My 7 year-old daughter, a budding theologian, tends to wax poetic when most children do — at bedtime when she has a captive audience and would rather do anything but sleep. The times when I manage to set aside my to-do list (which is frankly a to-Netflix list, who am I kidding), her insights have remained with me. Like an age-old litany, her reflections normally begin with “Mom, I have a question that’s been bouncing around in my brain…”
Did humans really just come from 2 people?
When we go to heaven do you think we’ll look really old or young like me?
My favorite topic with her, however, are Jesus’ parables. She turns those stories around in her mind like the gems that they are, seeing them in ways that come easily to a child — as someone hearing them for the first time, without the added weight of decades of commentaries and sermons allegorizing that “this seed means this” and “the goats represent that.”
At one of her recent sessions of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (our church has been holding them virtually even through the Covid-19 season), they spent time reading the very brief kingdom parable from Matthew 13:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field (Matthew 13:34).
And in a fashion that I’ve found central to CGS’ strength in effective catechesis, the parable is presented without embellishment and simply punctuated with “I wonder” questions, allowing space for the children to hear the Spirit and arrive at their own conclusions.
I wonder, what does this say about the kingdom of God?
I wonder, what do you think the treasure is?
As the end of their session approaches, these questions hang in the air. I imagine a pebble being tossed onto a still lake, the unanswered question silently rippling outward.
Days later, I revisit these wonder questions with my daughter: “So what do you think the treasure is?” And she pauses and says with a knowing smile, “I think that the person who’s walking along the road and notices the field is God, and WE are the treasure.”
WE are the treasure.
In this turning of the gem, we are the treasure that is noticed and found. We are the ones who elicit so much joy in the God who finds us that we are worth everything he has. We are the ones who are hidden, buried like seeds in a field waiting to grow.
For the 7 year-old pondering these I wonder questions, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like: God finding her.
I’m reminded of another time someone turned a parable on its head for me, when a friend referenced Luke 18:1-8, a passage named either The Parable of the Persistent Widow or the Parable of the Unjust Judge, depending on which translation you’re reading. Presented below from the NRSV translation, are the verses which contain the parable itself (verses 2-5), without the surrounding commentary included by the Gospel writer:
[Jesus] said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Lk 18:2-5, NRSV).
“What if,” my friend asked, “we read this passage as if the widow were God? And that we are the judge?”
Read in this light, I cannot help but recall the times when I have been like the judge who cannot be bothered to hear the pleas of the widow. When grudges and unforgiveness have taken root in my heart and I become deaf to whatever it is the Spirit trying to bring my attention to. When I refuse to see what is required of me so that I can remain unchanged and unbothered.
Read in this light, I perceive the tireless persistence of a God who refuses to give up. A God who will show up, day after day, until our hardened hearts are softened, regardless of how long it takes. I see a God who will not rest until justice comes to pass.
Too often, I only read this passage through the lens that is alluded to by verses 1, 6-7 — that in this parable, God is the unjust judge and we are the ones who are crying out for justice. But in the turning of the gem, so much more can be gleaned from this parable than I first imagined.
More recently, the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30) took on a brand new meaning for me when the question was posed: Where is God in this story? The question, which was posed in the context of René August’s course on decolonizing the Bible, was an invitation to read the text through the lens of our founding narrative in Genesis 1, when humankind is made in the image and likeness of God, given dominion (read: stewardship) over creation, and when all creation is called tov me’od (i.e., the relationship between all created things was very good).*
Too often, when I read or hear the Parable of the Talents, I automatically place God in the role of the man going on a journey — the master. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, one that isn’t even worth dwelling on: of course God is the authority figure in this story. Who else would he be?
So what do we know of the master in this parable? The master is known to be “a harsh man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] did not scatter seed (v. 24). The master elicits fear who, upon his return, only awards those slaves who produce more and punishes those who are useless. The master deems the life of a slave who does not produce as worthless, a life that deserves to be thrown into the outer darkness.
It doesn’t take much to see what the implications are in simply accepting wholesale that the master plays the role of God in this story. In our minds, God becomes one who is feared, one who demands that we are useful, that we produce more for the kingdom.
This is not the God who is revealed to us in Genesis 1.
So where is God in this story? I confess that I found it impossible to answer this question on my own. I only knew that I hated the idea of equating God with the master in this parable. It wasn’t until another student offered their insight when things started falling into place. Or rather, when things were turned on its head.
“I think that the slave who received one talent — that’s where God is.”
And I remember who is telling the story — Jesus, a homeless preacher from a poor family in a backwater town, where the shadow of the Roman empire is always looming. I remember that Jesus stands with the poor and oppressed not because it’s something a good and holy man is supposed to do — it’s because he was poor and oppressed. And I wonder what he might have been thinking when he told this parable.
Perhaps God is hiding in the role of the slave who refuses to participate in whatever the master is up to. Perhaps God is the “worthless” slave who disrupts the status quo, who sees the master for who he really is and is unwilling to play the role of producing for the sake of having more. Perhaps God is the slave who stares down the established power structure and shows us a different way.
I read somewhere recently that sometimes prayer is like God playing hide-and-seek with us in the pages of Scripture. This image has stayed with me, especially in this time of pandemic when it feels like every day is the same and nothing will ever change. As we enter into this month of August, may we allow God’s Word to surprise us, turning gems and playing hide-and-seek with the God who delights in us. May we see the world around us with fresh eyes, ready to find God hiding in unexpected places.
*For more on this topic, see Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Very Good Gospel for her description of the vision of shalom in chapter 2.