Note: Continuing in this week’s ecumenical spirit, fostered by Gareth Thomas’s reflection yesterday on the Taizé community in France, today we have a piece by our friend Julian Waldner. Julian is a Hutterite Christian (a tradition that traces its roots to the Anabaptists), who enjoys interfaith and ecumenical dialogue to build friendships and to build upon areas of common ground. He is a reader of Where Peter Is and has connected with several of our contributors in the past. I encourage you to check out his blog, Coffee with Kierkegaard. In the words of Pope Francis, “The community of all the baptized is not a mere ‘standing beside one another,’ and certainly not a ‘standing against one other,’ but wants to become an ever fuller ‘standing together’. Spiritual ecumenism and ecumenical dialogue serve to deepen this ‘standing together.’ May this ‘standing together’ continue to grow, prosper and bear fruit.”
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
— Mt 13:24-33
Christ’s parables of the kingdom are some of the most profound parts of the Gospels. The kingdom of God, Christ tells us, is like a seed that falls into the ground, like yeast that enters into the dough. It begins with something “incognito,” something small and imperceptible, something “done in secret.” And then, through a mysterious process, something beyond our human capabilities and possibilities, it mysteriously grows and takes root, it leavens the lump, it grows into a large tree. Something emerges from the process, something deeply rooted, life-giving, and existing in harmonious relation: all this is suggested by Christ’s image of the large tree that provides shade, fruit, and nests for the birds.
There is something of the mode of the kingdom even in the communication via parable. The kingdom of God, by its very nature, is something that can only be passed on through “indirect communication.” That is, through hidden, elusive, subversive means of communication, sneaking in through the cracks of our self-reliance. If the goal is not a mere academic exercise, but rather, repentance (metanoia: turning around), conversion, or being “born again” into a new mode of existence; communication is a delicate matter. It is not something that can be forced upon someone, either through propaganda, fear, or knockdown arguments. In this way, popular evangelistic tactics actually end up subverting the very task of evangelism. Apologetics may succeed in getting someone to accept a new dogmatic system, a simulacrum of the kingdom, but this is in the end a prison one must escape from. Other methods may succeed in getting someone to be part of a new social group that is sharply distinguished from some other group, but again, this is mere tribalism. Some may succeed in bringing people into a political project, in the defense of “Western Civilization” or Christendom against the “godless” barbarians, but this is politics. Even the much favored evangelistic tool of offering salvation from the fires of hell, relying on fear and offering “fire insurance” ends up subverting its own task. It may succeed in pushing people into an anxiety-driven rule-following and conformity, but this is not yet the kingdom of God.
All of these means rely in their different ways on propaganda, group conformity, fear tactics, and coercion. In these ways, they are attempts to short-cut the slow, patient, Spirit-driven way the kingdom takes root. These are the ways that “men of violence” try to force their way in. The Pharisees, Christ pointed out, lock people out of the kingdom and stop people from entering. Yet they will “cross sea and land to make a new convert, and you make the new convert twice as much of a child of hell as yourselves” (Mt 23:15).
In speaking of the kingdom through parables, Christ is addressing only those who “have the ears to hear.” This is not because those who cannot hear are predestined for damnation or something, but simply because there is nothing more that can be done. The seeds are being spread—that is the only task, that is the only way they can take root. Christ explains this with the parable of the sower. A sower goes out to sow, and the seed falls where it will: on rocky soil, among the thorns, on the road, and on fertile soil. Some take root and grow, some do not. The message is offered with an open hand, it is offered, nothing more: the taking root remains in the power of God and the condition of the soil it is planted in. This is connected to what Christ tells his disciples when he sends them out to proclaim the kingdom: enter the house where you are welcome, if you are not welcome, shake the dust off your feet and leave. Perhaps this is where the ‘Pharisee’ would threaten people with hell, scream at them, unsheathe his sword or tell them that Christendom is falling. By doing so he might succeed in producing another “child of hell,” but not a child of heaven. The kingdom of heaven cannot be proclaimed or advanced with the fear of hell, this produces a simulacrum of the kingdom. A mode of existence characterized by: “hypocrisy, spiritual stultification, inner revolt against the Gospel, the confusion of faith and power and even worse.” The “Pharisee” might succeed in forcing people into a simulacrum: a new tribal identity, a new political project, a new list of rules, or a new dogmatic system. But the fundamental mode of being of the kingdom of God remains unrealized. For this reason, the kingdom can only be communicated indirectly, with an open hand: seed that is scattered, the sheep sent among the wolves. As Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium: “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but by attraction” (EG 41).
The kingdom is not a human enterprise, a human association, political movement, legal code, or ideology—it is something more elusive. Rather in the words of Benedict XVI: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, 1). It is a mode of being characterized by free encounter: because God has first encountered us, we encounter the other. Because God has first gazed us into new being, we can now gaze at our neighbor with the gaze of person-making agape. Because God has first returned our evil with good, we can now love our enemy.
At the heart of orthodox Christianity, seen in terms of communion, is the coming of God through Christ into a personal relation with disciples, and beyond them others, eventually ramifying through the church to humanity as a whole. God establishes the new relationship with us by loving us, in a way we cannot unaided love each other. (John 15: God loved us first.) The life-blood of this new relation is agape, which can’t ever be understood simply in terms of a set of rules, but rather as the extension of a certain kind of relation, spreading outward in a network. The church is in this sense a quintessentially network society, even though of an utterly unparalleled kind, in that the relations are not mediated by any of the historical forms of relatedness: kinship, fealty to a chief, or whatever. It transcends all these, but not into a categorical society based on similarity of members, like citizenship; but rather into a network of ever different relations of agape.
(Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. United Kingdom: Harvard University Press, 2009, 282.)
When involved in disputes, Christ often responded with parables. This is a form of indirect communication, a way of breaking past the stale dichotomies of argumentation and allowing his hearers to potentially imagine a different way. Parables, such as the parable of the mustard seed, do not simply contain a new idea or concept for his hearers to adopt or consider, but instead an entire imaginative world. The parable of the mustard seed, in its parable form, enacts precisely what it tries to communicate: it is itself like a seed planted in the heart of the hearer which then grows, develops, and bears much fruit. The parables may not immediately shift our thinking, but they get lodged in our imagination and over time, start to seep into our being, dislodging old patterns and allowing new ones to emerge. In a sense, speaking in parables is one way in which the kingdom of God grows and takes root.
A key thing to note here is the emphasis Christ puts on the fact that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds,” this is connected with the repeated theme in the Sermon on the Mount. of doing things “in secret.” Christ tells his disciples to pray in secret, to give to the poor in secret and to fast in secret, rather than parading out in front of the people “as the hypocrites do,” for “they have already received their reward” (Mt 6:1-2). Those who perform their good deeds for status and favor in the community, are still serving the god of the group: this god will dole out rewards and punishments accordingly. Rather, Christ tells his followers, do these things in secret and your heavenly Father, who sees in secret will reward you. Here we have reached beyond the tit for tat, eye for an eye, “I-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-mine” logic of normal human relations. Instead we have walked out into the uncertainty of a life lived before God. Thus, you cannot serve God or Mammon, you must choose one or the other. You cannot serve God and money, power, tribe, status, the rat race of “eye for an eye” transactions. The Kingdom of God raises our imaginations beyond this merely human logic. This move beyond the life lived before others to a life lived before God, is ultimately a move of freedom. Thus Christ tells his followers not to be anxious but to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Do not worry about clothing, food, or drink, but instead “seek first the kingdom of God and all of these things will be added onto you.” This is where we return to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount where we hear that it is not the rich, the powerful, the well-fed, those with status, those with great military might—who are blessed, flourishing and living with the grain of the universe. But rather, it is those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers, and those who are “persecuted for righteousness sake.” These are the people living with the grain of the universe. These are the people who are living in that strange, free, uncertain space, where God moves. These are the people who have given up serving Mammon and have chosen to “seek first the kingdom of God” instead. Here, in this life lived out of control, in the freedom of faithfulness, they find that God’s Spirit is at work.
From these humble beginnings and these hidden acts, the seeds of the kingdom take root and grow. His followers find that their hidden acts of faithfulness—incomprehensible to the world—bring their own strange, upside-down fruit. By returning evil for good, they find that the old order starts to crumble around them and Christ’s kingdom grows. This is what Tertullian was getting at when he said that the “blood of the martyrs are the seeds of the church.” In pagan Rome, people’s imaginations, the social order, and cultural assumptions slowly started to give way under the barrage of this strange, self-giving faithfulness, comprehensible only in light of the hope unleashed by Christ’s Resurrection. Seen from the grand sweep of history, some historians such as Tom Holland, Rodney Stark, and David Bentley Hart have argued that the Christian story has indeed permeated deep into our civilizational DNA.
However, this does not always appear to be the case. Often faithfulness seems utterly absurd in this broken world, a meaningless gesture thrown into the void. Kierkegaard captures this kind of absurd faithfulness in his great work Fear and Trembling:
Let me be as if created for a whim, this is the jest; and yet I propose to will the ethical with all my strength, with utmost exertion, this is earnest; and I propose to will absolutely nothing else. O insignificant significance, O sportive earnestness, O blessed fear and trembling! It is a blessed thing to be able to satisfy the divine requirement, smiling at the demands of the age; it is blessed even to despair of being able to satisfy the divine requirement, provided one does not for all that let go of God!
The repeated emphasis on the word “blessed” in this passage is striking, harkening back to the Sermon on the Mount. But in what sense can we call this kind of incomprehensible, beyond-this-world leap of faithfulness blessed? This is precisely the question that Terrance Malik explores in his brilliant and heart-wrenching 2019 film, A Hidden Life. At the beginning of the film, the main character—an Austrian farmer named Franz Jägerstätter—is living an idyllic life with his family in a small rural village. His peaceful existence is disrupted when the Nazis call on him to fight in the second World War. Jägerstätter cannot swear the oath to Hitler and enlist to fight in a war he knows to be unjust. Steadfastly refusing to give his allegiance to Hitler, he is hauled off to prison. He languishes there, exchanging letters with his wife, undergoing interrogation, and wrestling with his convictions. In one of the most poignant moments of the film, a judge questions Jägerstätter:
“Do you imagine that anything you do will change the course of this war? That anyone outside this court ever hear of you? No one will be changed. The world will go on as before. You’ll vanish. Drop away. Like a stone in the sea. If a man can’t benefit the world by his death, how can he decide to sacrifice his life?”
This is precisely the question faced by all people of faith. What is the meaning of our “hidden” acts of faithfulness and resistance? What’s the use of our acts that seem so small and insignificant in the face of such hideous evil? We know these hidden acts will be futile and swallowed up by a much greater wickedness. Because his story became famous, we are privy to Jägerstätter’s hidden story and can marvel at his steadfastness, even if it seems utterly incomprehensible. Yet there are so many other lives of “hidden” faithfulness, lives that no one sees or remembers; obscured by the passing of time or the cloak of the ordinary. What is the meaning of those acts of faithfulness?
These “hidden” acts of faithfulness—done only before God, and which no one else sees—witness to something beyond the merely human. They stake their claim on a higher order: an ethos of new creation. They testify to a hope that lies beyond our human possibilities. Jägerstätter bets his life on the hope that his hidden life is “hidden in Christ.” His hope is that the One who sees his “hidden” act, can also one day set all things right.
Here we return back to where we began, with Christ’s parables of the kingdom: “A sower went out to sow and sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the tares appeared as well. The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Mt 13:25-27).
In our own sowing, we often end up planting tares along with the wheat. We must remember that often the kernel of the kingdom is sown alongside tares of propaganda, fear tactics, and tribalism. In our own lives, the kingdom grows in us alongside these tares. Often we find ourselves in a very ambivalent place: as part of the broader solidarity of the kingdom, yet simultaneously working against this with our defense of Christendom, tribalism, and hatred.
This is also the world we live in. We are aware of the wheat and the tares within ourselves. Alongside our love, peace, and joy, there is lust, greed, violence, and hatred. In the church, the same is true: some are more committed, others more lax. This is also true at a cosmic level: our world is both immensely beautiful and immensely fallen. In the present age, the wheat and the tares must coexist, attempts to violently root out all evil from ourselves, the church, or the world, only bring more destruction and mutilation: “It can no longer be a question just of stamping out something, or stamping in something else … In Biblical terms, the wheat and the tares are so inextricably interwoven that the latter cannot be ripped out without also damaging the former. This fundamental ambivalence of human reality” (Taylor, 646). In the present age, our tares cannot be decisively rooted out, but only slowly transformed.
As the second parable suggests, the kingdom of God grows like yeast through dough: there is a slow transformation that is occurring. This is for us, most clearly true at the individual level: once the seed of the kingdom has been planted, it slowly grows and matures within us. But the same can also be true at social and cosmic levels. Why should the yeast of the kingdom not be—slowly, patiently, in fits and starts—bubbling up under the surface and bringing about a slow transformation? Just as the seed that has been planted in the human being ensures that the discrete moments of his life can be gathered up into a story—a story that is headed somewhere. In the same way, the seed of the kingdom planted in history means that history is ultimately going somewhere. The growth pangs of history give birth to a new world.
The apocalyptic end of this parable, when Christ promises that he will gather the wheat into his barn but collect up the weeds to be burned, is ultimately good news. The cosmos is “hidden” in Christ, but it will be gathered up into his barn. All the sin, suffering, and absurdity will be burned away. This is a redemption, not just of the individual, but of all the cosmos, and ultimately of time itself. It is a gathering up of all those “hidden lives”: all are remembered and none are lost. Indeed, as Christ promised: “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open” (Lk 8:17).
Alan Jacobs, in his beautiful and spiritually profound review of A Hidden Life (which is worth reading in full), closes with the following paragraph:
There’s a good reason, then, why a scene early in the movie presents us with a lengthy meditation by an artist who is restoring the paintings on the walls of a local church. The temptation, he says, is to comfort—to give the people “a comfortable Christ.” Will he ever have the courage to show the people “the true Christ”? He thinks he might. Someday. I see this as a question Terrence Malick puts to himself: Can he, dare he, show us the Passion of a poor Christian who has taken up his cross and followed Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death? Can his imagination stretch from the staggering beauty of the Alpine valley where Franz and his wife Fani had hoped they would be high enough, distant enough, to be safe, to the horrors of Tegel prison and then the guillotine? Can he show us? Perhaps. Can he make us understand? No.
Again, this is a great mystery. But the film holds another one, and this may require still more courage to portray. “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” The film ends not with Franz’s death, but with Fani’s devastated grief for him; and as she weeps and rails—and tries to learn to face a life raising her children without her beloved husband in a village that has almost unremittingly scorned him and, because of him, has shunned her and her daughters—she takes desperate hold on her own faith. She receives, or by some inexplicable strength of will conjures up, a vision. And this is not merely the usual hope for being reunited with one’s departed loved ones, though it contains that: it is, rather, a vision of the New Creation, the καινὴ κτίσις, the restoration of all that has been defaced, all that has been shattered, by the evil of men. It is, in the closing moments of the film, a confession of trust in the promise of the scarred and wounded King who sits upon the throne he has in agony gained and says, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
Featured Image: By Yelkrokoyade – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18056968