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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Occam's Razor, the Treasure, and the Pearl



As I listened to the very fine homily this morning in Glendale, AZ, as a member of the assembly for a change, there wasn't much I was "sorry" for. St. Thomas More is a beautiful church celebrating just its 20th anniversary as a parish. Many parishioners from my old parish, St. Jerome, seem to have migrated there, and there were even faces from St. Augustine, where I served over thirty-five years ago. And I ran into a former parishioner from Barrington, though it was long enough ago that our paths didn't cross. The choir was singing through the summer (kudos to them), they had very fine musicians playing drums and clarinet, and their keyboard player Hyung Mi graciously ceded the piano bench to me (for the selections I had written) and played the organ, so we had a wonderful morning of song under the able and hospitable direction of Steve Raml. My brother was singing in the choir, his wonderful adult son was with him, and it was wonderful to be with them.

If there were a single thing I would have wished for, you know, in that perfect world of imagination where nothing we actually experience ever measures up, it would have been a tiny bit more nuance in that homily. The priest, wonderfully prepared and clearly a beloved leader in the parish, spoke first about how parables aren't what we expect them to be. He spoke about how we expect Scripture to give us answers, to give us a road map (a GPS route, he said) to heaven. But, he warned, that's not what we get at all. It's more like a pointer. The kingdom of heaven is indescribable, even to Jesus, was his message. It is like to trying to say what love is like. We don't really have the words, so we use metaphors. All good so far, and especially the part about not looking for answers in the Scriptures, especially in the parables, especially in literal interpretations. The preacher even warned us that Jesus meant us to understand "the kingdom of heaven" not as something that will come later, or someplace we encounter after death, but a present reality that we are meant to live in here and now, in this world.

But then, there is the interpretation of these two parables, and what I heard was...pretty much the obvious. The kingdom is valuable, so much so that, when we find it, it replaces everything else we want, so we should go and give everything for it. 

Occam's razor, I think, would yield the same answer. Look for the simplest explanation, and it's probably right, we say. But the trouble with that and the scripture is in the mist that lies between us and Middle Eastern culture, in what's not said in the parables, and the difference between parables and other kinds of morality tales. So here are a few questions we need to deal with, at least as I see it, when we're unpacking the parables. 

"The kingdom of heaven is like..." How does this solution, i.e. the idea that Jesus simply meant "go for it with all you've got," tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like? 

Whose field is it? If the man found the treasure hidden in a field, then the treasure belongs to the owner of the field. The man is not entitled to it, and to purchase the field without telling the owner is unjust.

"He goes and sells all that he has..." Another caveat in the story is that line. So, once he sells all that he has and buys (unjustly) the treasure or in infatuation the pearl, how does he eat? Where does he live? If he reveals the treasure from his ill-purchased field, he'll be known as a scoundrel and shunned. As some commentators says, "He'll be a laughingstock," a pauper clutching his hidden treasure. 

"Hidden in a field"  The very idea of the kingdom being "hidden" is repugnant to Jewish and Christian theologies. I suppose that the kingdom might be hidden if our starting place is the locus of "I know where the kingdom of God is," in the sense that we can't find it, it's "hidden," because we're looking in the wrong place. It's openness is, ironically, invisible to us. But in Jewish theology, the reign of God is everywhere, it's the residue of God who created everything from nothing, or, more accurately, from self, from love. "The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord," says Psalm 33. In Christian theology, the idea that the kingdom is hidden from us, or that there's some secret we can be told or unlock to gain it, is clearly a kind of Gnosticism. Again, our best instinct tells us, in the light of the gospel, that the kingdom of God is available to everyone and is the free gift of God to those who desire it. No purchase required.

Of course, it's fair to hear the parables on the level where we are without attempting to try to get to what Jesus was actually trying to say twenty centuries ago. I don't see any harm in us wanting the reign of God above all our other possessions; it's just that, if it's worth giving everything for, we don't purchase it directly. We follow the invitation of Jesus, perhaps, to "sell all you have and give it to the poor," which seems to be the shortcut offered to at least one seeker by the master. 

The solution to this parabolic puzzle, at last the one that appeals to me most at this point in my living, is the one that resonates with my experience. Jesus may be trying to tell us to watch out, because wanting to "buy into" the kingdom by use of our talents or wealth may lead us to do things that are unsavory, unjust, or even antithetical to the kingdom itself. Imagining that we can "buy" God's grace and presence through any machinations of our own is ludicrous. Those of us in the church may find ourselves doing crazy things: making judgments about who is good enough to be a member, for instance, or imagining that we can exclusively or infallibly mediate God's favor. We may take shortcuts in ministry that enable us to exclude others from our churches, brush people aside, or define ourselves over against other groups of Christians or other faiths so as to make some claim upon God's favor. Anything we do that says, "I know God and you don't" is part of the craziness that imagines that it's worth betraying God's utter catholicity, God's diversity-in-unity that is our best image of God's nature, by "selling all that we have" of that being let into grace and in order to bar others from its warmth. In fact, we can't do it, and we're the ones left to weep in darkness of our own making, while the feast of the uninvited goes on within earshot, inside doors we've locked from the outside.

Or, maybe it isn't. I think it may be enough to be willing to give all for the reign of God, as long as we don't begin to think we have any kind of exclusive claim on it. But I also think that the world of the parables is an invitation to this kind of critical thinking about the strange words of our clever, open-hearted rabbi who would neither be silenced by the powerful nor countenance that there were any secret or exclusive paths to purchase the love of a God that is given freely, before we even had a mind with which to imagine asking for it. I like thinking sideways about them, and am grateful for those who ask us to engage the text on its own terms, and not imagine that there's a single way to hear the word of the Lord, the word that spoke,  and where there was nothing, everything, and every place and time, happened. 

Thank you, St. Thomas More, people, pastor, and musicians, for a wonderful experience of Church this weekend. Happy anniversary. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of it.