The scandal of the Kingdom of God
The Lectionary text is Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. I have included more for context, starting at the end of Chapter 12.
46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’* 48But to the one who had told him this, Jesus* replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
12 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake.2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow.4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears* listen!’
10 Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ 11He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets*of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.17Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. [skandalizetai NRSV notes you could say stumbles] 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’
24 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
31 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
33 He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with [hid in] three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet:*
‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables;
I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’*
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin [skandala] and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 52And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings [casts out - Phillips] out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ 53When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.
54 He came to his home town and began to teach the people [them] in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? 55Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?’ 57And they took offence [eskandalizonto] at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.’ 58And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.
The scandal of the Kingdom of God
For 40 years, this farm kid has read the Parable of the Mustard Seed with a nagging question: who in their right mind would plant mustard? Mustard is a weed. Blinded by my father's love of Dijon and English Hot, it has never occurred to me that the Farmer might not be growing condiments, but might be sowing a weed called Jesus.
And the Woman is hiding yeast in the unleavened bread of Passover.
After this pithy introduction, I am about to embark on a long exploration with lengthy quotations. I think it's worth following through. The parables of the Kingdom of Heaven, here in Chapter 13 of Matthew, and again in Matthew 25 expose a radical reorientation of our way of being. We tend to reduce them to something less, which has lost its edge.
Matthew 13 can appear to be a somewhat disconnected compilation of stories. But what if "he means what he says and knows what he means," as Mark D Davis puts it? What if we read the text as a whole— as having a driving purpose, rather than leaving out pieces, and reordering our reading of the parables, as the Revised Common Lectionary does? What do we hear then?
In Chapter 12 we hear a growing opposition to Jesus. The Pharisees say "It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons." (25) What follows through to verse 45 of Chapter 12 is a blunt description of the immiscible opposition of good and evil, with humanity labelled as "this evil generation."
And then we have Chapter 13, bounded by Jesus' difficult relationship with his family, and woven through with the theme of hearing and seeing, but seeing and hearing nothing. The family bracketing of these parables is so striking that I wondered if I might call this post "The Kingdom of God is not your family," or "The Kingdom of God is more than family."
Family, in Jesus' time is the basic social unit. It has— and needs— a binding, and blinding, power to ensure acquiescence of an individual to the perceived good of the family, in all things. This maintains the coherence and stability of society. In many ways, family was the kingdom of the land writ local.
At the beginning of Chapter 13, Jesus' family are "outside the house," cut off and blind to the Kingdom of Heaven. At the end, those who are scandalised by him (13:57 eskandalizonto) try to reduce him to his family. He is just the brother of "James and Joseph and Simon and Judas." Family defines us and brings us back into line. To step away from it is scandalous to this day. The Kingdom of Heaven is not family. It provokes and upsets us. It is more than family, and has different loyalties.
Chapter 14 begins with John the Baptist being murdered by Herod. The stark contrast of good and evil which begins in Chapter 12 is now fully drawn, as Evil's feast (14:1-12) is contrasted with a feast of the Kingdom of Heaven which we often call The Feeding of the Five Thousand. (14:13-21)
But why is there such opposition to Jesus? Why are people so unable to see the good in front of them? Why is it that the deeds of power, (13:58) signs of the kingdom of heaven, are so few among the very people who should know Jesus best!? Matthew means not just the people of Nazareth, but the people of Israel, his own people. And today, perhaps Matthew means us, the church. These are the questions addressed by Chapter 13, along with one other:
Why do you teach in parables? (13:10)
Stories are the way we learn. Everything is story; even a maths proof is an elegant, structured story.
Speaking in comparisons and teaching by means of stories are, of course, two of the oldest instructional techniques in the world. And in the hands of almost all instructors except Jesus, they are a relatively straightforward piece of business…. With Jesus, however, the device of parabolic utterance is used not to explain things to people’s satisfaction… but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all previous explanations and understandings. (Robert Farrar Capon, quoted here)
A parable is an oblique way to approach the unapproachable. It's the way of seeing into something so different that it can't be seen without everything being turned upside down. A parable is also a little questioning signpost: Have you understood all this? (13:51) And, if you have it all neatly explained, perhaps you don’t understand at all!
Stories can be analogous; e.g., this is like that. They can be allegorical; e.g., The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom (13:37) But what if things are so different that there is no analogy, so to speak— what if things are so different that we are scandalised by them? How do we tell that story?
Let's look at the word scandal. It's in Chapter 13 three times. (21, 41, and 58. I've highlighted it in the text above.) Bear this "in a nutshell" definition in mind: mimetic rivalry means all our desires are in imitation (mimesis) of other people with whom we compete for the desired object.
The words that designate mimetic rivalry and its consequences are the noun skandalon and the verb skandalizein. Like the Hebrew word that it translates, "scandal" means, not one of those ordinary obstacles that we avoid easily after we run into it the first time, but a paradoxical obstacle that is almost impossible to avoid: the more this obstacle, or scandal, repels us, the more it attracts us. Those who are scandalized put all the more ardor in injuring themselves against it because they were injured there before.
The Greek word skandalizein comes from a verb that means "to limp." What does a lame person resemble? To someone following a person limping it appears that the person continually collides with his or her own shadow. (Rene Girard I See Satan Fall Like Lightning I have added the bold text.)
Scandal, at base, is that human condition— that thing— we can't see about ourselves, which has us banging our head against the walls of life, tripping ourselves up. It is the thing about ourselves which needles our deep sensitivities— it gets too close to the bone of ourselves— and triggers our violence. So Girard says of parables, in The Scapegoat, that
Paraballo means to throw the crowd something edible in order to assuage its appetite for violence, preferably a victim, someone condemned to death. Obviously, this is a way out of a very difficult situation. The speaker has recourse to a parable-that is, a metaphor-in order to prevent the crowd from turning on him. Ultimately, there is no discourse that is not a parable. All human language, and other cultural institutions, in fact, originated in collective murder. After some of Jesus’ most hard-hitting parables the crowd often makes a movement of violence, but Jesus escapes because his hour has not come. (pp 192-3, some of which is quoted here.)
The radical idea which we can't see, is that "All human language, and other cultural institutions, in fact, originated in collective murder," and that the Kingdom of Heaven radically transcends this violence. (My emphasis) It is not so far back in Matthew (Chapter 10) that we have been hearing of persecution and violence in response to the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven.
By warning the readers that Jesus speaks in parables, the Evangelists alert the readers to the distortion of persecution. Here we are clearly being warned about the language of expulsion. [aka scapegoating] There is no other alternative. If we do not recognize the parabolic dimension of the expulsion we will be duped by violence… (ibid)
In other words, we will react with violence against the one bringing us scandalous truth. Parables let Jesus say the unsayable. And warn us that here (in the parable) we have no tame teaching, but "live ammunition."
Because the Kingdom of Heaven is also the scandalous revelation of our ubiquitous violence, and is life lived without that violence
It’s worth our while to stop a little to see what this teaching in parables consists in. The parables are highly creative little stories sprung from Jesus’ imagination and have as their aim helping people to overcome their being blocked-up with respect to God and his project. However, behold, they are two edged weapons, capable of different interpretations. It is perfectly possible to interpret the greater part in terms of a violent God. In that case the parables only serve to reinforce what people already think anyway, and they move on no further. What I’m suggesting is that this would be the ‘dull-hearted’ [cf Matthew 13:15] reading of the parables. At the same time it is perfectly possible to read the same parables as obliging us to overcome this vision. This means that there is an interpretation for those who understand, and that what they understand will increase exponentially, and there is another interpretation for those who do not understand, so that what little they do understand is in the process of being lost, for they will get into an ever more tied-up and painful understanding of the things of God. [I have added the emphasis.]
The quotation is from Raising Abel (p83-84) and quoted here by Paul Nuechterlein. The footnote on Page 83, which he does not include, illuminates some the "banging of our head against the walls" nature of our existence.
… whoever has not grasped the mimetic workings of desire, and because of this begun to come out of being enmeshed in mimetic rivalry, will twist everything up in an ever greater frustration; whoever has begun to move in a pacific mimesis [imitation] will understand very well the messes which he or she is leaving behind and will understand all things creatively and pacifically.
I said the radical idea which we can't see, is that "All human language, and other cultural institutions, in fact, originated in collective murder," and that the Kingdom of Heaven radically transcends this violence. What goes along with our violence is the understanding that God, too, is violent.
… the presence of what Jesus has brought about will appear in the eyes of many as the introduction of a perpetual scandal into History, precisely because it will bring about the collapse of all that seemed good, gradually voiding the distinction between goodies and baddies, hindering the way social order has been constructed up until now, so that those who follow Jesus will themselves be causes of stumbling, and many will be scandalised by them; either that, or having started to follow Jesus, they will themselves be scandalized on account of the paths into which their discipleship leads them. [cf. Matthew 13:21] The result will be the hate [of] and denunciation [by] those who, as always, want to keep the good good, and the bad bad, people who cannot tolerate the subversion from within which has in fact been introduced by the following or the innocent victim. (Raising Abel pp155)
We are circling around the unimaginable idea and "change of perception" which I quoted last week:
It is very difficult for us to imagine the huge change of perception underway here, but it could be described as to change from a perception of a god in which the deity has a double face, saying "yes, but…" or "yes, and no," or "yes, if…," to the perception according to which God only and unconditionally says, "yes." Another way of putting it is as a change from a god who is both good and bad, who loves and who punishes, to a perception of God who is only love, in whom there is no darkness at all. Jesus had begun to teach this to his disciples, but it had been incomprehensible to them until after the resurrection. Consider Jesus' teaching that God makes the sun to shine on good and bad alike and causes the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. This has the effect of removing God completely from the sphere of reference of our human morality, excluding him from any participation in judging and condemning humans. The same thing happens in the parables: we are not to separate the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13:24-30) in this life, because we cannot judge adequately, and God's judgement has nothing to do with our own. (Raising Abel pp42-3) [I have added the emphasis.]
It is not so much that we will pull out the wrong plants, good seed instead of weeds. Rather, as human beings, we do not perceive God's categories of judgement. We do not know what weed and good seed actually are; our whole enterprise is based on exclusion and personal/group safety underpinned by human violence. We do not know how God sees us. We cannot conceive of a God who is "all yes." (Raising Abel pp 42-43)
It all ends up here:
John says that God is love, and we all parrot this somewhat too easily, which leads to no end of banalities and flights of sentimentalism in our approach to matters religious, except when we become all serious and moralistic and remember that God is just, and punishes, and so on, so we expel and punish as if the Gospel had never been preached. Well, it's not like that. The phrase "God is love" is not one more slogan which we can tack on to the end of other things we know about God and which we can brandish when we feel like it. It is the end result of a process of human discovery which constitutes a slow and complete subversion from within of any other perception of God. (Raising Abel pp 48)
The church has immense difficulty not condemning and judging people. It still scapegoats and expels those who are different. It often reacts with fury to the notion that God does not judge or condemn to hell, and that all people will be saved. And to the notion that God loves Muslims and LGBTI people. That God is love, is a scandal. And so too is God's kingdom. We stumble over it.
So someone... sowed good seed in his field. And an enemy came and sowed weeds. 13:24ff. The Master would not allow the weeds to be pulled up. "You would uproot the wheat with them." But then, someone... sowed a mustard seed— just one— in his field. (13:31) And just as the listeners bridled at the extravagant farmer who wasted seed even in the rocky ground, and wondered at the one who would not pull out the weeds, so they were offended at the one who would plant two seeds together; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed. (Lev 19:19) And like me, they would perhaps first think of that stinky weed that fouls up everything. The Kingdom of Heaven is like that!? It never grows into a tree, anyway. It's only a bush.
And did the woman mix yeast with the flour, or did she hide it? (enekrupsen) Given how that someone sowed two kinds of seed, and one of them a weed, perhaps The Kingdom of Heaven is something that someone has subversively hidden, like leaven in unleavened bread.
The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds can be read as a subversion from within of our usual way to respond to evil. We think an enemy to God has sown evil into this world and that we are commissioned to root it out. Jesus says no. We aren’t as expert as we think in knowing good from evil (something hidden from us since the beginning of our human worlds, when we fell for the serpent’s temptation), and so we are prone to ripping up the wheat with the weeds. We are counseled to patiently wait for the harvest.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed immediately ups the ante by portraying a farmer who sows a weed into his field on purpose. To me, this now represents what God has in fact done in Jesus Christ. Jesus is sown into this world as one who will willingly let himself be treated as a weed in order that we might finally see the deadliness of our thinking we know good from evil and that we can thus be God’s servant by weeding out the evil. [I have added the bold emphasis. The italic is Paul Nuechterlein's own emphasis.]
There is a pattern in Chapter 13.
The Sower sows, (1-9) and then the vexing question of the parables is raised. (10-17)
The Sower sows (24-33) and the woman hides yeast, and then the use parables is considered again. (34-35)
And in each case it reads to me as if someone has then inserted a block of text into the original. The enigmatic and challenging form of the parable is deserted for a nice, safe allegory which "explains it all." (18-23, and 36-42) You remember I suggest that too neat an answer to the question of a parable might be an indication that we are wrong. The feel of the original parables, for any listener who has a sense of form and genre, changes completely. It is deserted for "an answer." And judgement, and burning, and weeping and gnashing of teeth, are placed on the lips of Jesus who has just told us not to judge, and that the kingdom lives with fish of every kind. (13:47) (The judgement is formulaic and repetitive: so it will be at the end of the age, (41, 49) and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (42, 50))
What is happening? The change in tone is dramatic and contradictory. The patterns are obvious and deliberate.
Perhaps Alison is correct as he considers the parable with the net:
Now, there's a perfectly admissible reading of this which you all know: that in the church there are all manners of people, good and bad like, and that all eventually reach the shore of death, where a great divine separation awaits them, with a subsequent punishment for those who deserve it.
He then asks a really challenging question of those who must have judgement.
But is it really the case that Jesus wanted to say something so obvious to people who didn't need anybody to frighten them with more stories from beyond the grave? Is it the case that in any parable at all Jesus is seeking to hand out inside information about the "afterward"? Personally, I rather doubt it. It seems to me that his technique is much more interesting. I suggest that he is taking for granted a certain understanding of God and seeking to introduce a hidden shock into it. He knows very well that, were he to speak directly about God, people would answer him back quoting contrary proof texts, and they could go round and round in circles indefinitely. Because of this he is prepared to work in hostile territory, using the imaginative world of his hearers, but putting into it a little time bomb which, when it explodes, can cause a change in that imaginative world.
In the case of the parable which I quoted for you, how would it be if instead of information about the end it would rather a teaching about how to live in the here and now, in the time before the end. In that case, the function of the story is a little different. Instead of furnishing us with details of a judgement after death, it is rather and insistence on not exercising any type of judgement before death. When he says: "There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth" let us not take it as a threat, but as: "Leave it for another to cause wailing and gnashing of teeth. Let it be there and not here. Do not you exercise any sort of judgement or separation between good and evil people now. And this way you would be building up the kingdom of heaven." (Raising Abel pp84-85)
But perhaps we have one more snaring edge of the stumbling block to step around in our being converted into the Kingdom; a snaring edge which Matthew's tradition tripped over. Perhaps we are making Matthew's Jesus, and the New Testament's Jesus into a smaller god who is not God because he cannot escape the violence which so bedevils us.
At the end of Chapter 13, "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." (13:52) These are the ones who have "understood all this." (13:51) Mark D Davis notes
The verb ἐκβάλλω is almost always used – at least in this chapter – as an expulsion such as ‘throw out,’ rather than a gathering like ‘bring out’ (NIV, NRSV, and almost everyone). Peter Phillips’ article, "Casting out the Treasure: a New Reading of Matthew 13.52," (Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 2008) is the most extensive treatment I’ve seen showing that the orientation of reading this verb as “bringing out” here began with a judgment by the Vulgate and had continued to be the dominant reading. Phillips makes the case, however, that “cast out” is a better reading. If that is the case – and I agree with him – then the analogy here is that the scribe is divesting himself in order to embrace the gospel, much like the digger and pearl merchant sell all to obtain the treasure and pearl… [my emphasis.]
If we are not to be scandalised, then we need to cast out some old treasures… like judgement. Which means, remember Chapter 10, that we will be the scandalous ones within the church, not to mention the world. And that we will be transformed; freed of the obsession to compete and be better, free of the need to condemn and wall out, and free to grow, and flourish, and live a life.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Previously on One Man's Web
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 - A Little Tin Glory
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 - The Common Cold and the Kingdom of Heaven
and back with the Wheat and the Tares:
Matthew 13:24-30 - Weeds and Bad Seeds
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 - Feeding on Thistles
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 - Keep your hat on!
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 - Welcome the Weeds
Matthew 13:24-46 - Wheat and Tares
You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.
Scandal in Girardian thought.