Filed under: Sermons
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
We’re in the midst of the parables recorded by Matthew. Jesus speaks many puzzling images as he expresses God’s kingdom and God’s priorities. These are often so puzzling, so different than human expectations, that Jesus explains them to his select disciples. We can find ourselves wishing for even more explanation as we try to listen for Jesus’ message for our lives.
Jesus declares that today’s parable, sometimes referred to as the parable of the wheat and the tares, or the wheat and the weeds, is meant to bring listeners into a greater understanding of the kingdom. In so doing, Jesus uncovers our incorrect understanding. These words convict us, in our sin of wanting to judge and gate the community of God.
Parables are difficult beasts to wrangle into clear teachings. We are a people who want black and white answers, easy to follow instructions, and clear boundaries. But parables offer the opposite. They invite us into deep wrestling as we enter into the image Jesus puts forward and question what it means for us.
If you’re listening closely, you might hear a disconnect between Jesus’ introduction and his explanation. Jesus begins by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…(24)” and then he goes on to explain, “the field is the world.(38)” Often we think of heaven and this world as being light years away from each other. Jesus invites us into thinking about this world, this life, as being God’s kingdom, under God’s reign.
The most comfortable way to understand this parable is to think of this world as God’s kingdom under construction. We know this life isn’t perfect, our world isn’t always good. Bad things happen to good people, and sometimes they are the result of bad people doing bad things and hurting the good people we love. Evil seems powerful, powerful enough to drag down good people and destroy their lives. Addiction and illness might be two ways we’ve seen this kind of evil at work. This parable offers us a framework to see this world as a battleground, in which God has sowed God’s good people, and in which the enemy has sowed evil people and evil powers. We look forward to the end when God will burn and punish everyone we despise and we and everyone we love will be transported to a bright and happy heavenly realm.
And so it boils down to us feeling good about being in the right camp, satisfied that those who’ve hurt us are getting what’s coming to them. We know who’s in and who’s out. We gain the comfort of envisioning just punishment on those who deserve it. We gain the power of looking into the eyes of the children of the evil one and saying, “you’re going to burn in hell forever for what you’ve done.”
That would be one of the most safe ways to understand this parable. Most safe for me, and you, and any who would believe themselves firmly among the children of the kingdom.
But I don’t think Jesus offers these parable to help us feel safe and self-assured. Jesus invites us to wrestle with the image. Parables shatter our assumptions and uncover our smallness in the face of God’s expansiveness.
I showed two pictures to the children this morning. A photo of wheat growing, still green, and a photo of a weed, the one Jesus might be inviting the crowd to imagine, green and growing in similar shape to the wheat. They really are quite similar during their growing period. So similar that we might imagine a field hand, trying to help the wheat grow by removing the weeds, could end up pulling out wheat instead. It is not until the time of the harvest that the wheat turns golden and the weed is visibly different. Only after a full growing period does the difference between wheat and weed become apparent.
The slaves of the householder, upon seeing the presence of weeds in the wheat field, are quick to question the householder about the purity of his seed and eager to pull up the weeds. These characters hold a mirror to us, showing us something in ourselves that needs to be more deeply examined.
We are often overly focused on the purity of the field, the purity of God’s kingdom and our communities. We are a people quick to point out who belongs and who does not belong. We have enjoyed the power of being the one to say, “I belong, but you do not.” We’ve been brought up to notice differences. I can still hear the song from the TV show Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just isn’t the same.” The problem is that we not only notice differences, we also enforce our decision of which one doesn’t belong.
The news of the week has especially brought this sin to my attention. The story of one group seeing themselves as belonging in the land, as being the good people who must destroy the evil seed, or at least contain it and keep it away from the good seed is being played all around our world. Israelis and Palestinians shoot rockets at each other. Ukranians are so involved in their own struggle that they see the enemy in a civilian plane. Angry voices rise in our own country as Central American refugee children seek a new life at our border.
But this sin doesn’t have to be so distant from our experience. This congregation might be envisioned as a field. The church is a reflection of the kingdom of God. We often want our congregations to be “perfect.” Maybe there’s someone among us you’ve thought we’d be better off without. We often want to weed, but that’s not what Jesus calls us to do. There’s a quote that has stuck with me, “If there ever was a perfect church community, it would cease to be perfect the moment I joined.” We can’t form perfect, pure communities. We live side by side with the sinners among us, just as in our own selves exist saint and sinner.
Jesus knows our tendency to want to rip up and root out. Through this parable, Jesus calls us to leave the job of identifying and dealing with the weeds up to God. Part of what I wrestle with in this parable is the explanation, when Jesus describes the image of angels harvesting the weeds and casting them into the fire, as “all causes of sin and all evildoers” are cast into a place of torment. It’s so easy to want to avoid this image, or explain it in a way that contributes to our self-centered thinking that celebrates our placement in a blessed place and the justified punishment of others through their placement in a suffering place. That would leave us in our sin of taking God’s role of judgement for ourselves. It would leave us in our sin of wanting to bar the gate of God’s kingdom against all those we believe don’t have proper citizenship.
This parable opens up the possibility that the kingdom of God is so wide that it includes even evil. We are living in that kingdom now, waiting for the goal on the horizon, waiting for the kingdom under construction to be completed, waiting for that moment when all things, all forces, will be dealt with. This parable alone doesn’t give us the clearest vision of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ actions show the clearest vision of the priorities of God the gardener. Jesus on the cross heard the taunts of the criminals, and yet he endured the cross so that even they would gain his righteousness. Jesus knows the face of evil. Jesus’ way to root out all causes of sin is to take all sin upon himself, dying on the cross. He transformed the end by breaking the power of sin and death and opening the gates of life to all.
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