Thursday, 20 July 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43 The wheat and the weeds

Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43


He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And 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?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let 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.’.

 Then 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.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 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; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Do we have any gardeners in the congregation?

My wife is the gardener in our house and she takes full responsibility for the wonderful oasis which is our back garden. I’m responsible for the front which has a pocket-handkerchief sized lawn: I am at war with dandelions. Some weeks ago I noticed how many we had and set about digging them up. The problem was that the more I looked the more there were and what I thought would be a small task ended up as several hours of weeding. The lawn was left in a mess and I wished I hadn’t started. I looked at the lawn again this week and there were more dandelions. It’s a never ending task and it’s so disheartening.

My own poor gardening skills came to mind when I read this passage again.

 “Let anyone with ears listen!” says Jesus.  Parents, grandparent and teachers in the congregation will recognise this phrase: it’s shorthand for, “Are you concentrating? Have you got it?” There’s a big difference between listening and hearing and between hearing and understanding isn’t there? In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is often recorded as saying this, “Let anyone with ears listen!” and it usually seems to be an exercise in hope and expectation over experience because, more often than not, while those he was speaking to may have been listening they hadn’t been hearing or understanding. I can ask you to show you’ve been listening by repeating it back to me. That doesn’t guarantee you’ve understood it.

So, it was with the Disciples and we join them today in the middle of listening to a series of parables. The disciples are often characterised, although less so in Matthew’s Gospel, as being a bit dense. More often than not we read that they had to have a special tutorial with Jesus because they hadn’t understood the nature of the parables and, of course, these are parables that are so familiar to us that we might be tempted to feel a bit sorry for Jesus as once again his most trusted friends and followers struggle with what to us seems so obvious.

Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

We look at the parables today - and this may just be me, of course, - but they lose something by their familiarity: “Oh yeah, I know that one.” And we return to our usual state of happy indifference and pay less attention. “Nudge me when he’s finished.”

The parables of Jesus are stories of their time and reveal the culture and concerns of the people of Jesus’ day. Jesus wrapped up his teaching in examples from everyday life that people could identify with. He talked about family life because everyone was, or had been, in a family; at a time when people built their own homes, he used building as an example; when most people were subsistence farmers, Jesus talked about agriculture, as he does in today’s passage; he used cooking as an example and on other occasions he talked about housekeeping or about buying and selling. “The Kingdom of God is like this ….” By using simple examples from everyday life Jesus made his message more understandable. That impact may be to some extent lost on us today because we aren’t fishermen or subsistence farmers and we don’t build our own houses but we mustn’t underestimate the impact those stories would have had then.

So, the thing about parables, and today’s is no exception, is that they were designed to make people think because they have two levels of meaning: there’s the obvious literal meaning with a frustrated farmer struggling to harvest a crop which had been sabotaged by his enemies who had sown weeds amongst the seeds. Now, I’m thinking that you might have to be pretty dense not to wonder why Jesus chose to tell this story if there wasn’t more to it and there is, of course, but the point is that his listeners were supposed to realise that and struggle to work out the other level of meaning – the moral – of the story for themselves and Jesus didn’t always provide an explanation.

This time he did and it’s quite a challenging message.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like this …..” and in symbolic terms Jesus goes on to describe the world that we live in: a world that in different ways could be identified by every generation who read this passage; a world where good and bad survive side by side. Then Jesus delivered the surprise to those who wanted to rush out into the field and do a bit of serious weeding, “Leave it alone.”


Well, perhaps that’s the wrong question. Perhaps, instead, we should be asking “who?” as in who was Jesus talking to? We know the disciples were there but at the start of chapter 13, Matthew tells us that great crowds had gathered around him so there were clearly many more people there than the inner group of Jesus’ faithful followers. We know, too, that by this stage in his ministry Jesus was attracting the attention of the religious authorities who, not being quite sure what to make of him, but feeling on the back-foot, were monitoring his every word and action. We can assume that the Pharisees would have been there too, not only listening to Jesus but gauging the reaction of the crowd to what he said.

There’s an obvious difference between grass and dandelion but not so with the weed Jesus was describing, a weed that as it grew, looked indistinguishable from the wheat it grew beside.  We know the weed as Darnel, an annual grass with long, slender bristles that looks very much like wheat. It would be VERY easy to mistake it for the real thing and in a frenzy of weed-pulling, we run the risk of pulling up the wheat with the darnel because they are so intertwined.

Given that parables usually have more than one level of meaning, let’s consider for a moment that in the natural world the weed is the norm. It is the wheat in this story which doesn’t belong. It’s the foreign species introduced and deliberately planted. We know from The Parable of The Sower earlier in this chapter, that the seed represents the word of God and its function is to grow and bear fruit, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred fold. In the parable of the Sower, though, the weeds grow up around the wheat and strangle it.

So, I ask again, who was Jesus speaking to? The answer is the Pharisees not the Disciples, so we can forgive them their confusion and need for a separate explanation. In his parable the Pharisees are the weeds and it was into their established environment that God sowed his word, the word that Jesus spoke.

The Pharisees were the ones charged with the spiritual welfare of the Jews of Jesus’ time – and they were getting it wrong. Jesus railed against the worst of their approach to religion for being inflexible and hidebound in tradition and for having outdated practices from which the love and compassion of God was all too often obscured if not lost completely.

That’s O.K. then. We don’t need to pay too much attention here because we aren’t the audience for Jesus’ words. We’re the faithful disciples after all, not the Pharisees.

Aren’t we?

The issue is that when it comes to matters of judgement, left to our devices – and seemingly from the best of motives - we can still get it wrong: there’s a bit of the Pharisee in all of us, and let’s not pretend that today’s church is so different from the Judaism of Jesus’ day. It isn’t and we face many of the same problems. The Kingdom of God, this side of the grave, is messy. Much as we might want it to be so, there is no perfect church and history is littered with examples of religious groups who have sought to create one by setting themselves aside from what they perceive to be the religious corruption and error of their times. Those attitudes still exist and in the attempt to define pure and incorrupt religion its members inevitably draw up check-lists of what they believe to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, attitudes and beliefs and as they create those criteria they leave others behind or outside the club. If you don’t fit their criteria you’re out. “You’re a false Christian” is one of the most appalling phrases of modern church life. “You’re a false Christian because you disagree with my interpretation/my church’s interpretation of God’s word.”

We see it today in the worst excesses of religious expression and, judged by some of these criteria, you and I are most definitely on the outside looking in, judged as unworthy by those who have decided on our behalf what the limits of God’s grace are. Such judgements lead to exclusivity, not inclusivity and that’s against the teaching of the Gospel because when we tell someone they aren’t accepted we’re putting the first barrier in the way of their coming to an understanding of the full and inclusive nature of God’s love for all his creation. The message becomes, “God loves everyone, but not you so much.” That’s a perversion of the Gospel.

Let’s be honest: we’re human and we’re open to the same impulses as all other people so we’re advised to be cautious. The church is embroiled in all kinds of wrangles: “You’re not a real Christian if you’ve not experienced a baptism in the Spirit, or speak in tongues; if you don’t accept the Virgin Birth; if you’re gay; if you don’t accept the bread and wine as the true and literal body and blood of Jesus; if you don’t believe in an interventionist God; if you don’t believe that Peter was the first Pope; if you don’t believe that every word of scripture is literally the revealed word of God; if you don’t believe that everything that happens to you is part of God’s sovereign plan” and so on.

Do you ever think the church would be better off without those other people who are so clearly wrong and argumentative and with whom you passionately disagree about important matters?

I do, and if you’re like me in that, you’re part of the problem because, like me, you’ve tapped into your inner Pharisee.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once put it: "God's purpose is not wrathful judgment. God's purpose is redemption, and the road to redemption is by way of reconciliation. Only in that way will the world finally be saved." Today's parable warns us against relying on our human capacity to know fully the mind of God. It also suggests that what might appear to be good and pure to us might not necessarily be so at all.

Look at it from the other perspective: there’s something deeply reassuring about being in the in-crowd. What if you’re not? There are many Christians who have experienced bad religion at the hands of others. They talk of the pain and hardship they experience, of the psychological distress – sometimes damage – that often godly, loving Christian people wittingly or unwittingly inflict upon those they disagree with and who can’t see the distress they cause, leaving those who suffer to feel excluded, abandoned and driven out with no-one to talk to because they fear their pain will be interpreted as disloyalty to a particular church, a member of the clergy, a friendship group or even disloyalty to Jesus himself. We talk of God’s unconditional love but often find that strings have been imposed on that love by others who seek to define the limits of God’s grace. “You can’t be a proper Christian if  ….”

Who is the wheat and who is the weed? Can we really tell? Don’t all our innate prejudices – and yes, Christians have them too – get in the way of objective judgement? We’re just like the Pharisees Jesus told this parable against when they were at their worst but we need to remember that not all the Pharisees were bad people. Yes, they get a bad press, but many were faithful followers of the God of Israel and were, as Jesus often said, “close to the Kingdom of God” and not beyond the scope of his grace. Much good was done by the Pharisees and that’s why it would have been so damaging to go on some sort of crusade to root out the weeds.

This parable is a warning against that. At the end of the parable we are told clearly that it is God who separates the wheat and the weeds.

So, what are we to do?

I think, firstly, we look out for those times when our inner Pharisee gets the better of us: it’s not for us to decide who has God’s favour; who’s in and who’s out. Reconciliation doesn’t come by demonising or ostracising. Our job is to leave the conviction of what is right and wrong in the church to the Holy Spirit, knowing that truly loving our Christian neighbours as ourselves is the way to dialogue and potential change.

The Kingdom of God is like this. Let anyone with ears listen.


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