Preached on 23 July 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Parables shock. They’re supposed to. Rather than offering satisfying explanations, they call into question our own pat answers to complicated questions. They draw us in with the familiar; they get us nodding in agreement. Then they take a twist and we often realize, “Oh, you mean me?” And that’s when it usually gets uncomfortable; we start to squirm.
That’s the whole point of a parable, so if you’re hoping I’m going to make you feel more comfortable about this one, well, I’m not. But I will try to make it meaningful and perhaps even fruitful for your life. The thing about parables is that we need to take them seriously, but not too literally or to apply them to broadly. Parables invite us to ponder and wrestle with them to see how they may be interpreted for our own lives.
Now, one of the major themes in Matthew’s gospel is Judgement. You can’t seriously spend a whole year with Matthew without talking about Judgement. In the world Matthew presents, it usually appears that he separates the world into just two groups: the wheat and the weeds, the sheep and the goats. However, we will see it’s a bit more complicated than that.
So, let’s dig in. I wonder who Matthew is trying to scare with by including this parable (none of the other gospel writers do). Who does he expect to find comfort in it? Why is it so violent?
Let’s start where Matthew starts – with the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ message in Matthew begins with promise and hope for those on the underside of society; people who are often ignored, shoved aside, pushed down: the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, the persecuted.
Now, let’s think about Matthew’s audience. He’s writing a short time after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Rome is still in power. The people he is writing to may have been turned out of their worship communities. Some of the faithful may be falling away or following what some may see as false doctrine and practices. They may be ostracized by their families for following the teachings of Jesus. Some of them have been persecuted by the Romans. And they are powerless to do anything about any of it.
When they hear about the weeds in the wheat, the evil entwined with the good, they probably have specific faces in mind. This parable sounds like Good News to them. All those evil people will get their come-comeuppance in the end. God will judge and destroy them.
What about Jesus’ audience? They too, were very aware of the evil in their midst. Military occupation and oppression, their neighbors, some of whom cooperated with Rome to oppress them – particularly tax collectors. Jesus also turns on the religious authorities who lay heavy burdens on the people, oppressing them in a different way.
This acknowledgement of the evil in their midst along with the promise of judgement against it would come as Good News to those who were suffering.
Now, what about our world? Who do you think would hear this parable as good news? People who are suffering, who are oppressed, who experience the effects of discrimination, persecution, war, fear, violence bullying, poverty, and so on, and feel powerless against the people, policies, and institutions that cause their suffering.
When you hear the parable, do you have in mind the identities of the upright and of the evildoers?
What does the parable say about evil itself? It acknowledges that it exists and that it causes damage in the world. We cannot root it out without causing harm to the good and for that matter, we cannot necessarily tell wheat from weed before it fruits. The parable also suggests that evil is not part of God’s plan. “It is from the enemy,” the landowner states.
God does not will evil for us. God does not will tragedy or misfortune or illness or any of the other things in life that harm or destroy our well-being.
In the end, it is up to God to sort it out, to separate the weeds from the wheat. It is not, however, an invitation to complacency, which would expose the vulnerable to continued victimization or violence. That would make us complicit in the evil and injustice.
If we look closely, and think about it, evil runs through every community, every family, and even each individual person. That’s when it gets uncomfortable, when we realize that the weeds and the wheat aren’t just “out there,” a way to separate the good guys from the bad guys. It’s more complicated than that. The weeds and the wheat are within us and the weeds can’t be rooted out without pulling out the wheat as well.
We can and should nourish and nurture the good and work against the evil wherever we find it. But, in the end, it is up to God. The final judgement is God’s not ours – and always remember that no one is beyond the power of God’s redeeming love.
Now, Judgement is about reconciliation, especially reconciliation to God. It is not punishment or suffering for its own sake. Reconciliation requires looking inward, examining ourselves and acknowledging that we have caused harm to others – sometimes intentionally, often unintentionally. But, of course it doesn’t stop there. Then, we do what we can to make it right and to work against the evil within us and to nurture the good, giving it room and opportunity to grow and spread to the world around us.
Knowing that Judgement belongs to God, frees us to attend to our own little corner of the world, as John Wesley, the founder of Methodist church preached,
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”