Homily by Bill Whitla Pentecost 6 (Proper 11A) July 20, 2014
Gwenlyn asked me to preach because she said that the readings were difficult—and I knew that was a golden opportunity. Little did I know that the reading from Romans would be cut off half way through [Sherman later reported it had been taken from a 2011 bulletin where the co-ordinator had abbreviated the reading] and the Gospel was completely invisible, having been left out of the bulletin altogether. A challenge indeed.
First a word or two about Flesh and Spirit in Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 8:12-25), since it has come up over several weeks in our readings, and is always problematical until we have unpacked it a little. Paul’s discussion of the body is one of his central themes. In 1 Corinthians Paul makes it part of the doctrine of the church when he says that each part of the body all need the other parts—and then audaciously compares the human body to the body of Christ and uses that metaphor to describe the Church—you are the body of Christ he says. So Romans, Paul, and Flesh! When in Romans Paul is talking about flesh (Gk. sarx) and spirit (Gk. pneuma) these are the two crucial aspects of the body—and Paul often adds a third (soma—soul) or fourth (psyche —psyche). All of these are inter-connected in his anthropology, but here in the eighth chapter of Romans Paul is concerned to show how the revelation of God in Jesus displays God’s mercy and justice, not as it was under the Law of Moses, that he had been discussing, but now what life looks like from a Christian perspective.1 That is the whole point of what Paul calls justification —the making of justice with mercy to be the law of the new Christian order, in which enmity between human beings and God is ended and replaced by the spirit-filled presence of God—and human beings are freed and restored to the family of God. That does not happen by the Law—either the Jewish torah that set up moral hurdles, or the civil law—that of Rome or of the modern day, that sets up conventions of conformity, criminality, and punishment. Instead God’s justice and mercy free the body of the individual, this combination of flesh and spirit that had been bound towards death, to the new morality of justice and mercy that Paul calls the life of the risen Christ in which all Christians share.
‘Flesh’ (Gr. sarx) is a word vitally connected with the subject of the Incarnation. It is the flesh that Jesus took up as in the prologue to John’s Gospel; it is the flesh upon which the Spirit was given to Jesus. Sarx is found in no less than one hundred and fifty texts in the NT. But the deeds of the flesh, so often, and so widely, and so disapprovingly interpreted as sexual sins in Paul’s letters, pre-marital sex, extramarital sex, adolescent sex, The Minister of Justice’s view of prostitution, the activity of prostitutes as workers or as victims, of Johns as clients or as criminals —etc. etc. etc. all of this emphasis on sex is far from what Paul is talking about in Romans —or in any other of his Epistles—for in Galatians 5, he explains that the sins of the flesh are immorality, to be sure, but also “ idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy”
Here in Romans Paul is arguing that the whole creation has, like the individual bodies of the Israelites, like the whole body of Christ, the Church—and all of us as individuals—the whole creation has come out from bondage in Egypt.2 And in this Exodus with Christ that Paul calls the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, has been given the first fruits of freedom in the spirit—and that is the hope that is waited for in patience, as he says in the last verses.
That is the message that he is driving home in this eighth chapter. Not a message of despair, or failure to keep moral or spiritual laws, but a life of profound hopefulness.
In the Gospel (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), like last week, we have an agricultural parable, and like Susie I am a city boy. But I am the grandson of a farmer, and worked for a summer on a farm near Galt, caring for the wheat, and harvesting it, and gathering it into sheaves —a poor farm, no harvesting machine on that farm that bundled up the grain. We gathered the sheaves into stooks, and then had to lift them onto the truck that the horse-drawn wagon drove past. So a bit of experience on the farm, enough to know that what you want in the sheaves are the wheat and not the thistles. We’ve often commented that one of the characteristics of ancient —and modern—Mediterranean society is that it is an honour culture.3 My friend Tom Cohen has done a lot of research on the courts of Rome in the Renaissance, and he found that over and over the plea was the someone had done a dirty deed—theft, murder, rape, assault, a drinking brawl, whatever, and the upshot of it was not the crime per se, but the fact that one person stole the victim’s honour. We call judges “Your Honour” because that tradition passed from Renaissance Italy into the law courts of Renaissance England, and to 21st century Toronto. And on the civil side, even a mayor, worthy or not, is called “Your Honour.” So in ancient Palestine at the time of Christ, you or I would have been born into a family with a certain amount of honour in the community. We inherited the honour status in that community, and it was shared by all of our family’s friends—but that same honour was also despised by all of our family’s enemies, and those enemies we also inherited—they too were part of the honour code.
Families became enemies for all sorts of reasons in the ancient world for many different reasons—land was the source of a dispute, a marriage went wrong, an insult was not avoided, hospitality was not returned, a sign of weakness became a mark of dishonour, a disease or a disability turned into a contention. But the consequences remained—feuding enmity between families, and between their wider sets of families, relations, and associations. Such feuds could continue over long periods of time
It is precisely this view of inherited honour and friendship and enmity that underlies the conflict between Israel and Palestine and Gaza—of course exacerbated by the 60 years since Britain and the Allies imposed a settlement on the region, and complicated by religion, political factions, and the continuing land disputes. It is precisely this view that has pitted the Russians and the Ukrainians against each other leading to the horrific downing of the Malaysian plane on Thursday and plunging the world in to the accusations about who did it and how, who carries the blame? Who lost massive honour? The Ukraine suddenly encompasses the world in its casualties and its violence.
In to-day’s parable, one of the enemy comes during the night and sows weeks in with the newly-planted wheat. We know that the week was a particular kind, darnel, or false wheat, that looks like wheat until the harvest when its seeds are black against wheat’s golden brown. Darnel is also a poison. Only when the crops have ripened would the shame on the householder would be complete —he would become the laughingstock of the community—and would lose honour and prestige—what a fool he must have been to have planted darnel along with his wheat—his seeds were polluted, he could not even afford pure grain—he would be mocked and derided, and his enemy would have the complete victory
Or so it seemed. As soon as the darnel had been spotted the servants, like all good servants, want to do the best for their householder—they want to pull the weeds out —the logical thing to do —root out the evil by pulling it out. But the householder stops them and gives the astonishing reply—let the weeds grow. What kind of householder, what kind of gardener lets the grain ripen for the harvest? and only then does he allow the good grain and the weeds be separated, the one into barns—another parable of plenty like last week’s parable of the extravagant sower,–the plenty into the barns, and the weeds are put to the fire—giving extra fuel for his needs—thereby doubly shaming the enemy as the whole of the shaming strategy of the enemy backfires.
But, as Susie said last week, the point of parables is to turn things upside down, to reverse expectations, to challenge with something that is the opposite of expectations. So Jesus is not giving his disciples lessons in farming, and there is little doubt that he is not telling the peasant farmers around him how to do their job. Instead, the good householder, who in the explanation is identified as the Son of Man—one of the messianic titles of Jesus—says that there is only one action to be taken, “Let both grow together until the harvest.” There is to be no retaliation against the enemy—that is a refused action; there is to be no revenge; the code of vengeance that operated throughout the honour code was here to be abrogated. No vengeance. The traditional law of an eye for an eye, a life for a life, a Palestinian boy burned alive for a group of three kidnapped and murdered Israeli boys, an Israel rocket for a Palestinian rocket—no —the law of vengeful retaliation is abrogated in this parable. Enacting that very principle of charity, the father of that burned Palestinian boy contacted the father of one of the Israeli boys, and they met together, and they mourned in their mutual grief. It was a small act of reconciliation heard around the world.
And in case we miss the point, Matthew drives the point home. The Greek verb for “Let” (as in let both grow to the harvest) is aphete —and indeed it means let, allow, or permit. But—and here is the point—it has a double meaning —it is used of a debt—and it means, “let it go” —it means “forgive the debt,” or just “forgive” It is the same word that is used in the Lord’s Prayer —“forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us”—and it has the same meaning. The householder is saying —let the vengeance and retribution against the enemy go—forgive his trespasses in the night when he sowed the seeds of darnel, for we have undoubtedly trespassed ourselves.
In the explanation, there is a further complication —because as Jesus explains the parable, the fires of judgment come at the end of time —that is the time when the wheat and the weeds are separated, the time of judgment —same story of the sheep and the goats—but there is another time in the parable, not only the end-time, but also the “meantime,” the here and now when the parable takes place —and the proper action is to resist judgment about who is right and who is wrong —the proper lesson is forgiveness. That is the lesson of the parable. The parable’s main point is not eschatological redress of wrongs at the end of time, but present forbearance of them.
Bounty of a rich harvest for the household! Warmth and comfort for the householder’s family for the well-stoked fires! Jubilee that Susie was talking about last week. Renewing of honour for all—including the enemy who is now forgiven in the acts of mercy that characterize this community.
This is the overturning of moral, ethical, social values that this parable is presenting to those eager onlookers so long ago, and not only to them, but to all of us who take those words seriously as presenting another option, forgiveness for violence, mercy for vindictive retribution, love, we might say, for hate. This is what loving your enemies means. It suggests and proposes a world transformed. And it directed its hearers then and directs us now to make it happen.
1 See Paul J. Achtemeier, “Romans, The Letter of Paul to the,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible eds. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, 1993, 661.
2 See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, especially pp. 103-4: “This brings us to Romans 8, where we find a further image deeply embedded within the created order itself: that of new birth. This passage has routinely been marginalized for centuries by exegetes and theologians who have tried to turn Romans into a book simply about how individual sinners get individually saved. But it is in fact one of the great climaxes of the letter and indeed of all Paul’s thought.
In this passage Paul again uses the imagery of the Exodus from Egypt but this time in relation not to Jesus, nor even to ourselves, but to creation as a whole. Creation, he says (verse 21) is in slavery at the moment, like the children of Israel. God’s design was to rule creation in life-giving wisdom through his image-bearing human creatures. But this was always a promise for the future, a promise that one day the true human being, the image of God himself, God’s incarnate son, would come to lead the human race into their true identity. Meanwhile, the creation was subjected to futility, to transience and decay, until the time when God’s children are glorified, when what happened to Jesus at Easter happens to all Jesus’s people. This is where Romans 8 dovetails with 1 Corinthians 15. The whole creation, as he says in verse 19, is on tiptoe with expectation, longing for the day when God’s children are revealed, when their resurrection will herald its own new life.
Paul then uses the image of birth pangs—a well-known Jewish metaphor for the emergence of God’s new age— not only of the church in verse 23 and of the Spirit a couple of verses later but also here in verse 22 of creation itself. Once again this highlights both continuity and discontinuity. This is no smooth evolutionary transition, in which creation simply moves up another gear into a higher mode of life. This is traumatic, involving convulsions and contractions and the radical discontinuity in which mother and child are parted and become not one being but two. But neither is this a dualistic rejection of physicality as though, because the present creation is transient and full of decay and death, God must throw it away and start again from scratch. The very metaphor Paul chooses for this decisive moment in his argument shows that what he has in mind is not the unmaking of creation or simply its steady development but the drastic and dramatic birth of new creation from the womb of the old.”
3 see John T. Pilch, “Enemies and Retaliation.” The Sunday Website of Saint Louis University: http://liturgy.slu.edu/16OrdA072014/theword_cultural.html