“And for many”: a Lectionary Reflection

One of the most glaring changes made in the recent English translation of the Roman Missal was the words of institution. In the ICEL translation I grew up with, the phrase Jesus spoke over the wine was translated as “for you and for all.” I recall the catechesis given at the time: one of the principles of translation was that the liturgy should be self-catechizing, without the need for additional explanations. The literal translation, “for you and for many,” might easily lead the faithful to believe that Christ did not die for the sins of all humankind, which is heretical.

When the new missal came in, I tended to internally translate the Latin “pro multi” as “for the many”, because, I had been taught, it was an idiom that basically meant “for all.”

A few months ago, though, I heard the phrase with new ears, through the interpretive lens of Christians caught up in rivalry with each other over whose way of following Jesus was more pure, more correct — both today, and when Jesus walked among his first disciples.

And through those ears? “For you, and for many” doesn’t sound like a deep theological pronouncement about universalism or predestination. It sounds like Jesus pointedly reminding his rivalrous disciples, “You’re not so special.”

Today’s readings from Exodus and Matthew build on that theme. The LORD’s exhortations to treat the marginalized justly are implicitly an exhortation against scapegoating, but the manner of it conveys “You’re not so special.” Aliens – you were once aliens in Egypt. Widows and orphans – if you die, your own wife will be a widow and your own children will be orphans. There but for the grace of God, basically: you yourselves are no different from the alien, the widow, the orphan. It’s a commandment grounded in empathy, which defuses scandal and mitigates against scapegoating.

Given this mimetic lens, the gospel reading from Matthew sounds like a teaching about desire. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and mind” is another way of saying “Your whole self shall be oriented towards God,” which is another way of describing desire.

After that, “And the second is like it” caught my ear. Because, depending on how your tradition divides Exodus 20 into ten commandments, one can read the first commandment as “I am the LORD your God, you shall have no other gods besides me” and the second as “You shall not make for yourself an idol of anything in the heavens or the earth.”

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” puts “your neighbor” and “yourself” in the same category as each other, and decidedly not in the same category as the LORD your God to whom all your desires should be directed. You shall love your neighbor as yourself, because you’re not so special.

We normally think of “idol” as “false god”, a thing that is worshiped as a god. But thinking in terms of desire, idols are those things that distort our desires away from God. The fascination of scandal, and of mimetic rivalry, lead our desires away from God, because we are caught up in defining ourselves against the source of scandal, or as better than our rival, rather than pacifically receiving our identity from God and defining ourselves as in Christ.

We are mimetic creatures. We receive our desires from those around us, and those desires constitute who we are. We learn to love ourselves only after we are first loved by others. We love ourselves because we see ourselves through God’s eyes, as beloved by God. I cannot love my neighbor as myself unless I see my neighbor, too, as beloved by God.

I’m not so special.

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2 Responses to “And for many”: a Lectionary Reflection

  1. Sounds like a good way to look at it.

  2. Andrew says:

    I remember someone (C. S. Lewis?) suggesting that “love your neighbor as yourself” as meaning something like “give your neighbor the same benefit of the doubt as you always give yourself,” but this post makes me wonder about the reversal of that notion: “love yourself with the same well-wishing but basically disinterested view with which you love your neighbor” (because you’re not so special). I’ll have to think more about this – thanks!

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