Tales of the Unexpected

By Christian Bergmann

One of America’s most well-known twentieth century writers was a young woman of the deep south named Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor’s stories were reflections on some of the most disturbing elements of human nature: the freakish, the grotesque, and the violent. They were also preoccupied with the workings of grace in precisely those places, which is what makes her fiction so interesting. What this meant was that she was able to claim that her stories were invitations “to deeper and stranger visions”.

I can think of no more accurate summary than that for the stories that have shaped the imagination of the Church for centuries: Jesus’ parables. One of the unfortunate aspects of these stories becoming part of the Church’s “story-furniture”, so to speak, is that we lose our sense of some of the most unexpected, disturbing and subversive elements of what Jesus was saying. The Gospel for today, which includes the parable of the weeds and the wheat (Matthew 13:24-43) serves to some extent as an example of that. Our most famous commentary on this parable comes from the towering figure of the early Church, Saint Augustine, who used this parable as a description of the nature of the Church, in which good and evil would coexist until the end of time, when the final judgment separates the weeds from the wheat. This is a perfectly appropriate interpretation of the parable, but maybe we’ve missed some steps along the way that have obscured some of its most subversive elements.

Part of the problem is maybe the way in which we actually treat the parables. They’re not, first and foremost, stories designed to communicate a specific moral point, like an allegory. This is because Christianity is not, first and foremost, a moral or ethical worldview. On this reading, parables become simply a container for a broadly moral message about the human condition. As theologian James Alison has said in The Forgiving Victim, prior to Christianity being about morals, it is about a fundamental shift in the way in which God has communicated with his people: now it is through his Son, Jesus, who is the final word spoken by God and the fullness of revelation. And this revelation is not simply “information”, either. The alteration in relationship that occurred in Jesus is more like, Alison says, someone announcing to their parents they were pregnant. New information – certainly. But more deeply, a fundamental alteration of a relationship, because a whole new world has been brought into existence that changes everything. What God did, in Christ, was bring a whole new world into existence: a new kingdom, a new creation.

This new kingdom, as announced by Christ, not only fulfilled Jewish expectation but subverted it all at once.

As I mentioned last week, fundamental to the Jewish imagination and Jewish expectation in the first century (and before) was that God would finally act in history and fulfil his promise to David (2 Samuel 7:10-17). This promise was that a descendent of David’s would ascend the throne and inaugurate an everlasting kingdom. This kingdom was also prophesied in the book of Daniel, in a passage well known to Jesus’ first century audience: it was a dream of “one like a son of man” who “received dominion, splendour, and kingship; all nations, peoples and tongues serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away” (Dan. 7:13-15).

The parable of the weeds and wheat concludes with “the son of man” enacting judgment and finally separating the two from each other (Matthew 13:41). The significance of “the kingdom” Jesus was talking about would not have been lost on his audience: this kingdom, this new world, this new creation, it’s starting to happen right now. The question is, obviously, what does this kingdom look like? What does the reign of God look like?

According to biblical scholar N.T. Wright, in his book Jesus and the Victory of God, this parable might well have been addressing the revolutionary sentiments that had been percolating amongst the Jews for some time. What Wright proposes is that because Israel was expecting the coming of the kingdom quite soon (around Jesus’ time period, in fact), there was a revolutionary sentiment in the air that motivated some groups to erect more stringent boundary-markers, separating them from pagans on the one hand and Jews who had been compromised by the surrounding culture on the other. Think of the Pharisees: part of what girded their harsher approach to the law was a desire to preserve Jewish identity in the face of foreign occupation. That had been a constant Jewish struggle throughout every occupation: Babylon, Assyria, and Rome. The constant question was: “how do we remain faithful to the covenant God made with us?” Uprooting the weeds was an obvious solution.

In fact, one of the things we know from archaeological evidence is that there some communities that lived on the outskirts of societies that were actively anticipating the coming kingdom by separating themselves from everyone else. They had strict ethical, dietary and ritual codes that marked them out as the “children of light” as opposed to the “children of darkness” of the coming apocalypse.

So much of our religious life works like that.

So, it is here that maybe Jesus’ parable takes on an unexpected, disconcerting, and maybe underwhelming tone. The kingdom of God that has now arrived, he said, is not like that. It is not a kingdom in which the faithful can be clearly distinguished from the unfaithful, the good from the bad. Moreover, the work of separation and uprooting the weeds? That belongs ultimately to “the son of man”, to Jesus.

How, then, do we reach Augustine’s use of this parable as an analogy for the Church? If the Second Vatican Council is right, and the Church is “the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery” (Lumen Gentium, 3), then this has implications for how we live as participants in that kingdom. Maybe this parable is an invitation to temper or even undo our destructive attempts at construing the world in categories such as "light" and "dark". Maybe this is a subversion of the assumption that God is backing our righteous crusades against perceived enemies. Maybe this is an invitation to let go of the judgment that kills and instead trust in the judgment of the Son of Man.