The kingdom of leaven
Last month, at the church that my wife and I attend in Oak Park, the pastor delivered a sermon on a passage from the First Epistle to Timothy, which I can only assume was intended to make his overwhelmingly liberal congregation uncomfortable:
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all goodness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto knowledge of the truth.
He followed this with a prayer that invoked both presidential candidates by name, asking that they be granted wisdom and strength, regardless of the outcome of the election. After the service, my wife said to me: “I don’t want to pray for Donald Trump.” I responded, a bit lamely, that I had to give the pastor credit for delivering a message that the majority of his congregants probably didn’t want to hear. But I didn’t disagree with her. And it’s a point worth raising again today, when well-meaning calls for the country to come together are being opposed by voices that argue, unanswerably, that it’s hard to ask the groups that are most vulnerable right now—minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community—to preemptively forgive and embrace their oppressors.
So what would Jesus do? When we honestly ask this of ourselves, the answers don’t become any easier, and perhaps they shouldn’t. But it’s an important question. I’m agnostic, and I go to church mostly for the sake of my wife and daughter, but I also spend more time thinking about the words of Jesus than I do of any other religious figure or philosopher, if only because they reward extended reflection. My usual gateways are The Five Gospels, in which the Jesus Seminar valiantly attempts to separate the authentic sayings from material that has accrued or been deliberately added over time, and the work of the scholar R.H. Blyth, who saw Jesus as an exemplar of the life of Zen. This approach is unavoidably skewed, a view through a particular lens, but that’s also something that we all do. The fact that evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump tells me that they’re picking and choosing, too, and that they’re acting according to the subset of the Bible that they find most congenial to their needs. I don’t have any qualms about doing the same thing. In part, it’s because it consoles me, but it’s also because I refuse to allow the religious right and their opportunistic allies to claim Jesus for themselves. On some level, we’re all editing the text, taking the parts that we need and leaving the rest. For instance, I doubt that my pastor would have gotten the same response from the crowd if he had gone just a few verses further in his text and read: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
And when I turn to what seem like the original words of Jesus, or at least the ones that might plausibly have been preserved through a purely oral tradition, there are two that stand out for our present moment. The first is “Love your enemies.” The second is “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give to God what belongs to God.” Neither is a particularly easy saying, but they both arise from the same set of concerns. As I’ve written elsewhere, I prefer to see Jesus as the ultimate pragmatist. If you believe that the kingdom of heaven is something that is happening right now, it has a way of focusing your priorities. Hating your enemies is a waste of time and energy. If you’re ruthlessly practical about it, you find that it makes more sense to love them. Similarly, from the perspective of the truly destitute, the beggars who are beneath even the ordinary poor, it doesn’t matter who rules. It certainly doesn’t change the way they ought to act. Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, would be utterly indifferent to political outcomes. That seems clear enough. But part of me also resists it. Taken literally, it appears to advocate passivity, acceptance, and a surrender to the idea that everything is part of a larger plan. Maybe it is—but it’s worth remembering that this plan can also include our reactions to it, in pockets of opposition, big and small, that take place far from the circles of power. And it doesn’t speak much to those who are honestly afraid right now. So you’ll forgive me if I push past the obvious answer, even if I suspect that it’s probably true, and dig deeper for something that gives me what I need.
I’m going to close my thoughts on this awful week, then, with the idea of the kingdom of heaven itself. Jesus talks about it endlessly, but he never says explicitly what it is. Instead, he speaks in parables, which are ultimately the only way in which it can be described. And what strikes me the most about the kingdom of heaven, as reconstructed from the sayings that we have the greatest reason to regard as genuine, is how modest and everyday it is. In the original version of the parable of the mustard seed, for example, it’s a tiny seed that grows into a weedy little shrub. It’s only much later, in versions that were designed to make this disconcertingly humble analogy seem more conventionally impressive, that it gets inflated into “the greatest of shrubs,” or a majestic tree in which the birds of heaven build their nests. But the underlying image is that of a common plant that grows underfoot and can’t be eradicated. And in both Matthew and Luke, it’s followed by the most beautiful parable that we have, as well as one of the strangest:
The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.
I may not know what the kingdom of heaven means, but I think that we get very close to it here. It’s invisible. Like leaven, or yeast, it’s something that the unthinkingly devout dismiss as impure, unclean, or sinful. It does its work in hiding. And it happens in the hands of a woman.