Wednesday, July 16, 2014

God subverts the Undesirable

Sixteenth Ordinary Sunday Year A

This week’s fare is a set of three parables offered for our consternation. Parables often complicate faith. They seem to be contrary to our present modern culture’s impatience with the mysterious and the cryptic. We want statements of faith that clear, concise, unambiguous and palatable. In fact, we want our lives and the world to be perfect, devoid of messiness and troubles. Thus, the perennial search for perfect understanding, for Shangri-La and the Final Solution to all our troubles. The parables of Christ, however, subvert this desire to make faith simple and understandable and life uncomplicated. Instead, they demand our eternal return to their words, our wrestling with them, and our puzzling over them. I would often like to think of the parables as part of the Divine Comedy. And just like any kind of a joke, they utterly fail if you have to explain them, you either “get it” or you don’t. Except that the parables are no joke, they’re a matter of life and death.

After listening to complaints from parishioners for over ten years, I’ve come to realise that the common request or suggestion is that I should summarily reprimand, remove or dismiss all the ‘troublemakers’ in the parish. My usual reply is that if I were to act on every complaint, including the complains I get about the complainers; I would end up sacking over 90% of the people in the parish! But I guess this tendency goes beyond the parish. We seem to have a natural human desire to root out and destroy all that troubles us. We want to look for the final solution to our problems. But in doing so, we end up devising greater suffering. Perhaps, the best example of this point is found in the Nazi’s Final Solution – millions of Jews and other nationalities and differently able persons had to die in this mad search for perfection.

The opening parable of today's gospel is loud and clear: If we want to be faithful servants of God that can produce a fruitful harvest, we must be ready to live alongside those we perceive as darnel or weeds. The counsel of Jesus is prudent, “Let them both grow till the harvest.” It is a reminder that life can be messy and we need not and should not play God. . Since this is God’s Kingdom, he sets the agenda, he lays out the path, and he determines the deadline. The problem is that the difference between the wheat and darnel is not always going to be obvious, and that there is potential danger of mistaking the good for the bad, the will of man for that of the will of God. Furthermore, one may find both wheat and darnel mixed up within every person. We may risk getting rid of the good in our zealous desire to root out the bad

Next we have two parables which are usually given a highly sedated interpretation of illustrating how the Kingdom of God can have humble beginnings. But let’s remember that the parables are not just simple allegorical stories.  And just like the paradox of Jesus’ life, they are intended to disturb and unsettle and throw everything off balance. And so we have the seemingly harmless parable of the Mustard Seed. What harm can we see in this? Most of us are familiar with mustard sauce, the White man’s substitute for our Asian chilly. Little do many realise that the mustard tree can grow like a weed and, like a weed, it’s virtually impossible to manage, and before you know it, it’s taken over the whole garden; hardly the kind of plant that you would wish to see in your vegetable and fruit garden. Furthermore, there is the matter of the birds - they may strike us as a charming touch, but as we Klangites can attest, they are probably crows, and therefore an ever-present threat to the crops. Thus, the parable provides the early listeners with a startling metaphor. Jesus uses a parasitic plant which has dangerous invasive take-over properties, which attracts undesirables, and which is allowed to grow to enormous proportions, to describe the Kingdom. 

And then there is the parable of the Yeast.  A woman takes some yeast, mixes it with flour, and the dough rises. Most of us like this parable. It makes us feel all warm and domestic and safe - just the way we like our religion. But this is not what it’s meant to be. This yeast is actually more accurately called leaven. Leaven isn’t your yeast that you can buy off the shelves of those sanitarily clean health food stores. In fact, it’s rotten dough. Leaven is unpleasant, disgusting, leaven stinks. Leaven in Jesus’ day was considered so foul that it was deemed to be ritually unclean, and it was banned from use in the Temple. On the eve of the Passover, the entire household will undertake a hunt of leaven within the house in order to remove this offending foodstuff ingredient. Indeed it had come to symbolise evil. And look how much flour the woman in parable uses to mix with her leaven- forty litres, half a hundredweight, enough to feed 150 people - a ridiculously enormous quantity! Something very odd, almost sinister, is going on here, as in the parable of the Mustard Seed. What is Jesus suggesting with this surrealistic image?

One thing we can be sure of is that Jesus is again setting out to shock his listeners on purpose. I mean, he says that the utterly holy - the kingdom of God - can only be understood if we compare it with the utterly unholy, loathsome leaven, and the undesirable, mustard. So put away any ideas that, in the world, proclaiming the kingdom of God will have about it the sweet smell of success. Indeed, don’t be surprised if it actually puts people off. Quietly, secretly, stealthily, subversively, the kingdom of Got rots away from within any expectations we may have of respectability, success, glory and the nice. The Kingdom will expand in ways that we can hardly anticipate and that will surely amaze and confound us.

So our three parables. Hardly, you’ll agree, bedtime stories for children. Not all about comfy-cosy rural or domestic scenes, nor about the squeakily clean and pristinely perfect. In fact, pretty disturbing images, upsetting our preconceived notions about God. Here we see that the growth of the Kingdom is always a messy affair. It’s made of the same stuff as the sharp pungent tasting mustard, and powerful, putrid leaven. Here we see that the kingdom is not only not in our control but has a way of getting completely out of control, and that it spreads not through mighty campaigns and crusades but, like a contagion, in hidden, seditious ways. God does not only tolerate the messiness but in fact subverts the messiness and uses it as the raw material of His Kingdom. Here we see that the kingdom belongs to people at the edge, poor people, disenfranchised people, invisible people, and that the kingdom comes to us precisely through the odd, the strange, the unexpected other; and, conversely, that it undermines and overturns the self-serving interests of self-righteous. And here we see that the kingdom can only be imagined - and re-imagined - not in spite of, but because of, small and trivial beginnings that will yet transform the world in unusual and unlikely but in fact quite natural and, if disruptive, certainly nonviolent ways.

The Kingdom of God has a tension. While we live here on earth, the Kingdom is messy and imperfect and in progress. We long for the time when the Kingdom will be complete, but for now we have to recognise that this is the way that God creates and works and brings good life. God allows the mess. He demonstrates the value of the mess through the death of His Son on the cross. In the moment of the cross, it becomes clear that evil is utterly subverted for good…. If God can take the greatest of evils and turn them for the greatest of goods, then how much more can he take the lesser evils which litter human history, and turn them to his good purpose as well. The cross demonstrates the veracity of these parables – God can subvert the worst evil for the greatest good, He can bring an unexpected blessing out of the most inexplicable form of suffering.

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