by Daniel Harrell
What a splendid kickoff Sunday last week! A full house of wonderful worship, moon bounces for the kids and great weather, fun food and fellowship with us all together here at one place and time, a visible fulfillment of Jesus’ assurance in Matthew 13 of a hundredfold bounty that grows from good soil.
My plan for this fall is to walk us through Matthew 13, sowing seeds if you will, in part to consider Biblical implications of power in this stranger than usual presidential election season, but mostly to remind ourselves where true power lies, and how that power applies in real life. Jesus’ allusions to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13 are allusions to God’s power. For Jesus to say “the kingdom is near” as he did two Sundays back meant God’s power was already at work. But unlike imperial power that coerced and subdued through military force, political pressure or economic domination, Jesus tied kingdom power to a seed you can’t hardly see. Plant it and you can’t see it at all.
Jesus said the seed is the word of the kingdom, which earliest Christian thinkers took to mean Jesus himself, the word made flesh. In the parable of the sower which we looked at last Sunday, the Father sows his son everywhere—on roadsides and bushes and rocks, and in every piece of dirt. As a seed, Jesus knows his best work is done underground, in secret, after he’s dead and buried. As a small seed, he confirms his best work operates in disproportion to expectations. Finally, and most importantly, the seed does its work despite the dirt. In this parable, the seed sprouts every time. Sure, it can get choked and wither and eaten up by devilish birds, but in good soil it can yield a bounty of as much as a hundredfold return.
In first century Galilee, the highest return one could ever hope for would seven to tenfold. But here Jesus guarantees miraculously more, admittedly making him sound a bit like Joel Osteen, that toothy Texan televangelist with a massive following and massive bank account (40 million net worth). Joel Osteen practices what he preaches. “God wants us to prosper financially, have plenty of money, and to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.” But Biblical prosperity is not about the money. Turn to Mark’s gospel and Jesus’ hundredfold promise pays out in human capital: a hundredfold return of brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children. Who are these people? Well, look around like you did last Sunday and see God’s harvest. As church, we are for each other a hundredfold bounty.
A little disappointing? Some of us could use the money. Jesus’ disciples were poor fishermen, outcast tax-collectors and working-class stiffs, stuck at the bottom rung of the political and social ladder. They’d left paying jobs to follow Jesus and were likely hoping for more than miracles seeds. Why all the parables and riddles anyway? In this morning’s passage, sandwiched inside the parable of the sower, Jesus lays down a piece of meat tough to chew. In explaining why parables, he digs divisive furrows and boundaries; he offends and excludes. He accuses people of having hard hearts and closed ears, dumb as dirt, you might say. “To you has been given by God to know the secrets (the Greek word is mystery) of the kingdom of heaven,” he said, “but not to them. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” If last Sunday Jesus sounded like Joel Osteen, today he’s doing John Calvin.
John Calvin was by far the most influential Protestant Reformer, his theology the cornerstone of Congregationalism. Calvinism is what made the Puritans pure and the Pilgrims so grim. Voluminous and prolific, and deeply devout, Calvin remains notorious for his dastardly doctrine of double secret predestination, the werewolf of Reformation thought. “By predestination,” Calvin wrote, “we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined whatever he wished to happen with regard to every person. All are not created on equal terms; some are preordained to eternal life, but others are born destined for damnation from the womb, they glorify God’s name by their own destruction.”
Predestination is as old as Scripture itself. Here between the slices of parable bread in Matthew 13, our Lord layers on tough meat pulled from Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah. Jesus talks in riddles because “this people’s heart has grown dull, their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes.” All the more reason to speak clearly!, you’d think. But no, Jesus keeps them confused “so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn and have me heal them.” OK, fine, a bit priggish but maybe they had it coming. Not so fast. Turn to Isaiah 6, and it says God made their hearts dull and clogged up their ears. Mark and Luke and John’s gospels agree: “The Lord blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts.” The apostle Paul too. To the Romans he writes, “the elect of God are saved, but the rest were hardened, as it was written.”
Calvin interpreted Jesus’ words here in this way: “It is the election of God, undeserved, which alone saves any people. It follows that all others perish by a secret, though just, judgment of God.” God chooses as he pleases. Your merits, your good will, your moral action: None of these make any difference. The finest of human nature is fruit of the spirit. The most fertile soil is full of manure. “Those whom God blinds will be found to deserve this condemnation.” Calvin wrote. And repentance won’t make a difference because the reprobate don’t repent. They can’t.
Fair play and kindness, not to mention good manners and personal experience, insist we cast Calvin aside as a Reformation relic. Except science shows human behavior to be both predestined and predictable. The conscious experience we associate with human free will appears to be a post hoc reconstruction of events after the brain has already set the act in motion involuntarily. Wired by our genes, neurons fire causing other neurons to fire, a running series of thoughts and deeds, moment by moment, one right after the other in sequence, stretching back to our birth and before. Understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, you could, in theory, predict that person’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy. For some a beautiful day like today means you me to church if you tried.
Ironically, secular scholars are turning to theology of late to make sense of these things. Oxford philosopher William Wood, argues that “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.” At UC Berkeley, of all places, history Professor Jonathan Sheehan pulls out John Calvin in his classes. Students unite in utter outrage and bitter disgust at hearing his teaching. “How can so much arrogant misanthropy pass itself off as piety?” But of course you feel disgusted, Calvin would say, that’s how an atheist should react! Is it any wonder Jesus got nailed to a cross? But believers hate it too. Professor Sheehan observed Christians in the classroom struggling to keep God’s sovereign power intact, but then denying what seems to follow from it.
John Calvin, like Jesus, anticipated objections. “Seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” Calvin knew that the knee jerk reaction to predestination would be anger and denial. But “if God alone created all things, doesn’t that mean he did so freely? If God is free in his choices, how can it be otherwise than God himself determines our fates? Does the world have meaning an purpose? If so, where do these come from? If not, what does a meaningful life look like? Is meaning simply something we make up on our own to suit our own purposes? Or is Christ truly Lord of Creation? “Monstrous indeed is the madness of men, who desire to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason,” Calvin exclaimed. Reasoning itself needs to come to an end before humans can truly encounter mystery.
“To you it has been given by God to know the mysteries of the kingdom,” Jesus said. Mystery cannot be taught, only revealed. God sows his power as he wills. It does its work in crappy dirt. “God blessed your eyes to see it and your ears to hear.”
Severe and uncompromising, John Calvin practiced what he preached as pastor and prefect of Reformation Geneva. Calvin intended Geneva to be the kingdom of heaven on earth. He is reputed to have been the first major political thinker to model civic society in accordance with Biblical standards. Regrettably, his plan to catechize all Geneva and require coherence to a stern moral code met with the same enthusiasm shown by ancient Israelites when Moses rolled out Leviticus. Calvin did get a bit carried way. He persuaded the Geneva Town Council to adopt a confession of faith to which everyone was compelled to subscribe. Failure to do so got you excommunicated from church and society. According to the Town Council’s minute book, a man smiled during a baptism and was thrown in jail for three days. On the other hand, another man was (deservedly) imprisoned for dozing off during a sermon.
I like to joke that the most fervent defenders of predestination always consider themselves to be among the elect. But I think that’s the point. Divine election provides deep assurance of salvation. “Everyone the Father gives me will come to me,” Jesus said, “and I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing God has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” At the same time Jesus also said God so loved the world that he sent his only son to save it, “so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” God’s sovereign freedom freely makes space for humans to freely respond. God sows his son everywhere but it can be rejected, choked off and withered by worry.
While in Geneva last June with high school students and others from Colonial, we toured Calvin’s church perched high on its hill. Austere and imposing, we saw Calvin’s high pulpit from whence he expounded the word, and his small modest chair where he sat when he was done. Christians worship there still, seeking to comprehend the mysteries of God even as they submit to them. Across town in Geneva sits another kind of temple, the Large Particle Accelerator at CERN where photons of light collide to reveal other mysteries of God. We visited there too, you’ll remember, awed by the capacity of modern science to delve so deeply into most basic of reality. Physics teaches that light behaves paradoxically as both a particle and a wave, both as packet of energy and oscillating illumination, totally different yet existent in one single entity. We say the same about Jesus as the light of the world, his both fully human and son of God at the same time.
And likewise with predestination and free will. The God who loves you chose you before you were born. Nothing you do can ever take you away from his tight, loving embrace. At the same time, God’s love does not force or coerce, like a dormant seed it can wait, and like light it beckons all people into God’s arms.
Calvin’s critics argued that predestination was nothing but permission to do as you pleased. Like universalism at the opposing end, divine election operates like an eternal get out of jail free card, sapping away motivation for moral action.
You can do nothing to earn God’s grace—but you must still do something to show you’re received it. You can only tell a plant by its fruit. Among the mysteries of Calvinist mystique is how such high predestinarian theology induced its adherents toward intense this-worldly activism. Calvinism shaped the contours of the modern world, including the rule of law, the limitation of state power, and a democratic approach to civil governance. Calvinist ideals such as thrift, hard work and personal responsibility all played a crucial role in the development of robust economies worldwide. New England and upstate New York, in their Calvinist era, were centers of great social and educational reform. Abraham Lincoln’s own Calvinism led him to endure the Civil War’s bloodbath and then resist every vengeance toward the South afterwards. While some Christians reject the world as a realm of darkness to be shunned, and others accept the world as a necessary evil, Calvin sought to overcome the world, to plow through and watch it transformed by the Word of the Lord. This earth in all of its squalor and sin was rightly seen as the “theater of God’s glory,” strange comfort, I think, in our own theater of presidential electoral discontent. As President Lincoln submitted, “the Almighty has his own purposes.”
Calvinists get characterized as arrogant and prejudiced, Pharisaic know-it-alls who have God all figured out. But according to Calvin, we must view ourselves in our utter perversity and alienation to enter fully into salvation’s benefits. Nothing else can “suffice to make us as humble as we ought to be” as “a taste of this doctrine” of predestination, he wrote. Calvin insisted that in your rejection and anger, you finally feel in your gut the greatness of God. You finally feel the difference between his Majesty and your limitation. The dialectic between sin and grace excludes every pride. As Paul asked the Corinthians, “What makes you better than anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
Jesus told another parable of a Pharisee and tax-collector who both went to pray. The good Pharisee stood and thanked God for making him so good while the despised tax-collector bowed and bemoaned his sinfulness and prayed for mercy. The one who went home righteous knew he never deserved it. May you go home so righteously.