I am a youngest child: the youngest in my nuclear family of origin, the youngest of the cousins on my mother’s side, the youngest in my class at school. This doesn’t seem so bad now, but for much of my life it felt like a curse.
Along with other biblical tales of youngest children selected over their siblings, today’s reading from Samuel in which God chooses David instead of his older brothers gave me secret solace from all the teasing I endured about being the baby. In those stories I found what I thought was scriptural evidence of the superiority of the last–born—until I realized that this was not actually the point, and that if custom had privileged the youngest, God could well have ignored that plan, too.
The alternate lesson, which we did not read, is from Ezekiel, in which the prophet uses a common Hebrew metaphor for political sovereignty: the tree. God, he says, will supplant the “lofty cedar” of the Babylonian Empire with the tender sprig of Israel, who will then go on to become an empire herself.
In both of today’s Old Testament lessons, God confounds our expectations, a theme continued in the Gospel reading.
In the first parable, someone scatters seed, perhaps not even aware of doing so, and the seed sprouts and grows without further attention from the sower.
The next verse is somewhat ambiguous: “when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” If you didn’t catch the reference to the third chapter of Joel, it’s all right; scholarly opinion is divided over whether Jesus here alludes to the terrible Day of Judgment described by Joel or to God’s gracious bounty. I think he means both: whether the reaper is grim or glad depends on what was sown. Often, what we perceive as divine punishment or reward is actually the playing out of what we ourselves have set in motion.
We are generally so earnest when we read the Bible that we are likely to miss the satire in the parable of the mustard seed. No one would have sowed a mustard seed on purpose! The absurd image of this invasive weed rivaling the towering cedars of Lebanon reveals the pretension and vulnerability of even the greatest of empires. God’s desire for Israel is not imperial status.
Jesus lived in Roman–occupied Palestine, and his anti–imperialism is evident in almost everything he said and did; note that he does not suggest that Israel will take her place in the series of empires.
Mark writes during what the Romans called the Jewish War and what James Carroll refers to as the first holocaust, when Roman troops slaughtered 1.1 million Jews and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
When I was in school we learned about “the glory that was Rome”: her unrivaled architecture, technology, urban planning, and legal system. Writing in 1956, Winston Churchill says of Britain after the Romans left: “From the year 400 till the year 1900 no one had central heating and very few had hot baths…Even now a smaller proportion of the whole population dwells in centrally heated houses than in those ancient days. […when] there was law; there was order; there was peace; there was warmth; there was food, and a long–established custom of life. […] We owe London to Rome,” he concludes.
Then I heard about Rome’s insatiable appetite for conquest and power, the atrocities inflicted on the vanquished, and the popular spectator sports of deadly gladiatorial contests. I was confused. Such cruelty and bloodthirstiness were not consistent with all that I had been taught about the multifaceted genius of Rome. Was there another Roman empire?
The answer to this question is yes and no. The celebrated glory of an empire depends on its brutal underside. “Urban living,” Karen Armstrong reminds us, “would not have been possible without the unscrupulous exploitation of the vast majority of the population. [The structural violence of civilized life is inescapable.” Rome, in both her magnificence and savagery, was indeed the foundation of Western civilization. This is the original and besetting sin of human culture.
When Jesus describes the kingdom of God, he is not talking about a new world empire—or about a democracy, for that matter. The kingdom of which he speaks is a reign, not a realm. The reign of Queen Elizabeth refers to the character, policies, and events of her time on the throne rather than to the lands under her control, her realm; the “reign of God” is the eternal being and action and presence of a god who is not a military conqueror, a hereditary royal, or an elected leader; who is not subject to popular opinion, bound by term limits, or constrained by geopolitical boundaries. The kingdoms we know are temporal and territorial; God’s reign is independent of time and space, neither floating above the clouds nor awaiting some future cataclysmic event to announce its arrival, but existing here and now. It is a parallel universe, if you will, perceptible only partially, fleetingly, and infrequently.
Alas, Jesus was too subtle for us, and we continued to build empires, lots of them, including the Byzantine, Austro–Hungarian, British—and yes, American.
We couldn’t help ourselves. We began life as children of empire, and, despite our determination to be nothing like our parents, we could not entirely escape our heritage. The Puritan dream of the “New Israel” morphed into America’s self–description as the “New Rome.” From the earliest days we have been an imperial culture, although we are loath to acknowledge it, preferring instead to talk about the frontier, Manifest Destiny, sphere of influence, hegemony, or globalization.
Today is Flag Day, a time to celebrate the glorious promises and expansive vision evoked by our national symbol. We love to picture ourselves as “the shining city on a hill.” Even before Ronald Reagan added the adjective “shining,” we took great pride in this image from the Sermon on the Mount offered by John Winthrop in 1630. Because we seldom read beyond the first clause, we have been oblivious to the warning in Winthrop’s words. “Consider that wee shall be as a City upon a Hill”, he wrote, “the eies of all people are uppon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by–word through the world…we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us…”
“Be careful,” he says. “God is watching. The world is watching.” They were watching then and they are watching now. America’s daring uniqueness lay and lies in the peaceful passing of power from one administration to another, the checks and balances of divided government, freedom of speech, and the absence of a state religion. Our citizens continue to have more direct power to affect government policies than citizens of other democracies, and we attract more immigrants than any other country. We remain the most industrious and generous of peoples. At the same time, predisposed to the pathology of empire, we have acquired other, shameful distinctions: we are the world’s deadliest democracy with the most guns per capita, and, in company with China, North Korea, Iran, and Yemen, one of the few states that impose the death penalty. Our characteristically imperial focus on our borders and beyond at the expense of the center has resulted in crumbling infrastructure and a vanishing middle class; our paranoid obsession with territorial security has played out in the cultures of gangs and rogue militias, and in the travesties of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay; a handgun epidemic has led to unspeakable horrors in such places as Blacksburg, Aurora, and Sandy Hook; and persistent because unacknowledged racism underlies such tragedies as the recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore.
We cannot lay this at the feet of a single administration or a particular political party. We are more like first–century Romans than we want to admit, and it will require great humility to hear and heed what Jesus is saying to us. However unwittingly, we sowed a cedar, and while we cannot uproot it, with some judicious pruning we can prevent future damage. We can relinquish the naïve belief that we have discovered the best way to organize society, and stop judging other countries by the extent to which they conform to the American Way. We can expand our concept of self–interest to include others greatly different from ourselves. We can understand that “standard of living” does not equal “quality of life.” We can insist that “we, the people” are not for sale—even to the wealthiest of our own citizens. We can ban guns from our streets and public places. We can recommit ourselves to the baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being.
We cannot be a “shining city on a hill” without doing so. May God give us the will to accomplish these things and the grace and courage to succeed. Amen.