7 Pentecost A—7/23/17
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Pr. Scott Kramer
I invite you to turn in your pew Bibles to the very end of John’s gospel, ch. 21. Beginning with v.24: This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
Now please turn back a few pages to John Ch. 16, v.12: I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.
The Bible is a very thick book. It can be intimidating! And yet, from Jesus’ own mouth we are assured that God’s Word cannot be contained between the covers of a book. Jesus and our spiritual ancestors did and said many other things beyond the familiar stories and teachings of our Scriptures. And, Jesus tells us that there are many deep truths that we are simply not ready to hear even if they are spoken plainly.
So–what a relief, isn’t it, when Jesus keeps it simple! In this morning’s reading from Matthew, for example, he tells a story about weeds growing in a field that had been sown with good seed. In private, his disciples ask him the meaning and he gives them what appears to be a very straightforward answer.
Imagine yourself as one of Jesus’ disciples and how you and your fellow disciples might respond to the explanation of his parable. I can imagine fist pumps and high fives all around. “Yes! I knew it. I am one of Jesus’ inner circle. God is on my side. God will punish the evil-doers. I’m on the winning team!”
Human nature naturally drives us to seek certainty. We want answers. Especially in times of rampant lies, of fear and confusion, we are desperate for some strong, sure thing to hang on to. Our need for order and meaning demands it. We are therefore tempted toward what I call bumper-sticker theology that shouts, “Jesus said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
But if we take at face value Jesus’ explanation of his parable, why would we need God? Isn’t what he describes in his story of the wheat and the weeds merely a description of the way the world works? There are good guys and bad guys. In the end, the bad guys are punished and the good guys are rewarded. It’s a system of rewards and punishments that any human being would recognize, with or without faith in Jesus Christ. Whether we are those who suffer from this system or those who benefit from it, our belief in this system is so deeply embedded in our experience of the world that we don’t even question it.
I suspect that on the day his told this parable Jesus’ twelve disciples were not questioning it. But according to Jesus and the Gospel of John what the Bible records is only the tip of the iceberg of what might be said about God’s presence and power in the world. To go deeper in our faith we need to use our God-given imaginations!
I say this because in looking at my own life, the older I get the less clear it is to me who is “wheat” and who is “weeds.”
For example, a couple of weeks ago I was out on our street getting the mail and ran into our neighbor Victoria. She asked how I was and I said, “Fine. I’m heading to my 40th high school reunion tomorrow.” She paused, and said, “Oh. High school.” Victoria is a tall woman, 6’2” or more. “I was this tall in 8th grade,” she said. She didn’t say more and she didn’t have to. You can imagine the teasing that she experienced, the awkwardness, the exclusion.
That brief conversation stuck in my mind as I attended my reunion a couple of days later. Only about a third of our class showed up, but it was a bit like being in high school all over again. Mostly it was the popular crowd, the good-looking ones, the successful, the athletes who showed up. Those who were more on the fringes weren’t there: the nerds, the “hoods,” as we called them. Those who were socially awkward, ignored or teased. They mostly were not at my class reunion.
What many of us who were there were struck by was the memorial table. Out of the 285 of us who graduated, 21 of us already have died. And among those who died were some of those same folks who were on the fringes of high school life. And I got to wondering, What could I have done to befriend and include them? But now they’re gone and it’s too late for those conversations.
What is the difference between wheat and weeds? Jesus’ parable makes it seem pretty clear. None of us is perfect but eventually God decides whether we are wheat or weeds, sheep or goats. If you’re at least 51% wheat you make the cut. If you don’t, you’re out of luck. That is how the world works.
That is how the world works—but is that really how God works? Is God just a larger, more powerful version of ourselves? That high school reunion a couple of weeks ago took me back forty years to some good memories but also to a lot of missed opportunities to be the face of Christ in my school and community. Sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of selfishness, the weeds in my field choked out the life-giving Word of God that proclaims the deeper truth of God’s love for all people, no matter what. I might give myself a passing grade for my actions and good intentions but if I hold my life up to the “gold standard” of God’s unconditional love, the wheat in my life is less like 51% and more like 5.1%!
Do we really know the full consequences of our beliefs and attitudes? The stakes are high for how we interpret God’s Word for our lives. If, for example, we take at face value Jesus’ teaching about wheat and weeds then it’s a short step for each of us to make judgments about who is wheat and who is weeds. I don’t know about you but I find myself doing that every day and it’s as natural as breathing. I certainly don’t need God’s help to judge other people; I can do that fine all by myself!
And, so do the systems and structures we’re part of. Many people in our land take fierce pride in being citizens of a “Christian” nation, while remaining indifferent to the plight of their fellow human beings. The disproportionate number of black men in our prisons is one piece of evidence. Maybe you saw the Seattle Times article a couple of weeks ago that reports a drop in black home ownership in Seattle from 49% in the 1970s to 28% today.
Our society was built by and for people like me, white men who benefit from economic and political policies that have declared some people to be “wheat” and others to be “weeds.” Do black lives really matter? No, they do not—not in America. People of color have always been viewed by many in the majority culture as weeds. But the teachings and example of Jesus Christ are clear: It’s not human beings that are weeds; it’s politics and economics and attitudes of the human heart that are choked with weeds. We’d better hope that Jesus’ parable is to be taken at something other than face value or we are in very deep trouble!
Former Soviet dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, no friend either of capitalism or communism, once wrote about an insight he received while in prison: Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.
If this is a deeper spiritual truth, why would Jesus tell a parable that seems to contradict it and label some people wheat and others weeds? Well, God always comes “down.” God meets us where we are. What better way for God to meet us than accepting us where we are—including our simple, sincere and self-interested conviction that the world is divided into wheat and weeds!
In the days following Jesus’ telling of this parable, I wonder what conversation followed. Jesus’ explanation of his parable matches his disciples’—and our!–deep commitment to and belief in laws and rules, rewards and punishment. But much as we tend to make Jesus’ face-value teachings the final word, everything that God reveals is only the beginning of a conversation—including the deep truth that God is love. God has called us by name and called each of us beloved, not because of where we were born or what we believe or what we accomplish but simply because we—all human beings–are children of God. Through the parables of Jesus and the stories of our faith God invites us deeper into imitating the life of Jesus who loves you and me and all people, weeds and all!