The Kingdom of Heaven is a Verb

From the Revised Common Lectionary reading for Sunday, 27 July, 2014:

31 [Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 ESV)

“The kingdom of heaven is like…” Jesus does a lot of speaking in parables. A lot of comparing. A string of similies hung together, each bearing witness to some aspect of God’s coming kingdom. (As a general rule, Jesus uses the term “Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew, and “Kingdom of God” elsewhere, though Heaven is found only in Matthew and God is used heavily in Luke to describe the same oncoming reality.)

Note what’s going on here. The kingdom of heaven is not a noun. It is not like a seed, or leaven, it is like a very tiny seed that a man takes and plants, a seed buried in the ground which then grows tall enough to provide shade, and a home for the birds. And again, this kingdom is like leaven — a packet of yeast — mixed through a mess of flour and water so that the leaven itself is lost but allows this mess of flour and water to rise. It is this whole process, from beginning to end.

For people is Jesus’ time (and for much of human history), this leavening, this germinating and sprouting, was a mystery. You could do the work, prepare the ground, mix the flour and the water, and then take that tiny seed and put it in the ground, but there was a whole that the planter, the baker, simply had no control over. There was a lot of waiting, and watching, and hoping. Under the right conditions, the seed would sprout and grow, the leaven would mix and make the flour and water into proper bread dough.

Like with last week’s readings, there’s a lot of work that is simply done all by itself. I won’t call it magic, but there’s a lot of labor we simply cannot do. We can prepare ground and plant seed, we can mix flour and water and work leavening through it, but in the end, the real work of this kingdom — the growing, the rising — is beyond us. It’s a mystery we cannot control.

UPDATE — This also suggests there is something deeply hidden about the working of this kingdom. Leaven, in this context, is like sourdough starter. Worked through, the leaven itself disappears into the dough so there is no distinction. The mustard seed is tiny, and is destroyed as the plant grows. Again, in both instances, the central thing working or being worked on in these parables disappears, and does its work mysteriously, ceasing to exist independently as it does so. Not sure quite what that means, but it is something to contemplate.

So far, so good. But what about the rest of these parables? “The kingdom of heaven is like” a treasure hidden in a field, which a man finds and then hides again. He then goes out and buys the whole field. Or it is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who sells all he has to buy one pearl of great price. Or it is like net thrown into the sea that brings up all sorts of fish, some of which will be kept and some tossed back (or thrown away, τὰ δὲ σαπρὰ ἔξω ἔβαλον). Again, in these short parables, we have action. In the case of the treasure and the pearl, we have the discovery of something hidden, something so worthwhile that twice, finders sell all they have to acquire them.

In the case of the treasure, this boggles the imagination. If I found a treasure in a field, I’d find some way to take it right then and there, lest someone else find it. Sure, it’s clever to sell all I have and then buy the field (this assumes there is a willing seller, but then too much reasoning and logic ruins these). What is clear in these first two is that what is sought is of such value that all is sold to acquire them.

I can’t help but see an allusion to crucifixion here, to the very life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are the treasure for which God gives of God’s-self, which God pays “all that he had” to buy. If this is an appropriate way of reading this passage of scripture, and of looking at the “kingdom of heaven,” then what is described in these second two parables is the process by which God redeems Israel — redeems us. Israel, the called-out people of God, is the treasure hidden in a field, is the pearl of great price, that must be redeemed by selling “all that he had” to buy it. Note, not buy it back, but simply buy it.

Finally, we have a parable of the end, very similar to the way Jesus described the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Fish are hauled in, and then separated into those worth keeping and those not worth keeping. Again, this is done by Angels “at the close of the age,” and not by the fish themselves, while evoking Jesus’ calling of the first disciples in Matthew 4:18-22. (There are no sleeping slaves in this parable.) Again, this sorting will result in a burning (ick!) and a “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The coming judgment is a harsh and terrible thing, in which God’s angels will separate weeds from wheat, bad fish from good.

But I’m honestly not sure what to do with the last bit. “Therefore let every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” There is something of a prefiguring of the Great Commission here, I think, at least that’s what I hear in this short passage. But it is also the last of “the kingdom of heaven is like” parables as well. Which means we who have been told these things, we scribes who have been trained for the kingdom, are also masters of sorts. And we have treasure. It’s the new and old here that throw me, that I am uncertain about. Perhaps this saying is a command to keep Jesus’ teaching fully grounded in the teaching of the prophets to Israel, in the story of Israel and Israel’s encounter with God. That this new thing Jesus is doing is not a departure from Israel’s story, but a continuation.

That’s just my musing on it. Clearly, I’m going to just have to sit with this for a bit, and see what sense it continues to make.

Isaac, Jesus and the Place of God in Human Violence

I’m an unrepentant reader of the ugliness and messiness in scripture. I am attracted to it, I gravitate toward it, and I don’t have ethical or logical problems with it. “Why would a good God do that? Why would a good God let that happen?” Not my questions.

In fact, I believe the ugliness and messiness speak specifically to human existence. And God’s presence in our lives.

I don’t think I’ve blogged much about here about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. I think we all know the story. It begins with God “testing” Abraham. In Hebrew, נִסָּה test, with the implication that knowledge is being sought, or that the heart is being measured, and in the case of this passage, The Theological Diction of the Old Testament (vol. 9, p. 450) says, the author of the Genesis 22 passage “seeks to show how someone who fears and obeys God should relate to God.” Which is all well and good. That Abraham is the subject of this story, and his trust in the promise of God is the subject of this story, is generally accepted and general taught. Abraham’s faithfulness in regards to his son (whether that son is Ishmael or Isaac) is the model of faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Doing what God says is what it means to follow and trust God.

Well, maybe. The problem I have with this interpretation is that it reduces Isaac to an object in Abraham’s faith drama. He’s no longer really a person. And by making this a “test,” we’ve also made it clear that God  didn’t really mean for Abraham to slit his son’s throat there on the mount of the Lord. That makes this a game. That makes faith a game, God’s promise a game, it makes Abraham’s faith less than real because it’s clear, if this a “test” in the sense that many of us understand that word, that none of what is going on is real. I remember, for some reason, one afternoon in Army basic training, the afternoon we spent then putting on and “clearing” our gas masks. (As well as taking them apart, learning how they worked, and seeing a nasty little film about what chemical weapons did to rodents.) After hours of this, we were graded on how quickly we could get into chemical protective gear. I think we had to have the masks out of their pouches, on, cleared and the hoods over our heads in under 18 seconds. There were no chemicals, no clouds of poisonous gas, just men with stop watches yelling at us. It was a “test” as we understand it — timed, graded, you could pass or fail but there were no real consequences for either (since everyone was tested until they passed).

But if we stick with the implications of the Hebrew, then what we have here is a quest for knowledge, and not a graded examination. God may have been testing Abraham, but God was not administering a test. And God isn’t the only one learning something.

(Personally, I think the best version of this story is Bob Dylan’s…)

So, I think it would be better to examine what Abraham’s faith looks like from Isaac’s standpoint. Because that’s the standpoint I think that matters. It’s our standpoint. Neither Abraham nor Isaac could truly know that God did not mean it what God said: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” (Gen. 22:2, ESV) Isaac has to assume that when Abraham binds him, and raises the knife, his father absolutely has to mean it and, following the command of God, God absolutely has to mean it.

And that tells me that we, as human beings viewing this from Isaac’s perspective have learned a couple of things:

  1. God is capable of commanding some human beings to do horrific things.
  2. And those human beings are capable of following through with that command.
We now know this. We cannot help but know this. And we know this about the God who called and promised things to us through this man Abraham. We know this about the very same God. Nothing is the same anymore. From this moment forward, the God who gathers and names a people, the God who promises that we shall be a blessing, that we shall father a nation, that we shall inherit a land — this is the same God who is willing to have our throats slit, to command that they be slit. We are inheritors not just of Abraham’s promise, but also of Isaac’s experience. Because of what we now know about God, learned about God that day.
And so now God becomes much more involved in human violence. But only selectively, and throughout the Exodus and Deuteronomistic narratives, God makes it clear that God alone saves God’s people in miraculous acts that drown an entire Egyptian army and its Pharaoh. Gideon gathers an army of over 30,000 to battle the Midianites, and God makes sure only 300 do the actually fighting, to make sure that Israel knows God alone delivers, and not human effort. Still, God is present in some of the worst stories in scripture (Judges 19-21 come to mind). I don’t know of an instance in which God intervenes to stop an act of violence. There are many violent acts in scripture which go unjudged and uncommented upon, which go unpunished and unanswered. Not even God comes off well much of the time, but God is always somehow present in with human violence, which is often times viewed as a judgment upon those being violated. (And make of that what you will.)
And what has this to do with Jesus? I’ve written before I’ve never been happy with Anselmian atonement narratives, mostly because they become a game God is playing with God’s-self, a game to which we are mere spectators. And we are not mere spectators. We are actively involved. Because we are doing the killing. 
I think the crucifixion story of Jesus Christ is a bookend for the Isaac story. Not in a sacrificial way (“I asked you to sacrifice your son, now I shall sacrifice mine,” God says, which is ridiculous when dealing with the Triune God), but rather how God has decided to deal with and be present in the reality of human violence. 
It is as if God, understanding by this point the awfulness and depravity that human beings are truly capable of, has become incarnate in order to be subject to it. Perhaps even to experience it. In the crucifixion, God is no longer commanding the awful things to happen, but incarnate as Christ is prophesying the awful things that will happen as the logical conclusion of a ministry that pronounces unearned forgiveness. (I owe the late Gerhard Forde this understanding.) God has learned enough about us to know how we are likely to react when God, present among us as a lone human being, seems to make promises, or is heard to make promises, that aren’t kept. God on the mountaintop in fire and thunder terrifies us. God drowning Pharaoh’s soldiers is terrifying. God as a sweaty, stinking, sometimes crabby human being with no army and not much in the way of followers is another matter entirely. That God is something a frightened, angry mob can deal with.
And so God issues no commands. Instead, God surrenders utterly to us, to the worst we are. God lifts no hand to stop the lash, to halt the procession to Golgotha, God does not come down off the cross. This is a test in the Hebrew sense — what are we learning in this moment? It is the lesson of Abraham — we are capable of the most horrific things, in this case the mob-sanctioned execution as a rebel of a man whose only crime was to offend sensibilities and forgive us our sins. 
But we learn more than that. God is still God, even dead and buried. And here, at the empty tomb, we learn God’s ultimate answer to human violence — it has no meaning. It answers nothing. From the experience of Isaac, we now know that God has shared our place on the mountain, wondered where the sacrifice would come from, watched the knife rise into the air, and then — unlike us — did not save God’s-self. We were saved. God stayed Abraham’s hand. But God did not stay ours. We slit the throat. We walked away. We said “we do not know him.” We demanded God’s death because God didn’t save us in the way we wanted. We betrayed God to the authorities and then hung ourselves in despair.
God’s answer to the violence God became a part of In Genesis 22 is to give in to that violence, to surrender to it, to show us that violence is powerless in the face of God’s promise. Christ is the answer to Isaac.