Lectionary 16A (July 23, 2017)

We must discuss this parable. It forcefully rejects our attempts at judging the faith of others, yet winds up with the potential to leave us more judgmental than when we started. But before we can do discuss the parable we’ve got a problem, thanks to Isaiah, our First Reading. If we leave it hanging there, nothing we say about the parable will matter.

In Isaiah 44, the God of Israel says you can tell he is God because he has announced from of old the things that are to come. In other words, “My predictions always come true, so you can trust me.” You do not need to be a theological expert to know that this doesn’t work. Just off the top of my head, the Prophet Amos said, “Thus says the Lord: Jeroboam II of Israel will soon die by the sword.” Jeroboam died years later of natural causes. If this is the whole argument, we can get rid of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition and go home. Before we do that, we should look at the context, see if there’s more to these verses.

There is. These verses are probably written by an anonymous prophet known today as Second Isaiah. Second Isaiah lived in Exile in Babylon. We know that in his day Babylon proclaimed their god, Marduk, as the only God. Their myths declared, “Marduk is King! There is no other.” If Isaiah says, “The Lord is King, first and last, the only God,” he is saying that against Marduk. Marduk says, “I am the only God.” The Lord says, “No. I am the only God.” “No. I am the only God.” “No. I am the only God!” This is not going to get us anywhere. You see why we need to settle this; the parable of Jesus won’t mean anything if we cannot establish who God is.

Marduk makes a compelling case for being our god. I’ve mentioned him before. In the Babylonian myth, the lesser gods elect the storm god, Marduk, to destroy Tiamat, the evil sea serpent who produces chaos. Marduk defeats her and her husband and builds the world and its creatures from their bloody corpses. (Children’s Time at that church was interesting.) Marduk developed proficiency in all the weapons of the day, kind of like how in a First-Person-Shooter video game your character carries 20 gigantic weapons easily and knows how to us all of them. Marduk got to be so badass the other gods quit. (It worked out: stuff gets done faster if you don’t dicker over details.) By the time of the Neo-Babylonian empire—the one that conquered Jerusalem—Marduk claimed to be the only God in the universe. He creates order out of chaos with a sword and a spear, he gives life to his faithful by feeding them the flesh of his enemies. He gets stuff done. He is like a personification of Nietzsche’s will to power. Trust him and be strong, overpowering others as you carve out a life that is what you want. I don’t know about you, but I find appealing the idea that I can trust God and do what I want and I shouldn’t be bothered by anyone.

There are no temples of Marduk here in Valparaiso (that I know of). What Marduk stood for has survived him. The lure of Marduk is alive. I feel it. And I see it. I see the idea, often couched in religion, that I can trust God, do what I want, and shouldn’t be bothered by anyone. I see it when city planning sets out to build only houses that the wealthiest can afford. It goes beyond anyone’s personal preference for a splendid house and becomes a matter for the community: only the strong shall survive. I saw the lure of Marduk when some local business owners lined up last year to say they shouldn’t have to sell goods or services to residents of a different sexual orientation or gender identity. It wasn’t a matter of, “I’m not like you and I am not going to be”; it became a matter of, “I shouldn’t have to deal with you.” I see the lure of Marduk when black or latino residents are stalked and have their property vandalized, and I’m tempted to say, “That’s disgusting,” and do nothing else for fear I might wind up targeted. It becomes all about my order and security—my not being bothered—at the cost of others’ safety.

Marduk is not here by name but he is here, like weeds among the wheat. And we are at Holy Communion, worshipping Jesus, Marduk’s enemy. Maybe we are here because Jesus has taught us that Marduk’s promises are false. Maybe we are here because mom always brought us and the car seems to find the lot every Sunday. Maybe we are here because we’re just so damn German that we can’t help but be Lutheran. But we are here. Jesus has identified the lure of Marduk as an enemy. We may ask Jesus, as the slaves in the parable ask the householder, “Do you want us to go rip out the weeds?” That seems to be our response to trouble: “Want me to go kick his butt?” “Want us to go round up the people in nice houses, the people who won’t bake cakes for lesbian weddings, and the people who spray paint slurs on houses, and then burn them!?” Jesus says, “No.” Has the word “no” ever been so gracious?

No, I will not destroy them. No, I will not have you violating my commandments against killing and violence. Ripping up the weeds will rip up wheat. If you’re out smashing enemies, you’ll inadvertently smash some friends. If you smash houses and businesses, the repair costs always have a way of winding up on the shoulders of the weak and innocent. Most importantly, Jesus is ambiguous regarding the identity of weeds. Is a weed a “who” or a “what”? Are certain people weeds? Or are the weeds—the causes of sin—inside each of us? If sin is in each of us, removing a few people won’t fix anything. No, Jesus leaves the weeding to the angels, and leaves open the possibility that the weeding will be done in each of us, and that when the weeding is done, each of us “will shine like the sun in the kingdom.”

That’s classic Jesus, classic God of Abraham stuff. That’s the Lord who stands against Marduk in Isaiah 44. It is not a contest between two claimants each saying, “No! I’m God!” Nor is it between prophets who claim accurate predictions regarding geopolitical events. It is a dispute between a video game super warrior who overpowers people you don’t want to deal with and tells you that you deserve what you have and others don’t…and the son of a carpenter who refused to repay evil with evil but lived and grew alongside the weeds because he knew the causes of sin were in each of us, whose plan to deal with sin was to forgive it and offer the possibility of new life. Jesus offers an alternative to Marduk.

We resist Marduk by embracing Jesus. We resist evil by refusing to adopt it. We resist the weeds by embracing the one who refuses to rip out the wheat with them. We resist. Isaiah and the people in Exile resisted the lure of Marduk and Babylon. They didn’t convert. They discerned that their God was different, and lived trying to embrace their God. So, too, we resist. We do not just let Marduk—by whatever name—carry the day. We resist by embracing Jesus. When a city sets out to build only houses for the wealthiest, we do not go out to the new subdivision and rip up the foundations. We build houses for the poorest. We house the homeless in our Fellowship Hall. And maybe we should show up in large numbers at planning meetings and city council meetings, and ask, “So, in Jesus’ name what are we doing for everyone else?” When a shop won’t let transgender clients use the restroom or purchase goods, we don’t throw bricks through the windows. We make sure our spaces intentionally welcome those being discriminated against, and we speak publicly and relentlessly of the love God has for all people. When residents are harassed and their property vandalized because of their religion or skin color, we don’t stalk white people back to their houses and dye their lawns rainbow colors. We do call out what happened, call the city to account for what happens, and in the name of Christ we can repair any physical damage and invite the victims into our spaces—our church, our homes. That is Jesus’ method. That is Jesus, against Marduk.

For us Christians it is the Triune God and no other. Just as for Isaiah in Exile the Lord alone was God. We Christians believe the two are the same. What God the Son shows us, in his human life and in this parable, is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not simply a cultural artifact. Jesus is not our society’s version of a national God who is ever ready to justify the worst in us. The Triune God offers a different path. From of old our God has functioned as the householder in the parable. God sees the weeds in each of us, and calls us to resist them just as his son did: lovingly, relentlessly, with a healthy understanding that God is the only one who gets to do the weeding, and with the confidence that the wheat is going to bear fruit.