Sunday, July 17, 2011

5th Sunday after Pentecost - July 17, 2011

Back in May, Wayne came over to the parsonage with his roto-tiller and dug up a patch in back of the parsonage so that I could plant a garden.  I put in some zucchini, tomatoes, basil and a few other things.  And then things got busy.  I went up to MN for a class on pre-marital counseling; we had Vacation Bible School; I presided over my first wedding.  All this time, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I’ve got to get back to that garden.”  But we were getting plenty of rain and I was tired and it just didn’t happen.  Finally, I went back there to take a look.  It wasn’t pretty.  All the things that I planted were still there, surrounded by a robust crop of weeds.  I’ve been weeding for a month and I still haven’t gotten them all out. 

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus tells us that we don’t have to weed.  (And that’s plenty of reason to love Jesus, right there.)  But it’s a curious thing.  It isn’t quite what one would expect.  The motto of our church organization, the ELCA, is “God’s work, our hands.”  That sounds an awful lot like we’re supposed to get out there and get to work.  And yet, that’s not at all what Jesus says.  So let’s take a look at the Parable of the Weeds.

A recurring concern in the New Testament is how it can be that evil exists alongside the good.  If God is good and if God is powerful, why does evil continue?  That is the concern that is addressed in our gospel lesson today: “why are there weeds alongside the wheat?”  A further concern is this: What do we do about it?  Do we get in there and start pulling weeds?  Or do we do something else?  Jesus has two answers for us today, one which he delivers to the crowd, who is the audience for the parable, and the other which he delivers afterwards to his disciples, in private.

The parable is this: the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who sows good seed in his field.  But an enemy comes along and puts in a whole bunch of weeds that resemble the wheat.  When they come up, they look the same.  It isn’t until the wheat starts to show its grain that anyone can tell that the field is full of weeds, because the weeds don’t have any grain.  The servants want to yank the weeds out, but the landowner says, “No, you’ll only destroy everything.  Just let them grow and I’ll sort it out later.”

So then, in the parable itself, the primary reaction to the discovery of the weeds is “Leave the weeds alone.”  Trying to yank them out will only cause damage to everyone. 

Now this is not the kind of answer that a religiously committed person would expect.  It seems too passive.  Maybe even a bit lax or lazy.  Shouldn’t we be at work trying to make this world holy?  Shouldn’t we be getting all tough with evil?  Shouldn’t we be showing how much we love God by making the world good, instead of evil?  One might expect the landowner to say something more like this, “Get out there on your hands and knees and get to work!  Do not allow the good to be overcome by the evil.  Fight the Evil One so that you and the field in which you grow is pure and undefiled by weeds.”  And certainly this way of thinking has been very prominent in our history.  For instance, this way of thinking was the driving force behind the abolition of slavery and the prohibition of alcohol, to name two examples.  When we think this way, we are trying to make the world conform to what God has said is good.

And yet Jesus says, “leave the weeds to grow beside the wheat.  Someone will take care of it later.  You’ll only damage people if you try to fix the problem now.”  Why would Jesus say that?  I’m tempted to say that he knows just how clumsy we would be in trying to do good.  That all of our goodness and enthusiasm would lead to more harm than good.  And this may be true.  It certainly has been the case that good intentions in the supposed service of God have gotten loads of people killed over the centuries.  And in our own time when we often funnel our good intentions through our government, we’ve made loads of people dependant on various programs...... because we were trying to help. 

I think that’s all true, we can certainly make a mess of it when we get going with our do-gooding, but that’s not the main point, I don’t think.  Instead, consider this.  We are not the owner of the field.  We are not the landowner.  We aren’t even the servants.  In this parable, people are either wheat or weeds.  The field belongs to the landowner.  And he owns the wheat and he owns the weeds.  If there’s a problem, he’s the one who is going to take care of it.  And in fact, that is exactly what the parable says.  The landowner says, “At the harvest time, I will tell the reapers......”  That is the first message that Jesus conveys with the parable, “The world is mine, not yours, mine.  And I will do as I please.  I will take care of it.”

Now, just like last week, the gospel lesson skips over some verses to get to the explanation that Jesus gives of this parable.  You should be curious about what we are skipping and you should look it up when you go home.  I’ll skip them without comment.

After those verses, Jesus is alone again with his disciples and they ask him to explain the parable.  He explains the various elements in the story: the owner is Jesus himself, the enemy is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age and so on.  But then, instead of focusing on the present, like the parable does, Jesus concentrates exclusively on the future.  He does not comment on the need for patience; he doesn’t explain further about how the wheat and the weeds will exist side by side in the world.  Instead, he focuses on the end of time, the harvest. 

He does this for a very particular reason.  He is saying one thing.  But he is saying it in two different ways.

Here is the first thing he says: Evildoers will be gathered up and punished.  Evil will not continue to exist in the kingdom of God, but will be entirely removed.  Jesus says this very clearly.  That is the first thing.

The second thing is this: he tells his disciples that, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father.” 

The two things, taken together, amount to this: “This world is mine, not yours, mine.  And I will do as I please.  Is there evil in my kingdom?  Yes, and I will take care of it.  Not only that, I will bring my righteous ones to me.  I will make that decision and I will do that.”

So the point of the sermon so far is that it is God’s field.  And as much as we might think differently, it is not ours.  We are not the ones in and amongst the plants; we are the plants. 

Now I can imagine some of you saying, “Well this is all fine and dandy.  We appreciate a nice story about your vegetable garden.  And it’s good to hear a little about a parable.  But none of that matters if I’m a weed.  I want to be the wheat!  But quite honestly, I feel a bit weedy.”  Maybe I shouldn’t put those words in your minds.  Instead I should say these are my thoughts.  I look at myself and I think, “not good.”  And I’m not talking about years ago when I didn’t do a very good job of living.  I’m talking about these days.  I look at myself and I look a bit weedy.  How can this parable possibly be good news?

It’s good news because Jesus isn’t asking you to examine yourself and make a decision.  He’s the landowner.  He’s the sovereign Lord of the Universe.  It is him who makes the decisions, not you, not me.  And he looks at you and he says, “You are a righteous wheat plant because I say so.  I have given you this promise in baptism and there is nothing more to be said.  At the end of time I shall gather you up to be with me in the kingdom of my father.  And you shall shine like the sun!”

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