Secondary Education

Jer. 15:15-21 (Ex. 3:1-15), Rom. 12:9-21, Mt. 16:21-28 (for Sep 3, 2017)

We have come to the great turning point in Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary. We might think of it as the end of primary school and the matriculation to secondary school. So far the message has been the Kingdom of God but now we move to the Cross of Christ. We might summarize Jesus’ message as follows:

  1. Virtue will ultimately win (the message of the Kingdom of God)
  2. Virtue can only win by losing (the Cross of Christ)
  3. Virtue is not incremental (the process of getting better and better) but emergent.

The hard part of this lesson (the thing that makes this secondary education rather than primary education) lies in the question, “But why does evil have to win?” The answer is that it’s not precisely accurate to say that evil has to win, rather it has to reveal itself for what it is. This goes back to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. One dare not remove the tares from the wheat until they are both mature or the harvester will inevitably confuse the two. There is a catch: a tare, being a tare, will grow more aggressively and it will appear that the tare will squeeze out the wheat. In other words, it will appear that evil is winning.

With this in mind, let’s return to the third point above. Not only is virtue emergent, evil is also emergent. Prior to the most recent election cycle there was a predominant (barely predominant, but predominant nonetheless) consensus that liberalism was virtuous and conservatism was not. The conservative tendency to hold on to “outdated” ideas (and for this consensus to hold, the questionable assumptions must be made 1. that it is outdated and 2. that which is outdated is less virtuous) made it “obvious” that conservativism is mean (which literally means “small minded”). When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, there was a great deal of fear (driven by the predominant consensus) that a great deal of meanness and evil would result when (not if, but when) Hillary Clinton won the election.

We will never know whether the Republicans would have lost graciously, but what was revealed was a shocking level of malevolence and evil on behalf of supposedly virtuous liberal culture toward conservative culture. “Sore loser” doesn’t even come close to describing it. The media, rather than just analyzing the loss, began to systematically dehumanize Donald Trump and his supporters. (This is, by the way, when I canceled my subscription to the Washington Post. They had by far the best post-election coverage, but mixed in with that outstanding coverage was a malevolence and dehumanization of the perceived enemy that sunk to such depths I couldn’t read the paper without being dragged down into the muck.

This is not to say the conservatives were virtuous. Tit for tat, they were busy dehumanizing the liberals and also participating in the same evil the liberals were enslaved by and American society sunk to a new low of dehumanization and evil that has led many intellectuals to seriously wonder whether this is the beginning of the end of democratic experiment of America that was begun some 250 years ago.

And this brings me back to the Gospel lesson. In the midst of this emergent evil I try valiantly to not become a Peter. In Matthew Jesus said that he must be crucified at the hands of the religious leaders. Peter said it absolutely would not happen, and Jesus immediately and with no equivocation said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” To use a football metaphor, it’s the third quarter and virtue is losing badly in this quarter. (The leader of the apostles just got called satan!) To return to the parable, this is the quarter where the tares grow madly like weeds (which they are) while the wheat continues its steady pace. But it’s only the third quarter and the victory of losing (the victory of the cross) will only be revealed at the resurrection. The end game is not yet afoot.

But Jesus has now turned to our secondary education. We must learn that what we thought was virtue must die so that a new and even more glorious virtue can emerge. Virtue is not the good stuff we used to do made even better; virtue is a divine gift that can only be received when we recognize that the stuff we were holding on to is rubbish. The Kingdom of God is the first half of the game. The Cross is the third quarter (where we are now), but victory only comes in the fourth quarter.

This doesn’t mean that I believe the United States will come out of this stronger and better. (This isn’t about the U.S., it’s about the Kingdom of God and we ought not confuse the two!) The United States as a leader in democracy, human rights, and what we thought to be virtuous, might be in its final death throes (although I actually doubt that is the case). What we do know is that we need to let our old virtue die. We need to recognize that the whole myth of a Christian nation was not wheat but tares. We need to recognize the tares, the evil, for what it is. Only when we let go all those values we held so dearly … only when we die, will it be revealed what actual victory looks like. “Get behind me Satan!”

Commenting on God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring would be slaves for 400 years before they became a great nation (in Lecture X of his “Bible Series” on YouTube), Jordan B. Peterson observed that tyranny precedes freedom. “All people are subject to the tyranny before freedom.” The only way to throw off the shackles tyranny is to die, and so the path through is the path of the Cross. To deny this is satanic and to that Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” As Peterson would probably say to this, “Yeah, that’s one hell of a deal, man.” But that’s the way it is. Welcome to your secondary education.

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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.”

An Inconvenient Truth

The Gospel lesson for Sunday, July 16, is what Jesus called “the Parable of the Sower.” (The parable appears in Mt. 13:1-9 and Jesus’ own interpretation appears in 18-23.) To the extent it is a parable about the Sower, then it is a defense of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t particularly successful at this moment. (For instance, no one had a clue what he was talking about when he spoke in parables.) This parable is an emphatic reminder that the incarnation wasn’t about Jesus’ ministry and its success, it was all about the Kingdom.

As we turn our focus to our contemporary situation, it might be helpful to reframe this parable, as Lloyd Ogilvie did in his book Autobiography of God, and think of this as the Parable of the Soils. There is “rocky ground.” This person receives the Gospel with joy, but when “troubles or persecution” comes, they do not endure. There is “thorny ground.” This person hears the word but “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” distract them. But there is also “good soil.” This person “hears,” “understands,” and “bears fruit.”

This parable does not speak of repentance directly. In fact, a facile reading may lead us in a different direction completely, because Jesus says that the person who “hears” and “understands” is the one who bears fruit. Being a culture that holds reason and science as the highest ideal, we tend to conflate “understanding” with reason. But when we speak of understanding the message of the kingdom, something rather different is at work.

John the Baptist went about preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In the parts of last week’s Gospel lesson that were scandalously left out, Jesus condemned the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida for not repenting (Mt. 11:21). The Kingdom of Heaven life is not compatible with life as we normally live it and so to “hear” and “recieve” the Kingdom, at the most fundamental level, requires us to repent of our current life and way of doing things. Understanding is not an intellectual item but an action item.

I am friends with a Roman Catholic priest and Missouri Synod pastor. We often see each other at the local cigar lounge where they smoke cigars and I smoke my pipe. It is friendship that is becoming increasingly strained because we view ministry/kingdom quite differently. This week my pastor friend showed us a meme that is currently floating around religious leaders circles. The author claimed that if the men in his congregation knew as much about the Bible as they did about football stats, he would have a great congregation. Both priest and pastor chuckled and agreed wholeheartedly. Both then turned to me for the obligatory chuckle and affirmation that, yes, this is why ministry is so difficult today.

But I wasn’t amused. I simply arched my eyebrow and said, “Really? You think that’s what you want?” In the following silence it was clear that they were waiting for me to explain why I was being such a buzzkill. So I pondered out loud just what sort of people seemed to know every football stat in the last twenty years: out of shape men who are somewhat bitter about how life has turned out for them, so they sit around Buffalo Wild Wings, commiserating and trying to outdo each other with their trivial knowledge. I concluded by saying that I would far rather have people who were committed to playing the game than those who replaced that sort of discipline with information about how others play the game.

Paul, uses that very analogy in his letters. We should train like athletes, be disciplined like soldiers (2 Tim 4, et. al.). He warned Timothy, “Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith” (1 Tim 6:20-21).

The church fathers used the Greek word askesis (“athletics” in English) to describe kingdom life. With this word they encapsulated what it means to be good soil. Repentance involves rigorous training (according to Paul) so that the rocky soil can be broken up and the thorns and weeds removed. Then, the Gospel can produce great fruit.

My friendship with the priest and pastor are strained because we live in a time when repentance and askesis are not celebrated. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, leave verses out of the lectionary that clearly emphasize the consequences of not repenting. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, think that if their congregations have Bible knowledge, their pastoral ministries will be improved.

But I’m here to tell you that the church, at its core, is not a place to transmit knowledge. The church, at its core, is not a place to serve the world. At its core, the church is a place to repent so that the vibrant life of the kingdom can begin to seep into, and eventually pour into our broken and dried up souls.

Ah, but isn’t it both? Isn’t the church both a place of knowledge and repentance? Isn’t the church both a place of service and repentance?

Repentance is not pleasant. It’s not hard, but we will avoid it if we can. This is why Jesus called the kingdom an “easy yoke.” A yoke is something you put around an animal’s neck. We need a yoke so that we don’t throw it off when it is inconvenient. But it is not a terrible yoke, it is an easy yoke (see the previous essay on last week’s lectionary readings).

If we emphasize that the church is both a place of knowledge and repentance, the effect will be to avoid the repentance (which is inconvenient at best) and settle for the knowledge. And we will end up with a Buffalo Wild Wings sort of congregation where we keep statistics on other Christians while sitting around being entertained. This is why we must insist that the church is a place of repentance, period. Once that actually happens, then knowledge and service and prayer will grow out of the repentance itself. Knowledge and service will be the fruit of repentance. This is the good soil. Any other path will inevitably lead to hard rocky soil and weeds.

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.