Pastor Frank C. Senn
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A. July 23, 2017
Text: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
We’re in the season of sowing and reaping—in our lectionary as well as in summertime. Last Sunday we heard Jesus’ parable of the sower who spread seed all over the place. Not all of it fell into good soil, but some did and produced a bountiful harvest.
Today Jesus follows that up with another parable (at least as Matthew presents them). This time the seed has taken root and is growing but weeds are growing up along with the wheat. The farmer suspects that an enemy has planted the weeds.
What do we do about evil in the world? That’s the issue. We’ve had plenty of examples of that in the course of history and in current events. You don’t have to think only about Al Quaeda to think about evil in the world. We encounter instances of it in daily life.
Early Christians were concerned about living in an unconverted world with evil lurking all around. Matthew addressed that concern in his community by reporting these parables of Jesus. He often uses language of judgment, decision and division, sometimes producing terrifying scenes of condemnation. Thomas Long describes them as "stark, uncompromising, unequivocal pictures of good and bad spiced up with plenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth." In response to our ancestors' struggle with the presence of evil in their midst (not so much why it was there, but what to do about it), Matthew provides pictures and promises to help them endure and persist, even if their little church, and the big world beyond it, seemed infected and flawed by "bad seed," the "weeds" sown by a power at odds with God's vision for the world.
Once again, Jesus is teaching the gathered crowd in parables (to get the hard of hearing to hear, he explained). Later, in private, he explains the parable to his closest disciples, evidently leaving the crowd to wrestle on their own with his words, even as I guess we do today at the end of a sermon. Matthew provides the kind of explanation of the parable that is thought to be more often the voice of the early church seeking "the" meaning of the parable.
Barbara Brown Taylor reads parables not as direct answers to direct questions that we all have and want answered (clearly and specifically). Instead, she says, they deliver "their meaning in images that talk more to our hearts than to our heads. Parables are mysterious.... Left alone, they teach us something different every time we hear them, speaking across great distances of time and place and understanding."
Maybe parables are best left alone with their surprises, their punch lines, to challenge our customary thinking. And that’s apparently what Jesus did when he told his parables to the crowds.
But Matthew includes Jesus’ own interpretations of his parables, given to the disciples in private. We can’t ignore these interpretive passages because they are also part of the canonical text. And they do help to focus our interpretations so our thinking doesn’t wander all over the place.
Last week, Jesus’ interpretations of the parable of the sower alerted us, his disciples, to the things we are up against when we try to spread God’s Word. This kind of realism is important for any who undertake the mission of the Gospel.
Today there is also an important clue in the interpretation that helps us to focus our thinking about the parable of the wheat and the weeds growing together. Because our temptation is to think about wheat and weeds growing together in the church. We tend to be so church-centered when we hear the parables of Jesus. Maybe that’s because we heard them in church. And so we ask, “What do we do about weeds in the church?”
But why do we assume that the weeds Jesus is speaking of are in the Church? Because we do. And then we must figure out who the weeds are. Once we identify the weeds we want to do what the farmer in Jesus’ parable told his slaves they couldn’t do: root them up. He told his slaves, “You don’t want to do that because in the process you’ll also root up the wheat.”
Down through the ages religious communities have presumed that they could tell who are the weeds and have attempted to root them out. Maybe they’re immortal people who don’t live by the standards of God’s Law. Maybe they’re heretics whose teachings undermine the Gospel. Maybe they’re just disagreeable people who undermine the harmony of the community. Get out bell, book, and candle and have a rite of excommunication.
But the field in Jesus’ parable is not the church, it is the world. He says so in his interpretation: “the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.”
So should we go on a crusade to root out evil in our society? Religious groups and churches have done that too. We can’t organize crusades today like the Church did in the Middle Ages. Some of those crusades, by the way, were not against Muslims in the Holy Land but against Christian heretics in France and Italy—or Muslims and Jews in Spain and Germany. No, in a democratic, pluralistic society all we can do is form a moral majority and get out the vote and punish any politicians who don’t toe the Church’s line on various issues. Surely we’re supposed to do something about evil and wrongdoing in the world and lifestyles and values that we perceive to be detrimental to the common good.
But that’s not the way it is in Jesus’ parable. The farmer tells the slaves to let the wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest. And then note Jesus’ interpretation: the angels will do the reaping and separate the weeds from the wheat, not us. In other words, the final judgment is God’s business. And thank God that it is.
Still, there is another way to look at this mix of good and evil, and that's to look within ourselves. Thomas Long writes, "It is easy for Christians to look through the church windows at the world and to think of ourselves as God's special insiders, the ones who will 'shine like the sun' in the end. We can relish with smug self‑satisfaction the thought of worldly types being rounded up at the great finale, collected like weeds and burned up in the everlasting fire. However, we are, ourselves, a mixture of good and evil. Sometimes we are faithful, and sometimes we are not...."
One of Martin Luther’s main teachings is that we are saints and sinners at the same time. Not sometimes saints and sometimes sinners, but always saints and sinners simultaneously. That’s why we can’t trust even our good works or become too self-righteous.
Jesus' parable speaks of the burning of the weeds, as was customary in that time when weeds provided fuel for the fires (a good thing). It’s like bringing something good out of evil. It's Matthew's way of reading fiery judgment into the story, terrifying us even centuries later. But Thomas Long asks if we couldn't we see that fire as a purifying of all that "deadens humanity or corrupts God's world. Whatever is in the world, or in us, that poisons our humanity and breaks our relationship with God will, thank the Lord, be burned up in the fires of God's everlasting love."
Strangely, these can be vividly reassuring words, strengthening words, sustaining words for us today just as they were for the very first Christians struggling to survive against the odds of living in a world in which good and evil are mixed together. Maybe we need to remember that "God sends both sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.” If God shows such generosity of spirit, can we do any less?
Finally, a good word from an otherwise cantakerous man, the fourth century Biblical scholar
St. Jerome. “The words the Lord spoke ‑ "Lest gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them"‑‑leave room for repentance.” If there is room for repentance, for making changes in the church, in the world, in ourselves, there is room for hope. Amen.
– Pastor Frank C. Senn, Evanston, IL