Welcome to the Girardian Virtual Bible Study! Each week we explore the lectionary passage with the help of René Girard’s insights into human relationships. We hope you enjoy this installment of the GVBS. Join us next week at 10 am Central on the Raven Foundation Facebook page for the live show. The show notes and video recording are below. This week’s episode explores Lent 2, Year C, Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18, and Luke 13: 31-35. You can subscribe to the GVBS on Podbean!
Introduction: You Won’t BELIEVE What Jesus Says About Herod…
A typical Youtube headline for this week’s Gospel would read something like the headline above. Another variant: “Jesus DESTROYS Herod with one word…”
It’s tempting to use something like those as the headline for this article too. So tempting that I totally gave in by using it as an opening line. But it’s the language of sacrifice. It’s the language of enemy-destruction and winning at the expense of another. And while Jesus does have harsh language for Herod, he uses it in the context of a critique of the sacrificial system by which Herod rules over Judea, and Rome rules over Herod, and the strong have ruled by force over others since the beginning of time.
This week’s lectionary is all about the journey from sacrifice to mercy. This is a human journey; God is always found in mercy, not sacrifice. But we have instructions for sacrifice in the Genesis reading, and some not altogether merciful language from Jesus in the Gospel. So what do we make of this? Let’s explore together.
Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18 – The Origin And Evolution of Sacrifice
Abram and Sar’ai are getting old. Abram is beginning to doubt God’s promises, seeing as how his wife has long passed her child-bearing years and they still have no offspring. Abram wants an heir. God promises that Abram will have as many descendants as the stars in the sky. Abram essentially says: “Prove it.”
Abram needs a sign he can trust from God, and this is where sacrifice comes in.
Why can’t Abram just take God’s word for it, that he will have many descendants? Besides the fact that he is already very old and the prospect seems improbable, it is very human to distrust the idea of receiving something for nothing. Surely, Abram must do something, must give something in order to receive the promised blessings?
How did we come to be so skeptical of the idea of giving and receiving freely?
From a Girardian perspective – that is, an anthropological perspective on the origin of and connection between culture, religion, and sacrifice – humans evolved as relational creatures, learning our behaviors and desires by watching and copying one-another. Our shared desires can be the source of friendships, empathy, and intimacy, but they can also be the source of conflict, rivalry, and violence. From the beginning of time, mutual desires have erupted in fights that have escalated, bringing people, communities, nations to the verge of destruction. In our proto-humanity, at the dawn of our transition into personhood, we came into conflict again and again, leading to destruction and death. But before we completely destroyed ourselves, we found an outlet for our violence. Peoples at war with each other would converge upon a scapegoat, an arbitrarily-chosen victim, and unite their hostilities against that person or group. The origin of the conflict long forgotten in the heat of escalating battle, conflicting parties would collectively blame their problems on the scapegoat instead, and murder that person. The cathartic act of purging one falsely accused brought real, if temporary, peace. The victim, falsely attributed the power to sow chaos and bring peace, was looked upon as a god.
Over time, this ability to create peace was ritualized. Gods were found not so much in the victims themselves as in the process of sacrifice and collective purging of violence. Evidence of human sacrifice can be found in a multitude of human cultures across the world, because the progression of mutual desire through conflict, scapegoating, purge and catharsis is a shared human phenomenon.
Scapegoating, sacrifice, false accusation, unity over and against another – all of these are still very prevalent human forces. But the connection between scapegoating, sacrifice, and the origin of religion is obscure because, by definition, those who scapegoat do not know what they do. But the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels pull the sacrificial system out of obscurity, expose it to the light of day, and teach that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.
So why, then, does God ask in Genesis for several animals that Abram kills and (except for the birds) cuts in half? This could be attributed to Abram’s misunderstanding of God, as he was caught up in the delusion of sacrifice like everyone else. Or, it could be considered a concession, a sacrifice, on God’s part. After all, Abram wants proof that he will receive divine favor. And how was divine favor thought to be secured? Through sacrifice!
In other words, the idea of a sacrifice to secure blessing is not unique to Abram. He came from a culture of sacrifice, as did all of humanity, for human culture was built around sacrifice. God calls him out from his home and family and promises a new land and a new beginning, where he will be blessed to be a blessing to the whole world. Thus, Abram’s story is that of a new understanding of blessing emerging, blessing that is not sacrificial, not over-and-against others, but with and for others. And it is the beginning of the journey from sacrifice to mercy.
Abram doesn’t fully realize what God has in store for him and the human race. He still needs a sign, and whether we believe God authorizes sacrifice or Abram interprets God’s instructions that way, the point is that Abram still believes in sacrifice, and God works within Abram’s understanding. But an explicit move away from sacrifice comes in stages. The first stage is the move away from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. This is seen in our story in Genesis 15 and in Genesis 22 when God stays Abraham’s hand just before he offers up his son Isaac, substituting a ram instead. This story is written as Abraham proving himself to God, but the deeper story is humanity coming to trust in God without need for human sacrifice.
Eventually, the prophets will declare God doesn’t want sacrifice at all, but mercy. For sacrifice is the fruit of conflict, violence, and fear, and a humanity without sacrifice is one that has come to recognize value, security, and joy in sharing, cooperation, and building a world in which people look out for each other’s needs rather than filling their own needs at another’s expense.
Before we get there, we still feel the need for violence. So Abram cuts some animals in two. I’m pretty sure God then healed them in heaven, and said something to the effect of, “I’m so sorry. These pitiful humans just don’t get it yet.”
Luke 13: 31-35 – Lord Have Mercy, Jesus Just Called Herod A Fox!
So we come to the Gospels, where some concerned Pharisees tell Jesus essentially to run and hide, because Herod wants to kill him. And Jesus says, “Go tell that fox…”
Wait. What did Jesus just call Herod?
“Fox” is not a term of endearment. It’s not even a sarcastic utterance, as in, “He thinks he’s so clever, but you can tell him…” No. “Fox” is a term of contempt.
Herod was the tetrarch of Judea, the Greek and Roman name for Judah, and the symbol of Judah was the lion. Judaism is one culture among many that considers the lion to be the king of beasts, so a “lion” is a kingly symbol.
The fox is not a lion. As Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw explain in Jesus for President, “The fox was often mistaken for a lion but wasn’t king of anything. The fox was an impostor, a poser, a wannabe lion.” Foxes sneak, steal, and cower in the face of something larger. Herod brutally kept the peace by squashing dissent below him, but he himself was a puppet for the oppressive Roman empire. As long as the known world belonged to Rome, as long as the people were taxed and made to feel inferior, the nations could have their own “rulers.” This was less concession and more strategy on the part of Rome. Allowing rulers wealth as long as they crushed opposition ensured class division and quelled uprising. Herod is a pawn in a sacrificial system, with no real power but plenty of paranoia and hostility.
And Jesus blatantly says so. He is calling Herod an illegitimate coward. Where’s the mercy in that?
Well, it is actually quite merciful to call out systems of abusive power for what they are. It is merciful to the victims of those systems… and ultimately, it is merciful to the perpetrators, who are also victims. Systems of violence and oppression, rule by fear… they swallow up all in their path. They are the collective spirit of distrust and violence spreading through all people and bigger than any one person, even the rulers who enforce them. The same fear that is the life-blood of oppression keeps most people from speaking out against it. But those who name it for what it is introduce a healing balm of courage into communities poisoned by fear. Speaking truth to and about power is part of the healing of Jesus’s mission.
Jesus is in a hurry. He doesn’t have time to explain that he is overturning the system of sacrifice that has enslaved and deceived humanity from the beginning of time; coming to full understanding of that takes a lifetime. Jesus lets his work do the talking. But he sums it up in one word: fox. In this word, Jesus acknowledges not only Herod’s cruelty, but also his fear and vulnerability to what can destroy him. “Fox” is a word of contempt, but it may also be a word of pity.
So what Jesus is essentially saying is not just, “Go tell that coward/ poser/ whatnot…” It’s also, “Go tell that poor, paranoid man, so enslaved to his fears that he lets the humanity leach out of whatever is left of his soul in order to grovel to those who could kill him in without any thought, that I am not afraid of him, and I’m going to keep healing and casting out demons today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will finish my work.”
What kind of healing is Jesus doing? What demons is he casting out? He is casting out demons of fear and self-loathing. He is casting out the voices that tell us we are nothing, that keep us under the powers of suspicion, paranoia, and ultimately violence. He is curing infirmities and illnesses, but he is also healing the sick spirit of marginalization that casts some people out and leaves groups poorer for their loss, even if they feel a sense of superiority over and against those they marginalize. This work of healing and banishing demons is the work of creating a world of mercy, of building networks of human love that can spread and shine lights of hope and compassion. And it’s finding the foxes in all of us – the parts of us that lash out in cruelty not out of sadism but out of fear – and soothing and transforming them. Jesus’s is not a hunter or a lion. He approaches the foxes of the world, including Herod, including Rome, including the US empire and all of us in it – in love.
And in any case, he knows he won’t die yet, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem here is a symbol. It’s where sacrifices were offered in the temple. And sacrifice, as we have seen, was thought to be ordained by God, but was really a human system of quenching violence by pouring it out first on an innocent victim and then on animals. It was also where exorbitant fees were charged for changing currency, and where people often felt beholden to give more than they could afford. In other words, while people made sacrifices in the temple, they themselves were sacrificed to a system that didn’t meet their needs. The injunctions to care for the poor, welcome the stranger, and cancel debts had been largely overlooked.
Jesus’s critique of Jerusalem is not a critique of Judaism, but a critique of the sacrificial system that Judaism began to lead us away from. Jesus teaches a particular interpretation of Judaism which explicitly says that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. All of humanity has yet to fully comprehend this. Prophets from all over the world were killed before and after Jesus’s time in all kinds of geographic locations. From Jeremiah in Egypt to Martin Luther King Jr. in Tennessee, prophets have been killed the world over. Jesus is saying it’s impossible to kill a prophet outside of the sacrificial system. He names Jerusalem, but he could have named Rome, and today, he could name the United States Empire. Prophets are killed by those who don’t know what it means that God desires mercy. Prophets are killed by those who think they are doing service to God. God was killed by those who thought they were serving God.
Under The Wings of Love
And Jesus laments the system of sacrifice in such a powerful, countercultural way. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Would we be willing to gather under the wings of a mother hen in the face of a fox? What kind of protection can a hen offer? Don’t we want a lion who could chase the fox away, or even devour it, instead?
Jesus subverts violence by allowing himself to become its victim. The hen is the fox’s prey. And even when he is described as the Lion of Judah in Revelation, the image of him that appears is not a lion but a slain lamb. What kind of savior is this?
Two thoughts come to mind. First, in all nonviolent movements, there are martyrs who lose wealth, esteem, freedom, limb and life. There are those who literally put their bodies, without weapons, in harms way and are utterly crushed. It happened to Jesus. It happened to Gandhi and King. It happens and keeps happening. Peaceful, organized, persistent movements have brought tremendous blessing to the world… at tremendous cost. We must be honest about this. There have been mother hens so willing to stand protectively for others in the path of violence who have been steamrolled by violence until violence lost its steam…
But there is more to the mother hen than protection against enemies. In the shelter of his wings, Jesus wants to introduce us to a whole new life, where we can live without fear of enemies, because we have no enemies. He wants to nurture and tend to us in a loving embrace, in which we feel warmth and assurance. He wants to sooth our fears and incubate a new humanity within us.
And on the third day, he will finish his work. He will go as far as he can healing and casting out demons and transforming the violent world until it does its absolute worst to him. He will become a victim of all human violence – abandonment, betrayal, physical torture, sexual abuse (as brilliantly pointed out by Mary Pezzulo), and death. He will watch as a sword pierces his own mother’s heart. And he will rise again… in forgiveness. By becoming a victim to our worship of violence and responding with mercy that outshines all our hate and fear, Jesus will show us that the ruler of the universe is not sacrificial violence, but Love. And with the love that has seen our worst and still takes us under loving, nurturing wing, Jesus opens up to us a world in which we can dare to trust, dare to give of ourselves, dare to renounce sacrifice for mercy. Gathered under Christ’s healing wings, may we finally recognize each other not as threats or competitors but as brothers and sisters, children of the same Mother, the Same Father, the same Love.