Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Have You Understood All This?

Scripture for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

“’Have you understood all this?” The twelve disciples answered, ‘Yes.’”

Really? Since when? Aren’t these the very same slow wits who waited until the crowds had left before admitting to Jesus that they just didn’t get the meaning of all those parables he was telling? And that’s on occasions when he told just one parable (like the sower and seed, heard two Sundays ago, and last Sunday’s parable of the weeds and the wheat): this time he lets loose five little parables. And they have understood all this?

My take is that their Yes means really No, as in No we don’t understand a word of it—and as long as those vengeful angels are hovering overhead we’d just as soon avoid them, please… send them away!

Perhaps they understood some of these five little parablettes. But Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book “Learning to Walk in the Dark”, puts this business of understanding in perspective: “’If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God,’ Saint Augustine said in the fourth century. Sixteen hundred years later, the Northern Irish theologian Peter Rollins says the same thing with equal force. God is an event, he says, ‘not a fact to be grasped but an incoming to be undergone.’”

The nature of a parable is that there’s something surprising about it, something that makes you scratch your head and wonder what the story really says, what the figures of speech might mean. And it’s not as if there’s just one meaning: for all their brevity, parables are roomy little places and the view through one window in the room might be quite different from the perspective through another.

One surprise is that in these five little cameos, each uses a material object to talk about spiritual experience. A seed, a spore, a treasure, a pearl, a net. Is this the tool kit you would assemble if you were an itinerant preacher?

Sure, if they match your audience; and Galilee was rural country occupied by farmers and fishermen and their families. Oh, and they were dirt poor. No material wealth, but Jesus finds a wealth of matter to use in order to speak to poor farmers and fishermen and their spouses and children. He knew what he was doing, not just announcing the kingdom of God but practicing its credo that things are to be used and people are to be loved—quite the opposite of the kingdoms of this world, in which things are loved and people used.

And notice how Jesus’s parables pose increasing degrees of challenge. The mustard seed and the yeast spore get us recognizing that God gives the growth: neither requires much from the human beings who scatter the seed or mix in the yeast. Does this represent entry-level Christianity? Discipleship 101?

But then come those two more complex sketches: Someone finds treasure hidden in a field, then checks with his local realtor and, joy of joys, finds the field is for sale (well, not for long!) but it takes selling all he owns to purchase that field.

The companion piece to that sketch is another, of a merchant dealing in pearls, discovering one that is so valuable he just has to have it. He too, like the last fellow, must sell everything he has to own this pearl. In the progression of faith, this represents commitment, sealing the deal, owning the gift.

So far, in his first two parables Jesus invites our awareness that ordinary everyday life is underwritten by amazing grace, matter imbued with the power to grow. Then, in his next two parables he invites our recognition that what is worth most to us requires that we choose it. (After decades of praying, I know nothing better, when praying for people, than to pray that they see and take their best choices, and avoid their worst.) And what is most worth our treasuring and our valuing above all else? Another way of asking that: What deserves our worth-ship… our worship?

Can you feel the escalating of challenge here? To each of the twelve men he called to accompany him in his itinerant preaching journeys, he said something along the lines of, “Come, follow me…” And while he wasn’t yet rocking the boat enough to summon women into that road trip (law and culture forbade that), it was just a matter of time before the apostolic band would include Mary and Martha of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene, and more… for his parables speak to everyone, including us.

And yet they aren’t about us. They are about the kingdom of God. They aren’t about self-improvement: they describe the incursion of God into human life, the ongoing transformation of a me-and-mine-first world into what St. Paul calls “a large family” presided over and shaped by Jesus Christ, the firstborn of many who have come to know themselves as children of God. In his powerful little sayings he calls us to welcome in our hearts daily the eternally shifting paradigm from the old way, in dread of an angry God whom we could never satisfy, to the Spirit who helps us in our weakness, searches and knows us and calls us into intimate gracious inseparable union with God in Christ.

Probably best not to say much about understanding this divine call. Rather, hearing and obeying this call is what matters. The Bible makes clear that this call will come in a still small voice, one that grows on us, one that must be listened for in order to be heard. Hence the mustard seed and the yeast and the hidden treasure.

The hidden treasure and the exceptional pearl express this choosing to listen. And what about the net that catches fish of every kind? Remember how he says to his recent recruits from the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

So the net is the Word, the message of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, the call to choose to follow, to belong, to serve, to lead.

Parables Jesus has told earlier in Matthew—parables we’ve heard on the past two Sundays-- support the idea that the Word that Jesus embodies is going to land on people differently (that was the parable of the sower and the seed), but all who hear the Word are given opportunity to yield a harvest for God. And yielding is the whole point. Becoming part of God’s great chain of self-giving is what the Word invites us to embrace. And, if you’ll recall that parable with all its varying conditions of soil, the fruitful hearer of God’s Word is the person whose bumper sticker reads, “Manure Happens: Use It!” Into each life manure must fall: learn how to fold it in so it will break down and build up, creating good soil useful to God.

Then last Sunday’s parable endeared itself to all us backyard gardeners: the weeds that sprout among the wheat cannot be pulled without uprooting the intended good. “An enemy has done this!” (the cry of the farmer when he discovers his best laid plans have been interrupted by life)… isn’t that exactly how it feels, when you’re doing battle with bishopsweed or wood anemones or that awful faux morning-glory… when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Those little stories help make sense of the net Jesus throws today. He catches all our theories, all our interpretations, all our hopes, and simply does not relieve us of the necessity to keep scratching our heads in order to comprehend the mind, the will, the purpose of God. Angels despatched from heaven to separate the evil from the righteous, consigning the evil to a furnace of fire? What is that about?

Is that how it felt in the earliest centuries of the church, when the Roman emperor and his henchmen brutally persecuted innocent Christians because they called Jesus their king? Was Matthew giving voice to our ancestors who were itching for justice to be done, consigning the ruthless to a miserable end, the more so the better?

And in the aftermath of those persecutions, when many Christians compromised their faith and placed in the fire that pinch of incense that quietly expressed consent to worship the emperor (so as to escape death at his hands), was Matthew expressing the dilemma faced by the church community divided between those whose loved ones had paid the ultimate price for their faith and those who were living a double life?

Perhaps, in settings like those, angels despatched from heaven to set things right is an answer we too might understand.

However, our actual setting in life requires of us a compassionate use of what is old, as we accept the call of God to help bring out of God’s treasure what is gracious and just from the past, in service to what is needed now in new fresh manifestation of grace and justice.

Have we understood all this? Well, yes. Becoming part of God’s great chain of self-giving is what the Word invites us to embrace. Learning how to yield requires learning how to fold into our lives much that we would rather reject. Yet the call is to comprehend, to make room for opposites to live together in peace.

(Barbara Brown Taylor's "Learning to Walk in the Dark" is published by Harper One, 2014.)