Taking the Long View -- A lectionary meditation
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Taking the Long View
It’s probably not news to many reading this meditation that we live in an age of instant gratification. Although there are those who embrace simplicity, slow food and the bicycle as a mode of transportation, most of us want results now. In politics, we give the elected about two weeks to solve all the problems of the world before we’re ready to vote them out of office, even though the problems in front of us have taken a long time in developing. Therefore, we find it difficult to take the long view. This is true even in the church, where we demand results right now. So, we go to a church growth seminar, come back home and try out a few ideas and then expect the church to be full of new people the next week. Of course, this doesn’t happen and so we jettison what we learned and look for the next fix (or go looking for a new job if we’re clergy!). Persistence and patience, these are not the virtues of the present age. Having said this, I should note that persistence and patience aren’t the same as stubbornness or intransigence. There is no need to keep hitting one’s head against an unmovable wall!
The three texts for this week (I’m using the Genesis 29 text rather than the 1 Kings passage) speak to this call to take the long view. Jacob will work seven years for the hand of his beloved only to find that he has been tricked and has to work another seven to truly get the hand of the beloved. Paul speaks of staying true to God’s calling even in the midst of suffering, knowing that in the end nothing will separate us from God’s love. Finally, we turn to the gospel reading from Matthew, which lifts up several relatively short parables of the kingdom, which also carry on this theme of taking the long view.
The story of Jacob’s pursuit of Rachel is well-known to many. He has gone to Haran, to seek a wife from the household of his uncle – Laban – who has two unmarried daughters. One has beautiful eyes, while the younger one is “graceful and beautiful.” Note that Jacob has eyes for the one with a beautiful form rather than lovely eyes. So smitten was Jacob that he agreed to work for seven years to receive the hand of Rachel, only to discover the morning after that the woman he had slept with was Leah. When he complains about being tricked (remember that Jacob is known for being a trickster himself), Laban makes the common sense explanation that in that country the younger daughter doesn’t get married until the older one gets married. So if he wants Rachel, he has to take Leah as well. Once he has “done his duty” with Leah (one week), then he can have the one he wants. I realize that this story is off-putting to our modern sensibilities. First you have the prospect of bartering for a wife and then you have polygamy, neither of which fit well in modern thinking. This is definitely a patriarchal view of things, and we would be wise to recognize that these “family values,” differ from our own (or at least they should). As you read this story, you have to feel for Leah, who is easily cast off so that the beloved can be had. With all of this baggage, it is difficult to find something of value to take from the text, except a warning against lifting up the idea of “biblical family values!” So, with fear and trepidation, I offer the example of Jacob’s perseverance for our consideration. He takes the long view, knowing that if he works hard for Laban, then he will receive the reward he seeks – the bride of his dreams! And patience and persistence pay off in the end, at least for Jacob, Rachel and Laban.
Before we go to Matthew 13 with its parables, we must spend time with Paul’s words in Romans 8. There is so much here. Paul has packed this brief set of verses with concepts that require deep thought and reflection. He begins by suggesting that when we don’t know how to pray or know what to pray for, the Spirit will intercede for us through “unexpressed groans.” We needn’t take this as evidence of the presence of speaking in tongues (prayer language) to get the point. Paul suggests that the God who searches our hearts knows how the Spirit who indwells us thinks, and therefore the Spirit is well-laced to plead our case, knowing that what the Spirit prays, even if in groans, is consistent with the will of God. Indeed, before we ever offer prayers, God has known in advance the right course of action. That course of action is to pursue the good of creation, which includes the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. Those whom God calls, God makes righteous and glorifies. This word about election is another idea that trips us up, largely because of the Augustinian/Calvinist understanding of predestination, which suggests that God has already made up God’s mind about our destiny, even before we were born. If you’re in, that’s great. If not, well that’s the way it goes – God apparently doesn’t need you. But, such an implication isn’t a necessary reading of this text. The point is not that God chooses some and not others, but that God has always intended to pursue the good of all creation, so that in calling Abraham (Gen. 18:18), God was beginning the process of reconciling the world to God’s self (2 Cor. 5:19).
If we understand this sense of purpose (not in the “purpose-driven life” sense of things, where God has already mapped everything out), but the sense of God’s persistence in walking with us to achieve in partnership with us, the desire of God for our reconciliation with God and with creation itself. Therefore, we can take comfort and confidence in the promise that if God is with us, then nothing will stand in the way of God. Nothing, not famine or suffering, will keep us from experiencing the love of God in Christ Jesus. Despite much adversity, there will be victory (we’re more than conquerors). Take heart then, be patient and persistent, because God will not abandon us.
As we take up the text from Matthew 13, we hear again descriptions of the realm of God. The kingdom is like a mustard seed, though it is among the smallest of seeds, it becomes a great bush that shelters the birds and their nests. And the kingdom is like yeast that is mixed into the flour, leavening it. Indeed, it is like a treasure that one finds hidden in a field and is reburied, so that the discoverer might buy the field (and have the treasure), but to do this, the discoverer must sell everything to purchase the land. But the real treasure in this set of brief parables is the message of the pearl of great price. The merchant is seeking fine pearls and when one of great value is found sells everything so as to have it. What is living in the realm of God worth to us? What are we willing to offer up in exchange for something much greater value? Remember the story of the young man who was asked to give his resources to the poor and follow Jesus – he walked away because he was rich. How often do we look at the story and go “tsk, tsk” all the while knowing that if Jesus asked the same of us, we would walk away ourselves – maybe muttering something about being saved by grace!! Oh, and then there’s this parable about the fish caught in the net, which is sorted between good and bad fish. Once again we have a text that jolts our sensibilities. We don’t like these words about judgment that inhabit our text. Especially when the end result is that some get tossed into the fiery furnace. We must wrestle with these kinds of texts, which either reconfirm preconceived ideas about a wrathful God or don’t fit with our ideas of a God of love. Of course, we get ourselves into trouble when we take these questions down to individual levels. Election needn’t speak of our individual destinies, as if everything is written. Instead, we can think of God’s intention for creation, something God is very intent on seeing come to fruition. But God isn’t coercive, but desiring to work in partnership with us to achieve this desire – what Bruce Epperly refers to in his book on Process Theology as God’s initial aim. But a text like Matthew 13, as it focuses on judgment, reminds us that not everything is the same. There is good and there is evil in the world. What is evil is not of God, and God will cast it off (not necessarily individual lives but the acts that are not in accordance with God’s vision of the realm of God).
To pursue the realm of God is to take the long view. The promise that God made to Abraham was that through his descendants the nations would be blessed. There were all kinds of twists and turns along the way, at least that’s the way the story goes. Isaac has issues, as does Jacob. Joseph finds a way of rescuing his family only to lead them into slavery, which requires a savior to lead them to the promised land, but even that doesn’t work perfectly, and if you follow the story through Jesus to the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God (Romans 8), the process remains incomplete. Yes, the realm of God is a long term project that doesn’t bear fruit over night. Such a vision doesn’t fit well with our demand for quick gratification, but this does seem to be God’s modus operandi!