Hidden Evil and the Hidden Kingdom

The Gospel lessons for the last two Sundays form an interesting contrast. On July 23 (Mt 13:24-30 with interpretation in 36-43) we heard that Kingdom of Heaven is like a wheat field in which an enemy has secretly sown tares (a weed that is almost indistinguishable from wheat).

“You want me to clear the weeds so they don’t compete with the wheat?” asks the servant. “No,” says the landowner. “You can’t tell the difference between the two. Wait until harvest and separate them when you can tell the difference.”

On occasion that which we think is evil in our lives turns out to be, if not a virtue in and of itself, at least something that builds virtue within us. More often that which we think is virtuous turns out to be a subtle form of evil. Thrift, for instance, might simply be stinginess that has not yet reached fruition. Kindness is sometimes a mask for manipulation. And so the field (that is, our heart) is the strange mix of good grain and weeds that we must deal with throughout our lives, the weeds never completely being removed until we die.

Too often we assume that this text is describing an event where the evil people get separated from the righteous people. While there is an element of this (the angels will gather all evildoers), there is also something more fundamental going on. “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers … Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Why is it that the righteous will be able to shine? Because the cause of sin will be removed from their hearts. It is easy and comfortable (assuming we think of ourselves as being one of the righteous) to draw the line between evil and righteous and then put ourselves on one side and evil people on the other. But this is not quite what the text says. Solzhenitsyn famously said that the line between good and evil cuts straight through the human heart.

We learn here that the judgment is not about getting rid of bad stuff. That is certainly an “effect,” but God’s cause is to make us shine like the sun. The “cause” is purification; the “cause” is to make the gold shiny. The “effect” of this action is the removal of evil. That order may seem inconsequential, but the significance is that the judgment is not that ultimately terrible thing that we too often dread. Like a young child that screams in terror before the bath, the bath turns out to be not quite as horrible as expected, and the effect of being squeaky clean before going to bed is quite wonderful.

I won’t ignore the fact that some people refuse to let go of their evil and as a result get gathered up along with “the causes of sin,” but again, this is not the goal of the judgment, it is a side effect. If we love our sin (and refuse to let go of it) more than we love God, when the sin is removed, we get swept away with the sin because they’re still holding on. So while some people (the “evildoers” in this text) are judged, it is worth noting that this is not actually the point of the judgment.

This coming Sunday’s text (also from Mt. 13) turns the theme of the previous parable on its head. If the former was about the hiddenness of evil within the Kingdom, this text is about the hiddenness of the Kingdom within the world. It is like a tiny seed that grows into a tree, it is like the yeast, which is invisible in the flour, but transforms the flour into soft, fluffy, and desirable bread. It is like a treasure hidden in a field that one must search for to find.

Everything is hidden. And this is not merely rhetorical flourish. It is so central to these parables that we must consider this truth carefully. What we see is the world, the created order, society, and culture. We may be enamored by or disgusted with culture. We may think the earth is pretty indestructible or worry about an apocalypse, in some form, that’s just around the corner. We may see the religions of the world and think that they are the problem or contributing to a solution. But beyond what we see is the Kingdom of Heaven. We too quickly want to conflate the Kingdom of Heaven with “my church” or this environmental organization, or that political philosophy. But the Kingdom and all those things cannot be conflated. The Church should be an expression of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not identical to it. The Church (in terms of denominations or bishops, or buildings, or confessions) are human structures and the line of the kingdom slices right through them. It requires eyes of faith to see the kingdom within the structures of the world.

And even more hidden than the Kingdom of Heaven is evil. Evil expresses itself in institutions, people, political ideologies, and even the seemingly innocent desires of our hearts. But its root is hidden deep in the human heart. And evil appears so benign that we have “a devil of a time” (to borrow a phrase from Bulgokov’s novel, The Master and Margarita) telling the difference between evil and the Kingdom of Heaven.

So what’s a person to do with all this hiddenness? The answer is twofold. First we must search for the true presence of the Kingdom of Heaven like a person searching for a treasure in a field. Second, it’s a given that as we search we will find evil everywhere we think we find the Kingdom, and vice versa. But don’t be discouraged. God will take care of the evil in due course (both the “evil ones” in society and the evil within your own soul). Don’t let evil distract you. Seek the Kingdom and God’s righteousness and God will reward you richly.

St. Porphyrios said (and I keep this quote on my phone to be reminded of it regularly), “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look toward Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.”

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Our Role (and lack of it) in the Kingdom of God

Here’s an exercise in presuppositions. I have been reading the book, What Is the Mission of the Church?, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. On the chapter about the Kingdom of God, they ask whether there is a human role in God’s work of establishing the Kingdom.

Of course no one argues that we Christians are tasked with building the new heavens and the new earth from bottom to top. That would be as impossible as it is ridiculous. But there are a number of people who have argued that we as Christians at least have a hand in the creation of the new heavens and the new earth – that we partner with God in his mission to restore the cosmos. As energizing as that may sound, though, it simply doesn’t ring true with the way the Bible talks about the new heavens and new earth. There’s the clear testimony of the passages we’ve just considered, but there’s also the fact that the land in which God’s people dwell – whether the Promised Land or the new earth – is always said to be a gift from God to his people. [p. 205]

This paragraph caught me by surprise. I had just read “the clear testimony” of a dozen passages and they did not strike me as excluding humans. (Ah! Presuppositions!!) Furthermore, the dismissive and offensive idea that anyone can “have a hand in the creation,” initially struck me as merely a terrible caricature of those they disagreed with. But eventually I realized that this manner of viewing “cooperation” lies at the heart of so many disagreements between East and West. We have different presuppositions. It’s not just a “kingdom of God” issue, it’s how everything God touches is thought about.

The Eastern Church thinks of all of God’s relationships with all aspects of the created order in an incarnational manner. The idea of God being outside the universe and coming into the universe to manipulate it (as in the images of judgment common in the western church, for instance) is largely foreign to the Orthodox mind. But first a caveat. When I speak of thinking in “an incarnational manner,” I mean the paradigm for God’s involvement in the universe is specifically the incarnation of the Son. The Jewish hope for the Messiah might be summarized by Isa. 64:1, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence …” (ESV). That expectation was met in a completely unexpected manner. Rather than a conquering hero breaking in from the outside, God entered the world in fully human form, entering creation in an “inside out” manner. Thus God’s strength appeared to be weakness, and his glory appeared to be hidden.

In the Orthodox mind, this is not merely the mystery of Christmas, this is simply how God works. Divine action takes on human (or material) form and operates from the inside outward. Rather than calling this incarnational thinking – because that might imply for some people that God’s work in the Chosen People of Israel, in the Church, and in the Kingdom, is on par with the incarnation of the Son of God – it is probably better to call this sacramental thinking. A divine act is always clothed in an earthly form just as in the sacrament the Bread is the heavenly Body of Christ, although it most certainly remains bread.

So DeYoung and Gilbert are completely correct when they say that the Kingdom of God is purely [my word] “a gift from God to his people” [emph in original] but mistaken when they then conclude that this somehow excludes God’s people. The reason for their confusion is quite clear. They conceive cooperation between human and divine as meaning, “Christians at least have a hand in the creation of the new heavens and the new earth.” That image completely perverts sacramental thinking. We don’t “have a hand” in anything! Rather, we are the instruments of divine work in the world.

I “cooperate” only in the manner that Mary cooperated with God. All she did was open her being in willingness to God’s work: “I am the servant of the Lord.” She didn’t “give God a hand” by going out and getting pregnant (forgive me for being crass). She rather became the vessel of God’s work in the world, and thus became God’s hands and feet and mouth. To use the language of Paul, she became the Body of Christ in the world so that the Son of God might have a human body in order to fulfill his role as Christ.

God will act in his normal way, that is, through the stuff of creation, and pre-eminently through his willing human servants. In the meantime, as God’s servants we go about our life. We pray, we stay in fellowship with other Christians, and in that context of God and community we live in the world. The things we do as faithful Christians then become the building blocks of the Kingdom of Heaven, not because we’re trying to build the Kingdom (for that would by hubris) but simply because that’s how God works. From our human perspective the Kingdom is accidental, from the divine perspective, it is God’s gift to us.

I’m curious if any of you have read What is the Mission of the Church? It appears most of my readers are not Orthodox, so I’m also curious if you consider this incarnational way of thinking to be complete bollocks, or if you see a some sense in this view.

The Reality of the Kingdom of God

I’ve been reading the parables and one thing that surprises me is how difficult a time I have fully accepting the here-and-now reality of the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven. I went to a college steeped in dualism and one aspect of the expression of that dualism was the doctrine that the Kingdom of God was something in the future, distinct from the Church (which is now).  The reality of the Church was brought about by the Spirit (who is from up there) coming down here and indwelling believers. In contrast, the reality of the Kingdom of God will be achieved when God exerts control over the created order and brings believers up there where we will then dwell with him.

There are two facets of that doctrine that are worth noting. First, is the sense that the spiritual world is somehow less real or real in a very different sense than the physical world. Even though the college railed against the reductionist scientific secularism of this age, it had inadvertently bought into it by making such a stark distinction between the spiritual and the physical, by describing the two realities in such a distinct manner, and by inadvertently putting the Kingdom of God either “up there” or “out there” (as in a future reality vs a present reality).

Jürgen Moltmann, East German theologian, following his mentor, Karl Barth, was most eloquent on this point, talking about the future kingdom breaking into the here and now. Of course this theme was not limited to the Barthians, it was and is a common theme contemporary Protestant theology, often identified with the very structure of the church year, where the future reality of the Christmas and Easter cycles break into the contemporary reality of Common Time. Moltmann’s classic description of this supposed reality was his concept of the God of the future who we worship here and now.

But reading the parables I am struck dumb with the fact that the Kingdom of God is every bit as real and every bit here and now as anything else. Certainly we are blinded to the Kingdom of God by our sin and selfishness. The apocalyptic perspective so common in Mark’s Gospel as well as Paul’s early writings and the Apocalypse speak of a tearing open of everyday reality (the rending of the heavens) and the Kingdom pouring into our tiny reality through the tear. But the tear that is being spoken of is not a rip in space-time, or a rip in two separate realities, it more akin to the tearing of a burial shroud, so that the dead inside can see the light and life on the outside.

Moltmann was fond of saying that the Kingdom of God is more real than the space-time continuum in which we live. But I have come to see that this too is a false dichotomy, a dualistic way of thinking. Certainly there is a distinction between Creator and created, between that which is circumscribed and that which is limitless and eternal; one might even say that the Kingdom of God is a more dense reality, but that is far from saying that it is somehow more real than our lives here and now. To use a musical analogy, life here and now is like a two or three part harmony, but as the veil is torn open and we begin to hear more of reality that was already there; in this new life we can begin to hear the symphony.

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The other facet of the dualistic doctrine of the Kingdom of God has to do with control. The belief that God was  in control or sovereign was not only acknowledged, it was taken to the extreme of Dutch Calvinist version of predestination – our salvation was not our choice but God’s choice alone. But in spite of that overarching framework of divine sovereignty, there was also a belief that this world was a foreign place to God, a place where God had little domination. Because of how salvation worked in the divine plan, God had willingly ceded control of the world to Satan. The real reason the Kingdom of God was in heaven and in the future is because the present Kingdom of Earth was firmly in Satan’s control.

This is a view of control and domination that is strangely antithetical to the parables as I read them now. The Kingdom is hidden (like the pearl), it is patient, not demanding its way but allowing things to work out as they will (like the prodigal son), it is mysterious and makes little logical sense (like the unjust judge). It is seemingly overwhelmed by evil (like the wheat field full of tares). But all those perceptions grow out of our perverted sense of reality that has overtaken us by sin.

The whole idea of control and domination (the hallmark of the future, heavenly Kingdom of God, as I learned about it long ago), are actually antithetical to God and are in truth hallmarks of the satanic lie. God told the Israelite prophets that a Messiah would come and would accomplish a glorious victory. All the prophets could conceive of was battle, domination, and the utter destruction or submission of the enemy. That’s how the prophets framed God’s good promise. The reality of that victory couldn’t be more antithetical to what the prophets imagined. God’s great victory was accomplished through the utter rejection and crucifixion of God’s Son come in flesh, Jesus the Messiah. True victory often looks like defeat.

Similarly, the eternal kingdom of God is promised by God to be a complete and glorious victory of God over evil and a consequent marriage (ie union of two parties: human and God) and eternal banquet. The prophets imagine that as a violent war between heaven and earth in which Satan and the harlot are violently cast into the eternal flame of Jerusalem’s garbage dump (for that is what Gehenna literally was).

But God’s tactics were so magnificently successful at Calvary, why would God change his skin and do something utterly different and foreign to how he had done things before in the formation of the Eternal Kingdom? From the parables I am reminded that God wouldn’t do that. He is God and his love and purpose remain unchangeable and unchanging. Those who look for that sort of violent final overthrow and victory have fallen prey to Satan’s lie.

I’m not even going to try to sort out exactly how the end of days will look; I will wait for the denouement of this grand story. But I am confident that the Kingdom is here and very real for those who have been given the eyes and ears to sense and embrace it. Thanks be to God.