Today we are going to start with particle physics
before leaping into metaphysics.
But that is not really accurate
because what I know about physics
would not begin to fill a thimble
which also describes the amount
of my interest in metaphysics.
So to begin, there is a fascinating article
in the New York Times this week, especially good
because it is not about the pandemic.
Its headline is: ”The Rebel Physicist on the Hunt for a Better Story Than Quantum Mechanics.”
It is about Italian physicist, Angelo Bassi,
who is making the case that orthodox quantum theory
is woefully incomplete.
Allow me to quote the article
that explains why quantum theory
has a big hole in it:
“…because, while it’s spectacular at making predictions,” the article says, “it doesn’t describe what’s actually happening underneath nature’s hood to make those results come about.
“It would be one thing” the article goes on,
“to concede that science may never be able to explain, say, the subjective experiences of the human mind. But the standard take on quantum mechanics suggests something far more surprising: that a complete understanding of even the objective, physical world is beyond science’s reach, since it’s impossible to translate into words how the theory’s math relates to the world we live in.”
If we adapted that sentence to theology, it would say:
”A complete understanding of even the objective, physical world is beyond the reach of theology, since it is impossible to translate into words how God relates to the world we live in.”
For example, we can can easily echo Isaiah
that God is the alpha and the omega –
the beginning and the end of all that is –
but what real impact that has on life as we live it
remains an utter, perhaps unsolvable, mystery.
When if comes to spirituality –
as with physics and economics –
there is the macro and micro
and often the two do not seem to connect.
We have before us a parable
that has been so well chewed by the oral tradition –
by which I mean, that river of years
meandering from the death of Jesus
to when Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
edited his words.
That river of time is anywhere
from forty to eighty years long,
with Jesus-sayings and stories
as free-floating radicals
among thousands of villages, towns, and cities
across the first
and into the second century.
So when we come to a parable like today,
whatever Jesus’ original intent or meaning was,
it is now lost to us forever.
But that said,
like quantum physics,
because we do not know everything
does not mean we don’t know some things.
Here is one of the things we do know.
Matthew took a parable reported
to have come from Jesus,
and turned it into an allegory about the apocalypse –
the so-called Second Coming of Jesus.
Now the Lectionary includes Matthew’s
long allegorizing of the parable
which I eliminated today
in favor of holding up the remains of the parable.
You may want to go back and look up the whole thing.
“He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,”
is one of the lines of the Nicene Creed
that many of us choke on.
The idea that Jesus will arrive at the end of history
to separate the good guys from the bad guys –
which, by the way,
is also an orthodox Islamic doctrine –
just doesn’t rest easy with a modernist view
of the cosmos,
which includes quantum physics.
So I am more comfortable
with the modernist tradition of biblical scholarship
that does not see anything in the teachings of Jesus
to suggest that HE thought
he was coming back when the clock stops ticking.
That said, some of the Gospel editors
clearly believed Jesus would be back,
and they engaged in some expansive interpretation
of those free-floating Jesus-sayings
in order to get there.
We know that Jesus’ stories and parables
circulated by word of mouth
for two or three generations
before they were written down.
And over the course of that span of years
the world changed dramatically.
In short, the world Jesus lived and died in
was quite different
from the world the gospel-editors lived and died in.
My favorite way to understand it,
I call the James Theory.
I was born in 1953
and my youngest child, James,
was born in 1994.
That is roughly the same span of time
that passed between Jesus’ death
and when Mark’s gospel was written.
Think about how much the world changed
between 1953 and 1994.
Think how the presumptions of my world
are different from the presumptions of his world.
The Cold War.
The crumbling of Colonialism.
The expansion and then decline of Communism.
The receding of nationalized economies
and the birth of globalism.
The globalization of American culture
and the evaporation of American dominance.
Studebaker to Prius.
Mainframe computers that filled a warehouse
reduced to a laptop,
and then again to tablet size computing,
and now a phone with nearly as much speed
as the old mainframe.
From industrialization, to the explosion of information,
to the crisis of climate change.
That is 1953 to 1994, 41 one brief years.
Now add another ten years,
which may be the length of time between
Mark and Matthew writing their gospels.
In the James illustration,
it would be the change in the world
between the first two years of the Clinton presidency
and the post-9/11 world of Bush’s invasion of Iraq,
Abu Grab, and landing on Mars.
This could go on and on,
naming how the world has changed,
and how many human assumptions
have changed with it.
Let us not make the mistake of modern hubris,
and say to ourselves that our world is changing
so much faster than the world of Jesus’ day,
and that of the New Testament writers
writing forty to eighty years after him.
While our rate of technological change
is light years more rapid,
history always races by
from the perspective of those living it.
You see, between Jesus and Matthew,
there opened up a chasm as wide as the one
between my world and James’.
A war of Jewish insurrection
against Roman domination
led to the near elimination
of what Jews had come to know as Judaism –
that was nearly extinguished altogether.
The social and political landscape
changed radically from Jesus to Matthew,
and if we do not know about those changes
then we cannot fully understand the Gospels.
Matthew and his Jewish contemporaries
believed they were living close to the apocalypse,
at the near end of history.
But the world Jesus lived in
was still open-ended and full of possibilities.
That difference alone
shows how Jesus’ parable evolved
into a metaphor about Christian community
even though Christians and Christianity did not exist
when Jesus walked the earth.
As told by Matthew,
Jesus’ parable deals with the question
of how something so good,
can have such yucky people in it.
(Yes, even way back then
some Christians were trying to figure out
how those other Christians
could be Christians).
Matthew was concerned
about how Christians defined themselves
over and against the world.
He wanted to make clear
that Christians are the good guys
and the rest of the world are bad guys.
But if that is true, Matthew wondered,
then how do some of those bad guys
get into the good guys club?
If they get in,
does that spoil the goodness of the whole club?
The answer Matthew came up with, of course,
is the Devil did it.
A mysterious enemy
snuck in by night
and planted the bad guys.
If you want to read the second half of today’s
Lectionary post, that is how Matthew
interpreted the parable
Jesus had told fifty years earlier.
But strip away the presumptions
of Matthew’s world
that for Jesus there was no such thing “Church”
and there were no “Christians,”
and even the fiery idea of apocalypse
was not as present for Jesus as Matthew,
then we might hear a different punch line.
In other words,
if we shift the context of the parable
away from Matthew’s post Jewish/Roman war
and we listen to it back in Jesus’ day,
what we notice right away
is that the workers
are downright edgy and anxious
when they go out to find weeds in the field.
That is an important clue
as to what the parable was about
when Jesus told it.
Remember they are peasants, tenant-farmers,
and so they are worried
about being blamed and punished for crop failure.
They know they are innocent –
they know they didn’t plant the bad seeds.
So they start to calculate the possibilities
like a fox sniffing hounds in the wind.
They race through the questions:
- Does the presence of weeds
mean the farmer mixed in the weeds with the seeds?
- Will we be blamed?
- Maybe people will think we pocketed some of the good seed for our own plots,
and then filled it in with weeds.
- Should we purify the field now,
protect what good seeds are left so we don’t get blamed?
They anxiously question
the integrity of the farmer,
raise doubts about their own credibility with others,
and they worry about what to do now.
We know from our own experiences
that the presence of ugliness and evil
causes us to be anxious,
and to question any goodness
we ever presumed.
So if we are not focusing on apocalypse,
here is what Jesus was telling us:
The farmer enters the scene.
The farmer owns the land.
The farmer owns the peasants.
The farmer owns the produce.
The farmer, is sovereign
(the alpha and omega
as far as the peasants are concerned).
The farmer tells the peasants what to do.
“Don’t purify the field,” the farmer calls out,
“you have no idea what is a weed
and what is potential fruit!
Leave it alone and let the harvesters deal with it.”
To the anxious hand-wringing “What ifs?”
of the vulnerable peasants,
and their knee-jerk temptation
to separate the good from the bad,
Jesus has an entirely different strategy.
Let’s think about that parable on a micro level.
We have character defects, you and I.
All of us, right?
We all have defects of character.
We all have significant problems
that keep re-emerging in our lives
like mildew keeps coming back.
We have painful limitations
ones that have followed and cursed us
throughout all our lives.
They are weeds that won’t disappear
no matter how much we work at it,
any more than plastic surgery will overcome aging.
So to this weediness of ours –
those ugly and embarrassing parts of ourselves
that have become entangled with the fruit we bear –
Jesus whispers: Do not try to purge yourself.
What you think is a weed may bear fruit.
Live with it.
Watch it grow.
Let it be.
One day, God will wipe away every tear,
and then you will know peace.
For now, let it be.
So, here is what I take away from this parable.
Most of what we struggle with
was planted there in the beginning,
or deposited along the way by others,
and we will not get rid of it.
In other words, the problems we are born with
are likely the same ones
that will keep us company on our death beds.
Live with them.
Learn from them.
Grow with them.
Find ways to compensate for them.
Seek to live non-anxiously alongside them.
Assume that God, one day,
will heal us with unspeakable love
but until then,
make due with the presence of weeds
because we are not a perfect garden.
BUT, we are from God and of God
and we belong to God.
Thanks be to God.