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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.
Religion or belief
In Part I, I laid out a problem—really a faith challenge—presented to me by the parable of the weeds in the wheat field, as told and interpreted in the book of Matthew (13:24-30, 36-43). The significance of this parable for me is that it sets up an irresolvable contrast between the Jesus of Christian theology and Yeshua, the unknown yet world-changing peasant teacher and healer of Roman-occupied first century C.E. Galilee.
It would be easier if I could frame this as an either/or choice and pick between the Christian Jesus and the historical Yeshua. That is not possible. The two are inseparable. Inseparable in part because we know of Yeshua only because of Jesus.
Jesus has been the focus of two thousand years of worship, thought, writing, art, governance and warfare. Our current so-called “culture wars” in America are most commonly understood as forcing the (false) choice between Jesus and Yeshua. We are told that we must accept the “official” Jesus of institutional church belief (but which of the thousands of competing, contentious churches?). Or that we must reject theological notions altogether and consider Yeshua, if we consider him at all, as just a man.
The cognitive and visceral reality of humankind is that we cannot make such choices. Those like myself who were born into Christianity have it as our “native language,” whether or not we still consider ourselves to be Christians. Those not so born have had their lives and cultures influenced by the dominance of Christianity as a political ideology on this planet. And those who style themselves “new atheists” define themselves by rejection of the caricature of Christianity which they use as their straw man.
More basically, what we know of Yeshua is known solely through the sacred stories of first century people, who had seen in what they thought they knew of him a fulfillment of religious and political hopes. Whether we look at the Jesus of Christian sources or the “reconstructed” Yeshua of historical Jesus studies, we do not know—in the modern sense of “know empirically”—who he actually was, what he actually said, or what he actually meant. We can only know how people have understood and described their experience of him.
Time for a confession: that does not concern me.
He is a world-changing mystery. For me he is not, first of all, the Jesus of orthodox doctrine. He is the Yeshua who so profoundly moved, challenged and healed the people who crossed his path. I cannot expunge my native language and do not want to. Yet its boundaries and definitions are too narrow for this man whom I’ve known inwardly since childhood. Uncomfortable with “Christianity,” I nonetheless persist in reaching for Yeshua. Very deep within me I acknowledge the personal authority of this man to teach me how I ought to live my live.
It was in this awkward posture, following Yeshua yet baulking at Christian orthodoxy, that I listened to that lesson and novice Lutheran sermon back in July. As I listened, I already knew both the text from Matthew and the historical context which biblical scholars have reconstructed for it. What I did not yet have was James Carse’s illumination of why I am uncomfortable, and of why it is an essential act of faith to remain attentively within this discomfort.
In The Religious Case Against Belief (2008), Carse analyses the error he sees in most of our arguments over religion. Through compassionate yet incisive examination, he reveals that “what is currently criticized as religion is, in fact, the territory of belief” (book jacket). The distinction, as he defines it, is enlightening.
Belief systems are “comprehensive networks of tenets that reach into every area of thought and action” (32). They claim to define all that needs to be known, they mark the boundary beyond which orthodox thinking must not go, and they name anything and anyone beyond that boundary as enemy.
Religions may produce belief systems, yet “they are not at their core intelligible, and they are saturated with paradox” (36). Unlike the Roman civitas, a society ruled by law and structured by clear lines of authority, a religion is a communitas stretching across time and space, a “spontaneous gathering of persons who identify themselves and one another as members of a unified body.” Unified, Carse writes, by “the desire…to get to the bottom of the very mystery that brings them together” (84).
While belief systems want only unambiguous answers, the very essence of religions is the continued expansion of the “discursive context,” that process by which communitas perpetually revisits its deepest questions and reinterprets its irresolvable mysteries. What is more, being “able to interpret [religions] ‘properly’ does not require us to get at the very essence of each but to succeed in taking our place in the discursive contexts surrounding them” (100-01).
In this light, Carse writes that sacred texts “demand interpretation, but without any indication of what that interpretation should be.” What counts is the sincere expansion of the dialogues among members of the communitas. “Moreover, there is nothing particularly rational in these extended dialogues. They explain nothing. Their power lies chiefly in the interpreter’s skill at provocation” (199).
That term “provocation” wakes me up. Yeshua, as he reinterpreted the scriptures his listeners all knew from hearing them read each week in synagogue, provoked them to reconsider what was the spirit of the text. Matthew did the same for his contemporaries. Rather than declare that the text means “this and this only,” the rabbinic approach of Yeshua and Matthew was to say, “Look beneath and beyond the boundaries of what you think you know about this. Open yourself to hear new meanings.”
Carse points out that while belief systems are characterized by boundaries, religions are characterized by horizons. However much members of communitas may help each other to extend their “common field of vision,” they always acknowledge that there is more to their mystery than they can possible know beyond the horizon. (107)
Furthermore, Carse notes that religious vision does “not restrict itself to a belief system but that belief systems always fall within the scope of poetic horizons. For this reason, horizons and belief systems are not opposites. They occur simultaneously…. Visionaries…do not destroy the walls, but show the openings through them. They do not promise what believers will see, only that the walls do not contain the horizon” (83).
In Part III, I will share some of the alternative approaches to the parable of the weeds which the openings Carse refers to make available to us, first some from contemporary biblical scholars, and then some from my own ponderings.
[To be continued]
The parable of the weeds in the field
In a July post on Walhydra’s Porch, I built a story around the troublesome contrast between a new Lutheran pastor’s doctrinally correct sermon and the palpable, all-inclusive embrace of an image of Jesus which spreads its arms over the sanctuary where the sermon was preached.
Since then I have read a remarkable new book by James P. Carse called The Religious Case Against Belief (2008). Carse’s valuable central distinctions are reflected in the contrast I just mentioned. Reading him has not resolved my discomfort with that July sermon or the gospel lesson upon which it was based, yet it has given me new ways to open out and explore that discomfort.
[Jesus] spun out another parable for them:
Heaven’s imperial rule is like someone who sowed good seed in his field. And while everyone was asleep, his enemy came and scattered weed seed around in his wheat and stole away. And when the crop sprouted and produced heads, then the weeds also appeared.
The owner’s slaves came and asked him, “Master, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then why are there weeds everywhere?” He replied to them, “Some enemy has done this.”
The slaves said to him, “Do you want us then to go and pull the weeds?” He replied, “No, otherwise you’ll root out the wheat at the same time as you pull the weeds. Let them grow up together until the harvest, and at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to burn, but gather the wheat into my granary’.”
(The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version,
It was not actually this parable itself which troubled me. Or, rather, the parable troubled me in the way that parables are meant to do, as a deliberately puzzling story, devoid of context or particularity, designed to draw its hearers into a perpetual debate over its meanings.
What troubled me that Sunday, as it always does, was the second half of the lesson, the allegorical interpretation which the author/editor of Matthew contrives to have Jesus share privately with his disciples as an “explanation” of the parable:
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. His disciples came to him with this request: “Explain the parable of the weeds in the field to us.”
This was his response: “The one who ‘sows the good seed’ is the son of Adam; ‘the field’ is the world; and ‘the good seed’ are those to whom Heaven’s domain belongs, but ‘the weeds’ represent progeny of the evil one. ‘The enemy’ who sows (the weeds) is the devil, and ‘the harvest’ is the end of the present age; ‘the harvesters’ are the heavenly messengers.
“Just as the weeds are gathered and destroyed by fire—that’s how it will be at the end of the age. The son of Adam will send his messengers and they will gather all the snares and the subverters of the Law out of his domain and throw them into the fiery furnace. People in that place will weep and grind their teeth. Then those who are vindicated will be radiant like the sun in my Father’s domain.
“Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”
For most of my adult life, I have resisted Matthew’s portrayal of a Jesus who would cast out some and vindicate others. A Jesus who would instruct the crowds only in parables, yet give his privileged disciples in private “the secrets of Heaven’s imperial rule” (Matt. 13:10-11). Or, more accurately, I have resisted the way institutional Christianity has interpreted and applied Jesus’ words about “sorting out” over the millennia.
I understand now that Matthew was writing in a historical context, interpreting Hebrew scriptures in a way he hoped would minister to his little congregation of proto-Christian Jews. In the years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., they had been expelled from the synagogue (Matt. 5:11) over the debate as to who was the true Israel. Was it the rabbinic Jews, the Pharisees, who valued the continuing revelation available through the study of scripture? Or was it those like Matthew’s group, who saw a special role for Jesus as bearer of a unique revelation, the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophetic tradition?
In The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006), Karen Armstrong writes that the Pharisees believed
the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law…. [The] essence of the Torah was not the letter of the law but its spirit…, summed up in the Golden Rule” (453).
One can see how such a transformation of Judaism from a temple-centered religion to one of attentiveness to daily life, contemplation and communal generosity would have been salutary to Jews of the post-Jerusalem Diaspora. Ironically, one can also see how similar the values of rabbinic Judaism, as described by Armstrong, are to those taught by Jesus.
Armstrong adds this:
In Rabbinic Judaism, study was as important as meditation in other traditions. It was a spiritual quest: the word for study, darash, meant “to search,” “to go in pursuit of.” It led not to an intellectual grasp of somebody else’s ideas, but to a new insight. So rabbinic midrash (“exegesis”) could go further than the original text, discover what it did not say, and find an entirely fresh interpretation….
Scripture was not a closed book, and revelation was not a historical event that had happened in a distant time. It was renewed every time a Jew confronted the text, opened himself to it, and applied it to his own situation. This dynamic vision could set the world afire.
There were, therefore, no “orthodox” beliefs. Nobody—not even the voice of God himself—could tell a Jew what to think…. (455)
When they spoke of God’s presence on earth, they were careful to distinguish those traits of God that he had allowed us to see from the divine mystery that would always be inaccessible to us…. [The] reality they experienced did not correspond to the essence of the Godhead. No theology could be definitive…. God had, as it were, adapted himself to each person “according to the comprehension of each.” What we call “God” was not the same for everybody. (456)
Meanwhile, in the midst of the Diaspora communities were smaller groups of Jews like those for whom Matthew wrote. Probably for a variety of reasons, these people had been overmastered by the stories and personal witness shared with them by those of the previous generation who had known or heard of a teacher and healer named Yeshua or Yehoshua (Hebrew for Joshua, meaning “the Lord is salvation”; translated into Greek as Iesous, Latin Jesus). For these Jews, Yeshua was a profoundly compelling mashiah (“anointed one”; translated into Greek as christos).
While both Temple ritual and the study of Torah (“the Law”) had been ongoing traditions, Yeshua was the contemporary incarnation of a counterforce in the history of Judaism: the disruptive intrusions of the prophets. These were spirit-filled men who confronted the people when their ritual practice or argument of the Law had become superficially pious behavior, masking their real abuse and neglect of their neighbors.
The prophets had the role of calling people out from such unreflective, habit-bound practice of outward forms, calling them back to a life in which the reality of the mysterious and awesome YHWH (“G-d”) breathed in and through them, even without forms.
For Jews like those in Matthew’s congregation, Yeshua was a man in whom this Spirit (Hebrew ruach, “breath”) walked with unbounded clarity and compassion, yet also with a fierce, unflinching judgment. When he spoke in confrontation, whether gently or with anger, it was not with condemnation or malice, but with that same spiritual clarity.
Look. This is how things really are in G-d’s world. The Law is not commandments, rules to follow. It is—couched in human words and images—simply a description of how we live spontaneously whenever we let ourselves be led by G-d’s Spirit. When we, even for a moment, find ourselves together in the already present Kingdom. “Mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6a).
Imagine, then, a synagogue of Greek-speaking post-Jerusalem Jews, taking refuge in the hope and experience of G-d’s presence in their midst as they hear and interpret their scriptures. Imagine the ferment stirred by those among them who responded with enthusiasm (Greek entheos “possessed”; en– “in” + theos “god”) to the stories of this new prophet, Yeshua. Imagine the distress, uncertainty and conflict at this disruption of a recently regained sense of spiritual security in those communities.
However the conflicts played out across the Diaspora, in various places the rabbinic Jews forced out the Yeshua-followers. And scholars like Matthew, ministering to their expelled fellows, created their own midrash, reinterpreting Hebrew scriptures to place Yeshua in the center of expectations for a new mashiah. It was an effort to assure continuity between the Judaism they knew and this new revelation. It was also an effort to persuade those still in synagogue with their own scriptures.
Yet the hurt of expulsion vibrates through the text. The Pharisees and scholars are recast by Matthew as the “villains” who rejected Yeshua. Whatever actual dealings Yeshua had with such people during his life, Matthew tells us of them through the perspective of one who was expelled from synagogue. When he does his own rabbinic interpretation of Yeshua’s words, when he portrays Yeshua as doing such interpretation, how do we know whether we are hearing Yeshua in his own context or Matthew in his?
Wait, though. Even as I write this, I can recognize the temptation to use this “historical Jesus” perspective on Matthew as a dodge, a way to avoid having to consider the possibility that Yeshua did warn, both directly and in parable, of a sorting out of “weeds” from “wheat” in the community of humankind.
Whatever I may want him to have “really meant,” it is clear that Yeshua voiced scrupulous judgment and gave compassionate yet unwavering warnings to those whom he met personally. I must do as Armstrong says those first century Jews did. I must confront the text, open myself to it, and apply it to my own situation.
In Part II of this series, I will describe how my reading of James Carse has contributed to this process.
[To be continued]