Last revised: September 12, 2014
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PROPER 11 (July 17-23) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 16
RCL: Gen. 28:10-19a; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
RoCa: Isaiah 44:6-8; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43
In 2014, I am continuing to reflect on the Gospel Reading, even past the time of preaching it. One thing that has struck me this time around is how the Second Reading might aid an interpretation of this parable:
…for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:20-21)
The master let an enemy sow suffering into the good creation, with the hope and expectation that it would be sorted out in the harvest. One day all suffering will be gathered up and done away with. Until then, trying to sort the good from the bad only adds to the suffering.
This latter point in amplified by Mimetic Theory, especially when complemented by Richard Rohr‘s understanding of Contemplative Spirituality as an unthinking of dualistic thinking. (See his recent book Silent Compassion.) The parable could also be read, in fact, as portraying the results of our fall into sin in terms of the dualistic thinking that comes from the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent sowed the weed of dualistic thinking. God created us in God’s image, as creatures who are able to experience the Oneness of all creation in imitation of God’s loving desire. But instead we bit the apple of catching desire from our fellow creatures in ways that lead to the dualistic thinking of judging everything good or evil. We’ve bitten the apple of trying to sort the wheat from the weeds before the harvest of God’s love, and it destroys that which is good, too. What the enemy has sown is chiefly the desire to sort wheat and weeds that itself becomes the number one reason for suffering. The creation longs for the children of God to get their act together. We need to learn to pray in the Spirit — the kind of prayer that teachers like Rohr are helping to revive — so that things work together for good (Rom. 8:26-30).
But this reading only deals with parable itself in vs. 24-30. The interpretation which Jesus offers in response to his disciples query is a whole other ballgame. I see no slight-of-hand ways to read verses 36-43a as anything other than standard apocalyptic thinking that deeply imbibes in dualistic thinking. What can we make of that? I see three options:
- Jesus himself subscribed to such dualistic thinking and so the reading we suggested above is simply wrong. Obviously, this is the least attractive option.
- Matthew has gotten it wrong and added a later allegorical interpretation that basically undoes what the original parable was meant to do. To accept this option prompts questions about how much else Matthew has gotten wrong in his Gospel. Do we discount him, for example, every time he throws in his favorite line about “weeping and gnashing of teeth”? (Matthew uses this phrase six times: Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30. Luke uses it once at 13:28, which is closest to Matthew’s first instance in 8:12. Was this a phrase from Q that Matthew chose to repeat five subsequent times?)
- Matthew is correctly recounting an instance of Jesus intentionally answering in a misleading way — in this instance, to his disciples in private, in exasperated answer to their lack of understanding, but confident, too, that they will have the means later to correct it. They will witness Jesus letting himself be plucked as a weed.
This third option might be an example of James Alison’s more general reading of the parables (see the references to James Alison’s work on Matthew last week) as examples of being able to read them in two ways (borrowing Girard’s angle on Shakespeare throughout his book A Theater of Envy). Jesus speaks to two audiences. In the instance of this parable he gives a more clear indication of its meaning; and then the explanation is offered in a clever way that might be interpreted both in terms of the decisive, violent judgment of conventional human culture and its subversion from within by God’s Culture (“kingdom”).
We crave bloody sacrifice; God gives us mercy. Matthew’s Jesus has already told us twice, quoting Hosea 6:6 (“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”):
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)”But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. (Matthew 12:7)
The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds means to counsel us against our habit of ‘condemning the guiltless’ by learning God’s mercy. When those who should be learning this by now ask for an explanation, we might imagine Jesus shrugging his shoulders and giving them something they can understand, a properly human drama with the happy ending of the bad guys getting it in the end — if we read it solely in the conventional way. But we have also shown above that the explanation might be read from another viewpoint in which the Son of Man and his angels sift out the kingdom precisely by suffering the fires of human judgment on purpose (my translation of biazetai in 11:12) — in other words, God’s judgment on our human judgment. Thank heaven, that judgment comes as mercy through suffering the violence and not by furthering it!
The typical Girardian handling is represented by Alison‘s notion of subverting from within the apocalyptic imagination into the eschatological imagination of Jesus, pruned of its violence in relation to God. There are still the violent images there, because humankind is violent, but God is progressively distanced from that violence. The vision of God’s judgment moves toward seeing God hand us over to the consequences of our own violent reciprocity, one which God breaks and begins to subvert from within in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. In commenting, for example, on one of the parables in Matthew 13 that follows the parable of the wheat and weeds, Alison says,
In the case of the parable which I quoted for you, how would it be if instead of information about the end it were rather a teaching about how to live in the here and now, in the time before the end. In that case, the function of the story is a little different. Instead of furnishing us with details of a judgment after death, it is rather an insistence on not exercising any type of judgement before death. When he says: “There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” let us not take it as a threat, but as: “Leave it for another to cause wailing and gnashing of teeth. Let it be there and not here. Do not you exercise any sort of judgement or separation between good and evil people now. In this way you will be building the kingdom of heaven.” It wouldn’t be a bad exercise to attempt a re-reading of other parables following this formula, and before the end of this book we will be doing something similar with the parable of the sheep and the goats. For now let this slight example suffice. But please note once again in what Jesus’ technique consists: it consists in introducing a little subversion from within into the normal imagination, so as to open out our horizons a little with respect to who God is and what are his ways. (Raising Abel, pp. 84-85)
Isnt the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds also very much a parable of how to live in the here and now? (Link to an excerpt of this whole section on “The Preaching of the Kingdom.”)
There remains the question of why Jesus would risk a double message. Could it be part of his vocation as one in the line of Hebrew prophets? A handicap to making this double reading of the parable’s explanation is the fact that the verses which best support this argument are the only verses we don’t cover in these three weeks of covering Matthew 13:1-52. The two sections of verses missing from the lectionary are:
Matthew 13:10-17 — Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 15For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.’ 16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.Matthew 13:34-35 — Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” [this latter phrase providing the title to Girard’s magnum opus].
In short, the lectionary has skipped the two passages which might be the key to the whole chapter, namely, the passages which might explain Jesus’ double-edged explanation of a perfectly brilliant parable by explaining why Jesus used parables — in both instances quoting the prophets, Isaiah 6:9-10 and Psalm 78:2.
This is an example, in short, of how even the disciples are confounded by the parables until after the resurrection. Matthew takes Mark’s account — which, remember, is harsh to the ‘insider’ disciples (see last week’s offering, especially on Tolbert’s theses) — and does some shaping. Does Matthew reverse Mark’s harsh treatment of the disciples? I don’t think so, though he may be more subtle in his rendering. Mark’s parallel scene to Matthew 13:10-17 has the narrator open: “When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables” (Mark 4:10). Mark doesn’t quote for us their words, only the narrator’s account of a question being asked. Notice that Matthew records their question in their own words: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (my emphasis added).
Let’s return to last week’s parable again briefly. Especially with Barbara Brown Taylor’s eloquent rendering, we emphasized that the parable is about God’s gracious sowing over all kinds of soil. It’s about God’s unifying grace, not our divisive ways. But Matthew’s verbalizing of the ‘insiders’ question in 13:10 shows Jesus’ listeners’ immediate denseness: they make it about them. In the parable, we have a Sower whose abundant sowing seems to indiscriminately gloss over the differences we like to hear about. In Jesus’ explanation of the parable it seems to give them exactly what they want to hear, a judgmental focus on all the differences by focusing on the soils instead of the Sower. Moreover, before the explanation of the specific parable, Jesus gives them a general explanation of using parables which already plays right into the “us vs. them” ways reflected in their question in 13:10. And with tragic irony to boot. The disciples are the ones closest to the parable-giver. They get to see and hear everything firsthand. They are truly “blessed” in that regard (13:16). But are they also the ones who so hearing and seeing fulfill the prophecy: “‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive'” (13:14)?
I would propose that Matthew adds to Mark not only a second expounding on the opacity of parables (Matthew 13:34-35 is unique to Matthew) but also a second perfectly good parable to which Jesus gives what can be read as either a horribly “B-movie” explanation or, for those who understand the parable, the subversion from within of that conventional human drama. The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds would seem to clearly say, ‘Don’t fall to the temptation of playing ‘us vs. them’ games; it only gets people harmed or killed. And the explanation seems to give the hearer the ‘us vs. them’ game right back in dramatic form (with a weeping and gnashing of teeth for the bad guys, no less) — with only what is normally seen as an eccentric reading holding the possibility of subversion. But it is the reading seen through the lens of Christian revelation, the cross, where the Messiah has let himself become one of them.
But answering why Jesus would employ intentional misdirection with his sense of prophetic vocation only pushes the question further back. Why does God allow confounding or ‘hardening’ of hearts? To some extent, this is an ancient Jewish way of seeing God at work behind everything. If we are continuing to not get it, it’s because God is hardening our hearts or closing our eyes and ears. Ultimately, we may see this as God’s nonviolent, gracious way with us. To too quickly disavow human beings of our cherished views can be too violent of an act itself — especially if we understand with Mimetic Theory that too suddenly removing sacrificial containment of mimetic violence can quickly lead to an apocalyptic outbreak of that violence.
So the biblical story features God’s patience all along the way to first meet us where we are and then to act to slowly subvert the sacrificial solution from within. Abraham still hears the voice of the sacrificial gods commanding him to kill Isaac; the Angel of Yahweh intervenes just in time to turn him away from child sacrifice — but not yet altogether from blood sacrifice by providing a ram. Moses in the wilderness seems ready to move God’s people beyond sacrifice to a community based on Torah with the Living God; but they revert to sacrificing to the Golden Calf and sacrificial cult becomes part of Torah. God also relents when the people of Israel mimetically desire kings to preside over the sacrificial cult like all the cultures around them. Yet Yahweh raises up the office of prophet to stand as another voice that persistently begins the theme of giving up sacrifice altogether (of which Hosea 6:6 is an instance). It is finally with Yahweh’s Messiah that the break with sacrifice becomes permanent and complete, but only at the cost of letting the Son become the Lamb of God sacrificed to our human need for scapegoating brands of peace. It is finally with the gracious move of the cross and resurrection that sacrifice is once-and-for-all subverted from within to be the way of loving self-sacrifice. If Jesus on the way to the cross offers an explanation of a parable to his not-yet-ready listeners which may be read in two ways, we might consider it one of God’s last moments of patience before the final revelation in the cross.
In other words, the point of these things being hidden from us is that we cannot possibly have our eyes opened to look at something so terrible about ourselves unless we are already forgiven for it. Perhaps, it is the kind of interpretation that only becomes completely clear to us with the advent, through the work of the Paraclete, of a Christian anthropology, the kind of anthropology which has eluded us until anthropology itself was ready to be invented. Now that it’s invented, we can finally have the anthropology revealed in Christ more fully revealed to us as anthropology. We can begin to more consistently make the true distinction between human violence and divine grace.
1. Tony Bartlett, the sixth study in a series on Second Isaiah (on 43:14-44:8). These studies are among the finest examples of how Mimetic Theory is a key to opening the revelation of Scripture.
2. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, pp. 404-5, 502.
3. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #4.
4. Andrew Marr, “Adoption as God’s Children” (online article).
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 17, 2005 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
6. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren (whose next book will have a significant Girardian component) suggests a theme for making a unified reading of Romans that I think works well — namely, Jews and Gentiles being able to live together in Christ, who is “the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). See the citation on this book in Proper 4A for a more complete description of the theme and McLaren’s Seven Move outline for Romans. This passage comes within his Fourth Move: Unite all in a common struggle and a common victory, illustrated by two stories: the Story of Me and the Story of We (Rom. 7:7-8:39), of which he writes:
The resonances here with previous circlings are obvious and strong (especially with 5:1-11), with one new metaphor added: adoption, rendering Jews and Gentiles siblings in Gods one family as well as fellow citizens in Gods one kingdom. Once again Pauls mind naturally follows a course from forgiveness (justified in 5:1, no condemnation in 8:1) to relationship (peace with God in 5:1, children of God in 8:14), to suffering (boast in sufferings in 5:3, suffering with him in 8:17), to victory and reward (hope does not disappoint and love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit in 5:5, be glorified with him and the Spirit bears witness with our Spirit in 8:16-17). I find these parallels strong and moving. The points made in previous moves are truly glorious, but they shine even more brightly here, as Paul expands the scope of suffering and reward and glorification, seeing all of creation groaning in empathy and anticipation with this new humanity in Christ one new humanity, one new kingdom, articulated in we and us. (pp. 151)
7. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship after Campbell’s dismantling of justification, showing Paul’s language of justification to be a secondary way of speaking for Paul when in debate with a version of Christianity that is conditional in its grace. And because we misread Romans 1-4, Protestantism has often lapsed into the conditional grace that Paul is trying to undo. Paul’s primary language of unconditional grace is a language of deliverance elaborated in Romans 5-8. This is now the definitive book that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page.
8. N. T. Wright: this is an important passage for Wright’s Easter theme of New Creation; there are several important places to check: The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10, on Romans; The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, Resurrection in Paul (Outside the Corinthian Correspondence),” sec. 7 on Romans, most specifically pages 257-59; Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, multiple places (check index), but especially pp. 103-4. Here is the latter passage on “New Birth”:
This brings us to Romans 8, where we find a further image deeply embedded within the created order itself: that of new birth. This passage has routinely been marginalized for centuries by exegetes and theologians who have tried to turn Romans into a book simply about how individual sinners get individually saved. But it is in fact one of the great climaxes of the letter and indeed of all Pauls thought.
In this passage Paul again uses the imagery of the Exodus from Egypt but this time in relation not to Jesus, nor even to ourselves, but to creation as a whole. Creation, he says (verse 21) is in slavery at the moment, like the children of Israel. Gods design was to rule creation in life-giving wisdom through his image-bearing human creatures. But this was always a promise for the future, a promise that one day the true human being, the image of God himself, Gods incarnate son, would come to lead the human race into their true identity. Meanwhile, the creation was subjected to futility, to transience and decay, until the time when Gods children are glorified, when what happened to Jesus at Easter happens to all Jesuss people. This is where Romans 8 dovetails with 1 Corinthians 15. The whole creation, as he says in verse 19, is on tiptoe with expectation, longing for the day when Gods children are revealed, when their resurrection will herald its own new life.
Paul then uses the image of birth pangs a well-known Jewish metaphor for the emergence of Gods new age not only of the church in verse 23 and of the Spirit a couple of verses later but also here in verse 22 of creation itself. Once again this highlights both continuity and discontinuity. This is no smooth evolutionary transition, in which creation simply moves up another gear into a higher mode of life. This is traumatic, involving convulsions and contractions and the radical discontinuity in which mother and child are parted and become not one being but two. But neither is this a dualistic rejection of physicality as though, because the present creation is transient and full of decay and death, God must throw it away and start again from scratch. The very metaphor Paul chooses for this decisive moment in his argument shows that what he has in mind is not the unmaking of creation or simply its steady development but the drastic and dramatic birth of new creation from the womb of the old.
Reflections and Questions
1. I think that Romans 19-21 are an underappreciated key text:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
How many Christians still cling to the picture of God planning everything? Someone is stricken with cancer and they profess, “God must have a plan for me.” Yes, I believe that God does have a plan for one’s being able to respond to suffering like cancer. But I don’t believe that God planned the cancer itself. My text is the above: God subjected creation to futility, things like the random contraction of cancer. Why? The answer for me is in the seconf part of the passage: the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Can there be freedom on the level of complexity of human beings if there is not randomness and chance on the simpler levels of creation? I don’t believe so. So why is freedom so important that God would allow creation to be subjected to futility? Because God is Love. Paul begins Romans 5-8 with the love of God poured into our hearts and ends it the declaration of nothing being able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Love requires freedom because the Lover cannot force the Beloved to love in return, or it simply isn’t love.
2. Is the Gospel Lesson for today a contradiction of God’s subjecting creation to futility? Jesus says that an enemy sowed the weeds into the field, and the explanation names the enemy as “the devil.” Paul doesn’t name the one who subjects creation to futility. Some have said it’s the devil; most commentators these days assume it’s God. I agree it’s God for the reasons above. But I’m not sure what to make of Jesus’ parable. Is Jesus’ parable not about the entirety of creation but about the human world only? In the latter case, Mimetic Theory would agree that an enemy, diabolos/Satan, sows evil into the human world of fallen desire and the scapegoat mechanism. It is not Manichean. The enemy is not on the level of God the Creator. The enemy is on the anthropological level only; the enemy is a power that arises out of our fallen relations. But in that case, we might still say with Paul that God has subjected creation to futility by allowing the anthropological arising of the enemy — which is why creation awaits and groaningly longs for the redemption of the children of God. We are the key to New Creation, and the Son of Man, the Human Being, is the key to our redemption.
3. Suffering is an underappreciated theme in scripture. (Though this is probably more true for the imperialistic Christendom that is dying away; cultures and peoples that are on the underside of empire do not underappreciate the theme of suffering.) Romans 5-8 begins with boasting in our suffering and ends with the profession of hope in the face of suffeirng on a cosmic level, the suffering of the whole creation. The three weeks beginning last Sunday (Proper 10A) provide a good opportunity to preach on suffering. In 2011, this is what I did beginning with a sermon on the Parable of the Sower entitled “The Good Soil of Suffering.”
For the second in the series on suffering, using this Romans 8 text, I turned to Brian McLaren’s recent book, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words. McLaren’s book is masterful once again, mapping out our spiritual journey in four seasons: Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony. And each season uses three simple words. I found his chapter on “Help” in the season of Complexity to fit the Romans 8 text for this week. I use a quote from the book, and then the second half of the sermon basically uses many of McLaren’s words edited to fit the 2011 sermon, “Wading into the Deep Water: The Mystery of Suffering.”
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 21, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
2. René Girard, Things Hidden, p. 160ff. Matthew 13:35, Jesus’ quote from Psalm 78, constitutes the title of this Girard’s master work. Compare Matthew 13:35:
This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’
With Luke 11:50-51 (par. Matt. 23:34-35):
so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.
The phrase “foundation of the world” in these two passages links what is hidden with the founding mechanism of violence. In the Bible we have right under our noses the key to understanding what God is trying to say to us, but we still so often fail to hear it and understand it. Link to an excerpt of this section on “The Curses against the Pharisees.”
3. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 43. At the end of the following excerpt, the wheat and tares parable is used as an illustration of the process of God being pruned of violence in the human imagination, a process that begins with Jesus’ experience of God as having nothing to do with death.
Now it is my claim that what we have in the New Testament, which is the apostolic witness put into writing, is the evidence of the change in imagination which was produced in the disciples as they began to leave behind the ‘futile mind’ and ‘senseless heart’ proper to those whose vision is bound about by death, and as they began to be possessed by the same imaginative perception of the deathlessness of God that had been at work in Jesus. This is, in fact, a huge change, which occurred in their case, as it may in ours, very slowly, since it is the whole of human cultural perception which is being altered. So we are going to examine quite closely some of the changes of vision which come about in the degree to which it becomes clear that God is entirely without any relation to death: that death is for God something that is not.
The first step: God pruned of violenceIn the next chapter we’re going to look at the way in which Jesus was himself empowered by his own imagination being centered on the completely deathless effervescence of God. However, for now suffice it to say that, thanks to his imagination fixed on God, Jesus was able to move toward death without being moved by death, or, as the epistle to the Hebrews describes it, in a quotation which I hope will become familiar to you: “for the joy that was set before him, he bore the cross, despising the shame…” (Heb 12:2). This was not, of course, something that the disciples could begin to understand while they were accompanying him, since death was for them, as it normally is for all of us until we begin to understand the Gospel, the definitive stumbling block.
Let us try to imagine what this means in terms of the imagination which we normally have with relation to God. If your mind is absolutely quickened by the effervescent vivacity of God, then you can speak the sort of truth and reveal the sort of injustice which may well provoke people into killing you, since for you, unlike for them, truth is not decided by the survivors, or the victors, but could well be what it was claimed to be by the one who was killed. This, of course, can simply not be understood at all by those who do not share your perception of God. Their angle onto God still perceives him as in some way involved in death, for example by punishing or rewarding people with misfortune or success. So, if you are killed by a group of people, then it must have been God’s will, and what you did and who you were has to be defined from your final failure: if Jesus died as a transgressor, then it must be because a transgressor he was. That means that what God thinks of you is a function of what the humans who have brought you to your end think of you. God is completely involved in violence: it is human hands which carry out God’s murders.
If, on the other hand, God has nothing to do with death, then death is only a purely human cultural reality, and no reflection of what you did and who you were. This means that what is good is in no way defined by death, and you are free to act in a way which doesn’t respect the limits of good and evil which are imposed by living in the shadow of death. Now, try to imagine the kind of shock which befalls those who are entirely bound in by death, and whose vision of God has not been freed from shading into death, when someone who was killed under the system of death, apparently punished by God, and certainly considered to have been the purveyor of a falsified vision of God, suddenly appears again, beyond death.
If we begin to imagine this shock, then we’ll have done almost all the work which is proper to Christians who do theology or who try to understand God to some degree. For this is exactly what happened to the disciples at the resurrection of Jesus. God’s whole project, including the deliberate mime and mise-en-scène of the undoing of death, was possible because Jesus was working out of an imagination which was simply not tinged by death, so that he could work beyond it. The first thing, then, which happened to the disciples as they began to understand, was the complete shake-up of their vision of God. They began to be possessed by a totally different perception of God, the perception which Jesus had had during his life.
In the first place this change of perception meant that God was indeed as Jesus had claimed: brilliantly alive, and completely without reference to death. It also meant that all other human attempts to describe or define God are wrong, and that every form of moral life is inadequate, because it doesn’t go beyond death.
It is very difficult for us to imagine the huge change of perception underway here, but it could be described as the change from a perception of a god in which the deity has a double face, saying “yes, but…” or “yes, and no”, or “yes, if…”, to the perception according to which God only and unconditionally says “yes”. Another way of putting it is as a change from a god who is both good and bad, who loves and who punishes, to a perception of God who is only love, in whom there is no darkness at all. Jesus had begun to teach this to his disciples, but it had been incomprehensible to them until after the resurrection. Consider Jesus’ teaching that God makes the sun to shine on good and bad alike, and causes the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. This has the effect of removing God completely from the sphere of reference of our human morality, excluding him from any participation in judging and condemning humans. The same thing happens in the parables: we are not to separate the wheat from the tares (Matt 13:24-30) in this life, because we cannot judge adequately, and God’s judgement has nothing to do with our own. The same with the parable of the fish caught in the net (Matt 13:47-50). Exactly the same point occurs in Luke 13:1-5: there is no link between any type of physical happening, or accidental death, and God’s action, but those who think that there is are trapped in an understanding of God which is meshed in by death, and they had better repent or they too will perish. (pp. 40-43)
5. Below are my notes on Robert Farrar Capon‘s The Parables of the Kingdom. It’s not strictly a Girardian reading, but it is one I draw on quite a bit in preaching this text.
- First, from Ch. 8: “The Weeds”: On the practice of doing nothing to pull weeds: “Maybe Jesus was just not as good a gardener as he was a carpenter.” … The Greek word sperma is only used only four times in the NT to refer to the thing planted in farming; most of its uses refer to the progeny that comes from seed, such as the “Seed of Abraham.” … The parable’s main point is not eschatological redress of wrongs, but present forbearance of them.
- The Greek word for the “weeds” is zizania, which usually referred to a specific kind: darnel, which is an annual grass that looks a lot like wheat. In other words, it’s hard to tell the difference. All our attempts to get rid of evil will end up like the farmer says. All they will accomplish by their frantic pulling up of weeds is the tearing up of the wheat right along with them. Worse yet, since good and evil in this world commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings, the only result of a truly dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.
- This shows just how clever the evil one is. All he did was to sow the seeds, then he can rely on good-meaning folks like the farmer’s servants to do the real dirty work. Mostly, he depends on the forces of goodness, insofar as he can sucker them into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work. He simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him. Goodness itself will in the name of goodness do all and more than all that evil ever had in mind.
- The most remarkable word in the parable you have to see in the Greek: aphete. “Aphete [let, permit, suffer] both to grow together until the harvest. The other major meaning of this word in the NT is “forgive.” On hearing that the farmer’s answer to the malice of the enemy was yet another aphete, one might well grasp the Holy Spirit’s exalted pun immediately: the malice, the evil, the badness that is manifest in the real world and in the lives of real people is not to be dealt with by attacking or abolishing the things or persons in whom it dwells; rather, it is to be dealt with only by an aphesis, by a letting be that was a forgiveness, that was a suffering — that was even a permission — all rolled into one.
- For those who like an eschatological judgment, it comes in the last two-thirds of the final verse where the weeds are finally gathered at the harvest and thrown into the fire. But the rest of the parable — Matthew 13:24-30a — is entirely about the aphesis of evil, not about the avenging of it.
- And from Ch. 10: “The Interpretation of the Weeds”: Jesus’ allegorical interpretation of the parable poses a problem: he takes a parable that was only tangentially about the eschatological solution to the problem of evil and turns it into a full-fledged parable of judgment. Frankly, it’s a flatfooted and trite allegorization. Many are delighted with this juicy judgment scene. Those who find it problematic have several basic options in dealing with this problem: the most popular option these days is to simply count it as inauthentic. Jesus didn’t say it. It’s the product of some third-rate mind whose forte was beating people over the head with the self-evident. (But this solution might also be troubling: does one say that St. Matthew himself was this third-rate mind?)
- If one says that Jesus did say it, then there’s two options. Either he can be excused for having a bad day (maybe it was early in his career?), or one finds a good reason for why Jesus knowingly offered it. Capon opts for the latter. It’s a matter of throwing a dominical doggy biscuit to his audience, of giving in and giving them what they hear — what they want to hear, anyway. His own disciples push him into saying more about what it means, so he finally gives them what they want to hear. “O . . . kay,” he says to them, “You’re dying to mess up my point, so I’ll mess it up for you. That way you get two parables for the price of one: the first is mine; but this second one is all yours.” They are honest in saying they still don’t understand, so Jesus responds, “Yes, you don’t understand,” and then tells them only what they are prepared to hear.
- In favor of this option is how thick Jesus lays on the allegory, even telling us that the harvesters are angels. Also, there’s the very last line, which can then be taken as a devastatingly ironic note: “All those with ears, hear!” (Which points back to the difficulty in understanding Jesus’ parables that he himself points to in quoting Isaiah 6.)
6. In 2008 I was privileged to hear someone else preach on this difficult text. Pastor Ron Starenko preached a wonderful sermon that goes well with a Girardian perspective. (He also was pastor at my home church when I was growing up, so it’s possible that his preaching helped prepare the way for my becoming ‘Girardian.’) Here are several main points (my elaboration of what I heard):
- The central point of the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds itself (as opposed to the explanation) would seem to be that we multiply the evil when we try to identify evil and weed it out. (See my comments on the opening sentence of Walter Wink‘s Engaging the Powers below.) When we try to identify the enemy and act in judgment, the cartoon character Pogo’s famous statement generally comes true: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.“
- The dramatic judgment scene of the explanation is a more difficult matter. But if we interpret it in the context of Matthew’s Gospel there is a primary judgment scene that happens before the end-times: the cross of Jesus Christ in which he becomes one judged ‘of God’ (wrongly by human beings, of course) and himself suffers the fire of judgment. To add layers of insight from the perspective of Mimetic Theory, we might come to see the explanation of the parable as portraying the judgment of the Son of Man as the following: when his angels “will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin [skandalon, scandals] and all evildoers [tous poiountas ten anomian; lit. “doers of lawlessness”],” it happens precisely through exposing it, first on the cross and then through subsequent witnesses (martyrs), “the angels of the Son of Man.” The causes of sin and evil may be identified as our human attempts to weed out evil, so that this evil is judged by the Son of Man suffering it on the cross in order to expose it. This very much fits two of the strategies in reading this Gospel I suggest during the year of Matthew:
- A key verse in Matthew’s Gospel is 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Even when Jesus speaks in the conventional language of judgment, the kingdom of heaven might be represented through those who are suffering the violence. We see the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven especially in the cross of Jesus, followed by all disciples who are willing to be martyred — willing to suffer violence before they will inflict it. In our time, the exemplary disciples have been people such as Gandhi (who did very much base his nonviolent resistance on the Sermon on the Mount) and ML King, Jr., who continue this form of ‘judgment.’ For more on 11:12 see Advent 3A.
- Verse 11:12 becomes crucial to interpreting many of the judgment parables in Matthew. An excellent example is the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14; see Proper 23A, where the “Christ figure” is interpreted as the man without the proper wedding gown at the end who is thrown out in the darkness for “a weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Similarly, the explanation to the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds might be read with the angels of the Son of Man as being thrown into the fire where there is a weeping and gnashing of teeth. Crucial is 13:42: “and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Who does “them” [autous] refer to? Through our human filters of conventional judgment, we assume it’s the “scandals and doers of lawlessness.” But look at 13:41-42 together: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” What if “them” are the Son of Man’s angels who collect out the scandals and lawless ones precisely by letting themselves be judged and thrown into the fire — as the Son of Man first did himself on the cross? This is admittedly an unusual way to read the explanation. But does it fit the notion that Jesus sometimes spoke very cleverly in terms that can be interpreted in both ways, namely, as conventional judgment or its subversion from within? I think that Pastor Starenko is onto something important in making sure that we see Christ as suffering the judgment first for us — not God’s judgment on us, but, in the terms of the parable itself, our human forms of judgment that multiply the evil and end up identifying the enemy as us.
- Another important aspect of Matthew’s context is the last parable, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, in Matthew 25. Are the Sheep and Goats parallel to the Wheat and Weeds? Or (I might add to Pastor Starenko’s question): are the “angels of the Son of Man” (13:41) parallel to the “least of [the Son of Man’s] brothers and sisters” (25:40)? Those who are typically judged least by human kingdoms and suffer greatly for it (“a weeping and gnashing of teeth”) — the hungry, the imprisoned, the stranger, etc. — become the pivot for judgment in God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. (This, of course, becomes a good gateway to make an appeal for an organization such as Food for the Poor.)
- Then the righteous will bloom as “sunflowers.” I would add an important insight by N. T. Wright here, linking the righteous shining like the sun as one of the few references made by Jesus to resurrection by alluding to Daniel 12:3: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel also being the source for the “Son of Man” terminology). If we do read the “angels of the Son of Man” as those martyred in human fires of judgment, then they are also the resurrected righteous who shall someday shine like the sun.
7. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 30, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
9. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay on this passage in 2014, “Jesus the Rejected Cornerstone Among the Weeds.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Walter Wink begins his book Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) with these words:
One of the most pressing questions facing the world today is, How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?
That first week after the September 11 bombing, as everyone was talking about the comparable shock of Pearl Harbor, I couldn’t stop thinking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A terrible evil had befallen us in the attack on Pearl Harbor, yet how much did we get pulled into that evil to unleash the nuclear nightmare of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese began the war with an attack that killed 2500 people, mostly military men; we ended the war with two attacks that killed 250,000 people, mostly civilians, women, children, and the elderly. As we contemplated our response to Sept.11 those first several weeks, I wondered how we could respond to this evil without creating new evils or being made evil ourselves.
2. The Girardian anthropology poses this question of Wink’s not just as a question for today but one that humanity has faced since the foundation of the world. Mimetic theory poses that what ends up making us human is our way of responding to the presence of evil in our midst. Mimetic desire falls into escalating mimetic rivalry and the thing which saves us from the evil in our midst is a mimetically contagious accusation that binds us together (the Latin religare, the root to “religion,” means bind together) to weed out the evil among us. Thinking ourselves righteous and good, we actually use a righteous, sacred violence to rid ourselves of the unholy, profane violence. But it is only the Gospel and the Paraclete which has eventually taught us that both these forms of violence are violence, and thus perhaps in the same category of evil. So, in that sense, Wink is correct that it is a modern (or even post-modern) question, since coming to see our righteous violence as evil is that thing most hidden from us since the foundation of the world. We are only now beginning to recognize our righteous violence as less distinct from other violence more consistently, and so we are just now learning to ask, How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?
3. This, it seems to me, is precisely the question that Jesus is posing to us with the parable of the wheat and the tares. Yes, somehow there is evil sown among the wheat, but how can one respond to it before the harvest without creating the new evil of tearing up wheat along with the weeds? An enemy comes during the night and sows an evil. But then we are always tempted to create a new evil in our response to it. The enemy can quickly come and go because it is then us who really do the dirty work. From the perspective of mimetic theory, we might even come to see that our solution is more evil than its provoking problem, the cure worse than the illness, for we solve initial problem of mimetic rivalry with collective murder.
4. This is also the meaning of the first “parable” (only Mark calls it such) of Satan casting out Satan (Mark 3:23-30). (There are parallel sayings in Matt. 12:25-37 and Luke 11:17-23, but neither use Mark’s parabolic question of, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”) Girard (The Scapegoat, ch. 14, and I See Satan, ch. 3; see also “My Core Convictions,” Part I.5) shows how Satan is first the enemy who sows the temptations of mimetic rivalry into a community, creating chaos, and then is also the Accuser who instigates the response to evil, binding it together again. Satan casting out Satan is the satanic game par excellence. It is trying to weed the tares out from the wheat. But as Jesus makes clear in the former parable, this can only make for a kingdom divided against itself, which is exactly the state of all human kingdoms. They can never stand forever because they rely on some expelling mechanism, on some form of weeding out that ultimately spoils the harvest. What has been hidden from us since the foundation of the world is that our form of communion, of binding together, is actually an unholy one. The only Holy Communion is formed around the Forgiving Victim of our unholy communions.
5. In past years, I have used the idea from recent exegetes that the parables always make a twist on the conventional meaning of the metaphors used, e.g., a sower who sows on unprepared ground and then yields an amazing harvest. For this parable, it meant highlighting the unexpected practice of not weeding your crop (see the 1996 sermon below). But I’m having second thoughts with this parable. Isn’t a field of wheat different from many other crops when it comes to weeding? It grows with no open spaces, with no orderly rows, like tall grass blanketing a field. And many of the weeds that may grow up within it might not look all that different from the wheat. Jesus might truly be representing a situation in which it is very difficult and unrealistic to pull weeds without plucking up some wheat with it.
In which case, the point of this parable might be similar to Romans 3:22b-25a:
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.
In other words, matters of sin and evil are not as distinct for us as we might think. We are always, since the foundation of our human worlds, thinking that we know the keys to recognizing good and evil (the temptation of Gen. 3!). But it’s not as simple a matter as we think. It’s like trying to pick weeds out from a field blanketed in wheat. Those under the influence of the victimage mechanism, acting on the satanic accusation — which is all of us! — always think we can pick out the culprits and eliminate them. It took Jesus being put forward as one sacrificed to our efforts at weeding, the Lamb of God, to begin to take away this Sin of the world.
6. This parable about not addressing the evil sown into our midst until the harvest is unique to Matthew, who also uniquely has Jesus say, in his Sermon on the Mount words against retaliation, “Do not resist evildoers” (Matt. 5:39a) in the Greek, me antistenai to ponero. The key verb here is literally “stand against,” histemi and anti: anthistemi. In the imperative with the negative me, “Do not stand against.”
Walter Wink makes the translation of this phrase the key to his whole argument in chapter 9, “Jesus’ Third Way: Nonviolent Engagement,” of Engaging the Powers. Is the me antistenai of Matt. 5:39a a counsel to passive submission in the face of evil? Wink says “No.” He has two bases for his argument. The first is that the three ensuing examples, interpreted as he prescribes — turning the left cheek to be struck as an equal, after being backhanded as an inferior on the right cheek (Matt. 5:39b); shaming the person suing you for your cloak by giving him your undergarments, too, and standing naked before him (Matt. 5:40); and making the Roman soldier look bad by carrying his pack a mile past the legal limit (Matt. 5:41) — are examples of active engagement, not passivity. The second basis for not interpreting antistenai as passive, says Wink, is the great frequency of its use as a military term. In other words, antistenai supposedly most often has the connotation of aggressive, violent resistance. Thus, Wink chooses to translate Matt. 5:39a as, “Do not violently resist evildoers,” which leaves the way open for his third way between fight or flight, i.e., “nonviolent engagement,” or nonviolent resistance. The historical examples he wants to lift up are those of the freedom movements led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., which he wants to characterize as “nonviolent resistance” instead of “passivism.”
What I think counts against Wink is the primary example of the New Testament, the Passion of Jesus Christ. Can the Cross be characterized as nonviolent resistance? Can this still be characterized as a third way, even if it isn’t the kind of nonviolent resistance that Wink is arguing for? It isn’t fighting, and it isn’t flight. It is a deliberate handing himself over into the hands of evil men, the Lamb of God to the slaughter. But can this be characterized as nonviolent resistance? I’m not sure.
Girardians have tended to read Matt. 5:39a more on the passive side, a more literal rendering of Matthew 5:38-42 as nonretaliation, as breaking the cycle of vengeance by instead choosing the way of forgiveness. See, for example, Girard‘s Things Hidden, pp. 196ff.; and Alison‘s The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 144-145. Here is a portion of a paragraph of Alison’s comments on the Sermon on the Mount in the context of talking about skandalon:
This world of drastically sinful desire is treated as a relational reality: Jesus is not talking about some sort of wicked desire locked into the solitude of an individual person which must somehow be exorcized. He is talking about a deformation of relationality such that we are scandalized by each other, and give scandal to each other. This can be shown by the remedy: freedom is to be found by not allowing oneself to be caused to stumble by the evil done to one: one must not resist evil, one must go the second mile. There is only one way not to be locked into the scandals of this world, and that is by learning to forgive, which means not allowing oneself to be defined by the evil done. It is quite clear from Jesus teaching that he considers humans to be locked into a certain sort of reciprocity, which it would be wholly consistent to identify with the skandalon, and that he teaches the way out of that sort of reciprocity into a wholly new sort of reciprocity. This new sort of reciprocity is made concrete in forgiveness and other acts of not being trapped by the skandalon, and in this way is able to begin to imitate the perfect gratuity of the heavenly Father, in whom there is no skandalon. (p. 145)
Alison here does characterize a “third way,” I think, under the category of freedom. There is a choice to be made in our relationships with others, even with “evildoers.” But I would not characterize this choice as “nonviolent resistance,” but rather as forgiveness. Instead of being scandalized by someone else’s evil actions and reciprocating with a form of retaliation, one breaks that cycle with actions representing forgiveness.