II Pentecost, Year B
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.
The Lord said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." Samuel said, "How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me." And the Lord said, "Take a heifer with you, and say, `I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you." Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, "Do you come peaceably?" He said, "Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice." And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord." But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, "The Lord has not chosen any of these." Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?" And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here." He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; for this is the one." Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the LORD.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the LORD have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17
We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord– for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
[Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.] For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
For the victimage mechanism to operate effectively, it must operate below the level of consciousness. For the Pillars of Culture (see the introductory articles on the same if that’s a foreign phrase) to work as preservers of order, their roots in death must remain hidden. Once the scapegoat becomes visible, once myth is eroded, the power to bring peace through the death of the innocent begins to crumble.
This is the background to today’s parables of the kingdom. We have two parables of seed, both of which promise fruit/growth beyond the skill or imagining of the sowers. What they promise is the effective working of Gospel on "culture" (as founded in murder) almost in spite of us.
In one parable, we have the image of the growth of the wheat, "though we know not how." I am taken by the parallel way in which Gospel has slowly but surely brought down the great towers of power and control, the way that it has dissolved the power of the Pillars in every culture it has touched, even though the connection between Gospel and this dissolution has generally been hidden from our eyes.
The operation of Gospel on culture happens on its own. The seed is merely cast on the ground and left to do its work. Such is the effect of Gospel on us. We hear the Gospel of the non-violent, non-retaliatory God, the God to whom all are drawn as he is lifted on the Cross, and even if we don’t accept it, it exposes our own duplicity to us, because on a deep level, we know that we are murderers, and that we are forgiven. And this forgivenness begins to work.
At first, it may make us more rigid and violent. We will do whatever we are able to do to cover up what has been exposed, to restore the foundations of the only order we’ve ever known. But the imposition of greater violence only heightens our awareness of its futility. The spiral to greater and greater violence in an attempt to extinguish the light brought in by the seeding of the Gospel leads to collapse and, ultimately, freedom.
This is the way that Gospel works, quite without the knowledge of its process. It makes me wonder sometimes at the wisdom of my project. Am I spending so much time on the molecular physics of the growth of the seed, now that Rene has shown them to us, that I have lost the joy of seeing the seed grow (whether we know how it happens or not)?
And then, we have the image of the mustard seed. Surely this can cause us to take a new look at the man hanging from the cross on Calvary. A single man, abandoned by his friends, crucified in a backwater of the Empire. His death would have been, on the scale of empire, even smaller than a mustard seed.
Everything that we are about grows from that seed. Now it is the greatest of all shrubs, this movement grounded in the Gospel.
Or, perhaps it is not yet. The Church may not yet be the shrub of which Jesus spoke. There may yet (I surely hope so) be another movement of followers of Jesus that will be more like the kingdom of which the parable speaks. I am taken by an observation from one of my parishioners, that the most immediate antecedent to the "birds of the air" who take shelter in the mustard bush in this parable are the birds who gobbled up the seed in the parable of the sower earlier in the chapter. I think that there is something to this.
In both parables, there is a hint of the conflict that is to ensue as the fruit of the Gospel grows on earth. In one there is the mention of the sickle that will be put in when the fruit has reached maturity, a clear reference to the judgment of Joel 3:13. Reading this anthropologically, we understand that the violence represented by the sickle is human, not divine, but its effects are not mitigated just because they aren’t from God. The maturing of the Gospel will bring violence at its conclusion.
And in the second parable, the maturing of the Gospel will bring in those who sought to consume it, to defeat it. If it were not so closely aligned to both the parable of the sower and this reference to the violence that follows the growth of the Gospel, I would be inclined to read these birds in some more neutral context. After all, Jesus does make positive reference to God’s care for the sparrows elsewhere. But in this context, I am inclined to agree with my parishioner, that a parallel is intended. The growth of the kingdom will attract even those whose purpose initially was to thwart it.
Is this not a fair illustration of the way that the institution of Church draws not only those who seek to follow Jesus, but also those who seek to exercise power and dominion, even if they think they do it in his name? Is it not also an indication of the great breadth and generosity of the Gospel that room is made in its branches even for those who do not understand it? I think so.
The parables of the Kingdom thrust into our awareness a new reality, a new way of looking at process, of growth and of history. It is no mistake that the parables discourse begins with this expression of seeds, for seeds are THE metaphor of growth, life and potential.
We don’t find any Historical/Cultural issues here that prompt comment.
I’m encouraged, by these parables, to relax my grip a bit on "my" work, "my" ministry as an agent of the Gospel. As a preacher of peace, I find myself called to be content with the spreading of the Word of God as it has been revealed in Jesus. I am not responsible for the cellular mitosis that will lead to its growth. I am not even responsible for the seed my neighbor tosses out. I have on job, to spread abroad the seed that is the Good News of God in Jesus Christ and to trust in its own power to produce fruit.
I am always tempted to look forward, beyond today, toward the kingdom whose image shines so brightly for me. This vision sometimes makes me impatient, leads me to despair as the Gospel does its own work while I rise night and day unable to do more than watch. It leads me to want to shake the branches of the bush that is my kingdom, to drive away the birds who have taken nest there.
But the only task these parables offer me is the spreading of seed. The fruit will come, and with it, the sickle. The growth will come, and with it the birds. I am only to preach Gospel.