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A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 4, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 25:14-30
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The parables of Jesus can be divided into two general categories:

  • parables that attempt to unmask and critique the way things really are (think about the “there was a certain rich man … and a certain beggar …” parable in Luke 16:19-31); and
  • parables that offer a vision of the way the world could be (think about the ones that start “the kingdom of God is like …” and others that use “kingdom of God” or kingdom of heaven” language, for instance in Matthew 18).

Jesus used recognizable scenarios in plain language; he didn’t talk over the heads of the illiterate peasants who were his primary audience.  His parables use farming, shepherding, being in debt, doing hard labor, banquets, being excluded from banquets, rich homes, and poor people.  That doesn’t mean the parables were easy to understand.

I had a professor in seminary who said that interpreting parables (and he was mostly talking about the parables of Jesus) is challenging at best.  He suggested that perhaps they should best be understood as a cross between a riddle and a zen koan, a cross between a joke, a puzzle, and a pool of wisdom.

The thing that makes the parables like riddles is the surprising twist at their endings.  He used things like miraculous harvests, enemies being friends, and unexpected vindication.  The thing that makes the parables puzzles is how challenging it is to figure out the wisdom Jesus is trying to impart.

In our quest for the wisdom of the parables, we often interpret them as morality tales, as moral fables, and in the process, we obscure the real wisdom they have to offer.  This happens much too easily when we forget or simply ignore the socio-cultural context in which the parable was originally told.  When this happens, we often end up recontextualizing the story in our own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions.  And within our unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, the parable ends up domesticated.

And that does the parables of Jesus a disservice.  They are much too wild to be domesticated.

The parable told in today’s reading is a wonderful example of this.  In the King James Version of the Bible, the story begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants …”  The only problem is that there is no mention of the kingdom of heaven in verse 14.  There is back in verse 1, to open up the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, but the line that opens up today’s parable does not mention the kingdom of heaven.

King James

Why did King James’ translators add these words?  In the best case, they were trying to help make the parable understandable and, contextualizing the story in their own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, stuck those words in.  They assumed that this was a parable about heaven or about the last judgment, so they added these words.  In the worst case, they purposefully tried to weaken the power of the parable (given that they worked for a king).  In either case, this addition wreaks havoc on an accurate understanding of the parable.

When we assume (or are told) that this parable is about “the kingdom of heaven,” we too easily allegorize the story.  When we do this, the Master in the story ends up representing God, and a pretty darn ugly picture of God at that.  This God is an absentee landlord who cares only about profit maximization.  This God is hard-hearted and ruthless.  This God is nothing like the God I hear Jesus talking about elsewhere in the gospels.

Despite these concerns, pastors (no doubt myself included) read this story and preach on how we Christians should gainfully employ our “talents” for God.  But “talents” in this story have nothing to do with individual gifts and everything to do with economics.  I don’t think the original audience would not have allegorized this parable to make sense of it.

They would have heard and immediately recognized Jesus describing a great household, a huge household – the closest thing in his day to the corporation in our day.  It was quite common for the patriarch of a great household to be away on business, be it economic or political business.  His affairs would have been handled by slaves, who in Roman society often rose to highly responsible positions in the household hierarchy as “stewards” – though they were still clearly slaves.

We know we’re talking about a great household because of the sums of money used in the story.  A “talent” was one of the largest values of money in the Hellenistic world.  “A silver coinage, it weighed between fifty-seven and seventy-four pounds.  One talent was equal to 6,000 denarii.”[2]  One denarius was a subsistence wage for a day’s labor, the wage a peasant would earn for a full day’s labor if he were lucky enough to find employment.  That means that a peasant might earn one talent 16 or 17 years – if they don’t take any Sabbath days of rest.

If you worked 8 hours a day for 365 days a year (no Sabbath days of rest) at California’s current minimum wage,[3] for 16½ years, you’d earn something over half a million dollars.  That means the eight talents in the story represent over $4 million.  And this is just the money he wants these three slaves to take care of while he’s gone.  This story is about a man with a lot of money!

The first two slaves double their master’s money.  A domesticated interpretation of this parable lauds these slaves, though this feat would have elicited disgust from Jesus’ first century audience.  They knew all too well how the Imperial economy works, and who suffers as a result.  The parable doesn’t say how long the master is away, but with compounded interest it would take 6 years to double the money at 12%.  I’ve read[4] that in Jesus’ day, 12% was the highest legal interest rate and I wasn’t able to confirm if interest was compounded or not.

More likely than expecting his audience to know the rule of 72[5] to calculate how long it takes to double an investment, Jesus knew that they knew the story of how the rich get so rich in the Empire’s economy.  The large landowners made loans to peasant small landowners based on speculation about future crop production.  With high interest rates and possibilities of poor weather conditions, farmers were often unable to make their payments and faced foreclosure.  Once in control of the land, the new owner could continue raking in the money by hiring laborers to farm cash crops.  (This process of economic exploitation and wealth accumulation is all too recognizable in today’s global economy.)

In the parable, the first two of the master’s slaves do this profitable dirty work all too well.  In the Empire’s economy, people who make money like these first two slaves are extolled.  These slaves are seen as “good stewards” of the master’s resources.  The third slave is seen as “unproductive” and a failure.

But in God’s economy, there is such a thing as too much and too little.  It is an economy based on abundance and self-restraint, not scarcity and greed.  When we only gather up what we need and share the rest, there really is enough for everyone.  God’s economy recognizes this.

When you look at the parable through the lens of Sabbath economics, the third slave is, in fact, the hero.

When the master returns to settle accounts, he says the same thing to the first two slaves:  “Well done, good and trustworthy slave … enter into the joy of your master.”  When we hear the parable allegorically, we hear an invitation to enter heavenly bliss.  But rub that hearing out of your ears and hear it how I think it would have been heard by people around Jesus.  These two slaves get promotions (“I will put you in charge of many thing”), but at the same time they’re reminded that they are still slaves.  They are still stuck in a system that uses the have-nots so the haves can have more.

Then we turn to the third slave.  Jesus’ audience knows what’s going to happen to a slave that doesn’t play the game.  But before he has to face the music, he gets to be a whistle-blower.  “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”  He unmasks the fact that the master’s wealth is entirely derived from the toil of others.  The master profits from the backbreaking labor of those who work the land.

Unwilling to participate in this exploitation, the third slave took the money out of circulation where it could no longer be used to dispossess another family farmer.  He repudiates the system, giving the talent back to his master with a curt, “Here, you have what is yours.”

I wonder how many people heard Jesus tell this story and thought, “I wish I could do that.  I wish I could speak truth to power.”  And they would have understood this third slave’s fear.  He’s about to meet the prophet’s fate.

I find it interesting that the master does not refute the third slave’s analysis of his world.  The master simply castigates him as “evil and lazy,” the favorite slur of the rich toward those who don’t play the game.  In suggesting that the slave could have at least gotten the market rate by investing it, the master reveals that he’s not interested in “what is my own.”  He appreciates only appreciation.

He then turns to make an example of the third slave, dispossessing him and giving the spoils to his obedient colleague, in order to illustrate how the “real” world works:  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

The consequence of the third slave’s noncooperation with the Empire’s economy is banishment to the “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Traditionally, we assume that means he’s sent to hell.  And so perhaps he is.  Just not a hell that comes after this life.  No, he is sent to the hell that so many on earth experience, rejected by the dominant culture, exploited and rejected by the economy of the Empire.

Today’s parable is followed immediately by the famous story of judgment that suggests that we meet the Christ by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  In other words, in the places where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The whistle-blower’s punishment may dispossess him of material things, but it brings him closer to Christ.

When I posted this story[6] from The Washington Post on Facebook Friday night, I didn’t realize I was thinking about today’s sermon.  By Saturday morning, I did.  The headline does a good job of summarizing the story.  Greta Lindecrantz, a 67-year-old white woman, is in jail for contempt of court.  Her contempt?  She refuses to testify in a criminal appeal.

She refuses to testify because the State of Colorado is seeking to kill the defendant.  The case is an appeal of a death sentence, and the prosecution wants Lindecrantz to testify on their behalf, to testify supporting their efforts to have the death sentence stand.  Lindecrantz, a Mennonite, is refusing to testify because she refuses to help the state kill the defendant.  Mennonites, a small denomination in Christianity, have opposed the death penalty since their founding in the 1500s.

Some are interpreting the court’s decision to jail Lindecrantz as an attempt to break her will, to make her violate her conscience, to make her abandon her faith.

The case raises some interesting questions for me.  These questions have nothing to do with the specifics of the case.  The questions are about me.  The chief question is this:  Am I willing to go to jail for refusing to participate in a system that I believe violates the gospel of Jesus Christ?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been preaching on how the Imperial economy is not the Sabbath economy God’s desires for us.  I have insinuated that the economy of the United States is closer to an Imperial economy than a Sabbath economy.  Like ancient Imperial economics, ours was built on slavery.  And while we may no longer have legal slavery, minimum wage is not a living wage, and the racism that justified slavery is still at work, disenfranchising people of color and imprisoning people of color at staggeringly disproportionate rates.

The Imperial economies of the ancient world put huge portions of wealth in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population.  Here in the United States, the wealthiest one percent of the population owns 40% of the country’s wealth.[7]  That’s more wealth than the bottom 90% own.

The wealthiest 1% of the population controls more wealth than the bottom 90%.

Under Sabbath economics (in pietopia, as the Washington Post calls it), if you have a community of 100 people, everyone gets a slice of pie.  But in the United States, the wealthiest 20% of the population get 4½ slices of pie each.  And the poorest 20% of the population owe a slice of pie to the people at the top.  The average net worth for the bottom 40% of the population is negative.  They owe money.

   

I know all this.  Still, I participate in the system.  I participate in it because I haven’t figured out how to resist it without being cast out to where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  And I don’t want to go and live this hell.

Still, the moral conviction of Greta Lindecrantz haunts me.

And I am thinking that it’s time to confront the system with the moral power of our faith.

So, the question our gospel lesson and the news pushes me to wrestle with is this:  Am I willing to go to jail for refusing to participate in a system that I believe violates the gospel of Jesus Christ?

_______________

[1] This sermon is based on Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 38-45.

[2] Brandon Scott, quoted by Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 41-42.

[3] California’s minimum wage for corporations with 26 or more employees is currently $11/hour. See http://www.dir.ca.gov/iwc/mw-2017.pdf.

[4] See Richard Rohrbaugh, “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents/Pounds,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 23:1, Spring 1993, pp 32ff; cited by Ched Myers, op cit.

[5] See http://financialplan.about.com/od/personalfinance/qt/Ruleof72.htm.

[6] Meagan Flynn, “Mennonite woman jailed for refusing on religious grounds to testify in death-penalty case,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/03/01/mennonite-woman-jailed-for-refusing-on-religious-grounds-to-testify-in-death-penalty-case/ (posted 1 March 2018; accessed 2 March 2018).

[7] The following statistics are from Christopher Ingraham, “The richest 1 percent now owns more of the country’s wealth than at any time in the past 50 years,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/06/the-richest-1-percent-now-owns-more-of-the-countrys-wealth-than-at-any-time-in-the-past-50-years/ (posted 6 December 2017; accessed 2 March 2018).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 24, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 20:1-16
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Back in 2015, the CEO of a relatively small (70 or so employees) tech company in Seattle announced that he was going to change his pay and the base salary for all the employees at the company.  He was going to take a 90% pay cut and he was raising the base salary for employees to $70,000 per year.[1]  Show of hands: How many of you remember this?  At the time, I remember it being met with a variety of responses.  Some people say the CEO, Dan Price, as a working class-hero.  Other people thought he was nuts and that this would bankrupt the company.

The reason he made this move, he said, was that he had read a study that claimed people were happiest when they had an annual income of $70,000.  So, he figured, why not help his employees be happy?  One result was that the company lost some clients.  There were clients who thought that Gravity Payments would have to raise their prices to pay these increased salaries, even though Price’s salary decrease covered them.  Another result was that they gained clients, enough clients that Gravity Payments had to go on a hiring spree.[2]

I suspect the biggest immediate challenge Gravity Payments faced was the loss of two of their “rock star” employees (as one report labeled them) – and there may have been more defections in the intervening two years.  These first two employees to leave “reportedly thought it was unfair that other employees (those making less than $70,000) were getting big raises, while not necessarily contributing as much to the company’s success.”[3]  Does that remind you of any scripture you’ve heard or read lately?

I wonder if Americans are more disturbed by today’s gospel lesson than people from other cultures.  We like to think that our nation, our culture, our economy is a meritocracy, that people’s ability to earn money and climb the social, political, and economic ladder is based on their skills and hard work.  And two years ago, with over half of American households earning on the order of $54,000 or less per year,[4]  Price’s new minimum wage at his company called that notion of a meritocracy into question.  Just as an aside, it turns out that the median household income in Seattle when Price made this decision was right around $70,000.[5]  Still, this kind of generosity for the sake of happiness does challenge the notion that we live in a meritocracy.

I don’t think any of Jesus’ disciples, or anyone else that might have heard this parable originally would have thought that they lived in a meritocracy.  In the Empire of Rome, the family you were born into made a huge difference in how you lived.  Nonetheless, fair is fair, and if I work all day (for 12 hours) out in the vineyards under a scorching sun and some bum works only one hour, from 5:00 to 6:00, I expect to be paid more than that bum.  12 times more, in fact.

This may be one of the reasons this parable has historically been interpreted to be about salvation and heaven.  In this interpretation, treating the parable as an allegory, “the owner of the vineyard is God; the reward for the laborers, the denarius, is salvation; the first hired are God’s first people, the Jews; the last hired, the Gentiles or recent converts.  A generous God gives to the latecomers the same free, gift of salvation that God gives to the first faithful.”[6]  This interpretation goes back at least as far as the 4th century.  And after all, the parable does start out, “The kingdom of heaven is like …”

But remember, Matthew is writing to Jewish followers of Jesus, so when Luke and Mark would say, “The kingdom of God,” Matthew says, “The kingdom of heaven.”  In Jewish culture, one does not mention God by name.  And remember, too, that the word that gets translated here as “kingdom,” is the same word that is used to describe the Empire of Rome.  So maybe it is better to translate these gospel phrases as “the empire of God” and “the empire of Heaven.”

Jesus is saying, “You know what the empire of Rome is like.  Let me tell you about the empire of God.”

So, what was Jesus saying about the empire of God?  This is what I hear.

First thing in the morning, a landowner goes out to hire some day laborers to work in his vineyard.  This is a strange act, a countercultural act.  Typically, it would be the landowner’s steward, the manager, the person who runs the day-to-day operations of the vineyard, the one who will pay the day laborers at the end of the story, who would go to the marketplace (or the Home Depot parking lot) to hire the day laborers.  He hires some people, agreeing to pay them the going wage, a denarius, just enough for to keep a small family fed for the day.  In other words, the families of the people in the marketplace who aren’t hired probably wouldn’t eat that day.  This initial group goes off to work in the vineyard.

At 9:00, the landowner is again in the marketplace and notices that there are people, day laborers, who were not hired.  He sends them to his vineyard to work, saying that he’ll pay them what is right.  Well, some money is better than no money, so at least the family will have something to eat.  They head off to the vineyard.

At noon and at 3:00 (I have no idea why this landowner keeps going to the marketplace, but there he is again), he finds more people who have not found day work, and he sends them off to the vineyard to work, promising to pay them what is right.  At 5:00, the work day is almost over, and there are still people who haven’t found any work.  The landowner sends them to the vineyard to work for that last hour of the day.

Finally, the day is over, and it’s time to pay the workers.  For some reason (and maybe it’s just to make the storytelling work), the landowner decides that the people who were hired last should be paid first.  And the landowner has his steward, his manager pay everybody for a full day’s work, even though some of them only worked for an hour.  Like I said earlier, if I was one of the people who had worked all day, when I saw the guys who only worked one hour get a full day’s wage, I would be thinking, “Ka-ching! I’m going to get 12 days’ worth of wages for just one day’s work.”  And I’d be pretty ticked off that I only got one day’s wage, as had been previously agreed.

But I think what Jesus is saying is, in the empire of God, everyone gets enough so they and their families can eat.  When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re praying that we, all of us, those who work hard and those who only show up for the last hour, get enough to eat each day.

This notion that in the empire of God, everyone will have enough is the moral underpinning for my support of the New Poor Peoples Campaign.  50 years ago this December, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “announced the plan to bring together poor people from across the country for a new march on Washington.  This march was to demand better jobs, better homes, better education – better lives than the ones they were living.  [The] Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy explained that the intention of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 was to ‘dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.’”[7]

Throughout the many speeches and sermons of the last year of his life, Dr. King described both the unjust economic conditions facing millions of people worldwide and the vision of poor people coming together to transform society.  He realized that if the poor of the United States organized, if they came together in direct actions, they could awaken the conscience of the nation, “changing the terms of how poverty is understood and dispelling the myths and stereotypes that uphold the mass complacency and leave the root causes of poverty intact.  He described this force as a multi-racial ‘nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.’”[8]

Unfortunately, “the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy, a key proponent of the Campaign and Presidential candidate, only served to cripple the Campaign and greatly limit its impact.  King emphasized the need for poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to unite.  He asserted that the Poor People’s Campaign would only be successful if the poor could come together across all the obstacles and barriers set up to divide us and if they could overcome the attention and resources being diverted because of the US engagement in the Vietnam War.”[9]

It has been 50 years since the first Poor People’s Campaign was being organized and the problems of poverty and the causes of poverty have not gone away.  That is why Disciples of Christ pastor and moral leader the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, is calling for a new Poor People’s Campaign.  I got to hear his call at General Synod this summer.[10]  Let me quote him.

“[The African American church does] not know how to preach without engaging the powers in the public square.  Whenever I open the Scriptures, I read about a God who hears the cry of the suffering and stands on the side of the oppressed for justice.

“As I have prayed and read the Scriptures this year, I hear a resounding call to the very soul of this nation:  We need a new Poor People’s Campaign for a Moral Revival in America.…

“Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a ‘revolution of values’ in America, inviting people who had been divided to stand together against the ‘triplets of evil’ – militarism, racism, and economic injustice – to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation to ever exist.  Poor people in communities across America – black, white, brown and Native – responded by building a Poor People’s Campaign that would demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor.…

“The fights for racial and economic equality are as inseparable today as they were half a century ago.  Make no mistake about it:  We face a crisis in America.  The twin forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed have gained newfound power and influence, both in statehouses across this nation and at the highest levels of our federal government.  Sixty-four million Americans make less than a living wage, while millions of children and adults continue to live without access to healthcare, even as extremist[s] … in Congress threaten to strip access away from millions more.  As our social fabric is stretched thin by widening income inequality, politicians criminalize the poor, fan the flames of racism and xenophobia to divide the poor, and steal from the poor to give tax breaks to our richest neighbors and budget increases to a bloated military.…

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II

“At such a time as this, we need a new Poor People’s Campaign for Moral Revival to help us become the nation we’ve not yet been.…

“Throughout America’s history – from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to labor and civil rights – real social change has come when impacted people have joined hands with allies of good will to stand together against injustice.  These movements did not simply stand against partisan foes.  They stood for the deep moral center of our Constitutional and faith traditions.  Those deep wells sustained poor and impacted people who knew in their bones both that power concedes nothing without a fight and that, in the end, love is the greatest power to sustain a fight for what is right.

“This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic poverty and racism, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable.  We need a long term, sustained movement led by the people who are directly impacted by extremism.”[11]

So now a New Poor People’s Campaign is being organized.  We are now a few months in to the launch of the Campaign.  The launch will continue through next summer and will focus on highly publicized civil disobedience and direct action over a 6-week period in at least 25 states and the District of Columbia during the Spring of 2018.  The Campaign will force a serious national examination of the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and environmental devastation while strengthening and connecting informed and committed grassroots leadership in every state, increasing their power to continue this fight long after June 2018.

I have already committed to find ways to be part of this campaign.  I must do it because it is the work of the empire of God.  I invite you to join in this New Poor People’s Campaign, too.

Amen.

[1] Sam Becker, “The $70,000 Minimum Wage Experiment Reveals a Dark Truth,” CheatSheet, https://www.cheatsheet.com/money-career/the-70000-minimum-wage-experiment-reveals-a-dark-truth.html (Posted 26 January 2017; apparently updated; accessed 23 September 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Frankel, “Here’s the average American household income: How do you compare?” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2016/11/24/average-american-household-income/93002252/ (posted 24 November 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[5] Gene Balk, “$80,000 median: Income gain in Seattle far outpaces other cities,” The Seattle Times, (posted 15 September 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[6] Lowell Grisham, “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard,” Lowell’s Sermons, http://lowellsermons.blogspot.com/2011/09/parable-of-laborers-in-vineyard.html (posted 17 September 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

[7] “Dr. King’s Vision: The Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68,” Poor People’s Campaign, https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/ (accessed 23 September 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] I am amused that it was at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod that I hear Rev. Barber’s call to the New Poor People’s Campaign, rather than at the Disciples of Christ’s General Assembly the following week.

[11] William J. Barber II, “Rev. Barber: America needs a new Poor People’s Campaign,” ThinkProgress, https://thinkprogress.org/rev-barber-why-america-needs-a-new-poor-peoples-campaign-dd406d515193/ (posted 15 May 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 30, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 8:26-39 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-51
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love this passage from Romans.  It is one of my two favorite passages from the Epistles, the collection of letters in the New Testament.  I include it frequently in memorial services and I want it read at my memorial service (though I hope that detail isn’t needed for a long time).  I agree with Jim Wallis who says, “This remarkable and uplifting passage describes the unshakable promise of God.”[1]

Notice what Paul doesn’t say in this passage.  He doesn’t say that people who follow Jesus will live a life free of hardship, conflict, and weakness.  In fact, “Paul assumes that weakness, conflict, and hardship are normal for the Christian life and, for that matter, human life.”[2]

How’s that for good news?  Congratulations, Christian, your life will have plenty of hardship.  You will face conflict (perhaps especially because of your faith).  And when you face the principalities and powers you will see how weak (at least as culture measures it) you are.

Do you see how antithetical to our culture’s general messages all of this is?  The general message of our culture is that you cannot just feel powerful, you can be powerful.  The general message of our culture is that conflict should be avoided because you can’t be happy if you’re in conflict (I sometimes call this the tyranny of ‘nice’), and happiness (not joy, but happiness) is the to be pursued.  The general message of our culture is that if you are facing hardship it’s your own darn fault; you, in some way, chose this.

Is it any wonder that the “prosperity gospel” is an American invention?  Even if you haven’t heard the term before, you know of this theology.  It’s a theology that is more steeped in American values than Christian values.  It’s a theology that tells us that the goal of the Christian life is “to get out of adversity and into security.”[3]  People who subscribe to this particularly American form of Christianity (that has become very popular in parts of Africa and South America) are pushed to believe in the God of the quick fix who will make us happy, prosperous, and protected.  It’s a theology that says that all of our uncomfortable feelings, our insecurities, and our weaknesses are bad that that we should move into strength, security, and control.[4]

This is how Wikipedia defines it:  “Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel …) is a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth.…

“The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be happy.  The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith.  This is believed to be achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession.”[5]

Televangelists have embraced this theology and made it famous.  Oral Roberts was a huge proponent of this theology.  T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Creflo Dollar are three of the more prominent contemporary preachers of this.  The whole “Prayer of Jabez” movement – if you don’t know about it, don’t worry, you can ignore it – came out of this theology.

All of this is a false gospel.

What Jesus preached was not personal prosperity.  What Jesus preached as the kin-dom of God.  And the kin-dom of God was always presented as an alternative to the kingdom of Caesar.  This kin-dom of God is subversive and infiltrates the systems that oppress, the systems that allow a small elite to be wealthy at the expense of the masses.  The kin-dom of God is how the arc of history bends toward justice.  Just look at the parables in today’s gospel reading.

The kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed sown in a field.  It grows into a big old shrub and birds come and nest there.

A mustard bush is neither big nor wonderful; it is invasive, fast-growing, and impossible to get rid of (like darnel, the weed sown among the wheat in last week’s parable).  To say the kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed is to say that the kin-dom of God is like kudzu, that it’s like Scotch broom, that it’s like like morning glories and dandelions.  “And birds of the air?  The last place we want them is in our grain fields.  You’ve heard of scarecrows?”[6]

The kin-dom of God is like yeast that a woman mixed into three measures of flour until it was all leavened.

Have you ever heard the expression, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump”?  This little aphorism actually is from the Bible.  It’s in both the letter to the Galatians and the first letter to the Corinthians.  Paul uses it in much the same way we might use the expression, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.”  “Jesus shows the same understanding when he warns against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:15).  His parable begins with the common assumption:  Leaven equals … corruption.”[7]

And three measures of flour?  According to Jim Douglass, that’s about 50 pounds – enough to make bread for more than a hundred people.  Oh my goodness, the leaven of God is far more corrupting than a rotten apple somewhere in a barrel.[8]

And consider the woman’s actions.  She “hides” the leaven, the corrupting leaven, in the flour.  She sneaks God’s tiny corrupting power into the giant bin of flour, transforming the whole shebang.  I like the way Douglass restates the parable:  “The reign of God is like a tiny, corrupt substance, which a shrewd woman took and hid in a huge amount of flour, until it accomplished a [massive] transformation.”[9]

The kid-dom of God is like a buried treasure that someone finds, so he goes and sells all he has so he can buy the field.  The kin-dom of God is like a merchant who finds the perfect pearl and sells all he has so he can buy it.  The kin-dom of God is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught every kind of fish.”

Here’s the thing:  The kid-dom Jesus announces turns things upside down.  Once it takes root, you can’t get rid of it and it upsets all your plans for your farm and for the rest of your life.  In the kin-dom Jesus announces, serfs are buying land, a peasant woman bakes bread for 100 and feeds them.  The kin-dom Jesus announces is rising, “and there we find our daily bread.  Fish are breaking through nets, the rich are selling all they have [so that maybe they, too, can be part of it].  The kin-dom Jesus announces is springing up faster than we can uproot it.

I hope you noticed that “the objects described [in this series of short parables] are inseparable from actions and actors:  Seed is sown by a sower, yeast is hidden by a woman, the treasure hunter and the merchant buy and sell, the fishers fish.  The kingdom is not about static symbols but about people engaged in action.”[10]

The kin-dom Jesus announces is “subversive, unstoppable, invasive, a nuisance, urgent, shocking, and abundant.  It requires action and commitment and inspires extreme behavior.”[11]  It is not about your financial blessing and physical well-being.

If we make the commitment to the kin-dom of God that Jesus announced, our pets will still die, our spouses will still disappoint us from time to time, we will watch our children make bad choices or suffer and there won’t be a thing we can do about it, we will watch our parents and grandparents grow old, and we will face health crises and financial hardships at different points in our lives.  In fact, if we make the commitment to the kin-dom of God that Jesus announced, we will face more hardship than that.  The principalities and powers in their many forms will try to stop us, sometimes simply with inertia and sometimes with more overt forms of persecution.  This is especially true when we undertake the extreme action the kin-dom requires of us.

What Paul is saying in the passage from Romans is that “adversity is part of life, and especially part of the Christian life lived in conflict with the world.

“Success, according to this passage, is not the avoidance of adversity but knowing the love of God in adversity.  The promise made by the passage is not that God will remove the difficulties of life, but that God will continue to love us through them.

“Those who accept the adversities of life and find God’s love in the midst of them are those who become the wise, healed, whole, and joyful people.  Often Christians whose faith has been purified through suffering are the most joyful of all.  On the other hand, those who spend their lives in the desperate attempt to avoid hardship and pain often end up most miserable and filled with anxiety.”[12]

That said, “Suffering does not necessarily lead to spiritual maturity.  It can lead to bitterness, frustration, anger, and violence.  We all know people who have allowed their suffering to embitter them and destroy their lives.  Even social movements, in response to injustice and suffering, can become violent forces of revenge and hatred.

“But oppression and suffering can also lead to trust in the love of God.  Suffering can help us let go of everything and realize that there is no alternative but to depend on God.  Abandoning ourselves to the love of God leads to spiritual maturity and wisdom.”[13]

Paul asks, Who can separate us from the love of God?  Can trouble?  No.  Hardship?  No. Persecution?  No.  Famine?  No.  Nakedness?  No.  Danger?  No.  Sword?  No.

So, what are you afraid of?

“Are you afraid that your weakness could separate you from the love of God?  It can’t.  Are you afraid that your inadequacies could separate you from the love of God?  They can’t.  Are you afraid that your inner poverty could separate you from the love of God?  It can’t.

“Difficult marriage, loneliness, anxiety over your children’s future?  They can’t.  Negative self-image?  It can’t.  Economic hardship, racial hatred, street crime?  They can’t.

“Rejection by loved ones, the suffering of loved ones?  They can’t.  Persecution by the authorities, going to jail?  They can’t.  The President?  He can’t.  [Congress?  They can’t.]  War?  It can’t.  Nuclear war?  Even it can’t.”[14]

That is the promise of this passage:  the unshakable promise of God.  Whether we feel it or not, whether we accept it or not, it’s there.  It’s our choice.  Amen.

[1] Jim Wallis, “The Unshakable Promise of God,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/unshakable-promise-god (accessed 25 July 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Prosperity theology,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology (accessed 29 July 2017).

[6] Laurel A. Dykstra, “A Pearl Like a Fishnet,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pearl-fishnet (accessed 25 July 2017).

[7] Jim Douglass, “A Parable of Corruption,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/parable-corruption? (accessed 25 July 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dykstra, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wallis, op. cit.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 27, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-51
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I think the funniest thing about today’s gospel lesson is the final word:  “Yes.”  Jesus finishes his string of parables, his recitation of riddles, asking his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” and they answer him, “Yes.”

The kin-dom of heaven is like …
… a mustard seed.
… yeast.
… a treasure hidden in a field.
… a merchant in search of pearls.
… a net thrown into the sea.

Have you understood all this?  I sure haven’t.

Every three years, this set of parables comes up in the lectionary.  Sometime toward the end of July, we read or hear these five parables – riddles, really, given how short and obtuse they are.  Some years I’m on vacation or at camp and I can avoid them.  And some years, like this year, they land in my lap, challenging me to make some sense of them.  And the more I study them, the more certain I am that I can’t be certain about their meaning (or maybe its meanings [plural]).

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

A mustard seed

Now even I, as horticultural challenged as I am, knows that a mustard seed it tiny.  Hiccup while you’re examining one and you’ll likely inhale it or blow it away.  So the kin-dom of heaven is really small and easy to miss and easily destroyed.  Except that can’t be Jesus’ point.

Ah, but the parable doesn’t just say the kin-dom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  The parable says it’s like a mustard seed that a farmer plants in his field.  I suppose the farmer could like the taste of mustard, so he plants it.  Except mustard is like dandelions, or kudzu, or morning glory.  Once it’s established, it’s really hard to get rid of it.  It’s going to grow into a shrub that’s big enough for birds to nest in.  And, though I don’t know much about farming, I know you generally don’t want birds in your fields, eating your food before you can harvest.  Scarecrows have a purpose, and it’s not just to accompany Dorothy to Oz.

So, the kin-dom of heaven is something that, once it takes root, is hard to get rid of and creates a place for people you may not want to have around.  Is that Jesus’ point?

The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast, which is a little shocking in its own right.  Yeast is unclean.  According to author Jim Douglass, “In those days leaven was made by storing bread in a damp, dark place until it molded.  In Exodus leaven symbolized the unholy (Exodus 12:19).  Paul understood leaven as symbolic of the morally corrupt.  He twice cites a proverb, ‘A little leaven leavens the whole lump’ (Galatians 5:9; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8), whose meaning by his application is the same as our own saying, ‘One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.’  Jesus shows the same understanding when he warns against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:15).  His parable begins with the common assumption: Leaven equals moral corruption.”[1]

Yeast leavening the flour

And the kin-dom of heaven is not just like yeast, but it’s like yeast that a woman (who is unclean one week a month) takes and mixes in a bunch of flour until the whole lot is leavened.  Once a woman mixes in the yeast, there’s no separating it back out.  All the flour is contaminated.  And by “a bunch of flour,” apparently we’re talking about enough flour to make bread for 100 people.[2]  One commentator says, “A modern paraphrase [of this parable] might be: ‘The kingdom of God is like a virus in a dirty needle that a junkie took and injected into a vein so the whole body was infected.’”[3]

So what do we make of this parable?  I like how Jim Douglass framed an interpretation:  “A woman, probably a poor one.  One of the oppressed.  This far cry from a king turns one’s sense of ‘kingdom’ upside-down.’

The next two parables are so similar, we’ll look at them together.  “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Both of these parables have people selling all they own so they can purchase this thing of great value.  In the first case, the treasure is found by accident.  In the second case, the merchant is searching for it.  In the first case, upon finding this treasure, our guy buys the property where it’s hidden “in his joy.”  Not in his greed, but in his joy.  The kin-dom of heaven seems to have something to do with joy.  In the second case, the merchant finds the pearl and sells all he has so he can have the pearl.

It doesn’t matter how you come to the kin-dom of heaven, by accident or on purpose; once you find it, nothing else matters.  It is worth a total commitment of everything we have and everything we are.  I can’t hear these parables without thinking of the time Jesus called on a rich man to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow him.[4]

Our fifth parable is the most embellished of the five, containing its own interpretation.  “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”

That’s where the parable ends.  What follows is an interpretation, the comparing of the sorting of the fish to a sorting of the good and evil at the end of time.  The interpretation might make us think that all of these kin-dom of heaven parables are about life after death, about “heaven.”  I think we need to resist that line of thought.  Remember, Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish Christians, and good Jews don’t call God by name.  So, while the other gospels have parables about the kin-dom of God, Matthew has kin-dom of heaven parables, thus avoiding using the word “God.”

The other parables in this set are about the here and now.  The kin-dom of heaven is unstoppable, insidious, almost infectious.  The kin-dom of heaven is transformative and subversive.  The kin-dom of heaven is of intense value right now.  Perhaps this fifth parable may have something to do with the here and now, as well as about the end of time.

The kin-dom of heaven is like a net that scoops up all types.  You may think you’re small fry, inconsequential, but the kin-dom of heaven will scoop you up, too.  And you know that fish get sorted, but do you know how this fisher is going do the sorting?  Don’t assume that the salmon and the sturgeon and the blue fin tuna are the “good” fish.  This fisher may have other ideas.

There is an offensive undercurrent to these parables.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to a nut job farmer who plants a weed like mustard in his grain field.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to a symbol of moral corruption:  yeast.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to both a treasure that is insanely worth giving up everything to possess and to a person who insanely gives up everything to possess it.  And Jesus says that kin-dom of heaven will scoop up everyone and it will decide who is good and who is bad.

The offense doesn’t stop there.  The English translation of the Greek, the basileia of heaven is traditionally “kingdom.”  This is because, when the Greek was translated into English, England was a kingdom.  Had it been translated during the reign of Queen Victoria, it might have been translated “Empire,” as in the British Empire.  In fact, the Greek basileia is the word used to describe Rome at the time of Jesus.  The basileia of Rome, the Empire of Rome.  Every time Jesus talks about the basileia of heaven/God, he’s setting it up in opposition to the basileia of Rome.

I believe that, in using this language and these images, Jesus is offering an alternative way of life.  He is offering a vision of hope, a possibility of life that is different than life under the Roman Empire.  For us, today, he is offering an alternative to life under militarism, corporate greed, and the various forms of oppression we have not yet overcome.

This is why I choose to translate basileia as “kin-dom.”  Are we going to identify ourselves as kin to oppression, greed, and militarism; or are we going to identify ourselves as kin to the alternative Jesus offers?

When I started really thinking about and reading about these parables early last week, the painting on your bulletin cover came to mind.  The reproduction of neither the whole picture nor of the detail really captures what I was hoping for, but let me explain.

Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

The painting, Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” is a prime example of pointillism.  This is a painting technique where little dots of color are applied to a canvas.  Take a close look at the canvas and all you see are the little dots.  You can’t make out any image.  But step back from the painting and you see the image.

Detail from Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

Detail from Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

This detail from the picture  is supposed to show you a small part of the painting up close.  Like I said, it didn’t work all that well, but you get the idea.

I was thinking it might help to use the same technique to look at these parables.  Any one of the parables is like a bunch of dots of paint, but you can’t see the whole picture until you step back and let them work together to paint the picture.

So, stepping back, I notice a theme running through these five parables:  hiddenness.  The mustard seed is hidden in the soil.  The yeast is hidden in the flour.  The treasure is hidden in the field.  The pearl is hidden and must be search for.  The net is hidden under the water.

Barbara Brown Taylor wonders if these parables can remind us “that in the most ordinary, everyday things and experiences are ‘signs of the kingdom of heaven, clues to all the holiness hidden in the dullness of our days.…  [It is possible] that God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check but in the last place that any of us would think to look, namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives…’”[5]

Maybe Taylor has seen the bigger picture.  Or maybe Laurel Dykstra has found it:  “Serfs are buying land, a peasant woman has baked bread for 100, the kingdom of God is rising, and there we find our daily bread.  Fish are breaking through nets, the rich are selling all they have.  The kingdom is springing up faster than we can uproot it.”[6]

Or maybe they both have seen it.

What do you see?

 

[1] Jim Douglass, “A Parable of Corruption,” Sojourners, www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/parable-corruption (accessed 21 July 2014).

[2] Several sources I read make this claim, including Douglass, op. cit.

[3] Laurel A. Dykstra, “A Pearl Like a Fishnet,” Sojourners, www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pearl-fishnet (accessed 21 July 2014).

[4] See Matthew 19:16-22 and its parallels in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-25.

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor in Seeds of Heaven, quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-27-2014.html (accessed 21 July 2014).

[6] Dykstra, op. cit.

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