Making a Difference: Don’t! Sermon for July 17, 2011, 16th Ordinary, 5th after Pentecost A, Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43

Making a Difference: Don’t!  

Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43

They tell me that there is a weed that grows in Palestine that closely resembles wheat, until maturation.  If it grows up along with the wheat, it would be hard to make a difference between the two.  That’s the set-up for this parable.

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This odd story

This story line in this parable is quite odd.  Nothing should be more clear and easy to understand as the difference between evil and good, bad guys and good guys.  And yet the whole problem in the story is that they are hard to distinguish.  Weeds look like wheat, which means that wheat looks like weeds – at least for a long, long time.

The solution, in the near term, is to therefore do nothing about the evil weeds, let them grow up along side the wheat.

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; 

If we are to leave the weeds alone, they must not be too bad to have around then, right?  Evil may be present, but it’s no threat; in fact don’t worry about it.  Is then the difference between good and evil trivial?

But then, at the end of the parable, we get the opposite perspective.

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.

At the harvest, one is kept, the other is burned up in a fire – so it makes a huge difference which is good and which is evil.  There is nothing trivial at all about the difference.  This story that begins by seemingly minimizing the evilness of evil ends up emphasizing it.

Indistinguishable?  Not!

And there is another thing odd about this parable-story.  If the wheat and the weeds represent the people of God and the bad guys, it’s all mixed up.  God’s chosen people, the Jews, in Jesus’ day, were not at all hard to tell apart from the godless, pagan gentiles.  It’s not at all like a field with weeds that look like wheat and wheat that looks indistinguishable from weeds.

One of the most characteristic facts of being Jewish is how transparently obvious it was to distinguish a Jew from a non-Jew.  There were three primary signs of Jewishness that made them different from non-Jews: circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and kosher food laws.

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You might think that circumcision was not so obvious – but then if someone told you that there was a gymnasium right in Jerusalem where all the athletics were done in the Greek style (nude) you might see how apparent the difference was.

The other two differences were hugely obvious.  Only Jews had the Sabbath.  It was not a day off for Romans.  The kosher food issue was even more significant.  For Jews, it was not just a question of not eating bacon, ham or pork chops – it meant all kinds of foods were off limits, and all kinds of ways of serving the food were regulated.

This had the effect of making it nearly impossible for Jews and non-Jews to eat together.  If you didn’t share a table with people, you didn’t have any significant relationships with them.

In other words, if you were a Roman or a Greek person living around Jews, you might see them, but you wouldn’t know much about them.  You would never have had them over, you would never have been over to their place – you would be functionally strangers to each other.

The difference between Jews and non-Jews was about the most obvious fact in the city.  Being so different was one of the reasons Jews were so frequently despised: they were different!

So right away, Jesus’ parable makes no sense.  What could be more obvious than who the wheat is and who the weeds are!  They don’t look anything alike at all!  What sense does it make to tell a story about not being able to make a difference?  Every school boy knows the difference: it’s  obvious!

Defining Terms

Unless!  The difference between the people who are OK with God and those that are not is obvious unless something has radically changed.  Maybe the definition of “wheat” and “weeds” has changed?

I took a botany class in college in which I learned, from our professor, the technical definition of a weed.  “A weed is any plant in the wrong place.”  A rose bush, if it comes up in the middle of the golf green, is just a pesky weed that needs to be eliminated.   Beautifully healthy lawn grass is a weed when it’s growing in the rose bed.

If you define the “good guys” who are OK with God by things like circumcision, Sabbath keeping and kosher food observance, then difference between wheat and weeds, between good and evil is obvious to anybody.

But, what if those issues turn out not to be God’s main concern?  If you understand the the problem of evil is far deeper, far more profound, and far more dangerous, then perhaps the definition of good guys and bad guys has to change.  If the weeds and the wheat are indistinguishable, at first, something in the definition has changed.

Reversals: Jesus’ Specialty

This is not the first or last time Jesus does this sort of reversal of the obvious concerning the way people have traditionally identified the good guys and evil people, and the reason he does it is always the  same: for Jesus, evil is not a trivial matter about rituals or customs; it is not a failure to be in the right ethnic club.  Evil is far deeper, and more serious.

So Jesus told stories of dramatic reversals.  For example, everybody “knew” that if you were rich, it meant God had blessed you, so you would go to heaven for sure.  But Jesus told of the rich man who ended up in Hades because he ignored the poor man Lazarus at his gate.

Everybody in Jesus’ time “knew” that priests and the temple-worker Levites were the ones who knew what was right, and were righteous before God.  But Jesus

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told a story in which they didn’t hold a candle to the goodness of the Samaritan man (whom they despised) because, seeing a victim on the side of the road, they left him lying there, while the despised Samaritan cared for him as a “neighbor.”

Jesus told the story of the tax collector beating his breast in prayers of repentance going away forgiven, unlike the righteous man whose prayers were full of arrogant pride.

Surprises a-many

Surprise was one of Jesus’ big themes, especially the surprising judgment at the end of time, when the sheep and the goats are finally separated.  It surprises even the sheep themselves.  “Lord” they will say, “when did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?”  And he will say to them, “whenever you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for me.”  (Matthew 25)

Surprise, surprise; the criteria for making a difference turned out to be a bit different than we had expected.  It turns out that there is a huge difference between sheep and goats, between wheat and weeds, but it may not be externally obvious.  In fact, the externals may deceive you.

There may be people that are doing the work of the kingdom who don’t show up much in church.  Don’t be so fast to yank them up by the roots.  On the other hand, there may be people who look at home on a church pew with a  hymnbook in their hands who are going to go the way of the goats – there may be many surprises on the day of judgment.

Thank God it is God and God alone who gets to make the difference and sort it all out.  Judgement of that kind is not our job, and if we take it on ourselves, we will do more harm than good.

Weeping and Gnashing Teeth: Sadism?

One more thing needs to be said about this odd parable.  What are we to make of the judgement scene?

Jesus was a communicator who knew how to get people’s attention.  He loved exaggeration for effect.

  • He spoke of camels trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle.
  • He told people to take logs out of their eyes.
  • He could be graphic: harm a child will you?  then go tie a mill stone around your neck and take a swim.
  • Feel a little lusty?  Poke out your eye.
  • Feel stingy?  Cut your hand off.
  • What will God do to bad guys?  Throw them into the fire and watch them burn as they weep and gnash their teeth.

Shocking?  It was meant to be.  Exaggerated?  Of course!

Yes, there will be a final reckoning; a judgment day.  Yes, it will be serious.  No, this imagery is  not to be taken literally.

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If Jesus, in this story, wants us to believe that God was the ultimate torture-sadist, then why did he waste so much of our time telling us to think of God as loving  Father or as Good shepherd?

Why did he spend time healing and feeding, welcoming sinners and outcasts if when push comes to shove God is their worst nightmare?

To Shake Us Up

No, this parable, like so many, is meant to shake us up in large, loud, bold even terrible images that make us think.  The point is that evil is horrible and destructive.  But it is even more destructive for us to be the judge and jury.

Our criteria are often so superficial and trivial – we like people like ourselves and we find it easy to write-off people who are different.  God is not like that, so leave the final judgment to him.

But in the mean time, pay attention to God’s criteria of good and evil. It’s not about external ritual observance.  Nobody gets let off the hook for being a priest or a Levite if he leaves the victim on the side of the road to die.

Nobody, no matter how respectable he looks, gets a pass if he has left poor Lazarus outside his gate for the dogs to lick his wounds.

Nobody gets excused if they have been willing to look at “the least of these” who are hungry, thirsty, naked and captives and turn the other way.

We, who know how to say by memory, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” are called to take with utmost seriousness what it means to pray for God’s will to be done on earth.  We are called to join Jesus in his mission to the world that God made and that he loves, and to the people he made in his image, and whom he loves.

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