Proper 12A – Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 24, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
1 Kings 3:5-12Psalm 119:129-136Romans 8:26-39Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

By Jeanyne B Slettom

I Kings 3:5-12


To discern what is right is a theme that runs throughout the Bible, starting, of course, with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. And as many have observed, since the eating of the apple launched the whole human enterprise, that was not so much a Fall as what John Cobb has named a “call forward.” For the Bible may be filled with stories and history, characters and cities, but it also consistently lays out two ways to live: there is the way consistent with how the world measures a person’s success, and there is the way consistent with how God measures a person’s life. The first way is all around us and doesn’t need a sacred text for us to discern it. The second way is less obvious, and arguably does need a sacred text to clarify that the goal of life is right relationship with God, neighbor/stranger, creation, and one’s self.  Since relationality is another great theme that runs through the Bible, the concept of “right relationship” is revealed in the stories of kings and scoundrels, made explicit in the prophets, and made manifest in the life and teachings of Jesus.

In these verses, the distinction is made explicit: on the one hand, riches and the lives of our enemies (i.e., the power to triumph over them, hence reign without criticism), and wisdom, herein described as “an understanding mind to govern,” the ability “to discern between good and evil,” “an understanding to discern what is right,” and “a wise and discerning mind.”

This leads naturally into the psalm, which immediately counters any notion that you have to be a king (or a Solomon, for that matter) to discern what is right: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” Anyone who pays attention can discern the decrees of God, for it is God who is our teacher.

Romans 8:26-39

Who among us has not experienced sighs too deep for words? This description of prayer arising from a place so deep with us that it has no words recalls the work of Ann and Barry Ulanov, who in their book, Primary Speech, describe prayer as coming from the very ground of our being.  It is “vocal prayer, the prayer said in our minds, the unvoiced longing rising from our hearts, the many voices of which we are not conscious but which cry out” (2). It is “”the sound of the great river of being flowing in us. This is what dept psychologists call ‘primary process-thinking,’ the level of our psyches’s  functioning that leads straight to the workings of our souls.” This primary speech is preverbal. It is “the unconscious voice that exists in us from the very beginning, the moment of birth. . . . [It] does not begin with words, but starts much earlier in human life, with instincts and emotions” (2). As a consequence, “it comes in pictures and emotion-laden wishes, and is private to ourselves, not really communicable” (3). It is “primordial discourse” (vii) and thus, they claim, there is never a time when we are not in prayer.

It would seem the Apostle Paul was a depth psychologist, for it also appears that the Ulanovs are using psychological insights to describe what Paul is here ascribing to God. God searches our hearts—to that place in us that exists below the self-talk, culture-speak, and internalized voices of others, the place so deep that no words can express it, and the Spirit of God intercedes for us; which is to say: we are known. What we cannot name, what we cannot even express to ourselves, God knows.

And what follows from this deep knowing? Some of us fear that if anyone really knew what was in our minds and hearts, they would leave us.  Some of us fear that we have been so deeply degraded by our experiences—things we have done; things done to us—that we are unlovable. But God responds to this knowledge of us by loving us. And it is an extravagant love. If we follow John Cobb’s claim that “Christ” names the principle of divine creative transformation always active in the world (but uniquely so in Jesus), then the “love of Christ” is that divine principle at work in us, and nothing can separate us from it—not “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword.” Were we to contextualize that list for our time, we might add foreclosure, peak oil, climate change, and economic collapse. And the language here is specific. God does not prevent these things from happening—Paul lived in the Roman Empire, and he knew better)—but these things do not separate us from God’s love. And that’s where we place our hope and our trust—not in a God who magically saves us from life’s tsunamis (while others are washed out to sea), but who does not abandon us, no matter what we do or what gets thrown at us. God is present. God’s love is unwavering. And God’s power of transformation is actively engaged in the task of working all things together for good—whatever good is possible given the circumstances we’re in. If we are open to this, if we are open to God, we are more likely to realize opportunities when they come, and act on them.

A word about the line, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Especially because this paragraph also contains the word “predestined,” there is an implication that God is selective in God’s love.  But there is a process understanding applicable here, as well. If God is present in every moment, as process theologians say, and we are always in what the Ulanovs call “primary speech,” then there is always the possibility of attuning ourselves to God’s presence, or tuning God out. And as noted above, if we are open to God, we are more likely to discern God’s guidance, to distinguish it more confidently from the other impulses present in any moment, and  to follow God’s prompting. God’s loving presence is available to everyone, but some accept that presence and others reject it. Grace, as John Wesley taught, is resistible. 

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In earlier chapters, Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God (basileia theou) has invited his listeners to make the comparison between what he is describing for them and the empire in which they all live. In the Sermon on the Mount, he presented an ethic of this basileia. In these verses, it is as though he is saying: “Okay, I’ve told you that there’s another kingdom, and this kingdom is governed by a whole different set of rules, and I’ve told you what they are. If you’re with me so far, you’ve accepted that idea. You get it, at least in your head. Now what happens when you suddenly discover it in your heart? It’s not just something out there that you think about; it’s something inside you, something you feel, something you know. Now what do you do?” And the answer from these parables is clear: we turn our whole lives over to it.

Once we really get it, from the inside out, a wonderful clarity emerges from within us and we know what we have to do. We also know that this new thing we are experiencing is not one among many. It is not one value that pops up in the midst of other, equal values. It is a value that places all other values in relation to itself while it takes on primary importance, as with the treasure in the field or the pearl. It infects everything we do, as with leaven. It lives hospitably with other creatures, as with the mustard tree. It discerns right from wrong, as with the fish of every kind.

These parables encourage us to live the kingdom into being in every aspect of our lives. The text promises an eschatological reward, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see the life-changing effect that living this way would have in the here and now. Certainly God is in the here and now; in the process view, dynamically present in every moment of existence, prompting us to be the seed, leaven the bread, buy the field, buy the pearl, sort the fish. In short, the basileia theou relies, in part, on us and how we choose to act in the world. In telling these parables, Jesus did not make the characters angels or kings, but a woman, a merchant, fishermen. And he did not use difficult or out-of-reach tasks, but everyday peasant-class things like baking bread and fishing. The middle and landed classes are included in the purchase of the field and the pearl. The message is clear: we’re the ones who can make it happen. We’re the ones who can realize, even if only for fleeting moments, the kingdom of God on Earth.

Works cited:

Ulanvov, Ann and Barry. Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.

Jeanyne B. Slettom is the director of Process & Faith. She received her PhD from Claremont Graduate University. She is an adjunct professor at the Claremont School of Theology and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and also co- pastor of Brea Congregational (UCC) Church in Brea, CA. She is the editor of Creative Transformation, managing editor of Process Studies, and editor of The Process Perspectiveby John B. Cobb, Jr., and The Process Perspective II.