July 20 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 44:6-8; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Theme: The subject is surely clearer this week, even if finding a pithy theme to encapsulate it is no easier. Good and evil co-exist, both in our human nature and in the whole of creation. That's the fact we asked to confront this week, isn't it? So perhaps a safe choice might be "The Need for Discernment" or "The Gift of Discernment". For fans of Thomas Green, S.J. we could simply plagiarise the title of his book "Weeds Among the Wheat" – a little alliteration often helps to give a short motto a bit of bite. (On a similar topic he also wrote "Darkness in the Marketplace", but that may be more confusing than helpful on this occasion.) The need is to focus on seeing this as a practical problem – not an interesting theological issue. So perhaps "Practical Discernment 101" might appeal.
Introduction. We begin again this week with Isaiah; and the theme of the moment for him is the need to turn away from falsity to truth – from idols to the One True God. That surely is the solid foundation on which to base all true discernment. And the fundamental test here is to look at the divine track record: what God says will happen, does happen: what idols and false gods promise is not fulfilled. Go, figure! St Paul is coming to the same point through his long argument of which our second lesson is a part. We know we have the Spirit within us by what we say and do. On the basis of the inner transformation which we have experienced and are continuing to experience we can have hope for a better future, not only for our species, but for the whole of creation. In our gospel passage we are shown the world as it is now – and how we are to live in it. Wisdom, not direct action, is called for.
Background. Three things to chew on this week, in ascending order of seriousness and importance. First, a quote from Dr Don Brash. A few weeks ago he was interviewed by Kim Hill on National Radio. When she got on to the issue of his marital infidelity she expressed, with her usual delicacy, not any ethical denunciation of his actions, but her sheer astonishment that HE, famous for his unworldly intellectualism, should have engaged in something so carnal. How could that be? His response was immediate and simple: "Well, Kim, there is such a thing as evolution, you know" If you are one of those who is still trying to get your head around chapters 7and 8 of St Paul's Letter to the Romans I commend the good doctor's comment to you. What St Paul calls life in the flesh is the product of evolution: it is our animal life that has evolved over millennia to meet our basic needs, including primarily our need to survive as a species. What our faith tells us is that Christ has inaugurated a new stage of evolution – he calls it the new creation – a stage of spiritual evolution, in which our physical instincts and appetites (the evolutionary imperative) can be brought under our control, if we choose to do so.
The second issue that is occupying my mind this week concerns the proposal to establish a memorial to conscientious objectors in Dunedin. The spokesperson for the R.S.A. is treading carefully in her opposition, keeping her argument to the issue of the appropriate site. She does not want it on Anzac Avenue, which has special significance to the troops of the First World War, and alongside which trees have been planted in their memory. The latest reports suggest that the trustees for the proposed memorial have been offered an alternative site and are considering it. All sorts of issues arise from this argument. Were our troops not fighting for our freedoms, including our freedom of conscience? Is it not agreed that our treatment of Archibald Baxter and others like him was so outrageous as to be a serious blot on our war record as a nation? Do our returned servicemen men and women have a strong view on this issue, or is this the view of the professional employees who presume to know better?
But what particularly interests me at this moment is the light this parable can shed on the issue. Master, did you not designate this avenue to be a memorial to the good seed of New Zealand youth who went to the Front in World War I? How is it then that there is also a memorial to weeds like Archibald Baxter? ... Do you want us to go and knock it down? No, because in doing that you might injure the very people whose memory you are trying to honour.
Thirdly, and most importantly, is the tragedy of Gaza. Who is right and who is wrong in that terrible situation? And the only possible answer from a Christian viewpoint must surely be that all those whose actions are causing, directly or indirectly, suffering to others are wrong. But let's focus on the application of this week's Parable to the situation, and, in particular, to Israel's attempts to go and uproot the Hamas rocket-launchers. If it were possible to do only that without causing any "collateral damage" (the language of war is truly ghastly) it would be hard to deny the justice of Israel's cause. But, of course, it is not, and despite all possible counter-accusations and official spin, the Israeli Government knows it is not. So the punch-line in this parable is exactly in point again. No, do not try to destroy the rocket-launchers because in doing so you will destroy the innocent as well as the guilty.
One of my favourite commentators on the parables of Jesus is the American Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon, whose trilogy comprises The Parables of the Kingdom, The Parables of Grace, and The Parables of Judgment. He is particularly good on this Parable of the Weeds. He points out that that what the enemy has done (sown weeds among the wheat) is not what damages the wheat: the master's response only makes sense if the wheat can nevertheless grow to maturity. Any damage to the wheat will be done by the well-meaning servants. Thus, the "enemy" (evil) is not effective or powerful in itself: it can only achieve its aim by deceiving (tempting) people into doing its work.
The outcome of Don Brash giving into temptation was the destruction of his marriage, which he deeply regrets. The outcome of the stoush over the site of a memorial to conscientious objectors is likely to be a far more prominent position for the memorial and a lessening of respect for the RSA for its ungracious attitude. The outcome of the Israeli bombing of Gaza is likely to be an increase in support for Hamas and international opprobrium for Israel, perhaps the real reason why Hamas keeps firing rockets that do comparatively little harm to Israel's citizens. Those with evil intent achieve their aims by tempting their targets to harm themselves.
Isaiah. This part of Isaiah seems to date from the time that monotheism is becoming mainstream in Jewish religious understanding, but, of course, not without some resistance. In chapters 40 and 41 Isaiah exposes the folly of idolatry by contrasting it with the glory of God. In chapters 43 and 44 he reverses the order, but the point is the same. It is absurd to believe in idols we have made ourselves – how can they have power that we do not have? But the most important point Isaiah is now making is that it is not an issue of theological debate: it is a matter of practical observation or, we might say, of historical record. What does our experience tell us? God has spoken the truth: what he has foretold from the beginning has come to pass. Who or what can match that? Who or what can compare with him?
Taking It Personally.
- Are you sure you are a monotheist? Are you convinced of the reality of God as the sole source of life, goodness and everything else?
- Is God your primary source of identity? Do you place your identity as a Christian ahead of all other identities, such as gender, race, or class? What does that mean for you?
- Looking back, how would you summarise God's "track-record" in your life?
- Is God the rock on which you are building your house? Does your faith in God enable you to make right decisions in the "real" world of your everyday life?
- Focus on verse 8. Are you one of his witnesses?
Romans. There is so much in this passage that it is impossible to do it justice in one lesson. (Whole books have been written just on chapter 8!) And, of course, each passage is carefully linked by St Paul, with what precedes it and what follows is; he is after all developing an argument. For me the best place to pick up the argument this week is back at verse 9; verses 9 to 11 comprise one of his key points, which he then elaborates in verses 12 to 17, before broadening it out in verses 18-25 to apply to the whole of creation. As mentioned above, our modern understanding of evolution fits well with what St Paul is talking about here. Something new and extraordinary has "intervened" in the evolution of our species, and through our species the rest of creation. The Spirit of Christ has been released into the universe and seeks to be incarnated in the material of created matter, our own first and the rest following. It is not an instant, immediate and universal transformation, but one that is slow, gradual, and ultimately all-embracing. We are caught up in that process. How do we know? By our own experience. Do we experience God as "Abba" – do we experience the reality of being children of God – not in some esoteric moment of supposed spiritual rapture – but in the tough, gritty world as it really is at this moment?
Taking It Personally.
- Well do you? Does this passage accurately describe your relationship with God as you experience it?
- Do you fear God?
- Do you address God in your prayers as "Abba"?
- Does the understanding that God is creating all things through evolution appeal to you at all? Does it help or hinder your understanding of the state of the world today?
- Do you live in hope for the future?
Matthew. At first glance, this is an odd parable. It does not seem to be drawn from actual practice, in the way that the Parable of the Sower could well have been. After all, it is unlikely that a neighbour really did hop over the fence and broadcast weed seeds willy-nilly in a paddock of freshly sown wheat. Nevertheless, it is a wonderfully clear story with a very important point to make. Which raises the obvious question, why did it require such a laboured (we might say "corny") explanation? One clue might be found in verses 34 and 35, which precede the explanation, and seem quite superfluous given that they cover the same point that has already be dealt with at much greater length in verses 10-17. Perhaps in the early church there was a real issue with this form of teaching, particularly among Gentile converts. They weren't used to it and didn't get it. Today our mistake may be in assuming that this parable is really one of judgment, designed to assure us that the bad guys will get what's coming to them eventually. Remembering that this teaching is for those who wish to be or become disciples of Christ, it is surely about how we deal with evil when we encounter it. And then we remember that the one who is instructing us is the one who accepted death on the cross rather than a sword fight to the death. God's wisdom is different from ours; hence the daily need for discernment guided by the Spirit.
Taking It Personally.
- Read slowly through the parable several times. Don't be in a hurry to go past the opening words "The kingdom of heaven may be compared..."
- Think about the expression "cutting off your nose to spite your face": is that a useful summary of this parable?
- Can you recall an occasion when, with the best of intentions, you took action only to discover that you made things worse?
- How might you respond to a similar situation in the future, guided by this parable?
- Is Jesus advocating an acceptance of evil in this story?