Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Us and Them

As children, many of us were raised on the great American myth in which we were told that we can be anyone we wanted to be and could do anything we wanted to do. I’m talking about the myth that says we’re “special,” not because we’re special for having a healthy sense of one’s value as a person, but "special" in the sense of having special privileges, special benefits, special advantages or entitlement. I think one of the hardest lessons in life for those of us raised on that myth is to come to grips with the reality of life that each of us is born to a set of circumstances, with a genetic inheritance and personality that, as hard as we try, we can no more change than a leopard can change its spots. I think our generation especially, has had great difficulty accepting the reality that I’m not “special.”  

It seems to me that religious perfectionism thrives on the desire to be “special” in God’s sight. To some extent, it’s an obsession whose seeds are planted early in the biblical narrative. In a very real sense, the stories in the Old Testament about the patriarchs and matriarchs are all about the idea that the children of Abraham and Sarah are special. Even in our current reading from Genesis, God promises them special blessings “like the dust of the earth,” and later, a “land flowing with milk and honey.”  Coming at the beginning of the Bible’s story, it’s no wonder that religious perfectionists throughout the ages have sought to lay claim for God’s special attention and blessing for themselves. 

Religious perfectionists have used all kinds of strategies to guarantee that they get to be “special” people in God’s sight. One of those strategies is reflected in the parable from our gospel lesson for today (Matthew 13:24-30, 35-43), making it all about “us” against “them.” It’s a difficult parable to understand, and perhaps it may have been tampered with to make a point. The community Matthew was writing for was probably struggling with the fact that, though they were Jewish, they had been thrown out of their synagogues. Needless to say they were feeling displaced and desperately struggling to justify themselves in the face of rejection.  

The parable itself seems to talk mainly about the difficulty of separating good from evil in this world. It would seem that Matthew’s community turned the story into a means of supporting an “us” against “them” mentality: they are the “wheat” that will one day be harvested and gathered into God’s barns, while their enemies are the “weeds” that will one day be gathered up and burned. In an earlier sermon Jesus says that God gives the blessings of sun and rain to all alike. Here, however, he tells a parable about separating the “children of the kingdom” from the “children of the evil one.” When you look at what Jesus says elsewhere, this parable about “us” against “them” stands out like a sore thumb.  
This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending my Cousin Marianne’s 80th birthday party celebration. My mother had nine siblings and we were blessed with many cousins. Marianne and I were very close as she with her parents and her now-deceased twin sister, lived a few doors away in the same building with my Grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. Marianne and I shared a special bond in our love for music which, despite our difference in age, held us close. We had a lot of fun reminiscing as the 2 most senior people at a party of many first and second cousins and their spouses. However, in a more private moment we shared the sadness that we felt as we recognized how some siblings were estranged from each other. They, of their own accord, set up separate “we” and “them” borders Vis a Vis tables and seating arrangements to make sure that they kept away from one another. We felt sure that the cause of these ongoing “feuds” had likely been long forgotten and wondered if they would even have been allowed to exist if their parents were still alive. 

In thinking about the celebration and when we read this parable and consider its allegorical interpretation, I realize that none of us is immune to the desire to be “special”. Who among us doesn’t assume that we are the wheat and “they,” whoever they may be, are the weeds. We all tend to approach a parable like this one and assume that we are the favorites, we are the chosen ones; we are the “children of the kingdom.” But the plain truth of Scripture is that in God’s sight all people are loved and valued. There is no such thing as “special” people in God’s realm, in the sense of having special privileges. God does not single anyone out for special attention or blessings. God gives the blessings to all people on earth alike. He loves all his people unconditionally—both by virtue of our creation. There is nothing we could do to lose this love, which we are expected to share with one another as a way of life across the board and not just with “the we” but with “the them.” To God there is no we and them. (Based in part on a sermon Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm)


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