (April 1996), pp. 27-31. Here’s an excerpt from the latter, beginning with comments on Peter’s denial of Jesus, and ending with the tying together of the two things Jesus names of Peter in this passage — “Satan is skandalon personified”:
(We would also add I See Satan Fall as Lightning, 16-18.)
***** Excerpt from René Girard’s “Are the Gospels Mythical?” *****
Peter spectacularly illustrates this mimetic contagion. When surrounded by people hostile to Jesus, he imitates their hostility. He obeys the same mimetic force, ultimately, as Pilate and Herod. Even the thieves crucified with Jesus obey that force and feel compelled to join the crowd. And yet, I think, the Gospels do not seek to stigmatize Peter, or the thieves, or the crowd as a whole, or the Jews as a people, but to reveal the enormous power of mimetic contagion — a revelation valid for the entire chain of murders stretching from the Passion back to “the foundation of the world.” The Gospels have an immensely powerful reason for their constant reference to these murders, and it concerns two essential and yet strangely neglected words, skandalon and Satan.
The traditional English translation of “stumbling block” is far superior to timid recent translations, for the Greek skandalon designates an unavoidable obstacle that somehow becomes more attractive (as well as repulsive) each time we stumble against it. The first time Jesus predicts his violent death (Matthew 16:21-23), his resignation appalls Peter, who tries to instill some worldly ambition in his master: Instead of imitating Jesus, Peter wants Jesus to imitate him. If two friends imitate each other’s desire, they both desire the same object. And if they cannot share this object, they will compete for it, each becoming simultaneously a model and an obstacle to the other. The competing desires intensify as model and obstacle reinforce each other, and an escalation of mimetic rivalry follows; admiration gives way to indignation, jealousy, envy, hatred, and, at last, violence and vengeance. Had Jesus imitated Peter’s ambition, the two thereby would have begun competing for the leadership of some politicized “Jesus movement.” Sensing the danger, Jesus vehemently interrupts Peter: “Get behind me, Satan, you are a skandalon to me.”
The more our models impede our desires, the more fascinating they become as models. Scandals can be sexual, no doubt, but they are not primarily a matter of sex any more than of worldly ambition. They must be defined in terms not of their objects but of their obstacle/model escalation — their mimetic rivalry that is the sinful dynamics of human conflict and its psychic misery. If the problem of mimetic rivalry escapes us, we may mistake Jesus’ prescriptions for some social utopia. The truth is rather that scandals are such a threat that nothing should be spared to avoid them. At the first hint, we should abandon the disputed object to our rivals and accede even to their most outrageous demands; we should “turn the other cheek.”
If we choose Jesus as our model, we simultaneously choose his own model, God the Father. Having no appropriative desire, Jesus proclaims the possibility of freedom from scandal. But if we choose possessive models we find ourselves in endless scandals, for our real model is Satan. A seductive tempter who suggests to us the desires most likely to generate rivalries, Satan prevents us from reaching whatever he simultaneously incites us to desire. He turns into a diabolos (another word that designates the obstacle/model of mimetic rivalry). Satan is skandalon personified, as Jesus makes explicit in his rebuke of Peter.”
What Peter has done is to become Jesus’ model/obstacle. Peter is essentially enjoining Jesus to imitate himself. Jesus utterly rejects this by calling Peter, a human, the satan. This observation of Girard’s is a watershed, for it takes the satan out of the realm of the transcendent and mythological and places the satan (= the personified scandal) right square in anthropology. If we are going to talk about satan, it should not be in terms of angelology or higher beings or even transcendent spirits, but in terms of human, imitative, rivalrous behavior.
For this reason, we frequently use the lower case ‘s’ when we write satan. The violent human is the satanic human. And the human who would claim to use violence to achieve divine ends is the true ‘scandal’ before God.
We saw last week how Peter’s confession is mixed, not pure. It is this admixture that Jesus rejects when he rejects Peter/satan. Jesus loves Peter but he will not follow Peter down the path of mimetic violence. There is no ‘just’ violence for Jesus. If ever a life should have been saved, it was Jesus’ life. But Jesus explicitly rejects the saving of his life if it means that violence is to be deployed. Jesus will have nothing to do with popular expectations of a retributive (“just”) messiah. A retributive messiah does not embody the will of his heavenly Abba because the heavenly Father is non-retributive. Rather Jesus forgives and loves by imitating his heavenly Father who forgives because the heavenly Father is Love.
God is willing to lose God’s life in order that we, humans, may be reconciled, redeemed and transformed.
Some Concluding Observations:
As we saw last week Jesus’ messiahship is at stake, the question of his character, how he will act, whom he will imitate is at the forefront. Will he be a Son of the Living God or a messiah in the service of just veangence? This is the critical question posed by the New Testament about Jesus.
The second critical question posed by the New Testament is how we shall perceive ourselves as his followers. This is explored in vss. 24-26. The fact is, the reality of discipleship consists of cross carrying, a willingness to be persecuted, but more so, a willingness to die forgiving and not retaliating as the Master has done. Jesus is not saying that his followers are to seek persecution, they are not to be masochists. But every follower of Jesus must be willing to die every day, forgiving.
Note: This business of ‘losing one’s life’ is key. Rev Steve Berry and I explored this in light of the hymn in Philippians 2:5-11. Readers are encouraged to read our essay for further elaboration on the ‘mechanics’ of ‘losing one’s life’ and how this plays out Christologically and soteriologically for us today.
The supreme sacrifice is not service to country but service (death) for the kingdom of God. Bearing witness to peace, as Jesus did, being a peacemaker, as Jesus was, is the counter-cultural expression of faith. Standing for peace robs culture of it’s masking and mything of war and it’s continued use of scapegoats. Bearing witness to peace reveals that cultural justice is not righteous. Peacemaking, or ‘losing one’s life’ is the essence of Christian spirituality. It is the essence of Jesus’ person and work and thus stands at the center of what it means to be a child of God.