SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Beloved and sovereign God, through the death and resurrection of your Son you bring us into your kingdom of justice and mercy. By your Spirit, give us your wisdom, that we may treasure the life that comes from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Wisdom defies every attempt to define it. Surely wisdom is more than mere knowledge. Knowledge can teach us to clone the human frame, alter the human genetic code and perhaps even extend the duration of human life. But only wisdom can teach us whether we ought to do any of these things. So, too, intelligence does not equate with wisdom. It is precisely our intellects that make us human animals the most deadly on the face of the planet. Without wisdom, human creativity and imagination only amplify our most destructive tendencies. Neither should we identify wisdom with morality and good intentions. Some of the most hurtful and destructive things I have ever done grew out of my sincere desire to “do the right thing.”
I am not sure Solomon understood wisdom any more than the rest of us. But he knew that he needed it. Perhaps that is the first step to becoming wise, namely, realizing that you are not. Initially at least, that realization came easily to Solomon. When hardly more than a child, the kingdom his father David had built came into his hands. Not surprisingly, Solomon did not feel up to the challenge of administering the government, leading the armed forces or negotiating commercial treaties with surrounding nations. Yet if young Solomon lacked wisdom, he was at least aware of that deficit. He also knew from whence wisdom comes. God is finally the source of wisdom and the One from whom it must be sought.
The psalm for this Sunday echoes that sentiment. “The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple,” the psalmist prays. “With open mouth I pant, because I long for thy commandments.” This Psalm in its entirety is one long admonition to learn and do the Torah of God. This is not simply a matter of learning the commandments by rote or studying commentaries on the laws of Moses or following the letter of the law. The study to which the psalmist invites us calls for lifelong reflection situated in a context of corporate worship, attentiveness to preaching and the faithful practices of prayer, fasting, alms and service. Through a communal life of mutual repentance, forgiveness and compassion informed by the scriptural testimonies to God’s covenant faithfulness, we are made wise and transformed into a people made ready for the coming of God’s kingdom.
In our gospel lesson Jesus peppers us with a set of colorful parables about the kingdom of heaven. Parables are perhaps the most effective teachers of wisdom. They are not simply stories or metaphors that illustrate a point. If parables could be boiled down into morals, philosophical observations or anything else that can be rationally explained, they would hardly be necessary. There is no need to illustrate symbolically what can readily be reduced to bullets in a Power Point presentation. Parables point to that which eludes understanding. Jesus began a few weeks ago with the parable of the sower spreading seed over ground both fruitful and unfruitful. We might conclude from this story that Jesus is comparing the church to good and receptive soil. But in the very next parable he describes the “good seed” thriving in the midst of weeds-seed that seemingly was wasted in the last parable! Then we discover in the parable of the mustard that the “seed” we assumed was useful and productive wheat is actually mustard, a plant quite out of place in a cultivated field. The kingdom turns out not to be the leavened bread sanctified for Passover, but the yeast that is cast out of the house during the Passover season. With maddening disconnectedness Jesus changes images and mixes metaphors, forever throwing us off balance. The kingdom we first imagined as a fruitful harvest produced in a well-tended field turns out to be an unwelcome, unholy and disruptive presence in our orderly rows of wheat and our kosher households!
By this time, we might be wondering whether we really want the kingdom entering into our lives turning everything topsy turvy, backwards and upside down. But it is just then that Jesus introduces the parables of the priceless pearl and the treasure hidden in the field. You bet you want this kingdom in your life! Once you get an inkling of what it’s about, you will empty your hands of everything you own to get your hands on it. In this way, the parables lead us into the mystery of the kingdom, never defining it for us, never explaining it to us, but always drawing us further in. So I believe it is with wisdom. It is not something any of us will ever possess. But if we are attentive to Jesus’ call to discipleship, if we are prepared to follow him deeper and deeper into the mystery of the kingdom, perhaps wisdom will one day possess us.
For a brief but very thorough summary of the Book of I Kings, see the Summary Article by Mark Thornveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. In short, I Kings covers the transition from David’s reign over Israel to that of his son, Solomon. It chronicles Solomon’s construction of the temple in Jerusalem and the division of the nation of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms. The balance of the book chronicles details of the reigns of the divided Israelite monarchy, alternating between the north and the south.
In comparison to David, Solomon is a flat literary character in Israel’s narrative. His story is told with none of the passion and suspense found throughout the story of David. David is a layered, nuanced character capable of compassion, generosity and forgiveness yet also prone to arrogance, pettiness and nasty fits of temper. We see him in the context of numerous relationships with family, comrades in arms and political rivals. When it comes to Solomon, we hear much about his great accomplishments but little concerning the man himself. It appears that toward the end of his life he allowed and perhaps built shrines to foreign gods in Jerusalem to satisfy the religious inclinations of his many wives. It should be noted that these wives were taken into Solomon’s harem as part and parcel of military and commercial treaties with surrounding nations. Thus, his idolatrous projects may well have sprung from political expediency rather than personal religious conviction.
In Sunday’s lesson we meet Solomon at the beginning of his reign. This section of I Kings narrating Solomon’s story appears to be based on a literary source now lost to us called “the Book of the Acts of Solomon.” I Kings 11:41. When we first meet him Solomon is, by his own admission, “but a little child” who knows not “how to go out our come in.” Vs. 7. Knowing he lacks wisdom, he nevertheless has the sense to know that he needs it. God not only grants Solomon the wisdom for which he prays, but much that he did not seek, namely, “riches and honor.” Vs. 13. Throughout the rest of his reign Solomon excels in architectural feats, military exploits, commercial success and wisdom. Indeed, his wisdom is so well attested that foreign dignitaries travel great distances to listen to him. I Kings 10:1-10.
There is a troubling subtext in the narrative, however. The temple of Solomon in Jerusalem is built by slave labor. “All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel were left in the land whom the people of Israel were unable to destroy utterly-these Solomon made a forced levy of slaves, and so they are to this day.” I Kings 9:20-21. As noted previously, Solomon’s many wives induced him to commit idolatry. I Kings 11:1-8. Furthermore, we learn a little later on that Solomon’s heavy handed tactics contributed to the ultimate break between the northern Israelite tribes and the Davidic monarchy. I Kings 12:1-20. The story of Solomon thus begins with a humble plea for wisdom, but ends in decadence and folly.
Solomon is said to be the author of the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, chief collections of “wisdom literature” in the Hebrew Scriptures. This attribution is more literary than historical. By placing their teachings on the lips of a king whose wisdom was legendary, the authors ground their teachings in Israel’s sacred history and give them credibility. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon made treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms, transacting commerce and forming military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.
Psalm 119 is one of eight acrostic poems found within the Book of Psalms. The others are Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. Instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, however, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the seventeenth section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Pe.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.
If the psalm has a theme, it is the centrality and supremacy of God’s Torah in every sphere of human life. The psalmist does not merely learn, memorize and conceptually understand the Torah. His/her heart, mind and daily practices are shaped by the Torah. Torah regulates the psalmist’s daily routine, inspires his/her praise and forms the perspective from which the psalmist views the rest of the world. One might object that such an obsession with Torah amounts to “brain washing.” But the fact of the matter is, we are all “brain washed” in the sense that how we perceive everything from the daily news to the mood of our spouses is shaped by preconceived notions about reality. Nobody is capable of viewing anything purely “objectively.” The psalmist is well aware of this. S/he wants his/her perspective on everything to be shaped by his/her reflections upon Torah-rather than say, MSNBC or Fox News. That isn’t to say that the psalmist might not have watched either of these networks had television been available in the 6th Century. But the psalmist would evaluate what s/he saw under the lens of Torah rather than the other way around.
It is for this reason that the psalmist’s “eyes shed streams of tears, because men do not keep [God’s] law.” Vs. 136. The Ten Commandments are introduced by the God who reminds Israel, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6. It is precisely because the commandments are given by the God who liberates slaves that they must be observed. It is for freedom that God gave Israel the commandments protecting the sanctity of the community and each person in it. When something less than this freedom and life giving God is worshiped; when human life, human relationships and human property are not respected, Israelite society begins to resemble the hierarchical tyranny of Egypt. This is indeed cause for weeping.
“The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” Vs. 130. The words of Torah need unfolding. They do not yield their treasures in one brief reading. The constant dialogue between Torah and the psalmist’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of God’s intent and purpose for him/her. Accordingly, the psalmist “longs for [God’s] commandments” just as one who is ravenously thirsty craves water. Vs. 131. Yet the psalmist also knows that God must assist him/her in the study of Torah. So s/he prays,” “Teach me thy statutes,” (vs. 135) and “Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is thy wont toward those who love thy name.” vs. 132. The psalmist prays for God’s guidance and support to keep iniquity from gaining power over him/her. Vs. 133. No one can learn or obey Torah unless God teaches and guides.
“We know that in everything God works for good.” That is as much of the verse as is often quoted-and it’s unfortunate. This truncated citation is incomplete and altogether wrong. Nothing good comes to a victim out of sexual assault. Nothing is good about children dying of preventable diseases. Nothing is good about warfare, poverty and oppression. There is nothing more hurtful and insulting than to tell a person who has just experienced a tragic loss or injury that it is God’s doing and that it is ultimately for his/her own good. Paul does not say anything remotely like that as we can see when we read the entire verse in its context.
Note that Paul has already told us that baptism into Christ Jesus is baptism into Christ’s death. Romans 6:3. Moreover, as Paul told us last week, being an heir of Christ is to share in Christ’s suffering. Romans 8:17. Jesus himself warned his disciples that a servant is no greater than his master and that they could expect no less enmity from the world than he himself experienced. John 15:18-20. Furthermore, there are events that bring tragedy into the lives of many people that have nothing to do with their behavior or God’s desire to modify it. Sometimes stuff just happens. Disciples of Jesus are not exempt from these random tragedies that strike others. No one, least of all Jesus or Paul, ever said that life or discipleship would be a cake walk.
When Paul tells us that “all things work for good” he means the good of God’s kingdom, not our own personal good. The cross was not the stepping stone to a better life for Jesus. It was the capstone on Jesus’ life of faithful obedience to the will of his Father. It was a life of service received without gratitude and poorly understood by even his own disciples. The life of discipleship might well be characterized by failure, poverty, tragedy and loss. Though God is not the author of tragedy, God nevertheless can turn any evil in creation to God’s own good purposes. Those purposes may or may not fit into our own selfish notions of what is “good.”
As Paul told us last week, our suffering is incomparable to the glory that is to be revealed when creation is set free from the bondage of decay. Romans 8:18-25. Only when our own good is fully and completely identified with the good God intends to bestow on all creation can we finally say that all things work together for our own good. This, I believe, is what we mean when we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The cross is what happens when God’s good and gracious will is done in this rebellious world. Yet because of God’s limitless capacity to suffer patiently and compassionately with us, turning even our worst sins to his own life giving purposes, God’s will finally prevails over all hostility, both to our own good and the good of all creation.
It is for this reason, too, that we need the assistance of the Spirit in our prayers. As Paul tells us, “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Vs. 26. Too often our prayers focus selfishly on our own personal good rather than the good God intends for creation. Too often our prayers are limited to the small circle of those we love. Too often our prayers ask God to change the world to our liking rather than to change us into persons capable of loving the world as it is. We need to pray with “the mind of the Spirit” rather than with the mind of what Paul calls “the flesh.” The Spirit assists us in doing just that.
Finally, Paul brings his argument to conclusion by stating categorically that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Vs. 30. This is what separates life in the flesh from life in the Spirit. Life in the flesh is tyranny under the law and sin. It operates on the “if…then” principle. “If you are good, you will be rewarded. If you are bad, you will be punished.” God is seen as a rule obsessed judge, a stern Santa making his list and checking it twice to find out who is naughty and nice. Your standing in God’s favor is always contingent on your behavior. Like the job of an employee-at-will, it can be revoked at any time for any reason. Life in the Spirit is familial. God is our Father; Jesus is our brother and we are all siblings in Jesus. Just as a loving father cannot forsake his child-even when that child disappoints him-so God cannot forsake the children born to God through Jesus Christ in baptism. That is the good news of Jesus Christ that Paul preaches.
The first two parables in our lesson speak of the kingdom of heaven as the planting of a mustard seed and the addition of leaven to dough. In the case of both parables, the emphasis appears to be growth out of all proportion to the smallness of its origins. Though not technically the “smallest” of all seeds, the mustard seed is small. It is an annual plant that usually grows to between four and five feet tall but can reach heights of nine or ten feet. Similarly, it takes only a small amount of yeast to cause a loaf of bread to rise and bake rather than to remain an unleavened cracker. One might wonder whether someone would actually go to the trouble of planting a mustard seed in one of Palestine’s rare and precious plots of good soil when the plant grows wild in the fields. It is also worth pondering why Jesus would use the image of leaven, a substance banned from the house during Passover season, to make his point. Maybe that is the point, however. The kingdom of God is often an unwelcome, disruptive presence that makes space for itself where it clearly is not expected. The smallness with which it begins only makes its introduction more difficult to detect. As one commentator notes, these parables “must not be debased by being made to refer to a church that gradually wins over the majority or a Christianity silently transforming the world.” Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 by John Knox Press) p. 307. The kingdom has come to upend the existing state of things.
The parables of the pearl and the treasure in the field speak not to the kingdom itself as much as to its effect when recognized. After hearing the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, one might be left wondering whether the kingdom of heaven is even desirable. Clearly, it will not live quietly and unobtrusively in Caesar’s garden! The following parables, then, state unequivocally that the kingdom is to be desired and sought after to the exclusion of all else. It has an irresistible attraction for those who see it for what it is. Of course, not everyone does. Someone untrained in valuing pears might as soon buy an imitation for $4.99 as pay top dollar for the real thing. A person unaware of the treasure in the field might dismiss the property as a poor investment-rocky soil, irregular shaped lot located in a bad neighborhood. Common to both parables is the joy of the one seeking to acquire the precious commodity. There is no anguish of decision or equivocation in the transaction. Nor is there any regret or concern expressed over the sacrifices required to consummate it. One need not lecture, scold or threaten anyone to give up all for the kingdom of heaven. It is sufficient to bear testimony to the kingdom so that all my see it for what it is.
The last parable seems a little out of place at first blush. The theme appears to be the same as that of the wheat and the weeds from last week’s lesson. Just as the wheat is separated from the weeds at the end of the harvest, so the separation of edible and inedible fish is made at the end of the day when the catch is bought in. But separation there surely will be. Perhaps the point to be made here is that ending up in the throw away pile will be the consequence of throwing away this opportunity to pursue the kingdom of heaven at the expense of all else. Failing to recognize the kingdom is to risk non-recognition on the last day, a theme that is brought to sharper focus in the parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.
The images, impressions and logic of these parables do not flow together into a consistent whole. Parables are not designed to set forth a coherent theology of the kingdom of heaven. Rather, they remind us that the kingdom defies all such efforts to reduce it to bite size cognitive mouthfuls. Rather than explain the kingdom, parables draw us ever more deeply into it.