The Kingdom of Heaven: Pie in the Sky or Arc of the Moral Universe?

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “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.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” “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. “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. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Matthew 13:31-33; 44-53

I had a couple of ideas involving news stories as writing prompts this week, but decided to go back to the liturgical calendar for theological reasons. Karl Barth is widely quoted as saying that one should “read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other”, but there’s an important addition often omitted from that statement: “But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”. Newspapers, he says, are so important that ‘I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church – in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there is peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?’”

The problem (at least for me) in using news stories as writing prompts is that it winds up being primarily the news story that is speaking to me, rather than the Bible. It’s too easy for me to read a news story and think of related scriptural passages, and if I am entirely honest, to think mainly of those passages which support my point of view. Reading and reflecting on the Bible systematically forces me to think outside my own confirmation-bias boxes. And that, I think, is a major part of spiritual formation. We are not supposed to use God for our own purposes; we are supposed to be transformed by God.  Don’t be conformed to the pattern of the world, writes Paul to the Romans. Rather be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

In the Gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus uses several metaphors in an attempt to explain the Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God to his followers. Matthew prefers the term “kingdom of heaven” whereas Luke and Mark use “kingdom of God”. They refer to the same thing: the world as it was meant to be rather than the way it is. One explanation for the difference in terminology is that Matthew, who was Jewish, was uncomfortable using or even writing the name of God, whereas the Gentile writers Luke and Mark were not. The metaphor of the mustard seed is found in all three synoptic gospels; the leaven metaphor is found in both Matthew and Luke; and the metaphors of the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the fisherman’s net are found only in Matthew. (Click here for an interesting chart which compares the parables of Jesus in different sources).

Jesus often used metaphors and stories to explain concepts which were otherwise difficult for his listeners to understand. The writers of the gospels collected these sayings and stories and compiled them to suit their own unique narrative perspectives. I like stories. They are often truer than facts, and they frequently have the ability to speak across time and space. We can read the parables of Jesus today through our own lenses of life experience and longing, and they can speak to us where we are as meaningfully as they did to those who first heard them. Here’s what these parables of the kingdom are saying to me today.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like a mustard seed. It begins as something very small and seemingly insignificant, but it takes root and grows into something that cannot be overlooked, something which provides food and shelter to the birds who take refuge in its many branches. The mustard plant is rooted in the earth, not the sky, and it exists not only for itself, but to meet the needs of others. That’s how God designed the world to be. The kingdom of heaven is not so much “pie in the sky by and by” as it is God bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice.    As N T Wright has written in “The Day The Revolution Began”, pie-in-the-sky theologies are a form of “Platonized eschatology” that bears little resemblance to the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. Although I certainly hope to enjoy pie at the heavenly banquet one day, the Kingdom of God is something that God intends to intrude into our present reality.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like a woman kneading bread. If you’ve ever kneaded bread by hand, you know that a fair amount of work is involved in the process. You don’t just toss the ingredients in a pan and wait for it to rise. You have to push and pull and manipulate the dough, adding additional flour or water as needed, until it is firm and elastic and no longer sticky. Only then do you wait for the yeast to work its magic and the bread to rise. Again, the metaphor implies that the kingdom of God starts small and grows into something big, but in this case human effort is also involved. God expects the effort and involvement of human beings in the bending of the arc of the moral universe to his design.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like buried treasure or a very expensive piece of jewelry. It’s valuable, but it is also costly. The person who finds hidden treasure forgotten in a field, or the merchant in search of fine gems, think that their finds are so valuable that they happily liquidate all their other assets. Do we feel the same way when it comes to following the way of life taught and modeled by Jesus? When we reduce the kingdom of heaven to a get-out-of-jail free card easily obtainable by assenting to a correct set of theological beliefs, we’re in danger of succumbing to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the fallacy of “cheap grace“. Not only that, we’re also in danger of missing out on the full value of the treasure God wants for us- and the entire created world- to have.

The kingdom of heaven is like a fisherman sorting his catch, keeping that which is good and getting rid of what is bad. Unlike the previous parables, this one implies that the road to the kingdom of God isn’t pot-hole free. In the words of Frederick Buechner,  “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid”.  I have vivid memories of “going shrimping” as a child growing up on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Shrimping involves casting out and pulling a large net behind a slow-moving boat for an extended period of time. After sufficient time had elapsed, we’d haul in the net and begin the process of sorting our catch. We kept the shrimp, crabs, and other tasty edibles, but threw back pinfish and other “trash” fish, along with rocks, oyster shells, and assorted useless debris. We had to watch out for stingrays, which were sometimes embedded in the nets, and could inflict a painful wound if you weren’t careful. Those we chopped up and used for crab bait. It’s interesting that this parable is the only one in this set that is given an explanation. The most interesting piece to me isn’t that there is an element of judgement, although I certainly hope not to be found useful only for crab bait. It’s that human beings aren’t in charge of the judging. God seems to cast a pretty wide net while trolling for citizens of his kingdom. Maybe we should, too.

 

 

 

I Solemnly Swear That I Am Up To No Good

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5)

In the Harry Potter novels, the Marauder’s Map is accessed by the use of the passphrase “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good”. Rowling intended this to be a bit ironic, because generally her characters used the map for good, although possibly rule-breaking, purposes. In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus elaborates on the commandment  “Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord thy God in vain”. Jesus goes beyond the rule to the principles of honesty and loyalty that underpin it. Don’t promise something you have no intention of delivering, or can’t deliver.

When I was a child, I thought the Third Commandment referred to “cussing”, meaning using “bad words”, some of which strangely enough had more to do with bodily functions than with God. Adhering to that understanding of one of the Big Ten might have kept me out of trouble with parents and teachers, but that’s not at all how I understand that commandment now. Most modern translations of the Hebrew words phrase it “you shall not misuse the name of God”, and there are many passages in the Old Testament which give examples of the proper and improper use of oath-taking. Using God’s name to promise something was a kind of unbreakable vow, at least for men; a woman’s vow could be overruled by her father or husband. Whatever you promised in God’s name had to be done, even if it turned out to be a rash statement, as Jephthah learned to his sorrow. A modern parallel might be the courtroom custom of placing one’s hand on the Bible and swearing to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

The problem with attempting to regulate moral behavior with rules instead of principles is that it does not always work. People look for and find loopholes or twist the intended purpose of the law in order to benefit themselves, and that does not make God happy. In Matthew 23, Jesus gives one example of such behavior in his time, coupled with a strong warning that it is highly displeasing to God. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You traverse land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes it sacred?”  Today anyone who keeps up with the news is painfully aware of how often political figures distort the truth to serve their own purposes, make empty promises, and/or dance around the edges of perjury. And don’t get me started on people who claim that God wants you to send them money, or that God told them to run for political office, or that God told them to commit acts of violence and hate in his name. I think God gets especially mad when people use his name to say and do things that drive people away from God. As Paul put it, God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” 

Using God’s name in vain is serious business, and God’s name is used in vain when it is invoked to make promises that won’t be fulfilled, or when it is used to justify human behavior that it is self-serving or harmful to others. Just leave God’s name out of it, Jesus says. Say what you mean and mean what you say. A tree will be known by its fruits, and if you regularly practice the principles of honesty, loyalty, and commitment that will be readily apparent to others as well as pleasing to God.

 

 

 

 

Joshua, Jesus, Constantine, and Christ

It’s interesting to me that Joshua and Jesus have the same Hebrew name (יְהוֹשׁ֫וּעַ in Hebrew; Ἰησοῦς in Greek, meaning “Yahweh saves.” The meaning of the name accurately describes both Joshua and Jesus, but their approaches to carrying out God’s salvation were quite different. Joshua is portrayed as a military leader who led the conquest of Canaan, killing every man, woman, child, and animal in cities under the ban, along with those of his own people who did not follow those instructions to the letter. Jesus is the suffering servant and good shepherd who  taught nonviolence  and demonstrated God’s love by “dying for us while we were yet sinners.” The two approaches seem quite opposite to me, and I wrote about this in an earlier post on the book of Joshua. How exactly does God save? Through power and control, or through love and service?

One of the reasons many first century Jews had such a hard time accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah is that he did not fulfill their expectations of a conquering military hero who would toss the Roman bullies out of Israel and re-establish a Davidic dynasty. Instead of using his divine superpowers to control people and perhaps strike a few of them dead, he healed the sick and fed the hungry. Instead of living in luxury in a palace and demanding obeisance from cowed subjects, he lived the lifestyle of a homeless itinerant teacher who told his followers that the first shall be last and “the greatest among you shall be your servant”   Instead of calling down ten thousand angels to rescue him and strike down those who tortured and mocked him, he prayed “Father, forgive them.” Paul makes the contrast clear in his letter to the Philippians when he describes Jesus as someone “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;  rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

It’s pretty clear to me that most of the early Christians tried to apply the example and teachings of Jesus to their own lives and situations.  In fact, that’s where the descriptor “Christian” came from, and it was not originally meant as a compliment. “Christians” were people whose first loyalty was to Christ, not Caesar, and that was a very dangerous thing to do in the Roman Empire. “Christians” also tried to emulate the behavior of Jesus in their interactions with others, and that was considered a very foolish thing to do. In spite of, and probably also partially because of, continuing antipathy from those in positions of power, the faith continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire.

By the turn of the fourth century, political factions threatened to split the Roman Empire into East and West components, with several contenders jockeying for power on both sides. There were two schools of thought on the part of these would-be emperors on how to deal with the exponential growth of Christianity: doubling down on persecution, or assimilation.  In 312 AD,  legend has it that Constantine, one of the contenders for the Western throne, had a dream of a cross and the words “In this sign you will conquer”. He directed his soldiers to paint their shields with a sign of the cross, the battle went his way, and he converted to Christianity. Although the historical jury is out as to whether his conversion was genuine or practical, Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, and assimilation began. The persecuted were now the powerful, and Constantine was their Joshua, the hand of God who saved them and led them into the promised land.

However, in the retrospect of centuries, it seems to me that Constantine’s conversion was one of the most spiritually dangerous things that ever happened to the church. Those in power generally want to stay in power, and the threat of hellfire and damnation became quite a useful  tool to ensure forced obedience. Christianity and Christendom are not the same thing. Christians are followers of Christ, whose ultimate loyalty is to God alone. Christendom is a conflation of Christianity and empire, and its subjects have divided loyalties. The way of Christ is the way of love and service. The way of empire is the way of power and control. Where Christ transforms, empire compels. They are not compatible. There’s a (probably apocryphal) quote attributed to Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” I can’t help but think that the Christians to whom Gandhi was referring were more ambassadors for Christendom than ambassadors for Christ.

Joshua is recorded as saying in his farewell speech to the Israelite people, Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house I will serve the Lord.” Jesus warned his followers, “No one can serve two masters.” Which will it be, the way of power and control or the way of love and service? The way of Constantine or the way of Christ?

As for me and my house, I choose Christ.

 

 

 

 

Romans: It’s Not Up to Us

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans is a book thick with theology, as well as some fairly practical advice about how to get along in a world generally hostile to those who would follow Jesus. The study of Romans has often been at the heart of major paradigm shifts in the understanding God, most notably Martin Luther’s “Tower Experience” which led to the Protestant Reformation. In my opinion, the church today, especially that branch of it identified as “evangelical Christianity”, has gone just as far off track as the medieval church had prior to Martin Luther and St. Francis. Perhaps sometime soon the study of Romans will again  correct the course of the organized church as it strives to navigate the narrow path between the Scylia of orthopraxy and the Charybdis of orthodoxy.  What Romans says to me is that it is neither what we do or what we think that “saves” us: it’s God.

In Romans, Paul has quite a bit to say about both “sin” and “the wrath of God”. Like “gospel” and “salvation”, these are concepts that have different meanings for different people. Trying to explain them to someone who doesn’t share the same frame of reference is a bit like Dathon trying to communicate with Picard. So I think to understand what Paul means when he writes “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith” we have to try to understand what he means by his terminology. That means not only not lifting words out of their original context in order to make them say what we want them to say, but also in trying to see things from Paul’s perspective rather than our own.

Paul describes himself prior to his conversion as a super-Pharisee. The Pharisees often get a bad rap and most people who know a little about the Bible will quickly associate the word “hypocrite” with “Pharisee.”. But they didn’t think of themselves that way. They were very concerned with orthopraxy- what they understood to be correct behavior- as necessary for the survival of the nation. (Sound familiar?) I think the hypocrisy of the Pharisees was not deliberate, but unintentional, which is why Jesus often described them as “blind”. It’s not possible to do everything right all the time and never make a mistake, however much one might try. The usual Greek word used in the Bible for “sin” is “hamartia, which means “missing the mark” or “error”  When Paul writes “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”, he uses “hamartia“, which leads me to believe that he was not talking about specific rule violations, but about mistakes, errors- missing the mark. Whether intentional or unintentional, missing the mark often leads to unwanted and harmful consequences. As Paul learned on the road to Damascus, sometimes zealous adherence to the rules is itself hamartia, an error that can lead to grievous consequences. Trying to follow all the rules does not work. Trying to get others to follow all the rules generally serves only to lead one further into error.

If following all the rules isn’t the right emphasis, neither is orthodoxy-giving intellectual assent to all the right doctrines. “The righteous shall live by faith” has come to mean giving intellectual assent to all the right beliefs. What started out as a fairly simple confession that “Jesus is Lord” has been encrusted over the years with so many doctrinal barnacles that the pearl is almost forgotten. And as anyone who has studied church history can attest, some of these must-believe tenets change, often more as a result of political power struggles than of theological epiphanies. I’m pretty comfortable with Paul’s short summary of an early confession of faith  and the somewhat later Apostle’s Creed as sufficient definition of what constitutes “orthodox Christian belief”. There are many other things that people have said in the past and are saying today are non-negotiable, such as transubstantiation of the Eucharist or the inerrancy of the Bible, but I don’t agree with them. Trying to think all the right thoughts is impossible, not only because there are so many differences of opinion, but because you can’t wish away or suppress doubts and questions. Insisting that others must think the same way you do generally pushes people away from God, rather than drawing them to him.

I am sadly amused although not surprised when some people refer to the laundry list of sins Paul mentions in Romans 1, usually emphasizing the juicy part about lustful same-sex attractions, without following his train of thought all the way to its conclusion in Romans 2. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things”  People also often do not back up far enough into Romans 1 to see what Paul sees as the root cause of all sins: idolatry. I’m with N T Wright on this one: Sin is not a primarily a failure to follow moral rules, but a failure to live up to our vocation. We were created in the image of God and meant to reflect the image of God in the world around us, and we haven’t done that very well. God creates; we destroy. God sustains; we come in like a wrecking ball. God heals; we harm. God redeems; we abandon. God loves; we hate. We may not turn to gods of wood and stone and metal, but we turn to gods of power and control and wealth and hedonism. When Baal, Mammon, and Astarte become our role models it is bound to end badly, or as Paul understands it “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” as a result of God giving up on idolatrous self-absorption and allowing its natural consequences to play out.

Romans begins with bad news. We’re in a real mess, and the world is in a real mess because of us, and there’s really nothing we can do about it. But the good news is that it’s not up to us; it’s up to God. We don’t have to do everything perfectly, nor do we have to understand God in the same way. God has himself provided the solution, and his name is Jesus. There are many metaphors used in the Bible which try to explain what Jesus did when he “died for our sins according to the Scripture”  and many resultant theories which attempt to translate metaphor into doctrinal explanations. I’m sure the truth is out there somewhere, but the fact that there are so many different metaphors says to me that it isn’t something that can easily and neatly be explained. In the words of one of my favorite old hymns:” I know not how this saving faith To me He did impart, Nor how believing in His Word Wrought peace within my heart.But “I know Whom I have believed, And am persuaded that He is able To keep that which I’ve committed Unto Him against that day.”

I also remember that Jesus’s first words to his first disciples were “Follow me” and some of his last ones were “Make disciples” When Jesus is our role model and the lens through which we see God, we begin the process of being transformed into the image-bearers we were meant to be, and through us, the world can also be transformed. I like the way the Message paraphrases Paul’s instructions in Romans 121-2:: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”

And that’s good news to me!

Good Kings, Bad Kings

 

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.  He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.  As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.  He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites.  He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.  Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord’s command.

The books of Kings pick up where the books of Samuel leave off. David dies, and his son Solomon becomes king after a brief power struggle with his older brother. Solomon starts off fairly well, asking God for wisdom to effectively govern his people, but then things start to go downhill. He builds an elaborate temple for God and palace for himself, along with a number of other ambitious projects requiring a great deal of taxation and conscripted labor. His primary method of international diplomacy seems to have been marrying into the families of the surrounding nations, and he did quite an astonishing amount of that. He also seems to have not fully bought into the idea of monotheism and decides to cover his bases by building places of worship for gods other than Yahweh. So Solomon, who ruled the united kingdom of the twelve tribes at its zenith at about 1000 BC, is given rather mixed reviews. The nation splinters in two after the death of Solomon; and over the next few hundred years, Judah and Israel are ruled separately by kings of varying competency.  Israel falls to the Assyrians in 722 BC and Judah to the Babylonians in 586 BC. (click here for a bit more of this history)

For the writers of Kings, good kings were those who were unwaveringly committed to the God of Israel and actively discouraged the worship of other gods, often by quite violent means. Most of them, with a few notable exceptions like Hezekiah and Josiah, failed miserably at this task. From this perspective, Israel and Judah were conquered not because of bad leadership on the part of their monarchs, or because of the greater strength of the invading armies, but because the people had strayed from following the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

So what’s the good news in the sad story of the decline and death of a nation as told in the books of Kings? I think it lies mostly in the fact that we know what happens next. The concept of monotheism is developed and refined in the crucible of exile. Prior to this time, most people understood that gods were not only many, but also localized. Yahweh was the god of the Israelite people, just as Ashtoreth, Chemosh, and Molek were the gods of the peoples who occupied the surrounding lands. Sometimes there were divine territorial overlaps, resulting in several dramatic  “my god can beat your god up” stories, the most famous of which is probably Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal. If gods are limited to particular territories, then it follows that God wouldn’t leave his home territory and accompany the exiles to Babylon.

Somehow, sometime, somewhere in Babylon the exiled Israelites began to understand that God was bigger than they thought. God wasn’t limited to the land of Israel, but was with them in Babylon. The dwelling place of God was not a place in space and time, but a place in the heart. There is no where they could go, or be taken, where God would not be with them. As Paul expressed it so beautifully many centuries later,

For I am sure 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.”

And that’s good news.