When we first moved to Rhode Island in the middle 1990s for my new teaching position at Providence College, Jeanne landed a position as the office manager in the Admissions office at PC. She bonded with her boss, the Director of Admissions immediately. This was not surprising, since Bill was a New Yorker through and through just as Jeanne is. Bill had little tolerance for inefficiency or indirectness. One of Jeanne’s favorite Bill quotes: “If I ask you what time it is, don’t tell me the history of time!” If Bill had been one of Jesus’ disciples, my guess is that he would have found the Master very frustrating at times. Ask Jesus a straightforward question about God or the Kingdom of Heaven, and Jesus just about always responded with a story. Or a picture. Just as in today’s gospel.
How many of you remember when you first learned the difference between metaphors and similes in grade school or junior high? Not to date myself or sound like a curmudgeon, but judging from the command of English grammar that many of my college freshmen display, I don’t think they teach that any more. But you, I’m sure, remember that a metaphor establishes a direct comparison between two things (A is B), while a simile uses “like” or “as” to make a comparison (A is like B). In next Sunday’s gospel, Jesus gives us several memorable similes to help us understand various characteristics of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like:
- A mustard seed
- Treasure hidden in a field
- A single pearl
- An indiscriminating fishing net
And let’s not forget another famous one from the Sunday gospel two weeks ago:
- The Kingdom of Heaven is like a sower who casts seed profligately onto different sorts of soil, with a limited amount of success.
Jesus apparently loved similes. But if we want to get beyond stories and pictures to some actual information about the Kingdom of Heaven that we can use, one strategy might be to ask: What do these similes, along with dozens of others in the Gospels, share in common? The mustard seed and yeast tell us that the Kingdom of Heaven is close to invisible, but is also full of promise and life. With patience and care, its apparent insignificance will produce something valuable and remarkable. The treasure hidden in a field, as well as the pearl, suggest that the Kingdom of Heaven is worth more than everything else that we value put together, while the fishing net and sower similes suggest that divine activity is non-discriminating, non-economical, unpredictable, and even wasteful according to our usual standards of efficiency.
In other words, there isn’t really any one detail about the Kingdom of Heaven that each of these similes share in common. I can hear Bill complaining now: “Jesus! I want to know what the Kingdom of Heaven is, not what it is like!” Four centuries before Jesus, Socrates used to regularly get annoyed when, in response to his asking for the definition of something, people would always give him examples of the thing to be defined. “I’m not interested in examples! I want to know what all of the examples share in common—that’s what a definition is supposed to provide.” Jesus would have driven Socrates nuts.
I’m reminded of an early scene in “Hope Gap,” a movie that Jeanne and I watched on Netflix a week or so ago. The movie centers on Grace and Edward, an English couple in their sixties who have been married for close to thirty years. Both are academics absorbed in their own lives, with very different ideas about the health of their relationship, and what might be lacking. Early in the movie, their son Jamie, a mid-twenty-something who lives in London and whom they have not seen in some time, unexpectedly drops in for a weekend visit. Their Saturday evening dinner conversation turns toward church attendance.
Grace: Will you be coming to Mass in the morning, Jamie?
Jamie: You know I don’t do that anymore.
Grace: Why not? Did you stop believing in God?
Jamie: More or less.
Grace: Why? Is it because of all the suffering in the world?
Jamie: That’s a part of it, yes.
Grace: But don’t you see? That’s exactly why there has to be a God. If this world was all there is, how could we bear it? Edward, explain why God allows suffering.
Grace’s faith, and as it turns out, her whole approach to life, is linear and rooted in factual argumentation, attended by lots of words. There’s a way that things are, and it’s our job to figure out what that way is, then believe and act accordingly.
In response to his wife’s command to explain to their son why God allows suffering, Edward says “Well, it’s about free will, isn’t it? Jamie knows the arguments.”
Grace: But if you understood properly, you’d believe.
Jamie: As far as I can see, the world’s a frightening place where things happen that aren’t fair. There isn’t really any meaning to any of it in the end, and we all get wiped out. We can’t bear it, so we invent God and heaven to reassure ourselves that it will all work out in the end. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to do, it’s just not true.
Grace: You’re wrong. Tell him, Edward.
Edward: Tell him what?
Grace: That God exists.
Edward: You can’t tell people a thing like that. God’s not information; God’s a conviction. It’s like love. You don’t tell love, you feel love.
God is not information. That simple statement challenges millennia of attempted “proofs” concerning God existence and God’s nature, assuming that God does exist. If Edward is right, no amount of facts or data will ever get us any closer to engaging with divine things. God is not reducible to a logically sound and valid argument. And this is why Jesus always went in the direction of stories and similes when speaking about God and how the divine interacts with us. Stories and evocative comparisons provide opportunities for commitment, reasons to choose to place ourselves with conviction in the center of a reality that transcends facts and data. Once one has chosen to believe, literally everything can serve as supporting evidence.
When Edward says that God is a conviction rather than information, then compares the God dynamic to what we know about the energy of love, he opens the door to the sort of inspired testimonial that we find in Sunday’s lectionary text from the second half of Romans 8. The reading begins with one of the most infamous verses in all of Paul’s writings: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Because every one of us knows that loving God is no guarantee that things will work out for the best. When people are in pain or have experienced tragedy, well-meaning people often say things like “Things tend to work out for the best,” “God knows what He’s doing,” “Everything happens for a reason,” “When God closes a door, He opens a window,” and so on. Nadia Bolz-Weber writes that when someone says that last one at the wrong time, the best response might be to say “Show me where that window is so I can push him the hell out of it!”
In the larger context of Romans 8, though, it is clear that Paul is not simply cranking out a surface level platitude when he writes that things work together for good for those who love God. What comes first is the love, the “conviction” as Edward might say. God created us out of love, establishing the possibility of relationship depending on our free choice to return that love with conviction and commitment. In Paul’s estimation, it is this relationship of love that sustains goodness even in the face of the worst that factual “reality” has to offer.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nor, I might add, COVID-19, uncertainty about the future, or fears for our country’s health and very existence. This is a statement rooted in conviction, not information, rooted in love, not data.
We are all familiar with the statement I’ll believe it when I see it—most of us have said this before, probably more than once. It expresses the attitude that my belief depends on sensory information and evidence. Show me the supporting data, then I’ll believe the claim supported by that data. This is undoubtedly an excellent rule of thumb in many parts of our human existence. But I would argue that, in matters of faith and relationship with what is greater than us, the reverse is true: I’ll see it when I believe it. Let me say that again: In matters of faith and relationship with what is greater than us, we should say I’ll see it when I believe it. My belief in and commitment to the reality of God’s love changes how I see and what I see.
With the eyes of conviction and love, I begin to see the possibility of divine presence in even the smallest and most insignificant of daily matters. I realize that, both inwardly and outwardly, God works on a time schedule and a productivity scale that pays no regard to efficiency or the bottom line. No wonder Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven in parables and similes. For those with eyes to see, God can be found in anything and everything .Some days I will feel like “more than a conqueror,” to use Paul’s words, while on other days I feel all the world like a sheep being led to the slaughter. But life with God is not about wining or losing. It’s about a relationship of love. As Edward said, God is not information. God is a conviction. You don’t tell love. You feel love.