Saturday, July 26, 2014

Embracing Ambiguous Parables: Looking for Insight on Justice and Change in the Church

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following is the text of a reflection delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of July 19-20, 2014.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it is my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

Some days it’s hard to motivate myself to go to church. I’m not talking about a lack of gumption to get out of bed, but rather about being shocked by news stories so bad that you’re embarrassed to self identify as a Catholic. This was one of those weeks for me. Listening to MPR’s investigative journalism series about the clergy sexual abuse cover up in the Twin Cities Catholic Church, and learning of a new lawsuit against the Archdiocese, made me simultaneously grateful for good journalists and aghast at how wayward an institution representing the teachings of Jesus had become.

It is with this frustration and malaise that I approached this week’s Gospel reading which, perhaps serendipitously, had something to say about good versus bad, justice versus injustice. In this Gospel (Matthew 13: 24-43) we hear three parables, followed by a troublesome explanation. While I’ll come back to the explanation, the first parable portrays a farmer who instructs his workers to wait on removing weeds from his wheat field until harvest time (the weeds having been sown by an enemy). The second and third parables then describe heaven using two different metaphors: heaven is like the small mustard seed that grows into a bush; and heaven is like yeast that a woman kneads into flour making the batch of dough rise.

As a college professor, I’ve always admired Jesus’ abilities as a teacher. While many teachers are loath to admit this, students actually forget the vast majority of what we impart to them. For example, while I think it’s pretty darn cool that the Tropic of Capricorn may be found at 23 ½ degrees south latitude, and that this is the southernmost point of direct solar radiation, these factoids almost instantly vanish from my students’ minds after the midterm exam. However, what many good teachers learn over time is that stories stick in students’ minds much longer than factoids. Indeed, students may forget the textbook explanation of the Tropic Capricorn – but still recall my story of being busted for speeding by the police in Botswana as I raced over the Tropic of Capricorn in 2012 – excitedly telling my son that we were crossing this line on, of all days, March 21 – the vernal equinox.

Clearly Jesus knew the power of stories as an effective way to convey understanding. Much of what we know he actually said has been passed down to us in the context of these stories (or versions of these stories), which still resonate some 2000 years later. Jesus also liked to work in metaphors. The Bible, reflecting the largely rural livelihoods of the time it was written, is rife with agricultural and pastoral metaphors and stories. The nice thing about a metaphorical story is that not only is there a greater chance that it will be remembered, but it often allows you to convey a certain amount or nuance or even contradiction.

The challenge for us in our contemporary American setting is that the majority of us have little or no connection to agriculture. Therefore the nuance and contradiction embedded in these stories and metaphors may be lost on us – or worse yet – reinterpreted to a different end.

Take the first parable about the farmer who instructs his workers to wait on removing weeds from his wheat field until harvest time (the weeds having been sown by an enemy). This is interesting on a couple of different fronts. The first is that letting weeds mature alongside your wheat crop is bad agricultural advice because weeds compete with your crop, resulting in a poor harvest. While the folly of such advice might not jump out at us now, it likely would have been apparent to Jesus’ largely agrarian audience – and a very strong signal that this story was indeed a metaphor for something else. The metaphorical meaning, many believe, is a warning to not rush to pass judgment, to not be too hasty to identify and pull weeds - or to sort out the bad from the good.

Now why might Jesus urge such caution? It could be that we just don’t know enough to adequately differentiate between the weeds and the wheat, between the bad and the good. For example, I distinctly recall as a young Peace Corps volunteer going out to work in the farm fields of my host family in Mali, West Africa. The task was to weed a millet field early in the growing season. The challenge for me was that the young millet plants and the weeds were virtually indistinguishable. As such, with all the good intention of helping my host family, I set about pulling up their prized millet plants which would grow into a staple food crop. Fortunately my family quickly noticed the unfolding destruction and, ever so graciously, suggested that I might take a break.

The other reason for caution and restraint in rushing to judgment is that weeds, like bad or even evil behavior, can be subjectively classified as such. Take the common dandelion. Americans spend millions annually to expunge this so-called weed from their lawns. In contrast, my depression era grandmother used to eat dandelion greens as a staple in her summer diet. In fact, dandelions have been gathered as food for millennia, and were cultivated for consumption in some areas of Eurasia. Furthermore, dandelion leaves contain abundant vitamins and are good sources of calcium, potassium, iron and manganese. The point is that dandelions are nutritious food in some contexts, and weeds (or something to be expunged) in another. Dare I suggest that our distinctions between right and wrong can sometimes be similarly subjective. For example, mixed race and same-sex relationships were long viewed as illegal, wrong, and punishable in our country. This only began to change after a protracted civil rights struggle – and such relationships are still seen as a problem in many areas of the US and the world. As such, given the somewhat subjective nature of classifying good and bad, caution and restraint in rushing to judgment is sound advice.

While we need to be cautious and careful about passing judgment, does this mean there is no room for distinguishing between good and bad, or for calling out injustice when we see it? The problematic explanation at the end of the gospel offers one possible answer to this question. It suggests that “the evildoers [will be thrown] into the fiery furnace, where they will weep and gnash their teeth… [and] the just will shine like the sun in the realm of God.” In other words, it suggests (in a way) that we put up with the current injustice with the comfort of knowing that justice will be rendered in the afterlife. Now, I’ll be honest, I flagged this explanation as problematic because I don’t really care for the fire and brimstone language. I see the advice as a palliative for the masses (urging people to put up with bad situations), and most biblical scholars agree that this passage was added at a later date and does not reflect something Jesus actually said.

I suggest that the answer to our question, about whether or not there is room for calling out injustice in the present, might lie in the second and third parables. Again, these parables liken heaven to: a mustard seed that grows into a bush; or a person kneading yeast into flour, allowing for all of the dough to rise. In both these parables I see a ‘justice trickling-up’ philosophy. Good starts in small and humble places and then grows, slowly at first, gaining momentum with time. We needn’t wait for justice until the afterlife. We, the people, the church, working proactively, can make good things happen and triumph over injustice. In other words, our actions for justice matter. We need to be active not passive.

Now before you feel too good about my interpretation, I want to be clear that some ambiguity and tension lurks in these parables as I read them. On the one hand, Jesus is cautioning us to not rush to judgment, to be careful about categorizing good and evil. On the other hand, he tells us that justice and hope rise from below, that we can build heaven on earth, and that we must address injustice in this world. Be cautious, careful and fair, but not to the point of inaction.

Coming back to where I started, the news this week about the Archdiocese was very painful for me to hear. However I take heart in the fact that the church is us, not the Archdiocese. What I believe this crisis makes clear is that governance in the institution popularly known as the Roman Catholic Church really has to change if it is to continue serving and representing the people, the real church. While clergy sexual misconduct appears to be the problem, underlying this are deeper issues of transparency, open governance, and equal participation by all. We, of course, need to be careful, cautious and fair in addressing the injustice and crimes highlighted in this institutional crisis (all humans are fallible and deserve forgiveness). Real change implies that the hierarchy of power within the institution may and ought to shift radically as a result of this crisis. We should not be afraid of this change. We’ve been slowly working the dough for a long time and, to borrow from Terry Dosh, now it is time for the bread to rise.

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