“No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow until the harvest;…”
I speak with you in the Name of God who has won the victory, Amen!
That’s an interesting Gospel passage don’t you think? I mean the first part is odd enough with some enemy planting weeds amongst this farmer’s wheat. Sounds like a lot of work in order to do someone harm? Furthermore, the farmer does not weed the field. What farmer doesn’t weed their garden? Then we get to Jesus’ explanation of the parable and we appear to be in the land of fire and brimstone and eternal damnation. Jesus says, “Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 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 in the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Where’s the good news in that? I thought God was merciful and compassionate. This sounds vindictive and punitive. What’s up with that?
I need not remind y’all that I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. This text was, and often still is, the fodder for many a fire and brimstone sermon. It has been used to cause fear in both individuals and communities using graphic descriptions of a fiery hell that awaits anyone who strays from the cultural norms of the time. I still believe some of those old school preachers can literally get fire and brimstone to come out of their ears when they really get going. They can rile up a crowd and have everyone shaking with fear at the possibility of being a weed come harvest time.
Indeed, this interpretation of the whole gospel is so much a part of American Religious history—from the famous puritan sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God to modern day TV evangelists—that it is hard to read this scripture and not immediately hear those preachers with that “behave-yourself-or-the-wrath-of-God-will-descend-upon-you” interpretation and be afraid. I mean, which one of us has not failed to hear the word God and follow it completely. I know I have sinned come short of the glory God, and I don’t doubt that whether I want to or not I’m very much likely to sin again in the future. So what are we to do with this Gospel passage? Are we all doomed to wailing and gnashing of teeth at the end of time?
Well, no, we are not. There is more to this gospel then meets the eye. When we read it we must keep in mind both the historical context and the context of the entire gospel of Matthew. I believe Jesus was trying to tell his audience and us too, not to be afraid of the evil in our own hearts and community. I believe Jesus was trying to teach us to be non-violent in our responses to both the internal evil in our hearts and external evils as well.
First let us look at the historical context. Jesus is speaking in first century Palestine using an agricultural metaphor to an audience of agriculturalists; they grew food in order to survive. Now, it was common in his culture at that time for blood feuds to exist between families that could be started by the smallest of perceived insults. This would typically be the reason why someone would plant weeds in a neighbor’s wheat field. The general reaction to having your crop vandalized would be to take violent retribution—usually trying to slaughter your neighbor and his entire family. Taking this into account, our farmer’s reaction to let the weeds grow is shocking to his servants. He takes a non-anxious, non-violent approach believing, as one commentator put it, “that the wheat is strong enough to tolerate the weeds’ competition for nutrition and irrigation.” Plus, come harvest time he will not only have wheat to eat, but fuel for his fire as well. So instead of being anxious and vengeful, he is shrewd and savvy.
As we move into Jesus’ explanation this theme of non-violence is continued. It is the angels of God that are to do the sorting not us. We are not God’s agents of retribution. It is not our purpose to punish ourselves or anyone else. God does the sorting through the angels. To know our purpose we have look at the whole of Matthew’s gospel.
There are two themes from Matthew’s gospel I would like to point out here. First, Matthew’s gospel is also where we hear Jesus say, "…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;…” This seems a pretty clear teaching of non-violence by Jesus. As I have seen on a bumper sticker, “When Jesus said love your enemies, he meant don’t kill them.” Indeed there is scriptural evidence for non-violence not just in Matthew but in all the gospels.
Now that being said, I am stepping out on thin ice here because the Gospel of Matthew is also where we Jesus says “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye?”
Jesus is articulating the stark reality that we can never change another person and the only person we can possibly control is ourselves. I swear to you, as much as I believe that Jesus teaches non-violence I fail to live up to that teaching. Therefore, know that this and hopefully every sermon that I preach is the sermon I most need to hear on a given weekend. I do not stand in judgment of us or even myself. However, I do lay a challenge before myself and all of us. Jesus is teaching in our gospel passage that we need to trust God. As one commentator put it, we would do well to ponder the “confidence of the landowner that his grain will survive the effect of the weeds…A trust in goodness that is greater than the fear of wickedness could be a powerful weapon against rampant, senseless violence.” There is historical precedence for this trust in goodness. It worked for Gandhi in achieving India’s independence from Britain, it worked for Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement, and it worked for Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Most importantly it worked for Jesus in the ultimate struggle against sin and death as well. In Jesus’ refusal to retaliate, in his willingness to die rather then harm his enemies, in his forgiveness of his disciples for abandoning him, he gives us confidence that we need not fear resisting evil and we need not do harm to evil doers in order to resist. The resurrection of Christ is proof that no sacrifice is too great, that even our lives can be given in the pursuit of justice because this life in this world is but rubbish compared to the life to come.
This all begins with individuals, like us, however. If we are not able to leave our anxiety and fear at the altar, then we can never expect the world to be at peace. So the challenge before me and us, I believe, is to begin to practice non-violence in the small spheres of our individual lives. We cannot begin to succeed in peace on a global scale—much less on the scales of nation, state, and city—if we cannot be non-violent in our own thoughts and actions. As I told a couple going through pre-marital counseling this week marriage is a chance to focus on one relationship and practice who we want to be. As we get better at that relationship it makes us better at all our relationships. To use a sports metaphor, practicing one aspect of your golf game improves your entire golf game. So it is with life as well. The more we practice non-violence in our most intimate relationships the more we will be non-violent in all our relationships. Furthermore, the more people practicing on the small level the more peaceful the entire world will be.
As I said, I lay this challenge before all of us and myself today. We will make mistakes along the way, but I simply challenge us to practice, and when we do slip and stumble God will be there to pick us up. God will not let us go, no matter what. If ever you doubt that then come to this altar. God is present here and wants so intensely to be present in our lives that God will become broken and poured, bread and wine to literally be consumed by us, to be in us so that we can be what we consume, to be the body of Christ just as it is given to us.
My brothers and sisters, grace happens here. Forgiveness happens here. True redemption—that can never happen through violent means—happens here at this table. I invite all of you come to this table, surrender all that you are to God and receive the body of Christ so that we may then go and be the body of Christ in the world. Amen!