Jesus had a dream of how life should be. He lived in a very violent world. Yet he dreamed of a non-violent world which he called the empire[i] of god. It was an upside-down world 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 little stories like when a foreign poor woman bested Jesus in an argument, or healings of the marginalized like those mentally ill or ‘leprous’. But primarily this reversal-of-violence, upside-down ‘empire’ Jesus dreamed of comes down through the ages to us in the form of parables.
The dream had three foundational insights - the first being that God is unclean.
Clean versus unclean was the primary separation barrier in Jesus’ society. To say God was unclean was the equivalent of saying ‘round is square’. It made no sense. Worse it effectively tore down the border 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.
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.
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 violence, that keep poor people poor, that the 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 – all who don’t measure up to patriarchal normality.
Another parable of Jesus’ about God 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 and therefore the law[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’. Rather mustard was usually sown in a corner of a field, where it would grow 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 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 spiritual misfits… all who are corrosive of the normative clean/unclean divisions in society. For whom is this parable bad news? It is bad news for all who benefit from the mighty tall businesses and institutions and powers that rule over an unequal society and keep it that way.
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 powerful heard him as destructive of their structured, peace-through-suppression society.
The second foundational insight of Jesus’ dream was that god is present in absence.
This morning we heard the parable of The Empty Jar[vi]. The woman sets off with a jar full of meal but arrives home empty-handed. She’s done nothing wrong. It leaked out. It was an accident. Why can’t a prophet of God materialise and make everything right? Like Elijah did for the widow of Zarephath[vii]. Surely a full jar is what we could expect in god’s empire, not an empty one?
There is a similarity with our other reading, The Rich Farmer.[viii] This farmer has a bounteous harvest. So he tears down his barns and builds bigger ones. He’s a wise manager. He knows about investment. He has a good super policy. Yet the parable says this does him no good, for that night he died.
Note, that the editor Luke, re-worked this parable for his own ends, and called the farmer greedy. I think Luke misses the point. Both The Empty Jar and The Rich Farmer fit instead with Jesus’ sayings about anxiety: ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.’[ix] ‘Don’t be anxious, though there is plenty to be anxious about.’[x] Instead, says Jesus, recognize that following me will not get you rich and famous, satiated, or even particularly satisfied. The empire of god is associated with loss.
You will also discover that there will be no God hovering in the wings ready to swoop down and rescue you, to change you from being a loser into a winner. There will be no God to soar in and sweep up when you mess up; or to punish the baddies and reward the goodies. The apocalyptic sword-waving saviour is gone. The God with the capital ‘G’ and the Empire with the capital ‘E’ – the big powerful G’s and E’s – are not in Jesus’ dream.
Rather god’s empire, says Jesus, is already here, among us. God’s empire is here in the dirt and the mess. So don’t worry about clothes or eating or iPhones or anything else. This loss, this decline, this weakness, is what god’s way looks like. God is absent - but present in the absence. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “The empire of god is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the empire of god is among you [weak, poor, and marginalised].”[xi]
This is bad news for those who think that successful leaders, countries, organisations, churches, and fathers are known by how big and powerful and profitable and influential they are. This is the world of big ‘G’s and big ‘E’s.
And this dream of Jesus is good news for those who look for the little g’s and e’s, who see in the tiny, inconsequential things the presence of the sacred – who see it in things like love, smiles, and acts of random kindness.
The third foundational insight of Jesus’ dream was cooperation is the goal and method, not contest.
Jesus told stories that undermined contest. He dreamt of a bigger truth, and the more important truth, that cooperation is the antithesis of and antidote for violence, poverty, and discrimination. The two most known parables of Jesus, The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Sons, show us the way.
The elevation of a Samaritan to hero status deliberately mocked the religious and cultural contest and resultant hatred between Jews and Samaritans. Wellbeing is found when we help and look each other. Substitute for Jew and Samaritan, not only Israeli and Palestinian, but Pakeha Kiwis and new immigrants, or financially comfortable and financially struggling, or women and men. Health and wellbeing for all is found in cooperating not competing with each other.
Remember the parable of the Prodigal Sons. Yes, there were two sons that went astray, both grievously insulting the patriarch of the clan. The beauty of the story is that this father is not concerned about the loss of his own honour and status. Nor is he just interested in restoring each of the prodigals in relationship to him. Rather he is primarily interested in their relationship of his children with each another. The Father makes sure his acceptance of one brother is not purchased at the cost of the rejection of the other.[xii] The purpose of the Father’s actions is to build cooperation and kinship, not to reward and punish, or maintain standards, or judge right or wrong.
There is a modern day parable[xiii] about a farmer who grew excellent quality corn. Every year she won the award for the best grown corn. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed her and discovered that the farmer shared her seed corn with her neighbours.
“How can you afford to share your best seed corn seed with your neighbours when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked.
“Why,” said the farmer, “Didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbours grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbours grow good corn.”
So is with our lives. The welfare of each of us is bound up with the welfare of all of us, as is our happiness.
Jesus’ committed the same crime as Socrates who failed to acknowledge the gods that his city acknowledged. Jesus dreamt of a God who was unclean; who disregarded the border between holiness and un-holiness, and who sought to tear down the ideological and affluence barriers that gave the more powerful the illusion of being safe. Jesus dreamt of a god who was present in loss, who didn’t intervene to rescue and relieve people of pain, and relieve people of the responsibility for trying to alleviate pain. Jesus dreamt of a god who was the life-blood of cooperation, who didn’t do contest, coercion, and conquering. And like Socrates Jesus’ was killed. He was seen as a loser. The question is whether we today are prepared to be seen as losers and join in his dream.
[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
[vii] I Kings 17:8-16.
[viii] Luke 12:16-21.
[ix] Luke 12:27-28; Matthew 6:28-30.
[x] Matthew 6:34.
[xi] Luke 17:20-21.
[xiii] Aaron Avner