Last revised: August 9, 2020
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PROPER 12 (July 24-30) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 17
RCL: Gen. 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
RoCa: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
One of the central themes on these pages is that the New Reformation involves proclamation of a new Gospel. As we began Ordinary Time in 2020 six weeks ago (Proper 6A), we recounted one of Brian McLaren‘s Ten Questions in A New Kind of Christianity: “What Is the Gospel?” He shares the story of his conversion from the Protestant version of the Gospel as Justification by Faith through Grace, to Jesus’s own formulation of the Gospel as the coming of the kingdom of God. He then offers a close reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the supposed quintessential statement of justification, as instead the Gospel of the Kingdom of God through the reconciliation of divided humanity. The theme in Romans of boldly proclaiming Good News to both Jew and Gentile is what Paul considered to be the kingdom of God. The coming of God’s Kingdom means the beginning of the end to living under Us vs. Them — Jew vs. Gentile, and all the myriad ways in which we are divided.
To me, the clearest statement of this is in Ephesians 2. It begins in vv. 1-3 with disordered desire leading to us being “children of wrath” — an account of the fall into sin that’s highly resonant with Mimetic Theory. It continues with the message of grace (especially vv. 8-10), namely, God’s love in Jesus the Messiah that gifts us with salvation — the staple of the Protestant version of the Gospel. But if we read further, after the “so then” in v. 11, we get to the payoff of that salvation: “that King Jesus might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:15). In short, God is restoring harmony to creation beginning with the healing of humanity of what we are calling these days “tribalism.” No longer Jew and Gentile. No longer Us and Them. In Jesus the Messiah we are only Us.
Our Second Reading today contains probably the second clearest statement of this Gospel: “For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family” (Romans 8:29). It is Douglas Campbell‘s choice for the clearest statement of the Gospel, in his new book Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love, citing it a dozen times. After the first time, he writes,
We need to dwell on this statement for a moment, for this truth is as important as it gets. The secret of the universe and the point of the great narrative that encompasses us all is God’s plan to draw us into a community imaged and formed by his resurrected Son. The risen Jesus will have primacy but also a rather extraordinary equality with those who surround him and look like him. Everyone in this community will therefore be a “brother,” bearing the image of the Resurrected One. The grammar is masculine, although my advice for now is not to press this usage in a literal direction. It simply denotes our personhood, as we will see in more detail later on. Our destiny, then, is to be a “band of brothers,” which is to say, “a family of siblings.” This is God’s great plan that lies at the heart of the cosmos. (84)
I’d like to recommend Campbell’s new book as corroboration of what we strive for here on these pages — a New Reformation formed around fresh proclamation of the Gospel. His previous large book, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (2009), makes the negative argument first, namely, that Paul’s Gospel is not centrally about Justification, as Protestantism has proclaimed for 500 years. He realizes that he is still swimming upstream on that claim, so he takes 936 pages (plus more than 200 pages of endnotes) to painstakingly make the case. (Along the way he presents a startling new thesis for reading Romans; see my page “Reading Romans 1-3 in a New Way.”) After eleven years Campbell has finally given us, in the 744 pages of Pauline Dogmatics, his positive argument as to what the Gospel is. I’m still making my way through it and digesting it with delight, but I’m already well pleased to say that his choice of Romans 8:29 as central resonates quite well with my centering of the Gospel in Eph 2:15. The Good News in Jesus the Messiah is God intervening into our human sin of violent division to reconcile all things in him. There is no longer Us and Them. There is only Us.
So how does this preach in our current setting? The “tribalism” is obvious. Still less obvious to white folks, though hopefully changing, is that White Supremacist Racism is the way of Us vs. Them which has structured our society for 400 years. After the tragic death of George Floyd, and in honor of recently passed saint John Lewis, we are in the midst of a new opportunity to decisively dismantle this reigning power and principality that continues to bring so much unnecessary death. Especially as disciples of Jesus and the coming of his kingdom into the world, we strive forward with the hope of the triumph of God’s love:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:37-39)
1 Kings 3:5, 7-12
1. A Girardian might want to connect this story with the one that immediately follows it: 1 Kings 3:16-28, the story of Solomon’s wise decision in a dispute over an infant between two women. Girard has stated in several places that this is the passage in the Bible that first sparked and crystallized his thesis about the sacrificial logic to be found deep in anthropology, and the process of its uncovering by the biblical text. See for example: Things Hidden, pp. 237ff.
There was also an interesting development that took place over Girard’s career with regards to sacrifice, with the 1 Kings 3:16-28 passage at the center of it. When he first wrote on the passage in Things Hidden, he tended to see sacrifice in a wholly negative light. The distinction was framed between sacrificial and nonsacrificial readings of the biblical texts. But Girard’s friendship with Raymund Schwager also began at that time, and one of their long-time topics of conversation became the language to use for things sacrificial. Over time Schwager persuaded Girard that, because sacrifice is such a dominant theme in Scripture and the Christian tradition, it is better to use positive language for the kind of sacrifice of Jesus’s Passion, which is a self-sacrifice. As the Eucharistic liturgy proclaims, Jesus’s body broken and blood poured out for us.
Subsequent to Things Hidden, then, Girard began to use language of ‘good’ sacrifice and also to tell the story about how Schwager changed his mind on this, most often using this passage as an example. The woman who agrees to having the child cut in two is the epitome of the old sacrifice, a willingness to have someone else pay the price for her scandalous relationships trapped in envy and rivalry. The other woman, who we presume along with Solomon to be the true mother, is able to sacrifice her own claim on the child out of love, an example of self-sacrifice. For Girard’s later commentary on this passage, see: The One by Whom Scandal Comes, 42; Evolution and Conversion, 214-17; Battling to the End, 35; Reading the Bible with René Girard, 97-99, 112, 138; Ideas (CBC radio), “The Scapegoat,” with David Cayley, Episode 3 (about 45 minutes in); and, of course, René Girard and Raymund Schwager: Correspondence 1974-1991, 56, 62, 64, 76, 114-15, 139.
2. Following their teacher, many Girardians have also cited this passage, almost too numerous to mention. Here are a few instances where 1 Kings 3:16-28 is more than simply listed as an important passage for Girard — some of them recounting the development I’ve laid out here and others using it as an illustration of rivalry and sacrifice akin to Girard: Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats? (written at the same time as Things Hidden), 123-24, 223; Jean-Michel Oughourlian, The Genesis of Desire, 70, 111, 155; The Mimetic Brain, 168; Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, 26; Wolfgang Palaver, René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, 239-40 (pp. 231-46, an excellent section on “Self-Giving as Sacrifice”); Scott Cowdell, René Girard and the Nonviolent God, 67 (pp. 66-73, a great section on “‘Late Girard’: A New Positive Dimension of Sacrifice”); Michael Kirwan, “A New Heaven and a New Earth: Apocalypticism and Its Alternatives” (in Can We Survive Our Origins?), 321; Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, 74-75; James Warren, Compassion or Apocalypse?, 172-78 (an excellent extended analysis); and The Palgrave Handbook of Mimetic Theory and Religion, ed. by James Alison and Wolfgang Palaver, several of the essays: Mark Heim, “Approaches to Atonement: How Girard Changes the Debate,” 181; James Alison, “Eucharist and Sacrifice: The Transformation of the Meaning of Sacrifice Through Revelation,” 203-04; William Johnsen, “Mimetic Theory, Religion, and Literature as Secular Scripture,” 304-05.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2020, the examples of ‘good’ sacrifice vs. ‘bad’ sacrifice abound. Trying to indiscriminately send children back to school in a pandemic is bad sacrifice; taking every precaution to protect children, teachers, and staff before reopening in-person school is good sacrifice. Accepting that “essential workers” will die for the sake of our economy is bad sacrifice; prioritizing protection of the health of the most vulnerable by a willingness of the most powerful to accept the cost is good sacrifice. Sending more police and/or federal agents to “dominate” protestors is bad sacrifice; nonviolent protest for Black Lives Matter and economic justice is good sacrifice. And many more that you can fill-in.
2. The Hebrew Scriptures are also candid in cataloguing Solomon’s mistakes, e.g., in 1 Kings 11. He married many foreigner’s whose influence turned his heart away from Yahweh. 1 Kings 11:3: “Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart.” What a recipe for mimetic rivalry! Not very wise on his part. And the text seemingly tries to scapegoat the wives. Clearly, his wives couldn’t have turned Solomon’s own heart away from God. Solomon’s heart is his own responsibility. The wives surely had a strong influence, but how much influence, and of what variety, they had is ultimately his responsibility.
1. James Alison, Undergoing God, pp. 61ff., within Ch. 3, “an atonement update,” based on an essay also available online, “Some Thoughts on Atonement.” Many see Romans 8:31-32 — “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” — as a reference back to Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. Alison suggests a different reference, 2 Samuel 21:1-9, a story of King David needing to expiate the sin of Saul against the Gibeonites by handing over Saul’s sons to them. Alison writes,
Here King David is expiating something, offering propitiation to the Gibeonites. In other words, the Gibeonites have a right to demand vengeance, they are owed something, and David is offering it to them. St. Paul seems to know about this story since he says in Romans: “What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” (Rom 8:31-32) Do you see what St. Paul is playing with there? St. Paul is saying that God, unlike King David, did not seek someone else as a stand-in sacrifice to placate us, but gave his own son (which, for a monotheist like St. Paul, means himself) to be the expiation, putting forth the propitiation.
In the Samuel text, who is propitiating whom? King David is propitiating the Gibeonites by means of Saul’s sons. God is propitiating us. In other words, who is the angry divinity in the story? We are. That is the purpose of the atonement. We are the angry divinity. We are the ones inclined to dwell in wrath and think we need vengeance in order to survive. God was occupying the space of our victim so as to show us that we need never do this again. This turns on its head the Aztec understanding of the atonement. In fact, it turns on its head what has passed as our penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which always presupposes that it is us satisfying God, that God needs satisfying, that there is vengeance in God. Whereas it is quite clear from the New Testament that what was really exciting to Paul was that it was quite clear from Jesus’ self-giving, and the “out-pouring of Jesus’ blood,” that this was the revelation of who God was: God was entirely without vengeance, entirely without substitutionary tricks; and that he was giving himself entirely without ambivalence and ambiguity for us, towards us, in order to set us “free from our sins” — “our sins” being our way of being bound up with each other in death, vengeance, violence and what is commonly called “wrath.” (61-62)
2. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, pp. 268-69 (Book 3 of 4), in Essay 6, “Undergoing Atonement: The Reverse-Flow Sacrifice.” This essay bears a lot of similarity to the one in Undergoing God, working the same connection between 2 Samuel 21 and Romans 8.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 78ff. There’s an important discussion of verse 32: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us…” Many assume that there is an allusion here to Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. Hamerton-Kelly argues that such an assumption is amiss. It too easily fits a theology of sacrifice of appeasing the gods’ demand for satisfaction of wrath. He suggests instead the story of 2 Samuel 21:1-14, where David spares the son of Jonathan from the wrathful vengeance of the Gibeonites. Hamerton-Kelly writes:
Thus we again have an inversion of sacrifice. In 2 Samuel 21 the recipients of the ransom of the seven sons were the Gibeonites, not God. In terms of the analogy, therefore, in Romans 8:32 the son is given to human beings, not to God. It is not God’s justice but human justice, in the form of vengeance, that demands victims.
This Pauline midrash on 2 Samuel 21:1-14, in which God gives God’s own son to stop the cycle of vengeance and does not demand anything in return, but rather because of this, “cannot fail to give us everything” (Rom 8:32b), is intended to show that God does not need to be appeased like the Gibeonites. Thus we have another inversion of sacrificial violence; we are told that God does not take vengeance, but rather suffers it. (p. 79)
4. 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)
5. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 52, “God in the End” — the final chapter in the book. So the book ends with these words:
So our journey in the story of creation, the adventure of Jesus, and the global uprising of the Spirit has come full circle. It all came from God in the beginning, and now it all comes back to God in the end.
Big Bang to Big Death? Or Big Bang to Big Celebration? If the biblical story is true, it is the latter. In the end as Paul envisioned it, death is swallowed up in a great big victory, as if death were a tiny drop in comparison to God’s huge ocean of aliveness. A contemporary writer put the same insight like this: “All the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
Human speculation — whether religious or scientific — does the best it can, like a little boat that ventures out on the surface of a deep, deep ocean, under the dome of a fathomless sky. Our eyes can not see beyond the rim. Our ears can not hear the music beneath the silence. Our hearts can not imagine the meaning above us, below us, around us, within us. But the Spirit blows like wind. And so this mystery humbles us even as it dignifies us. This mystery impresses us with our smallness even as it inspires us with our ultimate value. This mystery dislodges us from lesser attachments so we sail on in hope. This mystery dares us to believe that the big love of God is big enough to swallow all death and overflow with aliveness for us all.
“Do not fear,” the Spirit whispers. “All shall be well.” That is why we walk this road, from the known into the unknown, deeper into mystery, deeper into light, deeper into love, deeper into joy. (p. 262)
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 is another important resource to consult for Romans. See, first of all, his commentaries: The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10; and his Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Romans 1-8) and Part 2 (Romans 9-16). See also The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, Resurrection in Paul (Outside the Corinthian Correspondence),” sec. 7 on Romans; and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. His ‘big book’ on Paul in his Fortress Press series “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” was published in 2013, Paul and the Faithfulness of God; the most sustained section on Romans 5-8 are pages 1007-1026. Wright’s more recent book on theology of the cross, The Day the Revolution Began, devotes more space to Romans than any other book of the New Testament, chapters 12-13; see also my review of this book, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.
8. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #4.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2011 this was the third week of a three week series on the mystery of suffering. It began two weeks ago with the thesis that the good soil in the Gospels are the times of suffering in our lives, with the sermon “The Good Soil of Suffering.” Last week, for the second in the series on suffering, I turned to the Romans 8 text and to Brian McLaren‘s 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 sermon, “Wading into the Deep Water: The Mystery of Suffering.”
This week I used Romans 8 text and McLaren’s book once again, ch. 21, on the simple word why, for the sermon “The Mystery of Suffering, Part III.”
2. In 2014, our youth presented on this Sunday (after returning from a mission trip) and replaced the lectionary texts, so we used this reading the following week with the miraculous feeding Gospel (Proper 13A). I weaved in the theme of contemplative prayer as the remedy to dualistic thinking, which is what I think we have in the scarcity thinking that Jesus challenges with the feeding miracle. Romans 8:26-39 anchors the sermon “Abundance Is a Spiritual Matter.”
3. Preaching on this passage could be an opportunity to say something in a non-funereal setting. I use the conclusion of Romans 8 quite frequently for funeral sermons. Here, on a Sunday in the midst of a serial reading of Romans, the preacher might benefit from the wider context that is too difficult to make use of for a funeral.
4. Vs. 28, “All things work for good,” sounds similar to what one often hears at the funeral home. In an effort to make sense of death, we ascribe to God’s providence a reason for every solitary event: “God must have had a reason to take your child now.” But consider this verse in context. Does it mean that each event might be deemed as “good” or as having a reason? Or does it mean that the end of all things is good? In other words, that all things eventually work for good, even if they strike us as bad, right now. It’s not that there’s a reason for every specific event. It’s that all events will eventually add up to “good.” The context of this passage, we should remind ourselves, is an entire creation groaning in labor pains of suffering. Yes, there is suffering now, but there is the hope that it is on its way to a glory to be revealed later, an as-yet-unseen hope.
And what comes after vs. 28 witnesses to a negative context. Paul is asking questions like, “What shall we say?”; “who will persecute us?”; “who will separate us from the love of Christ?” These questions reflect the experiences of persecution, suffering, and death. He also explicitly states that we are being killed like sheep led to the slaughter. But the proclaimed hope is that nothing in creation can make the suffering due to separation ultimate, because nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. I’d like to find a meaningful way to bring these questions of ultimate concern into the wider context of the whole of Romans 8 without it being simply a theological treatise. That’s the challenge.
5. Last week I ended up coming to what for me is a key insight: defining faith as a way of responding to evil. The parable of the wheat and weeds challenges us respond to evil patiently, letting it have its place in creation until the harvest. When we try to prematurely pluck it out, we end up doing evil ourselves. We pull up the wheat along with it. This passage from St. Paul seems to corroborate such a response to evil.
A story that has inspired me is that in the movie Simon Birch. Simon is a twelve year-old dwarf who suffers not only from his physical handicaps but also from the abuse of others. Yet his response to this evil is not bitterness, nor resentment, nor plans for vengeance on his persecutors. No, he chooses a different response to evil. He chooses the way of faith that keeps him confident of helping people someday. God will use him to do something heroic that will help save others, not work some form of vengeance.
I started looking into the book that the movie is based on, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and I’ve found some deeper issues there. (Apparently, there’s some controversy over whether the movie does any justice to the book, Irving himself not allowing any use of the names from the book, for example. But I found the movie to have a fair presentation of some of the books key themes. Certainly, no movie can capture all the complexities of a lengthy novel.) Now, I’m reading the book, and finding a bigger emphasis on Owen’s strong feeling of God’s providence such that everything in his life happens for a reason, including instances of tragic suffering. In the movie, his response of faith looks primarily to an ending at which all things have worked together for good. In the book, there’s more of a wrestling with all the individual moments leading up to the ending. Perhaps it will give me a foil for reading Romans 8. In any case, I recommend both the movie and book.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 83-86. In commenting on the parables of Jesus, Alison illustrates his comments primarily with the parables from today’s gospel. For more on Alison’s takes on the parables, see last week’s webpage (Proper 11A).
Also, James offers a video homily for Proper 12A (Ordinary 17); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. In the first parable about the hidden treasure, one needs to know that there were lots of rules about buying lands where treasure may have been hidden. If someone owned land and didn’t know that there was hidden treasure on it, then they didn’t own the treasure. If you found hidden treasure, lifting it out presumed that there was now general knowledge of it. So it is correct for the person in this parable to find it, leave it hidden there, and then buy the land from the unknowing owner. The kingdom of heaven is like this hidden treasure worth giving up everything else to gain. (Note: Background to Alison’s reading of this parable is J. Duncan Derrett‘s Law in the New Testament, chap. 1, “The Treasure in the Field.”)
The second parable seems the same as the first in the action of selling everything to buy something else. But Jesus changes the simile: the kingdom of heaven is not like the pearly as it is the treasure in the first parable; rather, the kingdom of heaven is here compared to the merchant. In selling everything to get this one pearl, the merchant has effectively ceased to be a merchant! The pearl now owns him, if you will. He has nothing else with which to continue being a merchant. The merchant is now completely identified with the pearl. The kingdom of heaven is like God placing a great price on us and giving up everything in order to identify with us.
In the parable of the net, there is a translation problem. It doesn’t say “fish.” It says there is a dragnet that catches up everything — in other words, a whole bunch of stuff besides fish. And even among the living things, there were some things which were edible and some not. The sorting between good and bad is then left to the angels, as it is in the parable of the wheat and darnel.
The householder who brings out the new and the old is the process of that has been described in these parables.
2. David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels, ch. 5, “Parabolic Lies, Parabolic Truth,” pp. 71ff., and ch. 6, “Training the Scribes of the Kingdom,” pp. 90ff., which focuses on Mt 13.
To repeat much of what was shared two weeks ago (Proper 10A): To understand Matthew 13, take a peek at the end. As the title of McCracken’s ch 6–“Training the Scribes of the Kingdom”–might indicate, his interpretation of Matthew 13 takes vs. 52 as a key. It’s a chapter worth reading.
If we take the whole chapter of Matthew 13, we find skandal- three times. Matthew’s Jesus uses the Greek root skandal in both explanations of parables in this chapter. The rocky soil yields those who, “when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away (skandalizo).” (vs. 21) According to the explanation of the wheat and weeds parable, at the end of the age, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin (skandalon) and all evildoers…” (vs. 41) After Jesus tells these parables, he goes to his hometown (13:54-58), where “they took offense (skandalizo) at him.” (For more on skandalon see the page “Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon.”)
This chapter falls into McCracken’s view of both parable and skandalon: they are the occasion for either taking offense or responding with faith. (He is influenced not only by Girard but also by Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.) Here is his conclusion (p. 106):
Parables do not ‘contain’ knowledge; they cannot be understood as we understand a moral tale, and argument, or a statement. Parables precipitate internal action, forcing the hearer or reader to a crisis or collision that requires movement, which in New Testament terms is an either/or: either stumbling or changing-and-becoming, either enacting a lie that we desire or being transformed.
3. For more on the Parable of the Mustard Seed, see reflections of the Gospel for Proper 6B. There, the key insight is that this parable portrays the outrageous picture of someone sowing a weed into their garden, for mustard is a weed. For Jewish folks, it definitely is not kosher to plant it with anything else; if one grows it intentionally, it must be separated from other crops. Matthew has the person sow it “in his field (agro).” (Mark has the mustard seed caste “upon the ground (ges)”; Luke has a man sow it “in his garden (kepon).”
4. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, check scripture index for scattered references to these short parables. Overall, Marr has an excellent overview of the Parables informed by Mimetic Theory in this excerpt “Parables” (pp. 108-14). But these smaller parables are cited within other reflections; for example, the mustard seed illustrates the way love works as good mimesis on p. 270.
In 2020 he offered a blog on this passage, “Sowing Parables in Our Hearts.”
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 27, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, “Jesus, the Mustard Seed“; and in 2014, “Sowing Parables“; and in 2017, “Things Hidden Since the Beginning of the World.”
Reflections and Questions
1. With Matthew 13 spliced apart in the lectionary over these past three weeks, how much of the context gets lost? Does it come through that this section of Matthew’s gospel is about Jesus’ preaching of God’s Kingdom meeting resistance? The lead parable, the Parable of the Sower, certainly conveys resistance to the Word. But do the interpretations of the ensuing parables get skewed when separated from this lead parable and the rest of the context?
The portions of this chapter which are omitted in our three week tour through Matthew 13 are crucial to that context. Jesus and Matthew explain the purpose of telling the parables in terms of the resistance to Jesus’ message. Jesus quotes Isaiah about eyes unseeing and ears unhearing; Matthew quotes the Psalmist (78:2) to say that Jesus spoke in parables to proclaim Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (Matt. 13:35). The concluding story in the chapter recounts Jesus being rejected in his own hometown of Nazareth.
There is also the aspect of what is lost by separating these parables from each other over the three weeks. We’ve already mentioned that the Parable of the Sower, as the lead parable, might be used to shed light on the others.
2. Something else extremely crucial is lost, I think, in separating the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds from the Parable of the Mustard Seed, which, in Matthew’s ordering, follow one after the other, with even the interpretation of the Wheat and Weeds coming several verses later. Here’s what I mean: the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds tells of “an enemy” who sows weeds into a farmer’s field; now follow that immediately with a parable of a someone who intentionally sows a weed — mustard! — into his own field! Can we read these two parables together without being scandalized? Or is it better to separate them and seemingly derive two quite separate meanings from them? (By the way, these two can’t be read together in Mark or Luke, because only Matthew transmits the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds.)
I would like to attempt the former option, reading these two parables together, within the wider context of Matthew’s portrayal of resistance to Jesus’ message of the Kingdom. The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds can be read as a subversion from within of our usual way to respond to evil. We think an enemy to God has sown evil into this world and that we are commissioned to root it out. Jesus says no. We aren’t as expert as we think in knowing good from evil (something hidden from us since the beginning of our human worlds, when we fell for the serpent’s temptation), and so we are prone to ripping up the wheat with the weeds. We are counseled to patiently wait for the harvest.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed immediately ups the ante by portraying a farmer who sows a weed into his field on purpose. To me, this now represents what God has in fact done in Jesus Christ. Jesus is sown into this world as one who will willingly let himself be treated as a weed in order that we might finally see the deadliness of our thinking we know good from evil and that we can thus be God’s servant by weeding out the evil.
3. This interpretation of the Parable of the Mustard Seed does a number of things. First, it makes sense of why Jesus’ message of the Kingdom was resisted and rejected. It also resonates with the preciousness of this message as one of grace; it replaces the wrathful God of the Last Day with the forgiving God of the Cross. When one finally opens oneself to that grace, the reaction should be to sell everything else in order to purchase the new.
Finally, it also makes sense to me about the smallest of seeds growing into a large bush-turned-tree. Jesus is sown into this world with the smallest of starts, as absolutely alone on the Cross; with the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, that start slowly grows into the largest of trees.
An example that comes to mind is that of what has happened to our view of “handicapped” people. In John 9, the disciples are still under the purview of the wrathful God who punishes such folks; they ask Jesus who sinned, he or his parents, that the man was born blind. The blind man was one of those weeds we would have wanted to uproot before the harvest. Today, after the Cross has blossomed into much wider sympathy for our past victims, we have a very different view of people who are visually challenged. Yes, often the “politically correct” language becomes a justification for rooting out some other weeds, but it also attempts to express a real change in paradigms. “Visually challenged” represents a more positive view than “handicapped” — which is a tremendously more positive view than the disciples’ view of this man as a sinner punished by God. From the tiniest beginning in the cross, we are learning to see our former choices of weeds as wheat. We are able to be much more inclusive about the children of God who represent the harvest at the end of the world.
4. Link to a sermon that puts together the themes of these reflections entitled “The Irresistible Seed of Peace.”