By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD.
Genesis 29:11-19a Psalm 139.1-11, 22-23 Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
When I was a kid, I loved adventure movies – my taste has certainly changed over the years, but then adventure in the 1950s was a lot tamer than now. Some of you will remember the old westerns, with swashbuckling cowboys fighting first-nations warriors, pirates and spies, horse racing over rough terrain, touch guys charging through the swinging doors of the saloon aiming their 6-shooters as some poor duck, fisticuffs, and all that sort of thing. And then there were the pirate movies, with variations on the western genre that had tough guys with patches over their eyes riding the waves on the high seas instead of riding beautiful stallions across the dusty prairie. There were spy movies and bank-robber movies, both of which often took place in a city-scape.
Well one thing that fascinates me is how much the narrative in Genesis of our couple-archs (or maybe we could call them fore-couples). For those of you who weren’t here last week, that’s the partnership of the forefathers and foremothers, or the matriarchs and patriarchs). I’m intrigued by how the same plot lines, the same narrative arc if you will, has been part of the human story forever – even going back the Eve and Adam.
Tuning in each week to the next episode of our fore couples’ Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, is a little like watching the old serials at the movies – or tuning in to a holy soap opera – especially because the characters that God chooses to work out the divine plan are not always the most moral and upright, and you can expect intrigue, adventure, and some racy relationships
I was thinking about what we might call this holy soap-opera. How about Wheat and Weeds? Or maybe Weeds and Wheat, since there often seems to be more weeds than wheat in the Biblical narrative. Just as the parable that Jesus tells in the gospel reminds us that God accepts us all, and calls all of us to work for the coming of the Kingdom of heaven, so the matriarchal and patriarchal stories from Genesis are a good example of what Jesus is teaching.
So as today’s episode of “Weeds and Wheat” opens, Jacob is fleeing from his brother Esau, whom he has just cheated out of his proper inheritance. But he is fleeing for a purpose, because Isaac his father has sent him to the land of his maternal grandfather, Bethuel, to find a wife from among his own relatives. When he needs to find a place to spend the night, he lies down on the grass, uses a stone for a pillow, and has a strange dream (which we might expect if we sleep on something as hard as a rock!)
Nevertheless, dreams are extremely important in the Hebrew scriptures, and Jacob’s dream of the ladder reaching to heaven, with angels running up and down, is a reminder that God does indeed visit human beings, that there is a real connection between God and human beings & that we are not separated from God. It reminds me of what the Irish call “thin” places – places where the veil between this world and the spiritual world seems to be almost non-existent.
In his dream, God speaks to Jacob without ever chiding or accusing him for the sin he committed against his brother, and the deception he practised against his father. And yet the very fact that God chooses to meet him in this way is a sign of God’s forgiveness and acceptance of Jacob as he is.
He receives the same promise that was given to Abraham – that God will give him the land, that his offspring will be as numerous as the grains of dust on the earth, and that all families of the earth will be blessed by his family. God also promises to go with Jacob – he is not making this journey on his own. And it’s significant that God also promises to bring him back home again – especially significant considering that Jacob is running away from home because of his own sin against his brother.
Jacob knew that the dream was profound, and so he set up that stone as a marker that this was a holy place and called it Beth-el, or “house of God.” In the verses that follow this passage, which for some reason are left out of our lectionary, Jacob responds to God’s promises with his own vow. He says in a very moving passage:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.” (Gen. 28.20-22)
This is a profoundly moving speech, because it seals the covenant between Jacob and God, it recognizes that Jacob accepts God’s forgiveness of him, and it opens him to the grace of God to move in him, to allow him to fulfill his vocation as a patriarch of Israel, the head of a family that reaches down to Jesus’ time.
It also marks an important transition for Jacob, a transition into a new life, with new possibilities, and because God is going with him and bringing him home again, eventually he will experience a reconciliation with the brother whom he has harmed.
The belief that is central here is that God uses all of us and accomplishes the divine purpose in spite of our failings, in spite of our propensity to selfishness and self-pre-occupation and greed. What appears to be bad can in fact be transformed and be used for God’s purposes. The image of God in this story is a God who meets us, who is patient, who invites us into intimacy, who knows that in response to love we are all capable of conversion – that is literally of turning around and walking in another direction, and above all, who promises us a future full of hope.
And this is the point Jesus is making in the parable he tells about the wheat and the weeds growing up together. Like Jacob and Esau, it is hard to tell who is the bad guy and who is the good guy. Which one is going to bear good fruit? Which one is going to work toward achieving God’s purpose? If one of them was punished for wrongdoing (Jacob for greed and deceit, Esau for despising his inheritance), we might never see the conversion whose potential lies just under the surface.
In the parable, the householder plants good seed, seed that will bear a plentiful harvest, but one of the slaves points out to the householder that weeds are growing with the good plants. (Something we have all noticed this summer!) The householder says “An enemy has done this” and the slave is ready to uproot them, but he is enjoined to wait until the harvest, lest “in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” And there’s always the possibility that the householder’s interpretation of how the weeds got there may be wrong – maybe it’s not the enemy. And maybe the weeds are truly flowers and fruits we have not recognized – just as Jacob, who might have been considered a weed in God’s family back in the time of the patriarchs, turns out to be a noble and fruitful ancestor of Jesus.
Jesus tells the parable – like all parables – to paint a picture of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like – so we learn that the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where we can allow all that is good in us to flourish. A parable tries to paint a general picture, and is different from an allegory in which each person in the story, and each item, has a one-to-one relationship with something else.
But the really strange thing about this parable is that after Jesus tells it, he proceeds to interpret it by giving it an allegorical meaning. The hopeful and positive tone of the householder is replaced by words attributed to Jesus that sound very heavy-handed, dark and threatening – not at all like God’s gentle forgiveness and reconciliation of Jacob. Not at all in keeping with the values of a God who loves us unconditionally.
Most commentators believe that the first telling of the parable is consistent with all we know about Jesus from the other gospels, while the interpretation at the end seems totally contradictory to that. It would not be unexpected for Matthew to slant the story toward a view of Jesus as a harsh but just judge, much as he did in other places – for instance in Chapter 25 in the parable of the sheep and the goats – because he would want to emphasize to his own generation the importance of righteousness and justice. His was a generation where many people were becoming Christian but not following the ethical teaching of Jesus and were seeking what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” – the grace and help and power of God without the commitment.
But what Jesus offers us in our generation, I believe, is what the original parable emphasizes, the same that God offers Jacob and his family – forgiveness, reconciliation, and the opportunity to build a creative future in which we reach out to others in love.
A few days ago I read a Facebook entry from Bishop Steven Charlston, a former Bishop of Alaska and the predecessor in that position of our Mark MacDonald. Bishop Charlston is from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and a very engaging preacher – who, as he will say himself, has an advantage over other First Nations preachers in that he is very brief. I’ve listened to some of his sermons, and they pack a punch in 8 or 10 minutes at the most (something I’m not very good at doing!).
This post of his is likewise brief and very moving. Think of the soap-opera kind of adventure drama we are living through now in our fight against pandemic, racism, greed, and violence. A different context than for Jacob or the homeowner Jesus talks of, but the same underlaying human drama. What is the point of it all? I think the words of Bishop Charlston offer great hope:
Something sacred is coming this way. That is how my ancestors would have said it. In the midst of all this turmoil and confusion, when we cannot clearly see the path before us, when we feel trapped in a situation we cannot control, then I believe the wise elders of my holy heritage would climb to the high place of the heart, draw the circle of reason and faith around them, and stand to sing their prayers into the open sky of the history to come. They would not shrink into a corner afraid, but rise up to catch the first light of what was coming into being all around them. We are living in a time of emergence. We are the witnesses to a great renewal. The world is full of the fear of birth and change, but that transformation will one day be our blessing. Do not be afraid, but be believing. Come to the place where the ancestors are already standing. Come and see. Something sacred is coming this way.