Can We Hear?
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?"
June 11, 2021, Words By: Fred Laceda, Image By: Anthony B. Diaz
We like to tell stories. They can bring us together by inspiring laughter, tears or even fear. That’s why good movies make so much money at the box office.
But there are certain stories that reach more deeply into our lives. These are the stories we tell ourselves about our families, our communities and our countries. They help us see ourselves as strong, or resilient, or righteous, among many other things.
These stories, sometimes referred to as myths, don’t just shape how we see ourselves in the present moment, they also affect how we understand what is possible in the future.
While many of these stories are contextual, some demonstrate patterns that rise above any particular culture. There are a few dominant myths that seem to surface across history and geography. And they center on the nature and necessity of violence.
In one popular version of this story, violence is seen as humanity’s intimate and enduring companion. It is a necessary tool for getting what we want, or need, or believe is rightfully ours.
In the second version of this story, violence isn’t just a tool that benefits ourselves, it’s actually necessary for achieving peace. In other words, the myth says that violence serves everyone’s benefit, even those who are oppressed by it.
The Roman Empire of Jesus’ day is the quintessential example of both of these myths in action. Rome bought into the myth of the need for violence to obtain abundance. They assembled the most brutal and most efficient military in the ancient world. And they justified their actions with the myth that their violence was the only path for real peace within their expanded borders.
The myths of human violence dramatically shaped how Rome interacted with the world around them; it still shapes most of us to this day. And I must say, a quick survey of human history doesn’t reflect well on the long-term benefits of this story.
Can we tell a different story?
In our lectionary text for this Sunday, it seems Jesus is trying to do just that. Teaching under the shadow of the Roman empire, Jesus is confronted by the imperial myths of violence and the way those myths even shape the people they oppress.
If violence is the only solution, Jesus is stuck in an unfortunate duality. On one side, war as a frame of mind confines liberation of the oppressed to a violent revolt. On the other side, war as a frame of mind limits peace to violent oppression. In both instances, violence takes center stage.
Instead, Jesus introduces an alternative narrative — with a sense of humor to boot
He likens God’s kingdom to, among other things, a mustard seed. It’s a drastically different agricultural image than we usually associate with power. It’s not a regal tree you might associate with empire, or even with an uprising — it’s just a bush. His suggestion is quite absurd.
And that’s part of the point. Jesus deliberately changes the story by changing the metaphor. He invites us to imagine that an alternative is possible.
It’s not a coincidence that the first Christians are storytellers; they follow in Jesus’ footsteps with an absurd story about a God whose victory comes through forgiveness, not retaliation. It’s the story of the forgiving victim — the founding story of a new humanity.
Can we hear this story?
Admittedly it’s hard to see the vision of Jesus’ story in a world immersed in violence. But If we listen carefully, perhaps we can hear it?
In my country, the Philippines, where the pandemic and the ensuing economic downfall are met with militarized response, life-giving stories are scarce. But when they happen, make no mistake about it, the people will gravitate towards them.
That is what happened in April this year — at the height of another strict lockdown — a woman artist, Ana Patricia Non started what is now called “Community Pantries.” With a little bit of produce and some canned goods, she put up a make-shift bamboo cart beside a tree with food for anyone who needed it.
What started as a small initiative became a grassroots movement all over the Philippines.
The story of the community pantries, like Jesus’ parables of the kingdom, offer a paradigm shift. The community pantries challenge the narratives we usually hear about our people. They provide an alternative vision and version of our story.
But stories such as these, that offer an alternative narrative of life and abundance, can only be seen or heard if we open our hearts to a new way of being.
As Arundhati Roy writes, “Another world is possible, she’s on her way…on a quiet day, if I listen carefully, I can hear her breathing.”
Dwelling Among Us
In the midst of our spoken and unspoken realities, where might the Spirit be moving? How is the Spirit moving in the space of waiting? And how might we relearn in a new way?