Sermon for 1 April, 2014 (Proper 11):
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ According to Matthew
“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears*listen!” The Gospel of the Lord.
Judgment. If crime is the oldest secular profession, then judging is the probably the oldest religious one. Human beings have spent thousands of years passing judgment on one another – and on ourselves. Sure – we know that we should “judge not lest we be judged,” but how many of us really manage to do it?
Especially when we are in a group. Especially when we are in a religious group.
Perhaps it is because our society tells us to. We have teachers and child psychologists to judge our children’s readiness for school. We have psychological tests and interviews to judge our suitability for certain professions. We have courts and juries to judge our crimes. We even have people who are paid to judge others.
There were, of course, judges in Jesus’ time too. As a member of the Jewish community, Jesus was subject to both religious and secular law. The highest religious court for Jews was the Great Sanhedrin, which was made up of people from the elite classes who worked in cooperation with Roman authorities, so for the disciples, who were part of a subjugated people and had little control over their own lives, the justice they experienced was a far cry from the justice they might have longed for.
It was certainly not the type of justice that the author of the Wisdom of Solomon attributes to God, who judges “with mildness” and “great forbearance.”
Nor was it the divine judgment promised in Daniel’s final apocalyptic vision of the end of the age. It was compromised, imperfect justice. It was the judgment of men, fit for the world of men.
But Jesus promised his disciples another world – another kingdom – the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the time and place where “all causes of sin and evildoers” will be burned away and the righteous will shine like the sun.
But what are they supposed to do in the mean time? Are they just supposed to let their enemies get away with things? This allegory provides his disciples with an answer – in language they could understand. The disciples lived in a primarily agrarian society in which farmers depended on the health of their crops. It was not unusual for feuding farmers to try to undermine one another by sneakily planting noxious look-alike weeds in the fields of their enemies. Since there was no way to tell the difference between the two until they were fully grown, farmers might find themselves with a field of weeds they did not plant. So Jesus’ story is familiar to them- but its ending is not. Acknowledging the evil that has been done and the harm that can come of it, the householder tells the slaves to leave the weeds alone – to let them grow alongside the good plants until the final harvest. In other words, as the old Greyhound advertisement said, leave the driving to us.
But this isn’t news – we already know that judgment belongs to God alone. After all, the Bible is filled with references to judgment – over 500 of them – and none of them tells us to go out and judge our fellow human beings – and yet that is what we do daily without even thinking about it. It is what I do daily without thinking about it. So what is Matthew’s gospel telling us, other than to leaving the judging to God? A couple of things, I think.
In this parable, the master tells the slaves not to gather the weeds, because it will uproot the wheat. In other words, judging others is bad for us. Not only that it’s wrong, but that it is actually unhealthy for us. Some of us may think it’s our duty to do it. Or perhaps we just can’t help it. But I don’t believe we feel good about it. We may feel pretty confident that the person sitting next to or across a courtroom from us is more sinful than we are – but that doesn’t take away the fact that we are sinful too – and we know it. We feel guilty when we judge others –the truth is, judging other people can make you sick.
I also think that this parable has something to say about hypocrisy. It’s important to remember that hypocrisy is not about not practicing what you preach; it’s about not believing what you preach. This is good news for us, since we all have lapses in moral behavior from time to time (some of us more often than others). It also means that you can only judge someone if you know what they really believe. Remember, the weeds look just like the wheat – you can’t tell the difference until they are grown – just like we can’t tell the difference between true believers and hypocrites, even though society encourages us to think we can. That’s why we are not asked to go out and gather up weeds for Jesus. We are not asked to separate the children of evil from the children of the kingdom. Jesus tells us that that task belongs to the agents of God.
And thank God for that because God is the only one who truly knows us – because God is the one who created us. I believe there is an enemy, an enemy that sows poison – hatred – fear and division. And I know that as human beings we are susceptible to those seeds – those seeds that can take root and grow within us. But I also believe that we can heal the weeds within us without killing the plants beside us. I believe that by tending to our own garden we can spread the good seed.
In the psychology community, the debate about the importance of nature versus nurture has raged for over a century. The recent advances in brain imaging have given some advantages to the “nature” side of the debate by demonstrating that there are actual, structural differences in the brains of individuals with certain mental disorders. On the other hand, I have to say that, having worked in the correctional mental health field for more than a decade, I have met very few violent criminals who have not had abusive and/or impoverished backgrounds. Either way, we must acknowledge that we are human and we are susceptible to the gardening of the enemy.
This is especially true in groups, because it is in groups that we have the opportunity to grow together – for good or for ill. One of the most disheartening psychological studies ever done was the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college students participated in a “mock jail” environment. They were randomly assigned to be guards or prisoners. Within the first six days of the proposed two week experiment, things were out of control. Normal college students in the guard roles were abusive to “prisoners,” who were, in turn, hopeless and despairing. The author of the experiment attributed their behavior to mob mentality, and suggested that if you establish the right conditions – if you plant the right seeds – people can lose their individuality, their reasoning skills, and their moral core.
But we know that the Godly fellowship we find with one another can help us instead to blossom into the full productivity promised in the good seed that God has planted in us. But we must be careful. We must not become complacent, assuming ourselves to be among the righteous. If we can only see God’s kingdom as an endpoint, it will become easy to miss opportunities to bring it into the here and now. As Harper Lee said, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)… There are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” Or, as a former client of mine in a federal prison told me after glancing briefly at the cross I wear, “Christianity ends in the parking lot.”
I don’t believe that. I believe that even when we sin, even when we behave hypocritically, even when we judge others unfairly, we need not fear. God knows us and God knows that we are not children of evil. We are human. We do judge. But we also continue to struggle and groan and hope for salvation – and to wait with patience for it. We wait among those who would judge us and those we would judge. We wait – the good and the bad, the wheat and the chaff, the sheep and the goats together. We wait because we know that G od walks with us, that God answers when we cry out for help, that God forgives us, and that God judges with mercy and compassion, and so must we, because in doing so we grow a little closer toward God’s kingdom with faith and longing and love.
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