I'm out of town this coming Sunday so I've written out the sermon. I have two very capable lay ministers who will lead the services and read this sermon for me, thanks be to God. I haven't written a manuscript for quite some time so it was fun to do this again. Normally, I preach without notes or manuscript.
In any case, here it is.
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
The early church struggled with who could be a member and who was beyond the pale. The obvious outsiders were Jews and blatant pagans. But some of those who had been baptized still ate the meat offered to idols and some of them didn’t quite understand just how being in Christ was supposed to changetheir lives.
A question that plagued the leaders of this new church was, “How can we let that person in when we know they are not good enough? In fact, that person might even be evil. How do we know? How can we tell?” The baptism of 3,000 converts on Pentecost was just about the last time the Church let anyone in without rigorous training and testing.
By the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, Jerusalem had fallen, Rome had burned and Christians were in hiding. There were enemies everywhere, perhaps in the same congregation as the righteous. So membership was given very cautiously and members who behaved improperly were excommunicated. Righteousness had to be closely guarded, making Christians guilty of the same sin as Pharisees and chief priests and even Qumran hermits. Keeping the community pure was a full time job.
Today’s Gospel is another parable about sowing seed and another interpretation of that parable. Let’s discuss them in backwards order.
When Jesus begins teaching in parables, the explanation given for that move is that those who are going to reject him won’t understand but those who follow Jesus will. Right away, then, in the explanation of this parable, we have a problem. The disciples don’t understand it! Well, if parables are intended to make one think, then perhaps they can be forgiven for their thick headedness. Their misunderstanding is so great, though, that they ask Jesus to explain the parable of the weeds.
Jesus had told the parable of the good seed. Because Jesus began the parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven” most of the people who heard him, including the disciples, assumed that he meant where we go after we die. But you and I know that Jesus speaks of the Kingdom as being now, too. So for us, the disciples assumption is narrow-minded. Between fixing their attention on the weeds and thinking that Jesus is talking of life after death, the disciples have become truly confused.
So Jesus directs his explanation to the place where they are. In doing so, he turns the parable into an allegory of the end times. He begins by listing the actors. Playing the part of the Sower is the Son of Man and so on down the list. The explanation is about the victory of good over evil and justification of the righteous.
But remember that parables are not supposed to be explained to death. There is supposed to be something in a parable that keeps us thinking about it long after we are sure we have figured it out. This detailed explanation is a fairly good indicator that Matthew wrote the explanation, that Jesus probably did not say it. Matthew’s point is to assure the Christian community that the persecution they are suffering will be rewarded at death.
It is possible, though, to read the parable in eschatological terms. We believe in the Kingdom of heaven and we believe that it is the next part of life. If we read the parable as one of the judgment of our lives here, then I think we hear good news in this parable.
I believe that we will all stand before God and that we will be judged. I believe God’s judgment is full of mercy. All too often, when we hear words like “burned up with fire” we see a terrible image of being thrown into an eternal fire. But fire is also tremendously cleansing. Precious metals are purified by fire. In our own time, the fire of lasers are used to cure.
When we stand before God, therefore, I believe that the fire of burning will be a cleansing, purifying fire that burns away the weeds and leaves us restored and whole.
So now let’s go back to the parable itself.
Jesus is again speaking to a great multitude. This is just one in a series of parables that he tells concerning what the kingdom is like – not what it is going to be like, but what it is like right at that moment and right at this moment of ours, too.
A farmer sows his field with good wheat seed. Not the cheap stuff but high quality seed guaranteed to yield an abundant crop. Then he goes home, eats dinner and enjoys a good night’s sleep after a good day’s work. But an enemy comes along during the darkness and sows darnel seed, a weed that looks remarkably like wheat. And then the enemy goes away.
As the wheat and the darnel begin growing, the servants come to ask the master about the quality of the seed he had planted and the presence of the weeds. He tells them that an enemy planted the weeds. Note that the master does not defend the good seed. He knows its goodness.
“Well,” reply the servants, “should we weed the field so that the wheat has more room to grow?”
“Nope,” he tells them; “you will confuse wheat and weeds and pull them both. Permit them to grow together until it is time for the harvest and then I will tell the reapers to separate them out, binding the weeds to be burned and gathering the wheat into the barn.”
Is God really saying here that we are to do nothing about evil? Because that is so outrageous a suggestion, let’s see where it takes us.
The parable tells us why we are to do nothing. If we are the ones deciding what is wheat and what is weeds, we are likely to root out the good with the bad. Instead of pulling up plants, the parable suggests that we are not to do anything that allows the evil to become the focal point rather than the Kingdom. If we work to cultivate and nurture good, if we keep our focus on the light and life in Christ, then the evil won’t have any room to grow.
You see, the enemy has no need to stick around making sure the weeds do their evil work. We are more than willing to do it on the enemy’s behalf. As soon as we spot it, we go after evil with everything we’ve got. And in the process of rooting it out, we become just as bad because we have left off tending the good. We also run the risk of giving the evil a chance to take over our lives.
The other thing Jesus tells us to do through this parable is to let God do the winnowing. God is much better at seeing evil for what it is than we are. God is much better at recognizing goodness, too, because God embodies all that is good and so all this is good about us. God is also merciful and forgiving and we tend to want to punish first and consider forgiving much, much later.
This is a parable about good seeds planted in good soil by a good farmer. Jesus tells us that this is just one way to think about the Kingdom of heaven. Yes, God allows the enemy to plant in the same field weeds that look very much like good wheat. Yes, we are not to go flailing about in the field deciding for ourselves which is which. Yes, we have to let God judge what is good without any help from us. Does that sound like a crazy way to run a Kingdom?