Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mixing Metaphors for the Kingdom of God

Bible readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost include Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

St. Luke sure does know how to mix his metaphors. Purses for heaven. A bridegroom waiting on his servants. A watchful homeowner. “The kingdom of God is like this— and it’s like this—and like this!”

That’s how our Gospels read, in part the result of enthusiasm, and in part the result of how they came to be. Today’s portion is like a short string of pearls, one image follows another; and while each is different from the next, they’re alike in that they teach us about the reign of God on earth as in heaven. That is what strings the pearls. And Bible scholars tell us that the Gospel writers inherited these pithy teachings, short stories, brief parables, and little jewels of illustration from earlier collections of sayings of Jesus. Each Gospel writer assembles them somewhat differently. One Gospel has what another lacks. Details color the same story differently at the hand of St. Luke than in Matthew’s or Mark’s versions. It appears that this is how inspiration works when the Spirit of God moves with one purpose through the minds and hearts of diverse artists, to reach the imaginations and wills of many more diverse hearers and readers.

Each pearl on the string is a gift of good news. And, if it’s a pearl, it’s also a product of irritation, the result of what a creature can do with a grain of sand caught in its craw—or whatever that part of an oyster is that, like a womb, transforms a fleck of intrusion into a thing of beauty.

First, purses for heaven. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That would be, what, as opposed to selling us the kingdom of God? A silly thought, but how many times does Jesus have to say this to us, that we do not earn the love of God, we cannot buy or bargain for what comes to us as gift, grace, that amazing power of God that saves a wretch like me (and you)?

The reign of God, the kingdom of right relationship, is not for sale. But Jesus doesn’t hesitate to talk about money, does he? “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

One cannot buy one’s way into the kingdom of God. But if one has too much in one’s pockets, too much on one’s mind, one may not find or fit through the gate (oops, another metaphor). So lighten the burden of whatever wealth you’re lugging around. Give it to the poor, because it is the purpose of God to promote and prefer and relieve the poor. By your giving, you stitch together a purse, so to speak, of generosity that represents your lasting values. Where your treasure is your heart will be also, so in this purse of yours is your very soul, your most valuable asset. What you give from this purse, you give to God.

By nature, the human animal fills a purse with his or her own efforts. By human nature, we decide how to spend or invest or give what is in our purses. By the divine nature that is in us, we keep the drawstring open, we see the whole of the purse coming from God and belonging to God, the whole of the purse an instrument of letting what matters to God matter on earth as in heaven. And what flows out of this purse we make of our values doesn’t just fall to earth (as money keeps doing); it also somehow rises to heaven, perhaps the way praise and adoration and gratitude rise. This “unfailing treasure in heaven” is not, I’m sure, a 401K personal account to retire into (not that we can count on retiring on our 401K’s). I expect it’s more a way of saying that by the choices we make, day by day, we come to resonate more and more (or less and less) with the grace and purposes of God.

Clear the screen. Here comes metaphor # 2. “Be dressed for action…” like those waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so they may open the door for him when he comes home. Alert, they recognize his knock. They expect him (and his bride? and the wedding party?) to require their services at an intimate post-banquet event (you know what weddings are like, one party blurs into the next), but no! Grateful that his servants have stayed at the ready rather than drift out to the edges of the banquet hall, that they have stayed alert to him and his needs, he slips off his tux jacket, ties on an apron, and invites those servants to his own table.

I have been to a lot of weddings, and I must say it’s hard to imagine the scene Luke’s Jesus sketches in this parable. There’s a clear firewall between who’s serving and who is being served. Of course there is: it’s all in the contract, all paid for and had better be delivered.

But that’s not how God’s kingdom works. As important as those twelve disciples were (and as self-important as some of them were), Jesus calls them his little flock (of relatively helpless sheep) and implies in this parable that they ought to think of themselves as servants, even slaves, simply doing their duty. And in the kingdom of God, the master is free to turn the tables and wait on his staff. The first shall be last, and the last first. The master Jesus is remembered in Matthew’s Gospel to have said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Now comes that third pearl. It starts with true irritation: a home has been broken into, and the homeowner was away at the time. It’s the point of this little saying to state the obvious: that if the owner knew the thief was coming, the owner would have returned home in time to be ready for him, alert to every sound in the night.

If by our animal nature we defend what is ours… if by our human nature we can tell it is time to prevent injustice… then it is by the nature of God that is in us to be ready to play our part in the emergence of God’s reign on earth.

To receive the gift of God, to take our places in God’s Kingdom, to own a Christian life, we must be ready to recognize and welcome Jesus Christ whenever he comes, at however unexpected an hour and in whatever surprising, perhaps irritating, a manner.

The prophet Isaiah prepares us for the fact that this may not happen in church, not in solemn assemblies and appointed festivals. He will come in the oppressed who need rescue, in the orphan who needs defense, in the widow who needs a friend. As we consider these scriptures today, he will come in the immigrant who arrives with an empty purse but a keen work ethic and a heart filled with hope. Through fear, we may be distracted from recognizing him, may not be alert, may mistake him for a stranger trying to steal his way into our home. But if this is the Son of Man who comes, he who teaches the value of loose purse strings will cause us to treasure the gift of justice and will teach us to keep our homeland as free as we found it.

Each pearl on the string of our Gospel today is a gift of good news. And, if it’s a pearl, it’s also a product of irritation, the result of what a creature can do with a grain of sand caught in its craw—or whatever that part of us is that, like a womb, transforms a fleck of intrusion into a thing of beauty, fulfilling the purpose of God.