Last revised: August 8, 2020
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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
Opening Comments: In Honor of Rep. John Lewis (1940-2020) and C. T. Vivian (1924-2020)
Courageous disciples of Jesus passed away yesterday, both who followed in the way of nonviolent resistance to evil as the only true way to peace — the way through a process that can truly lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. In a Headliners episode on John Lewis, he tells of a South Carolinian former Klansman coming to him to apologize. The man had been among those who beat Lewis and other student “freedom riders” taking buses through the South in the early 60’s. In expressing his sorrow for what he’d done, he began to weep and so did Lewis. They embraced. Lewis comments after recounting this incidence, “That is the power of the way of peace, the way of love, the power of the philosophy of nonviolence.” (The minute Headliners trailer highlights this portion of the episode.) C. T. Vivian was also a central figure in the Civil Rights Movement, one whom Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the greatest preacher to ever live.”
Contemporary Civil Rights leader Rev. Dr. William Barber II, who is reviving Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s Poor People’s Campaign, articulates the conciliatory aim of nonviolent resistance, as “winning the opposition as friends”:
The greatest threat to our coalition was not the power of our opposition. They could threaten us. They could hurt us. They might, in their blind hubris, even try to kill some of us. But they could not, in the end, deny us. Because ours was a moral struggle, we knew we would win if we didn’t give up.
The only question was how long the fight would go on — which was why the greatest threat to our coalition was the temptation to forget what we had learned about our identity. A nonviolent struggle has two possible ends: winning the opposition as friends or giving up the battle. Though our coalition included the full spectrum of North Carolina’s diversity, we had come to recognize a common vision for our future in the history of the South’s antiracist freedom movement. Our relationships with one another were not simply transactional — a means to achieve our various organization’s goals. They had become transformational, lifting each of us to a new understanding of our interconnectedness as human beings and living members of one family. None of us would be free until all of us were free. Thus, the slave’s anthem became a battle cry even for the daughters and sons of former slave owners: “Before I’d be a slave / be buried in my grave / and go home to my Lord / and be free.”
The self-knowledge that allowed each of us to sing an old slave song was what we could not forget. For as long as we identified with the oppressed and excluded, we could not be distracted or bought off. The stone that the builders rejected had, indeed, become our capstone. However long the distances between us, the magnitude of our chasms of division, we could trust that that arch would hold so long as we kept the rejected at the center. (The Third Reconstruction, pp. 93-94)
Nonviolence resistance also requires the extraordinary courage of willingly taking the place of “the rejected at the center” of a violent mob, the place that Jesus took in his Passion. It requires believing in the “kingdom of heaven” as “choosing to suffer violence” (Matt 11:12; see my commentary at Advent 3A) on behalf of those who are the rejected in any community, society, or nation.
I believe that Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel par excellence of nonviolent resistance. This might seem shocking, since his Gospel has significant episodes of God / Jesus apparently supporting violence. The allegorical interpretation of the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds, verses 36-43 in this week’s Gospel Reading, would seem to be a case in point. Jesus surprisingly pivots from a parable whose point seems to focus on not judging in this life, before the harvest (verses 24-30), to an interpretation that focuses on the harvest itself, seemingly giving us a picture of the judgment in the afterlife that fits the ‘traditional’ view of eternal punishment. But Matthew’s Gospel is also the one that gives us teaching that begins with the Sermon on the Mount — Mahatma Gandhi‘s main inspiration for nonviolent resistance — and ends with the judgment on the nations by the criteria caring for the least in the human family — the rejected and neglected. And I maintain that Matthew alone tells us straight out the kingdom of heaven is about choosing to suffer violence, to intentionally take the place with rejected (again, see Advent 3A). I believe that this verse — “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has chosen suffering violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11:12; my translation) — is the biblical statement of nonviolent resistance and the key to interpreting Matthew’s seemingly violent passages.
Let’s put that proposal to the test with the day’s Gospel Reading, especially the troubling allegorical interpretation. Before we examine the latter, though, we should begin with the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds itself. This text strikes me as a portrait of the Us-Them structuring of of human thinking and thus of the way we order our societies. We see the world in terms of Us-Them, good-evil, wheat-weeds. We think we can so order ourselves by privileging the good at the expense of the evil. The lives of the good simply matter more, and all the institutions in a society are structured to elevate them. The lives of the evil are devalued, dehumanized, and are sacrificed in the ancient sense.
Sound familiar? In the past five hundred years as white people violently colonized the much of the world, this has been the structuring of White Supremacist Racism in all European/American societies. We have seen the world in terms of wheat and weeds, valuing white lives above all others, thinking we can order our community by separating out the weeds. Jesus’ parable says “No.” Wait until the harvest when we will be shown the true nature of the field. As racism and fascism raise their ugly heads again in our midst, we can see this parable as crucial to calling into question all authoritarian power — power that beguiles the crowd to fear the other, fear those ‘weeds,’ and promises to deal with it violently in the way of a strong man.
One thing that has struck me in recent years 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 is amplified by Mimetic Theory, especially when complemented by Richard Rohr‘s understanding of Contemplative Spirituality as an un-thinking (verb not adjective) of dualistic thinking. (See his 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 (Gen 2:17; 3:1-7). The serpent sowed the weeds 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 in terms of 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).
The strategy parabolized by sorting out the weeds from the wheat in the here and now of course has real world consequences. It is enculturated at the core of Original human culture — its problematic nature being the thing hidden from us since the foundation of the world (Matt 13:35, Jesus’ last statement before offering the ‘explanation’ in the second half of this lection). Even 2000 years after Jesus’ cross and resurrection unveiled this thing-hidden, followers of Jesus remain blind to it. We continue to follow the way of the authoritarian strong man who comes with a plan to allay our fears of the Other. White people continue to be ‘fragile’ and do everything we can to avoid honest conversations about White Supremacist Racism. The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds continues to stand in testimony both against the age-old human way and in invitation of God’s Way in Jesus Christ, the offer of the End of Us Versus Them. We live in that end-time of the birth pangs between the original human way and God’s Way. Come, Lord Jesus Christ, Come!
(For an excellent sermon on the parable itself which makes use of these insights, see John Davies‘ “Jesus the satirical gardener on the road to the future of God.” He does not deal with the ‘explanation’ of the parable, which is an arguably good choice for preachers. I, however, venture into that knotty problem next.)
Do we now dare to deal with the allegorical reading? The interpretation which Jesus offers in response to his disciples query appears to undo this reading. It seemingly offers nothing 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 of the parable 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. In fact, this latter anticipation of what is to come might offer the key to a positive nonviolent reading — a reading in light of the kingdom of heaven choosing to openly suffer the violence of being sorted out as weeds.
So, first of all, 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 the original 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”).
In anticipating the harvest, we crave bloody sacrifice of those we deem enemies; the cross shows us that God will instead give 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 are also suggesting from the above reading of the parable itself that the allegorical 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 Matt 11:12; see Advent 3A) — 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 in the allegorical explanation because humankind is violent, but God is progressively being distanced by Jesus’s overall message 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 through 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 [Parable of the Net], 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)
Isn’t the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds also very much a parable of how to live in the here and now? (See the wider section from Raising Abel on “The Preaching of the Kingdom.”)
An important phrase is thus Jesus’ characterization of the harvest as “at the end of the age” (13:40). The traditional Christian eschatology of recent generations hears this as the rapture or the day of judgment that leads to the faithful entering into heaven. In the New Reformation we are learning to hear such phrases differently. The end of the age actually begins with the coming of the Son of Man which Matthew definitively places in the Passion: “Jesus said to [the high priest], ‘You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.'” “From now on.” The new age of God’s coming kingdom was beginning right there and then. The end of the old age was also beginning. In short, the harvest was upon us in the death and resurrection of Christ, in which Jesus lets himself be plucked as a weed and the cross and God raises him as a judgment of merciful forgiveness.
Another key is Jesus’ use of the “Son of Man” image in this allegory: “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” (Matt 13:41-42). The Greek for the end of v. 41 is, “panta ta skandala kai tous poiountas tēn anomian,” which might be more literally translated as, “all causes of stumbling and those causing lawlessness.” We might say that the Son of Man is revealing skandalon and the end of the law as that which causes human suffering under sacrificial violence (“fire”). Human history is full of times of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” — the result of human violence, not God’s righteous justice of mercy that make God’s children finally to “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt 13:43). When Jesus lets himself be plucked as a weed on the cross, it will be a time of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” for the disciples. And then on Easter and with the coming of the Spirit, it will be a time to look back on this private moment with Jesus, as he gave them what they wanted to hear when they could only hear judgment on their enemies, and they will be open to repent and hear it as a word of merciful judging on their judging.
Matthew is amplifying Mark’s parables in Mark 4 by adding two things: (1) a second expounding on the opacity of parables in Matthew 13:34-35 (unique to Matthew and containing the title Girard chose for his magnum opus Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World), which adds to what comes between the Parable of the Sower and its interpretation (Matt 13:10-17 and its parallel in Mark 4:10-12); but also (2) another pairing of a good parable with Jesus later giving an explanation that can be read akin to a predictable “B-movie” or, for those who understand the parable, the subversion from within of the conventional and predictable 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.
Considering why Jesus would offer ambivalent, potentially misleading allegories can further be placed in a wider biblical context where God allows 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, however, we may see this as God’s nonviolent, gracious way with us. To too quickly disavow human beings of our cherished views might be considered as 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. Quick example: God ultimately means to divest us from ritual blood sacrifice altogether, but in Gen. 22:1-14 we see God taking the first step only, by providing a ram for Abraham’s sacrifice instead of Isaac (see Proper 8A).
In short, 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 within the scientific approach to knowledge — a knowledge which itself seeks to know simply what is, rather than continuing to bite from the apple of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Now that scientific knowledge is part of our human journey, 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.
And with disciples like John Lewis and C. T. Vivian, the parables of God’s gracious forgiveness in the face of our sacrificial violence are now acted out in the flesh, through movements of nonviolent resistance. To end where we began, recall the Klansman who later asked for Lewis’s forgiveness. His beating of Lewis was an acting out of trying to sort out the weeds from the wheat, when his heart was still hardened. Lewis’s choosing to put himself in a situation of being beaten was the subversion from within of that violence which opened the way to forgiveness and reconciliation many years later. We live at another pregnant moment in history, I think, when the many nonviolent protestors of the Black Lives Matter movement are following in the footsteps of Lewis and Vivian to open the possibility of further repentance for White America to be more decisively healed of its enslavement to White Supremacist culture.
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.
1. This is a clear statement of monotheism — there is only one true God. It seemingly rules out Manichaeism. But then it raises questions for the other two readings of the day. Who is the one in Rom 8:20 who ‘subjects creation to futility’? And who is the “enemy” in Matt 13:25 (the “devil” in v. 39) that sows weeds into the field? This is where MT helps with its anthropological interpretation of Satan and the devil, not as powerful deities on a par with the God of Jesus, but as powers transcendent to human being that arise out of human evolution itself.
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 78-79. He comments on how Nathaniel’s vision in John 1:51 is the same as Jacob’s ladder in this Genesis passage, except that now Jesus has become Jacob’s ladder:
To this authentic son of Israel [Nathaniel] there is promised the same experience, but with the difference that there is no ladder swung between heaven and earth, or rather, the Son of man, that is, Jesus, is himself Jacob’s ladder.
Here at the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus explains to a group of witnesses what will be the centrepoint of their experience in the terms we have seen: by accompanying him they will learn to see heaven open and angels ascending and descending on Jesus. His whole project for them is explained in this line, everything we have been looking at. The opening of heaven will be the making accessible of the Father who knows not death, and the presence of Jesus as risen victim, by means of whom heaven stands open and there begins that flux of heavenly riches and abundance for those who perceive him as the access to the Father.
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 74, 192. Alison cites Rom. 8:18-23 in support of his reading John’s gospel as “Opening Up Creation” (excerpt).
2. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, pp. 404-5, 502 (Book 4 of 4). In a ground-turning essay on “Prayer” (Essay 9), he opens with a shift in praying with an awareness that we are moved by desires from outside of us. The animist cults operated with such an assumption, but they had a different sense of whose desires we may pray to animate us. Alison quotes Romans 8:22-27 and then offers a paraphrase with some comments:
To paraphrase: “We are part of a new social other that is being brought into being, painfully, in the midst of the collapse of a dead-end way of being human. This new social other is being brought into being through our learning to desire it, which is something we want, but are very poor at articulating. The tension of being pulled between two sorts of social other is absolutely vital for us — and what enables us to live it is hope. Given that we don’t know how to desire and express our desire, the Spirit is Another other desiring within us without displacing us so that it will actually be we who are brought into the New Creation.”
Please see what Paul and the animists have in common: the understanding that we are more desired-in than desirers. And that this is, in itself, neither a good nor a bad thing. It is just what we are. The difference between the animists and the Hebrew question is not whether we are moved by another, but by which other are we moved? For “spirits,” idols and so forth are merely violent disguises by which the social other moves us, such that those spirits temporarily displace us, make us act “out of character” and trap us into being functions of themselves, usually demanding sacrifice. Whereas the Spirit of God is the Spirit of the Creator, and thus is in no way at all a function of anything that is. Quite the reverse, everything that is is a function of the Creator. The Creator is not in any sort of rivalry with us, and is thus able to move us from within, bringing us into being, without displacing us.
Let us not be fooled by a difference of language here: traditionally we refer to spirits possessing people, and there is, in the word “possess,” a note of violence concerning the relationship between the spirit and the person possessed. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, we refer to the Spirit indwelling, or inhabiting the person, words without any connotation of violence. However, please notice that the human mechanism of being moved is the same in both cases. What is different is the quality of the “other” that is doing the moving. (405-406)
In Essay 11, “A little family upheaval,” Alison references the Burning Bush episode of Exodus 3 to introduce the notion of “secondariness”:
the more time we spend in the presence of “I AM,” the more we are aware that not only we ourselves, but everything that is, is shot through with what I might call “secondariness”: we catch a glimpse of ourselves as real, contingent, alive; we catch ourselves reflecting back that we are held in being by something prior to us, something that is not at the same level as ourselves at all, not in rivalry with anything. This “secondariness” is not a form of diminishment, or being put down, but an accurate and objective sense of createdness, something which can in fact be relaxed into with gratitude. (483)
He relates several examples of this “relaxing into” with stories of people learning to laugh at themselves, and writes,
they found themselves undergoing a hugely healthy shift in perception such that who they are doesn’t start with them. Each of them starts to receive themselves from what is other than themselves, freely, and in a way which opens them out. And furthermore, each of them comes to perceive that this receiving of themselves through the eyes of others is something objective, real, and to be grateful for. Exactly because they are receiving themselves through the eyes of what is other than themselves, they glimpse that their own knowing, their own perceiving, formed as it is by that experience of receiving, is peripheral, is a symptom of something which doesn’t start with them. In other words, there is a certain dependence — that “secondariness” I mentioned earlier, if you like — which corresponds to who they are, to their place in the world, to their way of learning about people and things. This secondariness does not go along with any sense of being “second-rate” or “only second.” Rather it is accompanied by a sense of relief, and of a possibility of opening out. They will be finding themselves becoming more than they had thought. Elements of their past which had seemed central and sources of fixity, if not fixation, are being relativized, and other elements of their past which had not seemed to be of importance or worth are gradually turning into having been, all along, unexplored, rich foundations for a direction, an achievement and a shared flourishing that is only now beginning to open up. (486-87)
This sort of personal opening up prepares us for the kind of shift that the Gospel offers: being part of not just a sort of moral repair job for human beings — our sins forgiven — but much bigger that we are called to participate in nothing less than a New Creation. Alison writes,
When we talk about what Jesus came to do, did and is doing in our midst, we are talking about what comes upon us as an alteration of the axis of Creation rather than as a resolution of a moral problem. Our being brought close into the life of God by Jesus living out being a forgiving victim in our midst has this as its effect: that we perceive simultaneously where we used to be heading, into an ever-shrinking world run by revenge, envy and death; and where we are instead finding ourselves drawn: into being forgiven, forgiving, and thus being opened up into true, insider knowledge of creation as it unfolds dynamically. (493)
His main development of this insight works with the Passion-Resurrection accounts of Luke and John (read the entire essay for the full flavor!), but in the middle of that he briefly mentions that Paul makes the same point in his own language, quotes Romans 8:18-23, and comments,
I hope you can see the sense of living on the cusp of two realities: creation is referred to as something which has been opened up and which is drawing us in to it with great zest. And at the same time as something which turns out to have been spinning round and turning in on itself in futility, unaware of what it was destined to become. The axis-turning moment, which is the present moment, in which we are living, feels like an upheaval full of suffering, which is in fact an act of childbirth. Through it, the Creator, “I AM” is bringing into being secondary I AMs, sons and daughters, the “gods” we were promised we would be, as our very bodies are drawn into being insider sharers of the life of God. (502)
3. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #4.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 17, 2005 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
5. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren 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). This theme coincides with my own choice for the clearest statement of the Gospel in Ephesians 2: grace manifests itself chiefly as God creating one new humanity in place of the two. This is the context for McLaren as well, since this chapter comes as his response to one the “Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” Question #5 is, “What is the Gospel?” (chap. 14). For more on this centrality of this question and its answer, see my Opening Comments for Proper 6A.
Chap. 15 is McLaren’s reading of Romans in light of the Gospel as Jesus’ Kingdom of God manifesting itself as Paul’s bringing together of Jews and Gentiles. 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 God’s one family as well as fellow citizens in God’s one kingdom. Once again Paul’s 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)
6. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship for those who take seriously Campbell’s dismantling of justification, and his arguing that Paul’s language of justification was 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, according to Campbell, 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, in my opinion, that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page. The most controversial thesis involves his contention that Paul used the Roman rhetorical convention of Diatribe, meaning that it contains Paul voicing his opponent’s views within the text of Romans which we thus need to sort from Paul’s own views. In short, for twenty centuries after Paul delivered this letter to the Roman church, training the carrier to read it properly in two voices, subsequent generations have read two opposing views in the text all as Paul’s view only. I find this thesis compelling and vitally important; here is my own explanation and plotting of the opposing views in a translation of Romans 1:1-4:3.
7. 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 Paul’s 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. God’s 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, God’s 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 God’s children are glorified, when what happened to Jesus at Easter happens to all Jesus’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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.
9. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 209, 297-98. This passage has only glancing reference but in two very important paragraphs, the first on the Trinity:
The Trinity shows us that a person is not a rugged individualist. Rather, a person is relationship. No relationship, no person. Our analogies with stories and music help us again here. The words of a story or a poem have very little meaning individually, but words take on much meaning in relationship to one another. The same is true with individual notes in music. An isolated note makes little sense, until it is joined to other notes and then becomes a song or a symphony. A triad is made up of three notes, but it is one chord. The Persons of the Trinity hold nothing back from one another, and ideally neither should we with one another. Trying to grasp our non-existent individuality is like trying to grasp a story or a song or the wind. If we are to be ourselves, we must let go as the Persons of the Trinity are always letting go. When we let go, we are free to go where we are sent, whether it is halfway around the world or — as is most often the case — to the person next to us. Receiving our identity in Christ opens up a whole new dimension for taking responsibility for our lives as it did for Paul. (Rom. 8:15-17) Once we have received an identity in Christ, we can belong with other people without being submerged in the group. In Christ, we have the grace to see when the group becomes persecutory and can call the group out on it. This is good because we can’t get on without living with the desires of others. We still have to belong with our families, political parties, countries, and churches. But more fundamentally, we belong to Christ and Christ’s desire, and that makes all the difference. (209)
And a crucial paragraph on eschatology:
I have already discussed how sacred violence has lost its ability to hold humanity together since the death and Resurrection of Jesus. This failure puts all of us in peril of an uncontrollable meltdown. Jesus describes such a possibility in the verses that follow the presence of the Kingdom among us with reference to the Flood and the destruction of Sodom. (Lk. 17:25-30) In Battling to the End, Girard discusses Clausewitz’s analysis of war as a duel that becomes an “escalation to extremes.” (Girard 2010,1-25) The attacks on 9/11 and, even more, the violent aftermath of counter-attacks, make this escalation crystal clear to all of us. As I write, some politicians are being granted the headlines for engaging in inflammatory rhetoric, causing many others to react with furious denunciations of certain ethnic and religious groups. This gives us the mirroring effect where we mirror the inflammatory rhetoric some are giving out When we do that, the violent speakers mirror our violent rhetoric back to US. So we end up with an escalation to extremes, two extremes that look exactly alike. In all this, we can feel, with St. Paul, that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” (Rom. 8:22) Creation continues to groan and we with it. Unfortunately, some preachers seem to revel in such destruction, hailing it as ushering in God’s “kingdom,” but their frantic pointing all over the place is precisely what Jesus said is not the Kingdom. God is not in the fire of an empire’s implosion. God is not in the burning of the earth and fouling of the waters as described in Revelation. (Rev. 8:7-11) It is not possible for me to conceive of God wishing in any way for the unmaking of Creation. God was not in the fire or the earthquake when Elijah sat in the cave. God was instead heard as “a sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19: 12) It is in this sound of sheer silence that the Kingdom of God is among us, even in the tumult of a world going crazy with mimetic rivalry. What brings this space of sheer silence into the Kingdom? Simple acts of giving a cup of cold water to the least of God’s people, so that these acts can mirror each other in an escalation of giving. The Kingdom is present when we share desires constructively with one another and with God’s desire. In this respect, the Kingdom of God is a present reality, so far as we reach out to each other in solidarity rather than rivalry. (297-98)
10. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “The Escape Clause.”
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 second 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. V. 30: “Let both of them grow together until the harvest…,” NRSV; in Greek: aphete synauxanesthai amphotera heōs tou therismou. The word aphete is the imperative of aphiēmi, the basic Greek word for “forgive,” but also has the meaning of “allow,” “permit,” “release,” “let go.” It is an occasionally used phrasing to use aphete in the imperative with a second verb in the infinitive, as is the case here with synauxanesthai. But more common is to simply use the main verb in the imperative. In this case synauxanō could be used alone in the imperative to read, “Let them grow together.” So is Jesus subtly slipping in the theme of forgiveness here? The Greek could be translated, “Forgive both to grow together until the harvest.” How much does it add to the parable to see it as basically about forgiveness?
2. V. 25, the basic terms in this parable of sitos, “wheat” or “grain,” and zizania, “weeds.” Some scholars say that zizania may point more specifically to darnel, a weed that looks very much like wheat or other typical grain plants. The illustrations show darnel on the left and wheat on the right. Couple this with the fact that wheat typically is not sown in furrows but simply broadcast throughout a field. How does one begin to sort the weeds from among the wheat is such a situation? Jesus may have chosen these terms purposely to indicate a nearly impossible situation. Even the terms of the agricultural practice would seem to dictate waiting until the harvest.
3. For the second week in a row the Lectionary skips over verses between a parable and an allegorical interpretation. This time the omitted verses include two short parables, those of the mustard seed and of the yeast, but also another explanation of why Jesus’ spoke in parables, this time by Matthew himself and not Jesus: “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 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'” (Matt 13:34-35). One might ask (next week?) if the two short parables help to understand this week’s parable and its allegory.
4. A passage relevant to this one might be a couple chapters later in 15:10-13. When the disciples tell Jesus that the Pharisees were offended by his comments on purity laws, Jesus responds, He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit” (Matt 15:13-14). This seems to be an instance of the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds, with the sense that the Pharisees and their followers will be “uprooted” by suffering consequences for their actions. But Jesus also gives his disciples the same counsel as in the parable, “Let them alone.” It adds another short parable, that of the blind leading the blind.
1. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 110-11, 118, 147, 284. There is a rather full treatment of this parable on pages 110-11. Overall, Marr has an excellent overview of the Parables informed by Mimetic Theory in this excerpt “Parables” (pp. 108-14). The other brief mentions of this parable cited above are each worthwhile. On p. 118, for example, he comments,
The more Jesus is faced with refusal, the more threatening his teaching becomes, with the imagery of weeping and gnashing of teeth becoming prominent. We have seen this in the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, and we will see it in the Parable of the Evil Workers in the Vineyard as well. Given this refusal, Schwager suggests that Jesus is not threatening us with divine vengeance but is warning us of the built-in consequences of rejecting the free gift of forgiveness. Our rejection leaves us with the cycle of vengeance as old as humanity. This is the sandy soil of a persecutory society. This point is important because we easily let the threatening passages cancel out the teachings on non-retaliation and forgiveness.
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. See the wider 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 violence
In 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)
4. James Alison, Raising Abel; the section “The Preaching of the Kingdom” comments extensively on the wider context of Matthew 13 (see last week, Proper 10A).
Also, James offers a video homily for Proper 11A (Ordinary 16); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. Last week was about the parabolic method itself: why it’s important that people should learn who they are from within, being plowed over, as how we are going to be part of the change as signs of the kingdom. This week’s reflections on the parable begins with the exegetical note I bring out above: that this brand of weed looks very much like the wheat.
Overall, the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds is a perfect example of Jesus having what Alison calls the “Intelligence of the Victim.” The enemy has created a tendency for focus on the difference from the Other, a situation that typically leads to good vs. bad and justifying sacred violence. It preempts the key insight: how similar we are to each other, which should give us pause about trying to anticipate the harvest, when the harvester will decide good from bad.
The Catholic version of the Gospel Reading goes right on through, so Alison addresses the intervening parables which are skipped over in the Revised Common Lectionary (held to next week). The parable of the Mustard seed has a background in Ezekiel 17:1-5:
The word of the LORD came to me: O mortal, propound a riddle, and speak an allegory to the house of Israel. Say: Thus says the Lord GOD: A great eagle, with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors, came to the Lebanon. He took the top of the cedar, broke off its topmost shoot; He carried it to a land of trade, set it in a city of merchants. Then he took a seed from the land, placed it in fertile soil; a plant by abundant waters, he set it like a willow twig.
Jesus takes something big from Ezekiel and makes it quite small. The same is true of the yeast. The point is to instead of looking for the big things in the places of apparent power, look to yourselves, the small people on the margins of power as the source of real change in the kingdom of God. Yeast also dies in the baking, a sign of self-giving in the kingdom.
For the interpretation of the Weeds and the Wheat, Alison focuses on the word skandala (v. 41), much as I did toward the end of the opening essay above. When we let ourselves get caught up in skandala, it leads to violence and suffering, a weeping and gnashing of teeth. Hopefully, we will let the Son of Man take care of things and patiently refrain from getting caught up in skandala, in the meantime — the point of the original parable.
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).
8. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2014, titled “Let Anyone with Ears Listen“; a sermon in 2017, “Let Anyone with Ears Listen!“; John Davies, a sermon in 2017, “Jesus the satirical gardener on the road to the future of God“; Shannon Mullen, a sermon in 2017 (audio); Russell Meyer, a sermon in 2017, “Suffer the Weeds” (podcast).
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.”
10. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 21, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
11. Martin Bell, The Way of the Wolf, a chapter on the Wheat and the Tares, pp. 93-96. I read this book 30+ years ago, and this is the chapter that has always stuck with me. Bell reads it as a parable about persons — that each of us is hopelessly a tangle of wheat and weeds until God sorts us out in the end.
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.
7. It is difficult to preach on the explanation itself without getting into too many theological problems that turn into a lecture rather than a sermon. I did preach once (2014) on the phrase “Let anyone with ears listen!” But I stayed away from this particular parable and its explanation and preached more generally on a global theme of this chapter, “The Challenge of Listening to the Good News,” personalizing it with my own story. I used an ‘imagination exercise’ of myself forty years ago listening to my sermons today. What I heard as Good News then changed so much for me over the past forty years that I’m not sure I would recognize it as Good News. Also, link to sermons that attempt a Girardian reading of this text, entitled “Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World” (1996) and “Christian Faith: A Response to Evil” (1999).