Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 19 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Genesis 28:10-18a; Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

This is our second agricultural parable in a row—there will be another next week, if you want a spoiler—and again, a parable with an attached explanation which is almost certainly later than the parable itself, and almost certainly misunderstands what Jesus was getting at. This parable and its appended explanation are unique to Matthew, and there are some features of the explanation which are quite specific to Matthew, especially the obsession with punishment and the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, which occurs hardly at all anywhere else in the scripture, but in Matthew becomes a near-constant refrain, one we will unfortunately hear often in the coming weeks.

Now, I have say that when I go out to the church garden and see weeds coming up—as I all too frequently do—my immediate thought is not that one of my many enemies snuck in during the night and planted them. Frustrating as it may be, I think we all know that weeds happen. They’re a natural part of a complex natural world. So this is the first curious detail in the story.

As for the landowner’s response, there’s a fair bit of debate about farming practices in ancient Israel going on among Biblical scholars. We know that the weed is a specific plant, which is called zizanion in Greek, and which does look very much like wheat in the early stages. And we know that when it grows, it tends to tangle itself up with other plants, to intertwine, to make it—as the parable says—impossible to pull up the one without pulling up the other. Now, whether or not farmers really did let wheat and zizanion grow together and separate them after the harvest, or whether they had teams of women and children out in the fields pulling up the zizanion as soon as it could be recognized—because if it grows out of control, it can choke off the growth of the wheat — that we’re not sure about. But our farmer here seems pretty clear about his strategy, and whether it was the normal procedure or an unusual one, he’s sure that it’s the right one.

The last thing that’s important to know about zizanion is that it was used as fuel. So when it’s sorted out and bundled and burned, in this story, it’s not actually being somehow punished, as if it made sense to punish a plant in any case. It is being put to its appropriate use—just as wheat is ground and baked and made into bread. Both types of plant are made useful, purposeful, part of the overall economy of the garden.

What we most obviously have here, then, is a story about not rushing to judgement. If this world is our garden, it is a complicated one. There is much in the world that is good and nourishing and beautiful, and there is also much that is tragic, much that is frustrating, many things that choke our growth, that spoil our plans, that sting and hurt and trouble us. And it’s tempting to think that we can easily tell the good from the bad, and just eliminate the bad, that we can root up the things that we don’t like about ourselves or about other people, or indeed that we can get rid of certain kinds of people completely.

But it’s not that simple, the parable tells us. Sometimes we aren’t very good at telling good things from bad. We presume to write off individuals, or entire groups, as beyond hope, beyond use. And again and again we are proven wrong, as love grows in barren ground, as people reach out for goodness, in tiny ways sometimes, or in ways that changes lives and worlds. And sometimes, too, good and bad are so closely entwined within our own selves that you can’t get rid of one without the other—our weaknesses, our failures, our sufferings, break the ground out of which creativity and compassion may grow.

I don’t want to be unrealistic. There is pain and suffering which cannot be put to any good use, which is simply wrong, and it is our job to alleviate or end it when we can. There may be people who are too broken and distorted for healing in this world, people who have done things too evil for human forgiveness to be meaningful. But the story cautions us not to make any assumptions, not to try to reject or write off anyone or anything too quickly, even when we ourselves are helpless to bring good about. Because we cannot not see everything. Because we are not God, and don’t have God’s view. Because there may always be a place for the weeds in the garden. A complicated garden; a garden which demands of us patience, and restraint, and very delicate care of all the new shoots, whatever they may look like. Because, as Julian of Norwich says, sin is behovely, is necessary in ways we can’t grasp—but God has a great act yet to perform, and finally, we will see it all made good.

That’s why I find Matthew’s appended explanation highly problematic, because after a story which is all about not imposing our own judgements, Matthew seems to be trying to placate his readers by promising them judgement, and judgement of a rather nasty sort. The emphasis is all on the separation of the “good” and “bad” plants, and we move from the story’s simple, useful binding of the zizanion into bundles for use as fuel into Matthew’s symbolic fire of eternal punishment. All this talk about evildoers, and Matthew’s evident enjoyment at the thought of them wailing and gnashing their teeth forever, is frankly not entirely healthy; and leads us, sideways, back into the idea that we can ourselves separate the good and the bad, and be good ourselves by rejecting those evil, those other, people.

Moving from the framework of a story in which noxious weeds are put to good and proper use, into a story where imaginary bad people are burned in a symbolic fire of judgement and punishment, not for fuel but for pain, well, these are two quite different ways of thinking about fire. I don’t pretend to know what God’s great act, the liberation of all of the created world which Paul so astonishingly talks about, might look like. It’s not something that really fits into human imagination. But the fact that weeds are burned for fuel in the real world does not translate literally into a vision where people are burned as punishment.

Remember that the wheat itself will be beaten, winnowed, ground into flour and baked. We do not suppose that this is literally what will happen to the blessed—although it’s not without its power as a metaphor for the way that God’s work can change us, sometimes painfully, into bread for the world. If you just kept wheat in your barn forever, as Matthew seems to imagine, it would not shine, it would rot. As we might ourselves, if we fail to open ourselves to God’s transforming work in us.

We aren’t meant to forget that horizon—the promise that all things will be made well, all of this whole created world set free and redeemed, that all tears will be wiped away, that meaning will be made of all the pains of our lives. Jesus, it seems, had this horizon always in mind. But Jesus, our ladder who unites heaven and earth in the shape of a human person, the seal and incarnation of God’s presence in the world, came to us not to punish his enemies but to offer himself to be our bread, to be the wheat wholly given over, subjected to power, made into our redemption and our food.

The story he tells about the weeds and the wheat teaches us that we are not meant to spend our lives trying to second-guess that great act, trying to decide who’s wheat and who’s weeds and what should be done about it. We need to accept that we live in a world in which we sometimes cannot tell good from bad, in which most people contain an inextricable mixture of both. A world in which God finds ways to use the useless, to make even the things we find destructive a part of how creation is sustained. And we must live in this world with patience and discretion and compassion, open enough to let God take us and use us for what is most needed. For if we look at the story as a story, and try to read it with story logic, setting the overly neat explanation aside, then we see a God who leaves nothing out, who discards nothing and no one, but who, in the great unimaginable conclusion of all things, finds for every thing and every person a good use, a proper fruitful role in the Kingdom; who changes and frees us all, every one of us, as he allows himself to be made into our ladder, into our bread.