July 19, 2020
Well, we find ourselves well into summer today by the Earth’s-trip-around-the-sun calendar, and well into Trinity season by the church calendar. Trinity season encompasses all the long, lovely days of summer and fall in which we slow down from our mad rush from feast day to feast day that takes up December to May, and begin our slow and systematic journey through one of the four Gospels, Matthew this year. We move carefully through the chapters, examining the ministry of Jesus, the miracles, the sermons, and the parables. Trinity is the season where we dig deep into what Jesus taught his followers, and through the Gospel writers, teaches us, about what it means to be Christ-followers, and to participate in God’s Kingdom.
There are so many reasons why I love this time of year. I love the slower pace and the cessation of so much of our frenetic activity. I love how green the world around us is, and the drama of summer storms. And I love that we get to dig into the parables in the summertime. Summer seems to me to be the perfect time to just sit with and examine these strange, often obscure-seeming teachings of Jesus, with their earthy metaphors about farming and fishing and house-keeping.
I think we require the same virtue for studying parables that we do for living life during this pandemic. Both activities require genuine, nose-to-the-grindstone patience. We’re in a tough slog right now, no doubt about it. And there’s really no end in sight. It’s fine to talk about the virtue of patience when you only have to practice it in short bursts, but good grief are we tired right now! I think it’s the same with the parables, with the sustained effort that’s required to dig down into story after story, searching out the wisdom of Jesus for how the world works, and how we are to live in it.
And we have a glorious little gem of a story offered to us today. It even comes with its own built-in explanation straight from Jesus, which, let’s face it, not all the parables have and all of them could do with!
This parable of the weeds and the wheat is one of Jesus’ “Kingdom” parables. We see a whole set of them here in Matthew chapter 13. They all begin the same: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a fishing net. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. This Kingdom of Heaven Jesus is talking about is not a country that can be found on a map. It is also gloriously, wondrously not some other realm in the sky where the angels and saints live. No, according to Jesus and his very earth-bound parables, the Kingdom of Heaven is very much this world we live in. Jesus used these Kingdom parables to teach us about what this world looks like from God’s perspective.
Think of the world as a field that’s been planted with good seed by God, Jesus tells his disciples. That good seed is us, the people of the Kingdom. Picture us growing in the world, and the products of a life well-lived; loving relationships, good work well done, spreading the Good News of God’s Kingdom through our words and actions. But while God has been active in the world, sowing the good seed of his Kingdom, the Enemy has also been active, covertly sabotaging God’s good work by sowing weeds amongst us. The particular weed Jesus names in this parable is called darnel. This is significant because darnel looks a great deal like the wheat they grew at that time in the Middle East. Think about the world we live in. It is not enough simply to say there are good people and bad people in the world. Because the truth is that there is good and bad in every person. It is significant, then, that in this parable where the workers suggest to the owner that they go into the field and pull up the darnel and leave the wheat, that as the seedlings are growing, it is very difficult to tell which is the good crop and which is the weeds.
Every farmer and gardener amongst us knows that it would be very bad agricultural practice to do as the owner of the field suggests in this parable: to let the wheat and the weeds grow together for the whole season and not separate them until the harvest. If you let weeds go on growing in your field, they will not only choke off the good crop by growing much faster: if weeds are allowed to mature, they will drop all their seeds into your field, and next year’s problem will be a thousand times worse! But this isn’t an agricultural treatise Jesus is delivering here. Think about people instead of plants. We are each producing good and bad fruit throughout our lives, aren’t we? What Jesus is saying is that the ultimate judgement of the value of what we produce with our lives must wait until the end, when the whole of our lives may be judged, and the good separated from the bad. That ultimate judgement at harvest-time, the end of this present age in God’s Kingdom, will result in a final refinement for those of us who are the product and substance of God’s Kingdom, and a final condemnation for those who have chosen to reject God in this life.
Right now in the Kingdom of Heaven, we are in the midst of the growing season. We Christ-followers are trying with all our might, and with mixed success, to grow good fruit in our lives for God’s Kingdom. But we also see all around us in the world the fruits of the Enemy’s darnel seeds as well. There is suffering and pain, sickness and death everywhere we look. Some of it’s inside ourselves. We can look around at the world and wonder, where is God? Why must things look so bleak?
We are in the period in Jesus’ parable when the farmer has said to his workers, when God has said to his angels, “in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” Now, here comes the Greek lesson. That verb “let” in “let both of them grow” is in Greek the verb aphete: to allow, to permit, to suffer something to happen. We find this same verb in the New Testament 156 times. 47 of those times, though, aphete, to let, to allow, to permit, is translated with a different English word. In fact, it is found thus twice in the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. Aphete: to let, to permit, to allow … to forgive. Think how differently this church service would fall on our ears if we were holding it in Greek instead of English. In the same liturgy, we would pray that God would aphes us as we aphiemen those who sin against us, and then we would hear this story in the Gospel lesson, in which God tells his angels, aphete the wheat and the weeds to grow together until the harvest.
Now, we need to really sit with this for a while. Jesus is saying that not only does God allow evil to grow in the world right alongside the good, he is actively forgiving it as well. And we are supposed to, too. We have an instinctive, understandable reaction to this idea. At the very least, we want it to have more nuance than simply, evil exists, forgive it. But I think we need to let this idea wrestle us to the floor and sit on us. I find Robert Farrar Capon a helpful writer when it comes to these difficult Gospel truths. He says,
“The first objection usually raised to letting evil be – let alone forgiving it – takes the form of agitated moralistic hand-wringing: ‘But if you simply tell people in advance that they’re going to be forgiven, won’t they just go straight out and take that as permission to sin? Don’t we have to keep them scared out of their wits by continually harping on the big difference between forgiveness and permission?’
“I have a number of replies to that. The first is, ‘What big difference? In Greek, the same word is used for both.’ The second is, ‘There’s no difference between them at all. If you’re an utterly serious forgiver, and if you make your forgiving disposition known to a solid brass snake-in-the-grass, he will obviously play you for the sucker you are as often as he feels like it: what do you think the world, the flesh, and the devil thought about a Jesus who died on the cross instead of nuking his enemies?’ The third is, ‘What on earth are you talking about? God, in the act of creating you, gave you permission to do any damned fool thing you could manage to bring off. Forgiveness neither increases nor decreases the level of God’s permissiveness; instead, it just fishes us out of the otherwise inescapable quicksand we so stupidly got ourselves into and says, “There! Isn’t that better?”’ My fourth and final reply, though, is, ‘Of course there’s a difference; and it’s a whopping one. But since even that makes no difference at all to either the farmer in the parable or to Jesus on the cross – or, for that matter, to any Christian committed to forgiving his skunk of a brother seventy times seven times – why harp on it?”
Capon goes on to say, let’s follow this idea of forgiveness and permission up in the context of the parable: “The farmer has announced, publicly and in advance, that his enemy is quite free to come back any night he chooses and sow any weeds he likes. Not just more darnel, but purslane, dock, bindweed, pigweed.”
Then follow this idea into Jesus’ life and ministry. Capon says, “on the basis of Jesus’ ministry as lived and died, God has announced the very same thing. No enemy – not the devil, not you, not me, not anybody else – is going to get it in the neck, in this life, for any evil he has done. The Old Testament to the contrary notwithstanding, Jesus on the cross doesn’t threaten his enemies, he forgives them: ‘aphes,’ he says, one last time.
“And then there’s the clincher. On the basis of Jesus’ ministry as risen, there is no change in that policy. He comes forth from the tomb and ascends into heaven with nail prints in his hands and feet and a spear wound in his side – with eternal, glorious scars to remind God, angels and us that he is not about to go back on his word from the cross.”
This messy, beautiful, screwed-up, wonderful world is the Kingdom of Heaven to those of us who have been given eyes to see and ears to hear by Jesus. God is growing this Kingdom through us, his people, his good seed. Like the wheat plants in the parable, we are meant to spend our lives producing a good crop in the world by our words and actions. At the same time, the evil in the world is also producing its fruit, but only for a time. In the end the harvest will come, this age will end, and we will all be judged by what we have produced in this life. But thank God, we already know that we are forgiven! We bear our good fruit out of gratitude for our salvation already accomplished by Jesus on the cross.
For now, though, the work of the Kingdom of Heaven goes on, doesn’t it? We expend our energy trying to make our little corner of the world better. And part of that work is to try to forgive, as we have been so unconditionally forgiven. This is the radical way we live as Kingdom-dwellers in this world. “I forgive you for wearing a mask.” “I forgive you for not wearing a mask!” And so it goes on, choice by choice, deed by deed, until the end. Just so, and do the best you can. Amen.