July 17 — Jesus’ Ethical Insight

Matthew 13:24-30

It was natural that such a position [of humility] would be deeply resented by many of [Jesus’] fellows, who were suffering even as he was.  To them it was a complete betrayal to the enemy.  It was to them a counsel of acquiescence, if not of despair, full to overflowing with a kind of groveling and stark cowardice.  Besides, it seemed like self-deception, like whistling in the dark.  All of this would have been quite true if Jesus had stopped there.  He did not.  He recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys of his destiny.  If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection.  It is a man’s reaction to things that determines their ability to exercise power over him.  It seems clear that Jesus understood the anatomy of the relationship between his people and the Romans, and he interpreted that relationship against the background of the profoundest ethical insight of his own religious faith as he had found it in the heart of the prophets of Israel. – Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited



As I noted in the newsletter on Friday, I had initially assumed that our parable intended to praise the wisdom of the farmer, who, caught as he was between two difficult choices, made a choice that appeard to level the playing field. Many years ago, I thought I might always translate the Sunday morning texts from Greek into English for myself every week before I began writing a sermon.  Had I done this, I would have realized right away that the weeds were not just any weeds, but a kind of annual grass called darnel, the grains of which contain a strong toxin that will contaminate the good grain.  Had I done that, my earlier thoughts and attempts at a sermon might not have had to have been thrown out.

New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan says that it is not “self evidently wise to harvest darnel with wheat, because mixing the toxic grains of darnel with wheat ruins the quality of the grain and poses a health hazard to anyone eating flour so adulterated.”  Suddenly I was without a sermon.  I couldn’t praise the wisdom of the farmer. Instead of making the best of a bad situation he was making a bad situation worse.  Something else had to be at stake.

My initial thoughts are instructive.  Parables are tricky. They ask us to see things differently that we are likely to on our own. I was duped by my own advantaged position, in which even nasty things work out all right.  There is very little in my station in life that cannot somehow be made advantageous or at least learned from.  Nothing that will really do me in. But that is not the case for a great majority of the worlds people.

In thinking about this parable, I failed to remember the billions of people in the world today who have only the worst bits of land off of which to make a living; the peasants of Galilee who 40 years after Jesus’ execution, revolted against the extreme taxation and chose to die at Masada rather than pay another dinar in taxes.  I failed to remember that the folk Jesus ministered to day in and day out where the disinherited — not people like me with land and resources and wealth beyond the imagination of a person who earns a dollar a day.


Perhaps the parable is more like this joke:

A judge calls the opposing lawyers into his chambers and says, “The reason we’re here is that both of you have given me a bribe.” Both lawyers squirm in their seats. “You, Alan, have given me $15,000. Phil, you gave me $10,000”

The judge hands Alan a check for $5,000 and says, “Now you’re even, and I am going to decide this case solely on its merits.”

I think we chuckle because the lawyers who think they can buy their client’s winning privileges and still take home enough of a cut to make it worth their while, seem so smart. They play on a field far above what you and I can play on.  In order to laugh at the joke we have to understand the stereotype of the lawyer — a stereotype that goes like this:

A lawyer sends a note to his client:
“Dear Frank: I thought I saw you downtown yesterday. I crossed the street to say hello, but it wasn’t you. One-tenth of an hour: $50.”

The reality for Jesus and for his fellows, as Howard Thurman noted in his classic work, Jesus and the Disinherited, was that Rome was the stereotype of the lawyer.  “Rome was the enemy; Rome symbolized total frustration; Rome was the great barrier to peace of mind. And Rome was everywhere. No Jewish person of the period could deal with the question of his practical life, his vocation, his place in society, until first he had settled deep within himself this critical issue . . . was any attitude [toward the imperium] possible that would be morally tolerable and would at the same time preserve a basic self-esteem” (Thurman).

Recognition of this imperial reality provides the starting point for engaging the Gospels. Consider, for instance, Jesus’ frequent conflicts with the political and spiritual leaders of Jerusalem, the Roman imperial seat in Israel. We clergy have  typically regarded the “priests and scribes” as exclusively “religious leaders” and their disputes with Jesus as concerning religious or spiritual issues. But we would do well to note that these were the elite, well-educated, of Jerusalem, and part of the very power structure that supported the Roman Imperium.

These allied groups shaped society to promote and protect their mutual interests at the expense of the remaining taxable ninety-five percent of society. It seems reasonable, then, to understand the gospels’ presentation of Jesus’ conflicts with the Jerusalem-centered, temple-based chief priests and scribes as concerning not only “religious issues,” but social visions,  structures and practices, arrangements of power.

It turns out that our parable this morning has one more little detail that cinches the case for me. And that is that while darnel is a common weed, occurring in all soils,  for peasant farmers, who farm less than optimal soils away from the coast, darnel is fairly easily controlled.  But in a wet year, darnel can infest the best fields near the coast — the fields owned by large landowners, by the Imperium.  Darnell is only a problem for the elite.


Jesus resists the Roman Imperium not with arms or force.  In using the language he does to speak about God’s rule in the world, which is the same language a Roman would use to refer to the emperor’s rule in the Roman Empire, Jesus bets on love to survive and encourages his hearers to resist the way of power and violence and learn from the weed.  The Roman Empire may use its force to tax the peasant population of Judea into near oblivion, but it has no control over the quality of his or her inner life. For the disinherited who constantly face the question of the Roman Empire, it’s an idea that humility can level the playing field without that humility becoming an odious acquiescence.  It’s clever, like the judge. And it works.

An article in the New York Times yesterday noted that a year ago, President Obama declared to the United Nations General Assembly: “When we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”  For the Middle East this last year has been an extraordinary year of the darnel.  Imperiums have fallen and the ordinary Arab on the street now has his or her freedom.

But none of this has trickled over to Palestine.  Why not?

The answer to that question is likely far more complex than what I can imagine.  But I think the articles nails the biggest nail on the head.

I quote Roger Cohen, “There is no alternative to resolving this most agonizing of conflicts but neither party ever quite gets to that realization. After 63 years the balance of power is overwhelmingly skewed in Israel’s favor and the one country that might redress that balance — the United States — is unwilling to because its politics allow no room for that. In general when power is so skewed between two parties peace is elusive.”

The kingdom of God, Jesus might say today, is like Jews and Palestinians living together.

The subtext for those with ears to hear, is that we in the position of power, are being called to stop yanking up the darnel.  We are being called to skew the power between parties back into line.  The imperium of God is different than we expect.



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