One of the things I think we have all noticed in reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans is a kind of divisiveness. Paul is very concerned to draw distinctions, such as those who live according to the Flesh as opposed to the Spirit. We see something similar in the language of the Matthew passages we have been following. Especially in the discussions of Gehenna, there appears to be a concern for who is in and who is out. This concern has dominated the faith ever since, whether it manifests as excommunications from the Catholic Church or vigorous attempts by evangelicals to convert everyone. In some sense, the entire project of Christianity has been one of constructing a dividing line, a boundary between God’s haves and have-nots.
There are now a number of efforts to say that there is no dividing line. (I highly recommend the documentary Hellbound and Sharon Baker’s book, Razing Hell.) These efforts often stem from the very reasonable and very kind theological perspective that a loving God would not send someone to hell or exclude someone from God’s presence. It is hard to make sense of such a thing: an all-powerful God that loves us and wants nothing more than to be with us can’t seem to make it happen. Instead, God must punish some of us with eternal fire. It is theologically attractive to find some other way, but then that pesky Bible is always a problem.
But here’s the thing about the Bible: it says a lot of stuff. And a lot of that stuff does not necessarily go together. Sure, we can do some mental gymnastics and try to cram it into one monolithic, coherent thought. We’ll have to ignore a few stray pieces, like the bolts left over after you put together your BORGSJO shelf unit. They don’t matter until your BORGSJO collapses with your new big-screen LCDTV sitting on it. At some point, these rigid belief systems collapse under the weight of reality.
Maybe we can just accept that the books of the Bible were written by different people for different reasons. Further, they were not attempting to write a systematic theology that carefully lays out an argument to be debated, at least not with the same expectations for argument that we have. When we make our theological choices – and they are choices – we have a wide range of stories and wisdom and poems and songs to inform those choices.
Look at how Paul, in Romans 8.12-25 loads on the metaphors. We move from debt to slavery to adoption to child birth. We move from a creation pregnant with the children of God to ourselves imagined as pregnant with the Spirit of God. And our pregnancy results in our own adoption and the redemption of our bodies. There is certainly a sense of something new on the horizon, something heretofore unknown and unseen. However, because it is unknown and unseen, it might be too much to try to systematize Paul’s metaphors.
When we systematize the metaphors and stories in the Bible, we make choices. The lectionary this week chooses to give us Matthew 13.24-30 and 36-43. In skipping vv. 31-35, it gives us only the parable of the weeds. This makes sense in that it narrows our focus to study that one parable. However, it also restricts our view of Jesus’ vision of God’s dreams for the world. We are left only with the image of division, destruction, and fire. It so happens that the parables that are left out this week (we get to them next week) are expansive images: the mustard seed that grows, contrary to expectations, into a tree that birds nest in; the lump of yeast that grows to feed the people. The kindom of God expands beyond our wildest imagination and nurtures everyone.
Certainly, we should not ignore what is in the Bible, simply discard the parts we find distasteful. Okay, we can; we all do. But we can also recognize that the choices that the authors made in how they characterized their experience of God and their hopes for the world were driven by circumstances that are not our circumstances. Their choices spoke to a kind of oppression that we rarely experience, the crushing weight of empire and the despair of a people that have waited too long. Therefore, the choices that they made reflected the good that they needed to hear and believe. They are ethical choices meant to inspire, encourage, and strengthen. They are meant to bring hope and wholeness and justice, not condemnation and division.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about pregnancy, children, and childhood. As a non-parent, I’m a world-renowned expert on all of these things, so please come and add your stories to our discussion of hope.
Grace & Peace,