The Machine and the Kingdom
We are saved by faith, but what is faith? Faith is the readiness to die for Christ. Faith is like a mustard seed sown in a field, but only a fool tosses a seed in a field and then lies around waiting for it to grow. Agriculture is work, and so is faith.
Elder Cleopa was a young man when he knocked on the gate of the monastery. An elder with a thick brow opened the gate and asked him what he wanted. “I want to become a monk,” the boy said. “You’re just a kid. Go back home.” The elder turned to leave, but the boy insisted. So the elder handed him a stick. “Go and hit that tree with this stick. Don’t stop until I tell you.” The determined young man started hitting the tree. The sun set, the moon rose into the sky, and the night hours dragged by slowly. Dawn came at last. There was Cleopa. He had not once put down the stick, but kept on swinging. The elder told him to come inside and he began his life in the cloister.
This reminds me of the woman who kept on beating the door of the judge.
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming” (Luke 18:2-5).
Faith takes determination. It is a struggle of submitting one’s heart, mind, soul and body to God, again, and again, and again, like the boy hitting the tree with the stick.
Christ gives us a parable about faith.
“The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matthew 13:31-32).
When I read this in the past, I imagined a scene like something you would see in a Disney film. The farmer tosses the mustard seed in the air. It lands magically into rich soil and grows into a lush tree — the sun smiles in the background, birds tweet away, and Bambi frolics in the fields. Reality is much harsher.
Raising a mustard tree in the middle east was no easy task. The soil is dry and the sun scorches. Farmers have to work hours to protect and nurture just the right conditions for a tree to thrive. It does not happen over night either. Daily monitoring, pruning, sampling of soil and moisture, and a great deal of patience, are indispensable.
St. James the Apostle said this of faith: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works, can faith save him?... Faith, if it hath not works, is dead (James 2:14,17).
So where does this find us?
We are tired. We are busy. I remember speaking with someone newly retired. He told me he thought he would have a lot of free time. Yet, he was as busy in retirement as in his career. That struck me. I have heard it repeated many times since. Busyness is a condition. It really does not matter what stage of life you are in. Aspiring students, young parents, professionals at the climax of their career and those in the golden years — we are all overwhelmed.
Back in the 1930’s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that Americans would soon be working no more than 15 hours a week. Time-saving technologies were invented daily. Basic needs were rapidly more available than ever in history. Here we are. It is 2022. We are more busy than ever. The cellphone dings every 5 seconds and each text is urgent. If you do not answer it immediately, the world will end. Your email inbox is flooded. If you do not get back this day you are cruel and insensitive. Your physicians are hounding you. You must get this test done, and this one, and this one, more treatments, more medications. The rush has a gravity, keep running, do not stop, if you slow down and unplug, the floor is going to cave in.
And what about our faith?
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed” (Luke 10:41-42).
How is your faith? Where is your focus? Does your life revolve around the one thing?
In the late 1960’s, historian Lewis Mumford wrote an article called “The Myth of the Machine.”We call this progress, he said: “The effort to conquer space and time, to speed transportation and communication, to expand human energy through the use of cosmic forces, to vastly increase industrial productivity, to over-stimulate consumption…to establish a system of absolute centralised power over both nature and man.”
King Nebuchadnezzar demanded all his subjects to bow to the golden image. Trumpets, flutes, harps, and all other kinds of musical instruments played. It must been thrilling, irresistible even. The machine in our times asks no less of us. The drive for speed, productivity, consumption and busyness — it is a kind of religious devotion. All those dopamine hits — King Nebuchadnezzar still plays his music. Will we bow down?
“The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed…when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matthew 13:31-32).
It is a perfect image. The kingdom is not a machine; it is a tree. It stands alone, separate from the bustle of the world. It is a sanctuary for the birds, that is, the saints and angels. But it does not grow over night. It takes work. We have to unplug from the machine. We have to pull back, with resolution and determination, and start making more God-centered habits. This one thing is needed.