Parables and the Basilea|
June 29, 2003
for Seekers Church
Numerous Scriptures and Apocrypha
I did a little extra biblical preparation for the sermon today, looking at the alternate lectionary scriptures; at the books of Judith and the Wisdom of Solomon, stories found in the apocrypha; and at the Gospel of Mary, a fragment of a second century gospel with a feminist twist. I was aiming at getting a little more feel for the climate of thought in the era around Jesus, the myths and stories that would be in the minds of the disciples when they heard Jesus, and the kinds of concerns that the disciples brought to the telling of the Jesus story when it was their turn to preach.
Here are a few references for the sermon I offer you today.
The Wisdom of Solomon was written by an Alexandrian Jew in the century before Jesus and deals with the meeting of Jewish and Greek culture, just as Jesus did. It is a sermon in favor of justice, piety, and truthfulness. It opposes the idea that life is meaningless, sharply attacks greed and the notion that might makes right. All of these are themes to be found in the words of Jesus and in the interpretive additions added by the disciples of Jesus.
Judith is comparable to the story of Esther which is more familiar to some of you. The story goes as follows. Judea is threatened by the armies of Nebuchadnezzer. The strategy of the defenders is to hold the mountain passes to stop the armies from getting into the valleys around Jerusalem. Holophernes, the Babylonian general, decides on a siege, against the Jewish defenders. The defenders suffer mightily, and something must be done. Judith dresses up to beguile Holophernes, tells a bunch of lies, lures him to bed, cuts off his head, and escapes. The army flees in terror. This is one of several "wily peasant" stories in the Bible and in non-biblical literature of that day, with many more examples since biblical times. It is a story of the weak defeating the strong by craftiness, and, in the story of Judith, with the help of God.
Without a story line, the third chapter of Lamentations, written a century or two before Jesus, is a cry of lament, a prayer of petition for delivery from enemies, a citing of injustice, a claiming of special relationship, and a call to God for revenge. This is a theme found in many of the psalms that have been part of recent lectionary readings, though not the sections included in the lectionary assigned parts of these psalms.
Judith, Lamentations, and many psalms, all are examples of a common theme in Hebrew scripture that attempt to trade on the feeling of a close or special relationship with God to get what is wanted politically: release and revenge against oppressors followed by the restoration of political dominance as in the time of the kingdoms of David and Solomon. You can see this theme in the synoptic gospels in the stories of Christmas and Easter that Matthew and Luke added to the narrative of Mark. It was the kind of thinking that guided the Zealots of the time of Jesus, including a couple of the named disciples of Jesus. It is the story line that fits with the cleansing of the temple, with words ascribed to Jesus to buy a sword, and with the saying, "I come to bring not peace, but fire." This is the kind of background that led the Roman authorities to think of Jesus as a dangerous revolutionary, worthy of crucifixion.
The Gospel of Mary has an apocalyptic theme that has similarities with the ends to the stories of Daniel and Job, with several of the minor prophets, with several of the books in the Apocrypha, with the latter chapters of the synoptic gospels, with the Gospel of John, and with the writings of Paul and the Revelation of John, and also with numerous apocalyptic writings that did not make it into the biblical canon or Apocrypha. The apocalyptic theme channels the theme of anger and revenge from the realm of guerilla warfare and political maneuvering into a spiritual realm with the payoff either after death or after the end-of-the-world. This apocryphal transition addresses the emotional problem of deep disappointment after the death of Jesus through the official shame of the cross. It also redirects the anger and revenge following the genocide of Jerusalem that ended the growing revolt against the Romans.
This kind of rebellious spirit was well known to Jesus. The major city of Sepphoris, just a few miles from Nazareth, the town where Joseph and Jesus probably worked as tektons, as construction laborers, was submitted to genocide and massive enslavement just a few years before the birth of Jesus.
I've gone through this long introduction to set up the context for understanding what Jesus was talking about when he preached about the coming Basilea. The Basilea is usually translated as the "Kingdom of God," but is better translated as the "Empire of God" that stands in sharp contrast to the "Empire of Ceaser." It is pretty hard to separate out just what Jesus most likely said from the added interpretations of the disciples who were merely doing what all good preachers do, trying to tell the gospel story in ways that fit with the hunger and categories of thought in their audiences. But if one thing stands out, it is that Jesus pointed to the Basilea as the great gift of God, good news for the most oppressed, for the expendables of that day of time. Jesus was following in the foot steps of his mentor, John the Baptist, another Galilean rebel who challenged the temple with the forgiveness of sins through baptism rather than sacrifice in the temple of Jerusalem; who challenged the Roman authorities with unwelcome political commentary during his preaching against sin.
In terms of intellectual formula, I believe that Jesus spoke in eschatological terms, but not apocalyptic terms. That is, I believe Jesus saw the end of the Roman empire, that he saw the inherent weakness of all oppressors who makes false claims of divine sanction to cover up their basis of power in brute strength, economic domination, and military might.
Jesus saw the Basilea not merely in some future of the imagination, after death or after the end-of-the-word, but now. Jesus came to tell us that oppression and death are not the last words in the quest for meaning, that meaningful life can begin right now before any authority gives permission. If we enter the Basilea right now, we contribute to its ongoing emergence in our here-and-now lives and in the here-and-now lives of our children. Just as the authors of Samuel and Isaiah challenged the divine rights of Kings and laid the seeds for a rule of law that protects the rights of the poor, so Jesus challenged the empire of Caesar, the self-serving claims of divinity. I see Jesus, in part, as having hope in the emerging concept of citizenship in Greece and Rome, a citizenship which the Caesars were steadily eroding.
The bits of story that most likely represent the actual words of Jesus are found in the recorded parables. The parables are often not in pure form but are changed by the allegorical additions of Mark, Matthew and Luke. But by comparing the parables found in Mark, Matthew and Luke, as well as in the Gospel of Thomas, a sayings gospel that includes about half of the parables found in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, one can work back to the simplest story that is most likely to reflect what Jesus said.
Before turning to a few of these parables, I want to complete two more lines of preparation.
Parables serve the opposite function of myths. Myths are stories that combine several elements to make sense of life, to create world views, the envelopes of meaning where we store the relevant facts of daily existence. Rationalism, apocalypticism, magic, the divine right of kings, materialism, scientism, the Greek pantheon of gods, the "wily peasant stories," the concept of manifest destiny, are all examples of such myths.
Parables are brief vivid stories, based in common experienced truths, that take a twist to open up questions that challenge myths. It is the living out of such questions that open doors into the Basilea, that make entry into a life aligned with the eternals something that is possible right now. Parables work when they speak to a silenced hunger. Parables open up possibilities that are desperately desired but that seemed impossible.
The Basilea is, among other things, the realm of justice and peace, a present possibility that is not daunted by the inequalities of power, not fazed by the lies and manipulations of political authorities and the public relations machines of those who can pay the penny and the pound to be well thought of in popular culture.
The second preparatory point is that the Basilea releases power, transformative power, healing power. We see an echo of that power in the lectionary scripture for today, Mark 5:21-43, two stories of Jesus as healer. Jesus was able to help the woman with the hemorrhage and the daughter of Jairus just by being who he was, because who he was calls out for healing and transformation, because Jesus calls us out to be healthy and whole, whatever our limitations and restrictions, so that we can live with what we have and who we are, so that we can make our own contributions to life in the Basilea. Jesus makes us feel precious to ourselves and precious to each other, because, when you are in the Basilea, you know how much each one is needed. This is how I feel about each one of you who have put your weight down in this small expression of the Basilea, this Seekers treasure held in an earthen vessel.
The woman with the hemorrhage only had to touch the robe of Jesus to focus her potentials for self-healing, and Jesus had the tactile sensitivity to know that touch. He turned to her, affirmed her, blessed her. Jesus could tell the daughter to wake up, to throw off all that was death-affirming and choose life. I read these stories with the special hunger of a transgender person, but I believe they can work for many people. Whether these events actually happened, or whether they are representative stories of the healing capacities of Jesus, they point to a key element of the Basilea, the power of healing and transformation, the power released by the choosing of life, the choosing of life even in the face of oppression and violence, the choosing of life in the midst of fear and anxiety, the choosing of life before one is ready, before the implications of the choice are clear.
Jesus gives us parables to help us to see the life-giving potentials all around us, and in us. We often miss life-giving potentials because we want to be polite and tactful, because we are afraid of where they might take us, because our education does not prepare us for them, and for many other reasons.
I'm going to look at one biblical parable and then share a few of my own.
Luke 13: 20-21 reads as follows.
What does the Basilea remind me of? It is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened. (Scholars translation)
Like mustard seed sewn in a field, leaven was conceived of as impure and destructive. Holy bread for the Jewish festivals was unleavened. Leaven, after all, is a mold. And fifty pounds is a lot of flour, a whole lot more flour than you need for baking a loaf of bread, or even 10 loaves of bread. Still, using leaven for baking was common because people had learned to like leavened bread just like we do.
The woman hides the leaven. She isn't baking with it. And of course, while hidden the leaven spreads, affecting all the flour. Weeds in fields and leaven in flour, homely but surprising images of the Basilea. The word of God spreading mouth-to-mouth, hand-to-hand, in kisses and touch, in words and deeds, traveling below the radar screens of those who control the official power of the day, sprouting up from time-to-time, getting nailed to the cross but not overcome.
Healing and helping each other out, the claiming of justice, the building of peace, celebrating the love and life that is present and grieving what is ripped away, meeting where it matters, and knowing each others true names. It's not all we want but it is enough. It is available and it can start right now, over and over again.
As I read this parable and reflect on it, it seems to me that the parable's core wisdom and orientation is far more aligned with the Wisdom of Solomon and John the Baptist than with the anger and revenge found in Judith and Lamentations, or with the apocalyptic writings of Daniel the Gospel of John. The parables are eschatological in that they speak to the end of an age, the beginning of a new time, the opening of radical possibility and hope. But this is hope for right now, a life to be opened and lived right now, a possibility that needs no additional preparation, the sharing of precious love. It addresses our deepest hungers and feeds us right now, not in some other time or place after death, or after the end of the physical or political world.
Much as I treasure the parables of Jesus, I think it can help to try to think in parables as well as learn from his parables. Thinking in parables can sharpen your readiness and awareness of what God is doing in you and around you. So here are a few of mine.
The Basilea is like a tick. It waits patiently for life-giving opportunity and then risks everything to hang on..
The Basilea is like a woman who gave a sermon in a fine old established church. She was the least liked and least prestigious person in the congregation. She only got to preach because it was laity Sunday and no one else volunteered. Many who heard her preach did not like what she was saying and they walked out while she was speaking. Next Sunday when they returned, everyone who had walked out could only reenter if they begged for forgiveness from this woman. Many went away and never came back.
There was a homeless man who approached an investment banker and asked for a $200 loan so he could start a business selling flowers. The banker turned him down because he didn't have a business plan. Instead, the banker gave him $300 and told him that if his business was successful to give the money to someone else in need.
I invite each of you to include some parable writing in your spiritual disciplines time this next week. Let the parables be short, vivid, grounded in everyday reality, and with a bit of a twist that opens up a life-giving question.
Whether you write parables or not, I invite you into the Basilea. For those of you already in the Basilea, I invite you to remember where you are, to give thanks, and to live as if you remembered all the time.