Today we’re going to hear a word about the kingdom of God – or as the Inclusive Bible so powerfully translates, the kindom of God. but first we have to learn a new word.
That word is hin·nêh. Say it with me: Hin·nêh. (You can tell we did vacation bible school this week!) Hin·nêh is an interjection in Biblical Hebrew, like “Woah!” and “Ahem.” In English, we have words that function as interjections based on how we say them, like “Look!” / “Hey” and “now” are not interjections in and of themselves, but when I’m preaching and you say, “Hey now!”, you’re interjecting to point out you’re down with where we’re headed. Hey now!
In our reading from Genesis – the story of Jacob’s ladder – hin·nêh is used three times – THREE TIMES! – in just nine verses. But if you go to the reading in your leaflet, you will not see “Hey now!” or “Woah!” anywhere. Hin·nêh is left out of our translation.
I’m going to re-read the parts of the passage that include hin·nêh, translating it as “Behold!”
“Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he passed the night there…During the night he had a dream: [and BEHOLD!] there was a ladder, standing on the ground with its top reaching to heaven; and messengers of God were going up and coming down the ladder. [and BEHOLD!] YHWH was there, standing over him, saying, “I am YHWH, the God of Sarah and Abraham, and the God of Rebecca and Isaac. Your descendants will be like the specks of dust on the ground; you will spread to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south, and all the tribes of the earth will bless themselves by you and your descendants. [and BEHOLD!] Know that I am with you. I will keep you safe wherever you go, and bring you back to this land; I will not desert you before I have done all that I have promised you.”
Hin·nêh gets our attention and shows the build up of God’s promise: Woah! Here’s this place where heaven and earth meet. And woah! God is right there – talking to me. And woah…God is…with me? Me? Keeping me safe? Always? Hin·nêh opens Jacob’s eyes to how God works in the world, from creation to Christ to the Spirit among us now: God comes into the world, offers promise, and – most of all – sticks with us. Hin·nêh.
We go from Jacob’s dream to today’s gospel reading, where Jesus is on a lake teaching parables as a crowd listens from the shore. Let’s imagine ourselves there: The steady sound of water splashing against Jesus’ boat. The air, salty and warm. We’re standing as close to the water as we can get, to hear what Jesus says and cool our feet.
What have you brought here with you? Are you worried? Hopeful? Stuck? All of the above?
As we stand on the shore, Jesus begins to tell us a parable. We often think of parables as moral teachings, like fables, where we peer into some microcosm of the world, watch a story play out, and then learn what we should and should not do.
That’s not actually what parables are. Parables don’t give us clear answers. Jesus says he uses parables to intentionally confuse and elude people who hear but do not understand, and he only starts using them after his explicit teaching is met with hostility.
The other thing about parables is they don’t center on us – imagine that! Parables are always revealing something about God, just like Jacob’s dream. That dream is about how God lives and moves in the world. And that informs how Jacob is to live. Not the other way around.
Cynthia Bourgeout, a modern day mystic, uses the image of an electric circuit. A parable is the opposite of a circuit breaker – it does not try to control and protect the flow of electricity. Bourgeot says parables should be seen as wisdom sayings meant to shock us. It tries to short circuit the hold thing, and can leave us feeling in the dark.
Which, to be honest, do we really need that right now? I’ve been feeling around for a light switch for most of 2020. And it feels like the room, the world, is getting darker and darker everyday. I don’t know how many more shocks I can handle.
Maybe that’s why Matthew gives us “answers” to this parable just six verses later, making the parable into what I just said parables are not: explicit stories with clear lessons.
I have to imagine Matthew’s ready-made answers come from a place of love mingled with anxiety. I want this thing or these people I love to be okay. The stakes are high, and I don’t want them to mess up or get hurt. So maybe I will just tell them what to do or do it for them…Who hasn’t felt that way? But here’s the bummer: We don’t really learn – and we definitely don’t change – when someone just “gives” us the answers.
So, let’s set aside Matthew’s answers and anxiety, perhaps our own too, and let’s move toward the struggle, the shock, of Jesus’ parable of the weeds.
Now, in Jesus’ time, more people would have known how to produce and maintain crops. Today, most of us do not. And, just as we lose something when translators leave out hineh, we lose something if we do not understand the setting of this parable.
So, I reached out to a friend who farms and whose last name is, ironically or perhaps prophetically, Farmer. With her help, let’s travel from the shore to a wheatfield.
As we arrive, we see farm workers huddled together on one side of a field, hands on their hips, turning their heads from the field to the One in the center of the crew who clearly owns the field. We look at the field, an expanse of golden, fuzzy stalks. Wheat, just like we’ve seen in the pictures, but every few paces, there are these bursts of thick green stems pushing through.
One of the workers says, ‘Boss, did you not use good seed for your field? Where are the weeds coming from?’
The farmer replies, “Of course the seed was good, but at some point weeds were added in. And whoever did it, is trying to hurt our crop.”
“Shew,” another worker says, “Should we go on in and pull them up?”
“No, no,” replied the farmer, “Wheat doesn’t have a strong root system, and if you rip out the weeds next to it, especially if the wheat is young, you will rip out the wheat. It’s not like our tomato plants that are sturdy, with roots growing all the way down their stems. Now, they could withstand having weeds pulled up around ‘em. But, if you pull up the weeds here, you might take the wheat along with them.”
“So what do we do?”
“Let them grow together until the harvest, then I will order the harvesters first to collect the weeds and bundle them up to burn, then to gather the wheat into my barn.”
So, where does the hineh go in this parable? I see at least two places.
The first is when the farmer and workers notice wheat and weeds growing in the same field. The workers are confused and likely upset. Things aren’t going like they should – what does that mean for their season? Their jobs? Their families and well-being?
These are understandable questions, but the ones they actually are surprising: “Did you use bad seed? How did this happen? What did you do?”
“Hey now!” Let’s slow down. What farmer would mess up their own field? What workers talk like that to their boss?
“No,” the farmer says, “I used good seed. But you’re right – someone has sewn weeds here. And I don’t think it’s an accident.”
The farmer is not defensive; does not pull rank or punish. In response to their worry and doubt, the farmer answers their questions and is honest about the situation, even though it’s bad.
The other place I’d put a hineh is when the worker’s ask if they should just pull up the weeds. Weeds = bad, right? So, let’s do this.
“Woah!” the farmer interjects, “If you pull up the weeds, you’ll destroy the whole thing.”
This farmer knows these crops, knows that to immediately weed out or harvest too early will not fix the situation. The weeds are too entangled in the wheat. We can’t just make this problem go away. We must be patient. Patient doesn’t mean passive. It means we endure instead of trying to tap out; it means we have more watching and tending to do first.
Where do you feel the shock of this parable in your own life?
For me, I think of the seeds of anti-racism that have been planted into my heart and my life. But our society also planted white supremacy in me, and I don’t think it was by accident. As they entangle, I feel guilt, discomfort, fatigue. I want those feelings gone now. But if I rush to get rid of my discomfort, to feel more at ease, I would only strengthen the weeds of white privilege and white fragility – for those are the evils that allow me to live at ease while others suffer. And I would destroy any possibility for the seeds of anti-racism to grow.
As white people, we must recognize our commitment to anti-racism is fragile. We must listen to the wiser workers among us who understand how strong and pervasive the weeds of racism are in our country and follow their lead for how to make something new grow.
Through the experience of this parable – imagining the hineh, facing my own desire to get rid of weeds quickly, I notice – I can hear and understand – more explicit teachings or “answers” being spoken around me. After writing this sermon, someone posted a quote by Rachel Cargle, and I was shocked by how it hit me in a deeper and truer way because of this parable. Cargle says, “Anti-racism work is not self-improvement work for white people. It doesn’t end when white people feel better about what they’ve done. It ends when black people are staying alive and have their liberation.” Neither my discomfort nor my hoped-for improvement marks the harvest time. Liberation does; always has.
Above all, remember, parables don’t focus on who we are; they show us who God is.
God is the faithful. God does not turn away from us. When we are upset or confused, when we lament to or even blame God for what is going on, God listens to us. God doesn’t avoid the truth of what is going on. God calls out evil. God is wise. God knows us and the rest of creation, intimately. God also loves God’s creation, and will not destroy it. God bears with the entanglement of good and evil from a place of hope. God watches, tends, discerns, and works toward the day when we are free.
Parables show us how God lives, and that is what gets us through. When we face our struggles – bring them to shore, to the field – we won’t find easy answers that make them go away, but we will encounter the loving and liberating God who sustains us as we work for the harvest.
Or, as Paul puts it, “I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.”
Jesus does give clear answers and instructions – think about Cargle’s quote or read Matthew 25. That’s just not what he’s doing with parables. Like Christ, these parables break into our world and interrupt the normal flow of how we live. If we’re honest, that flow wasn’t working anyway, especially not for those who Kelly Brown Douglass calls the crucified class of our own time.
And so the Kingdom – kindom – of God causes a short circuit, and in that moment of shock, there is space for something new. But the shock of God’s kingdom is never bad. The shock is not that evil persists – what else does it have to do? The shock is not that we doubt God or judge and hurt each other. Though, Lord, have mercy. The shock is that, when the lights of certainty and comfort go out, we remember we follow a God for whom darkness and light are both alike. The shock of God’s kingdom is always good news: “[and BEHOLD!] Know that I am with you…. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.”
Hineh. Hey now. Behold. Woah. And may it be so. Amen.