Wilderness and cultivation
“Religion in its purest form is a vast work of poetry.” (Carse, 111)
The first draft of “Weeds” was one long post. It began with my reaction to Matthew’s version of the weeds in the field parable, proceeded immediately with those insights from James Carse which now comprise the second half of Part II, and continued with an exploration of some recent biblical scholarship on the parables of Jesus. Then I got stuck.
Eventually, inner light showed me that I was not being honest with myself or my audience. Reading Carse has led me to significant faith openings. However, in the first draft I was slipping into an academic argument to mask my discomfort with the core metaphor of the parable: the sorting of the “good seeds” from the “weeds.”
Matthew told his first century audience that Jesus had explained his parable secretly to his disciples as an allegory. The good seed, Matthew wrote, are “those to whom Heaven’s domain belongs.” The weeds are “progeny of the evil one,” they are “subverters of the Law” who will be thrown “into the fiery furnace…[where they] will weep and grind their teeth” (Matt. 13:36-43).
By the definitions of almost every Christian belief system, I am one of the subverters of the Law. I am an unrepentant homosexual man, in a lifelong marriage with the man I love. I believe that people of any religion who aspire to follow the Golden Rule are walking in Heaven’s domain. I acknowledge Yeshua as my spiritual master, yet I am agnostic about the divine nature ascribed to him or its significance for humankind.
In particular, I struggle with the Christian doctrine of atonement which argues that G-d requires a sacrifice for human sin which only Jesus’ death can satisfy. What seems far more salutary to me is Yeshua’s incarnation, his having lived a life which fulfilled the divine longing for “mercy, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6a; Matt. 9:13b). His having done so empowers and challenges us to do the same, for he showed that it is humanly possible.
Nonetheless, voicing my doubts publicly is daunting. I cannot affirm yet fear to deny what I was brought up to believe. That fear is part of the syntax of the “native religion” I was given as I first began to fit religious experience into images and concepts and words. Respect for and fear of divine and human authority are empowered and constrained by that syntax.
Or, at least, that is the case until I walk out into the wilderness on my own, without language, to discover divine love hidden there. Then fear becomes awe.
I discover that, despite my fallibility and ego-centeredness, G-d does not wish to destroy me. I was born mortal and finite, so death, suffering and unknowing are merely conditions of existence, not punishments. Instead, horror and amazement, loss and comfort, are all mingled in a living, challenging whole larger than any individual or communitas can know.
Most importantly, I find that I want to bless, rather than curse, as much as I can bless.
Having acknowledged these doubts and fears, I can return to what opened for me in reading James Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief. Once he has established his paradigm of contrasting belief systems and their boundaries with religions and their horizons, Carse argues that the latter are not primarily authoritative systems of doctrinal knowledge. Instead, he writes,
…we must integrate the factor of unknowability into each of our conceptions of religion. This can have a strong effect on our thinking in general: reflecting on the remarkable way the great religions seem to develop an awareness of the unknown keen enough to hold its most ardent followers in a state of wonder, we may begin to acquire the art of seeing the unknown everywhere, especially at the heart of our most emphatic certainties. This is not just to develop a new intellectual talent, but to enter into a new mode of being, a “higher ignorance.” (3)
This speaks to my condition.
Higher ignorance does not wholly silence my fear over not being able to live within the walls of orthodox belief. Nonetheless, it assures me that the Divine Unknown of which I am in awe extends beyond those walls and on beyond the horizon.
Higher ignorance tells me that I must take the risk of listening to Yeshua directly. Not clothed in the language of formal Christianity, but naked and exposed in the wilderness, where he knows how to survive.
It was in this mode of being that I listened to the parable of the weeds back in July. I set aside for the moment—because I resist it—Matthew’s allegorical interpretation, yet the story itself remained in inner vision before me.
The first opening I was shown I owe in part to Richard Q. Ford and his 1997 book, The Parables of Jesus: Recovering the Art of Listening. As other contemporary scholars have done, Ford too tries the experiment of temporarily setting aside traditional Christian interpretations of the parables. He wonders, instead, what the slaves, hired laborers, landless peasants and newly urbanized villagers of Yeshua’s historical audience might have heard in those parabolic stories—both what they might have recognized and what might have puzzled them.
Ford’s pivotal insight is that the traditional interpreters—including the Gospel editors themselves—”regularly assume that the economically superior figure represents some aspect of divine intent” (3).
By agreeing with the Gospel editors to establish the economically powerful character as a figure for God, listeners tend to construct black and white patterns of inclusion and exclusion. The superior becomes the source of all resolution while the subordinate remains the repository of all difficulty; the more powerful is revered and the weaker is shouldered with the blame. This bias, steadfastly resisting all evidence of weakness in the superior and strength in the subordinate, has endured for twenty centuries.
Yet if Jesus is the creator of these parables, if his attitude is aptly caught in the aphorism, “Blessed are the destitute,” and if there is historical accuracy in the accounts of his presence among social outcasts, then it would be curious indeed if his imagination excluded representations of God ever from being found among the economically oppressed, preferring instead to locate that presence exclusively among the powerful. (4)
Ford leads me to ask several questions.
What if, instead of Yeshua meaning his parables as answers, he means them as questions? What if, instead of an allegorical “explanation” of G-d’s relationship with “good” or “evil” people, the parable of the weeds is a metaphorical “word problem” about a landowner, his slaves, a suspected yet unidentified enemy, and the dilemma of how to salvage a contaminated crop? What if, instead of saying that the Kingdom is like this person, Yeshua is saying that the Kingdom is like this situation?
In that case, both his first audience and every subsequent audience would be confronted with an insoluble yet compelling mystery: What in the world is it about the Kingdom which Yeshua hints at in the situation of this parable?
One thing Ford’s perspective suggests to me is that the alleged enemy and the slaves are people with their own needs and motives, as important to them as the landowner’s are to him. If we forego the tradition that the owner stands for G-d, we then have to wonder what injury the supposed enemy felt needed to be avenged so subversively. We have to wonder how the slaves feel about this trick played on the man who commands their lives because of their impoverishment and captivity.
Such wondering doesn’t tell me what Yeshua meant by the parable. It does open out the story’s horizon, though. There are other things going on here besides the landowner’s concern about his crop—or G-d’s alleged concern about who might not be “good seed.”
Once I considered Ford’s opening during worship, another occurred to me, one which drew my attention away from concern over how “right belief” relates to being “good seed,” and back to the all-inclusive embrace of Yeshua’s outstretched arms.
The labeling of certain plants as “weeds” is a phenomenon of agriculture. To borrow Carse’s paradigm, cultivated land is a purposefully ordered system. It has carefully drawn boundaries, both its geographical ones and those which define what is “crop” and what is “weed.” Its happier purpose is to feed people. Its secondary purpose—which may or may not involve exploitation of agrarian workers—is to earn a living for those who farm it, or a profit for those who own it, perhaps in absentia.
From the perspective of civitas, that is all there is to it. Anything which disrupts these orderly purposes, anything which creeps in from beyond the boundaries, is a toxic weed, an enemy, an evil.
From the perspective of nature, however, a plant is only a “weed” because human beings name it so when it interferes with the purposes of cultivation. Otherwise, it is simply a hardy plant, earning survival, as any other does, by scattering its seeds wherever it can—including in the best wheat fields. Only in the human agenda does it get labeled “evil.”
Again, this doesn’t tell me what Yeshua meant, yet it opens the story’s horizon even further.
Human community has learned to depend upon the orderedness of cultivation for survival, comfort and prosperity. Just so we have learned to depend upon the orderedness of our beliefs, especially those which speak to the moral and spiritual health of the community. In both cases, natural human intelligence and imagination have created artifices by which we can nurture and sustain that community.
Nonetheless, G-d’s world is not wholly contained within such boundaries. A plant which is not cultivated is not therefore “evil.” The rest of nature, the wilderness parts which seem to be of no use to civitas—or even seem to threaten the temporal borders of civitas—are part of the awe-inspiring mystery around which religious communitas gathers.
Perhaps I am a weed. Even so, I grow from a seed G-d planted, and I grow because of G-d’s light.
On that July Sunday, what I noticed was that Yeshua’s parable focuses upon how we are not to try to determine which are weeds and which, wheat. How we are to nurture the growth of every plant in the field. How it isn’t our business to pluck out those whom we don’t believe should be in the Kingdom.
Perhaps I am a weed.
And so it is.