Sunday, July 17, 2011

Wheat, weeds and judgement

Texts: Romans 8:12-25 (children of God), Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (wheat and weeds)

So it is my second week here, and for the second week in a row the assigned Gospel reading from Matthew uses a farming metaphor. In last week's reading, Jesus compared different types of soil to different types of people whereas this week, he compares different types of seed to different types of people.

You may recall that last week I also imagined that the seeds in the parable of the sower represented human beings instead of the different types of soil. I now realize that this shows how much I have yet to learn about the Bible . . .  I merely had to keep reading to the very next passage in Matthew to see that Jesus makes that same move. But then that is life in the church, is it not? There is a lot to learn and and only a limited amount of time in which to learn . . .

Be that as it may, this week the reading asks us to reflect upon wheat and weeds, which seems like an appropriate topic for a hot, midsummer Sunday. For instance, Carla told me that she has spent a lot of time this week pulling portulaca from her garden, and yesterday Bruce Elder came to the manse and sprayed the empty vegetable plot in the backyard to rid it of weeds. BTW, perhaps next spring I will get inspired and try to put in a garden in that plot . . .

In the parable, Jesus suggests that we not try to separate the good plants from the weeds and instead wait until harvest time. At that point, the weeds can be separated and burned up -- or as Carla discovered about portulaca when she and Charlie still had pigs, you can feed it to the pigs. She told me that they seemed to love it  . . .

Jesus interprets the parable for his students. He says that the harvest refers to the close of the age, or the dreaded Day of Judgement. At that time, all causes of sin and all evildoers will be thrown into a furnace of fire and there men will weep and gnash their teeth. He also says that in his parable, the good seed refers the children of God's kingdom while the bad seed refers to the children of the evil one.

Hmm. So here we are, just beginning my ministry with you, and already we confront the big and difficult questions of evil, judgement, and the furnace of fire. This does not surprise me, not just because evil is such a prominent feature of our lives in this broken and fallen world, but also because this church year, as happens every third year, our Gospel readings come mostly from Matthew. And Matthew, much more than the other three Gospel writers, shows Jesus talking about judgement, morality, and the fires of hell. As an example, our parable this morning is found only in Matthew. Matthew's Gospel is the only one that mentions weeping and gnashing of teeth in lakes of fire. It is only in Matthew's Gospel that Jesus says he has come not to abolish the strict laws of ancient Israel but to fulfill those laws. And it is only in Matthew that Jesus commands his followers to be holier and purer than the Pharisees. So between now and the end of this church year in late November, we will confront the tough and judgemental side of Jesus as shown by Matthew several more times.

And I am pleased about that because questions of evil, morality, judgement and the end of the age are relevant to our lives. For instance, let us imagine that the field in today's parable represents a community, that the plants of the wheat seeds represent the children of God and that the weeds of the bad seed represent the children of the evil one. Given this, I am sure that we can all bring to mind moments when we judged some people in our group to be useful and kind and others to be destructive and mean. People who form community groups almost always come together with good intentions. But we also know how many of us can get carried away and sometimes do things that upset others or seem to hurt the cause.

I really appreciate, then, that the parable tells us to withhold our judgements. It directs us to leave the separation of the wheat from the weeds to God at the end of the age. We are only human and our vision is never complete or perfect. So when we judge the person next to us to be a "bad seed," we are often wrong.

Indeed, the attempt to judge oneself or other people as children of the evil one as opposed to children of God will usually lead us astray, in my opinion. St Paul in our reading this morning reminds us that we are all adopted children of God. Nevertheless, we are still human beings living in difficult circumstances. As such, none of us is completely "good" seed that will produce wheat or completely "bad" seed  that will produce weeds. We are all mixtures of qualities, some of which we like and admire and some of which we dislike and want to reject. That is life this side of the grave. None of us is 100% pure, nor is any community completely weed-free.

So where will that leave us on the Day of Judgement? Jesus' message this morning that all causes of sin will then be cast into the fire can cheer us. But will we ourselves also be cast into the fire with much weeping and gnashing of teeth?

My own approach, which I hope to elaborate over the next few months as the subject reappears in Matthew's gospel, is that painful moments of judgement in our lives occur simultaneously with our healing or salvation. None of us and no community is wholly blameless. But thanks be to God, it is not for us to judge ourselves, our neighbours, or our communities. Such judgement is God's work. And although the prospect of that judgement is awesome to contemplate, God's purifying work is certain to also claim us as his adopted children.

Now, leaving judgements to God does not totally get us off the hook. When we believe the our neighbours are acting more like weeds than wheat, it is often useful to speak up or take action. But our aim is to do so with common humility. None of us is in the position of God to truly distinguish the wheat from the weeds. We can be guided by our feelings, our likes and dislikes, and our desires. But we do so only as adopted children of God and not as God Himself.

I always try to remember that my feelings tell me more about myself than about other people and situations; that my likes and dislikes are not accurate judgements of either myself or others but just my likes and dislikes, and that I am a child of God and not God Himself.

Life is full of moments of pain and crisis in which we can discern the purifying fire of God's judgement; and all of us await the crisis of the end of our lives. But revealed in those judgements is also God's redemption. Though we may all be a mixture of fruitful wheat and noxious weeds, it is not for us to judge and separate them. That is God's work, and it is work in which we are certain that, though the causes of sin will eventually be burned away, none of us will be lost in the process.

God our Judge is also God our loving Saviour. And our reality as members of God's family means that our hope is never in vain.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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