Jesus dreamed of an upside-down world, which he called the empire[i] of god, where the normal ways of thinking and operating – ways steeped in hierarchies and the violence that undergirded them - were overturned.
This upside-down world was sometimes captured in little phrases like ‘the last shall be first’, or in little stories like when a foreign poor woman bested Jesus in an argument, or in little healings of those considered mentally ill or ‘leprous’. But primarily this reversal-of-expectations, upside-down ‘empire’ Jesus dreamed of comes to us in the form of parables.
‘Clean’ versus ‘unclean’, or ‘pure’ versus ‘impure’, was the primary separation barrier in Jesus’ society. To say God was unclean or impure was the equivalent of saying ‘round is square’. It made no sense. Worse it effectively tore down society’s borders between clean and unclean.
Jesus told the unclean they didn’t have to scrub up in order to be in the empire of god. He told the rejected they didn’t have to repent and ingratiate themselves to the controllers of acceptability. Being an outsider, being poor, were – contrary to most of Scripture – not signs of being cursed.
To put into our contemporary context: he told people whether they were neither healthy nor wealthy, neither employed nor employable, neither owners nor occupiers, neither benevolent nor beneficiaries… they were part of god’s empire. They belonged. They were not cursed, or un-chosen.
The first readings today are about leaven [yeast]. Leaven was a metaphor for moral corruption. Just as a decomposing corpse swells up, so does a leavened loaf. Following the story from Exodus 12 of fleeing Egypt, it is unleavened bread that is considered holy or pure.
So when Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like leaven that a woman took and concealed in 23 kilograms of flour until all of it was leavened,”[ii] he must have misspoke. Leaven is surely not the right symbol to use for the empire of god?
The 23 kilos of flour is a pointer to the Abrahamic banquet for the divine visitors in Genesis 18:6.[iii] This enormous amount of flour points to the parable’s only conclusion: the empire of god is a totally corrupting activity.
Corrupting of what? Corrupting of normality; corrupting of borders, divisions, rules, and enforcement, that keep poor people in poverty, that keep the sick sick, and the least least. And this totally corrupting activity is good news for those considered sinners/leaven – all those labelled ‘unclean’ - like most women, like the violated, like the mentally ill, like the evicted and convicted – all who don’t measure up to the expected normal.
Our second reading is another parable of Jesus’ about god’s empire being unclean:
“The empire of god is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in their garden. And it grew and grew and became a great tree with large branches so that the birds made nests in it.”[iv]
Mustard was a noxious weed that took over a garden, kind of like oxalis. Therefore the religious rules (shaped by practicalities)[v] didn’t allow you to plant it in your garden. As well as dangerous takeover properties, mustard attracted birds that would eat your crops. To plant it in your garden would make the whole garden ‘unclean’. Instead mustard was usually sown in a corner of a field, where it would grow at most into a metre high shrub. Even there you had to be careful not to let it get out of control.
Jesus is saying his dream of an empire of god is not like a mighty cedar of Lebanon (which the ‘great tree’ hyperbole is pointing to), and not quite like a common weed either. Rather it is like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties.
For whom is this parable good news? It is good news for all the noxious weeds – the rebellious, the disrupters of good order and manners, the spiritual misfits, heretics… all who are corrosive of the normative clean/unclean divisions in society. And the fear is, like with oxalis, if you don’t control these misfits they will multiply and spread.
For whom is this parable bad news? It is bad news for all who benefit from the mighty tall institutions and powers and expectations that rule over an unequal society and keep it that way. And it’s bad news for those who fear weedy misfits and their ability to propagate.
Today when we say that the core message of Jesus is compassion and hospitality to all, and remember his table fellowship that embodied that message, it is the words ‘to all’ that point to the radicalness of our founder. For the ‘to all’ included these ‘weeds’, these leaven/sinners, these (in Dom Crossan’s words) ‘nuisances and nobodies’, these (in Brandon Scott’s word) ‘expendables’.
From early times, as we know from the authentic Pauline letters (like 1 Corinthians), the followers of Jesus were a mixed bag. Yes, the ‘weeds’ and misfits were gathered at supper rooms, but so were people of higher social standing. Some of the tensions in the community at Corinth were due to class differences and expectations.[vi]
The Galatian’s creed[vii] – a creed with a very early ancestry - of ‘no longer slave and free’ points to this ideal of fellowship dining between people of different classes, as well people of different genders and ethnicities.
For those gathered at tables in the Jesus movement who weren’t considered ‘noxious weeds’ this inclusivity was challenging. And for those powerful in society, of whom very few ventured to the tables of the Jesus movement in the first century, the message of this radical upside-down messiah was heard as destructive of their carefully class-delineated, peace-through-suppression society.
Recently the Northern Presbytery has produced a strategic plan (and following inspiration from the business world, every denomination over the last couple of decades seems to do these things) which is are concerned about the numerical decline in most churches and seeks to do something about it. The measures of performance are numbers in church, activities undertaken, and money given. And a range of actions are recommended to seek to rectify these.
Many of us who have been around churches for some time (while knowing that numbers, and money, have their place) experience some discomfort with these sorts of plans and their rationale. It is not just the macro-trend of Christianity declining in secularising cultures for at least half a century, or the normative business assumption that ‘growth is always good’, but the contemporary measures of performance when compared with what we know of the historical Jesus. Did he actually care about how many people listened to him and followed him? Did he care about building a movement to outlast him? Did he care about leadership, governance, and resources?
One of Crossan’s insights into Jesus is that he wandered around instead of building up a patron-client base. A patron-client base was the normative business and religious leader model of the day. This annoyed his male disciples who would have been the brokers between the ‘weeds’ (the needy) and the master (Jesus). Instead he was itinerant. Indeed sometimes he would just go AWOL into the hills. Then he would tell parables, touch the not-to-be-touched, and eat with the not-to-be-eaten-with - which would contaminate him, and then keep the good ‘uncontaminated’ (and richer) people away. And he got himself killed – which, however you construe it, was definitely bad for the business.
I’m not saying that churches necessarily should adopt the methods of the historical Jesus, or eschew other methods. But we should hold them up, like a builder’s plumb-line, when considering any plan. And I am saying that we should be very wary of the criteria of success gleamed from the board tables of the powerful. We need a broad table. For we exist in theory not primarily for those who have, but for those who have not; not primarily for those who belong, but for those who’ve been told they don’t, and not primarily for those who have achieved or received a level of comfort, but for those who’ve always lived on the edge of without.
We are here to point to a different G/god-centred reality, a vision of all belonging, a society of justice, where compassion, kindness, and hospitality is the language we speak, and discrimination and violence a distant memory. This is the dream of Jesus. The strategic plan if you like.
[i] Often translated ‘kingdom’.
[ii] Matt 13:33.
[iii] Three measures of flour is 22.67kgs.
[iv] For further exposition see my sermon from Jan 19th 2014 on our website.
[v] Leviticus 19:19
[vi] One commentator writes: “The social division signalled in 1Cor 1:26 may well have been a source of friction in the church. The division at the communal meal, which Paul describes in 1Cor 11:17-34, was probably a socioeconomic one, with poorer church members receiving a paltry amount of food, while the better-off gorged (see 1Cor 11:21, where “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk”).’
[vii] Galatians 3:28. See Stephen Patterson’s work on this text in The Forgotten Creed.