Anna Carter Florence suggests that some of Jesus’ agrarian parables seem to reflect a complete lack of understanding about how farmers might be expected to act. She wonders if he was a “city boy” trying to use images familiar to his audience – yet lacking a full knowledge of the realities of country life. He talks about crop yields that are unimaginable – 40, 60, a hundredfold! Even the best modern fertilizers can’t create that kind of yield! Or he speaks of leaving 99 sheep in the wilderness and going after the one that was lost. Again, what shepherd would risk the 99 in order to bring back one that had wandered away? In today’s parable, he suggests giving the weeds room to grow, until the harvest. Is this good gardening? Now, I’m not a gardener – but, theoretically, I know that you are supposed to pull those weeds so that they don’t take over!
My problem is that I can’t tell the weeds from the good plants! When my friends Kathy and Jack visited earlier this year, Jack spent time outside. He brought me a beautiful flowering plant which he added to a barren planter outside our garage. Then he wandered through the backyard and found other plants to dig up and put in planters to further adorn the front yard. Well, the flowering plant died while Mark and I were away and the summer storms hadn’t yet started. But one little plant is thriving. I suspect that the thriving plant is actually a weed of some sort. But, maybe I’ll be proved wrong.
In the parable Jesus warned his listeners that in their eagerness to uproot the weeds they might well uproot some of the wheat. Perhaps that was a way of saying to them that they would not always be able to tell what plants were weeds and what plants were wheat.
But, oh, it’s so tempting to name the wheat and work vigorously to weed out that which isn’t. Church history is filled with stories of the church, in many forms, striving to do just that! It’s part of our current reality as well. We hear the stories, we see the agenda. Church people are determined to separate the wheat from the weeds.
Professor Jennifer T. Kaalund wrote that the parable’s first purpose is for Jesus to tell his disciples that “there is opposition to the kingdom of heaven.” She goes on to warn, however, that seeing the world in terms of dichotomies is not helpful.
"Yet, the establishment of dichotomies is dangerous and has material implications. Dichotomies such as “us versus them” or “body or soul” or “savage versus civilized” or “good versus evil” are examples of the ways in which we attempt to distill our world into two realms. When we reduce our worldview to such sharp contrasts, we often lose the ability to see our collective best interests and common goals."
Sometime, in the last week, I read about a new missive from the Vatican. It wasn’t written by the pope, but it reflected his perspective. (I tried to find it again, but was unsuccessful.) It, too, noted that, for many, faith has led them to view the world as a dichotomy, wheat and weeds. For some, these are divisions that will perpetually and eternally divide the wheat from the weeds, the good people from the bad – and those who see such divisions are willing to tell us that they are counted among the wheat and those who are on the other side of the issues they consider central to the faith are, of course, the weeds.
The Vatican missive or letter said that we should be not be concerned with creating and building walls, but with creating and building bridges that bring us together. Kaalund wrote that noting the distinctions “overshadow the shared desire to identify the common good of all citizens and most often result in conflict that can easily escalate into violence.” I am reminded of the time that a colleague (from a non-denominational church) came to visit me because he was on a “mission from God to oust Satan from the pulpit.” I was, in his eyes, a weed that needed to be uprooted and destroyed –not physically, but my ministry and, perhaps, the congregation which I served.
When I was thinking about this scripture weeks ago, I thought about God’s patience in letting the wheat and the weeds grow together. Biologically, of course, it is not possible for weeds to become wheat. But, it is possible for the plants to grow and begin to look like something different that might have, initially, been labeled a weed. (Maybe there’s hope for that little plant in my front yard.) There are different varieties of wheat! If we are quick to judge, to ostracize, to reject those who don’t fit our understanding of what wheat is, we miss God’s good variety. Even more so, we get focused on the wrong things.
A blog by Darrell Lackey noted the problems with our sometimes narrow approach to faith, one that judges and finds others lacking. He cited a few examples. “If you become upset when hearing that gay marriage is legal or that a transgender person may use the same public restroom as you, but you are less upset regarding the hate, violence, and discrimination directed toward such people, often leading to suicide: You are upset about the wrong things. If you become upset when people use the greeting ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas,’ but you are less upset at the wasteful use of resources during this season and the rampant shallow consumerism while many live in poverty: You are upset about the wrong things. If you become upset when the government uses its power to make corporations protect their workers and protect the environment, but you are less upset when those workers are exploited, injured, or the environment is critically harmed: You are upset about the wrong things. If you become upset at the grocery store when you see someone pay for their food with vouchers or food stamps, but you are less upset with the institutional and cultural structures that often create the very need for such help: You are upset about the wrong things…If you become upset when you feel the government is restricting your religious liberties, but you are less upset or even applaud the restriction of the religious liberties of others: You are upset about the wrong things.”
“You are upset about the wrong things.” Anna Carter Florence said of this parable: “It’s just too dang easy to identify with the wheat. Then you end up having to preach to a self-professed weed-free congregation which contradicts everything the text is about in the first place.” She began to look at this parable addressed not only to the crowds, but to the individuals who heard it. (Yes, I think you can and should hear it each way.) She asked, “What are the biggest weeds in your life? What threatens the wheat you want to produce in your field? The possibilities are endless. Stress, busy-ness, pressure. Money, ambition, competition. Desire for the bigger and presumably better house, car, toys, bling, neighborhood, college, and walk-in closet.”
We’re so quick to hear this as a parable of judgment – on those weeds who have chosen not to be wheat. But what if we take the idea of judgment out of it—or at least that sense of dichotomy out of it – and hear it as a parable of grace. “No;” Jesus said, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
Oh, but we hear those threatening words, “collect the weeds, bind them to be burned.” It’s taken me years to begin to hear those threatening passages that are gleefully lifted up as a sign of God’s wrath in a new way. “For he is like a refiner’s fire,” is an Old Testament passage from Malachi. But what is a refiner’s fire? It is a fire that purifies. God’s judgment is always a judgment to lead toward something purer, something better. It is not gleeful wrath. So, if God allows the wheat and the weeds to grow together, at some point, God will harvest the wheat and remove the weeds. God is willing to take the time and let the plants grow. That is God’s grace at work in our lives. And that is God’s grace offered to the world. The purification is not the removal or condemnation of individuals, but the removal of all that within individuals and human society that separates us from the ways of God’s realm. God will look for that within each of us, within all of us, within human communities and societies that is good – and remove the bad.
I noted earlier that Ana Carter Florence said Jesus told stories that didn’t fit reality. No good farmer, no good gardener would let the weeds grow and threaten the wheat. But, perhaps, that was Jesus’ point. His stories—based on the world around him – pushed the limits. No good shepherd risks the 99 to save the one; no respectable father gives an unloving son his inheritance; no good farmer sows seeds indiscriminately; no good farmer lets the weeds grow. It is a way of telling his hearers (including us) that God operates differently. God sows the seeds of grace abundantly, without prejudging. God seeks out the one that is lost. God gives even to the ungrateful children. God is patient.
“Let them both grow together until the harvest.” As we accept God’s patience with us, with our weediness, should we not extend that patience to the world? Now, I don’t mean that we don’t speak to injustice. Lauren and I listened to two mysteries on our trip whose heroine was the daughter of activists who lived by the motto, “Pray for peace. Work for justice.” That comes back to Kaalund’s observation that we need one another and in our need for one another we have to work for the common good. That is a justice issue. The world becomes a better place when, as Pope Francis says, we build bridges instead of creating divisions or building walls. Perhaps, in our search for justice, we seek the wheat among what we might or the world might see as weeds. Perhaps you have been blessed, as I have, by someone who saw something in you that you did not see, or that you dismissed – a potential, a gift, a possibility for growth. Sadly, in the world today, too many look only for the weeds – and are happy to point them out, in others. So, we hear this parable, we hear of God’s patient love that allows both to grow – in us and in the world. Then, we look for ways to bring the growth that promotes justice, and compassion and mercy. We look for ways to reform the systems that continually label particular people or groups of people as unredeemable weeds.
Jesus’ parables invite us to embrace and live by different values—values the world still rejects. And those values are still, often, disdained – by the world, and, unfortunately even, at times, the church. Yet, the wheat still grows. The poor are helped. The hungry are fed. Those in prison have good news brought to them. The sick are tended. People still pray for peace and work for justice, striving to dismantle the systems that keep the poor poor and the hungry hungry, that feed the prison system, that deny help for the sick. The wheat grows – and Jesus’ good news is that, ultimately, the weeds will be gone.
Sermon from July 9th
“Woe to you…” Jesus said to the cities where he had been active, where he had performed his “deeds of power.” “Woe to you.” The lectionary leaves this portion of Matthew’s gospel out of the reading. It is an uncomfortable passage. But what a strange saying that is. It’s familiar because it’s Biblical. But what did Jesus mean when he said, “Woe to you”? Since my Greek is beyond rusty, I looked at some other translations. “Alas for you” it says in the Jerusalem Bible. The most interesting –not easily read or heard in public worship, was a modern translation from The Complete Gospels.
“Then he began to insult the towns where he had performed most of his miracles, because they had not changed their ways: ‘Damn you, Chorazin! Damn you, Bethsaida! If the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sideon, they would have sat in sackcloth and ashes and chained their ways long ago.’”
The Jerusalem Bible translation seems to soften Jesus’ tone. The newer one makes it harsher –and, perhaps, more colloquial, the way someone might speak today. But, what did Jesus mean? Is this a glimpse of the fire and brimstone God that we fear? We speak of God’s love, but, too often we proclaim or act as God’s anointed judges who condemn. This sounds like a “God’s gonna getchya” message. “But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” Yet, a few verses later, Jesus declared, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
“My burden is light.” “On the day of judgment.” Those two phrases are hard to hear in proximity. How can the threat of a day of judgment be reconciled with the promise of a light burden? It would be easy to hear this as an invitation to draw lines – to look for ways of making sure that we’re on the inside, that we’re the righteous who have received the good promise and not the unrighteous who will be deservingly judged. It gives rise to all those approaches to Christianity that relish having an “insider” view or “secret knowledge” that makes us (or some) feel particularly privileged and blessed – while others remain outside. It can also lead to an approach to faith that is based ultimately on fear.
Years ago, a parishioner came to me. He was being pushed by a friend or relative to go to a different church—one with a good Biblical foundation. He went, but wasn’t very comfortable. So he came to talk with me. I asked him if he could identify the underlying message. They spoke of God’s love – but they also spoke of God’s judgment, with joy and relish. The underlying message – not fully spoken, but there nonetheless--was that God was to be feared. So, one had better get on God’s right side!
“Woe to you.,,” “Alas for you…” “Damn you!” Do we not hear, “Get right with God! Or else!”?
In one of my college physics classes we got tests back one day. I had gotten a good mark. Another student looked over and saw my grade. He said to me, “Wow! God was good to you!” That observation made me furious. “I worked hard for this! God had nothing to do with it!” I said.
That statement wasn’t completely fair to God. I had some innate ability to understand physics and I was certainly helped by having a physicist for a father. But this student’s observation that God had been good to me was so simplistic that it seemed to leave me out. It seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t have mattered what I did. God had made the decision to give me a good grade. God might, just as well, have made the decision to give me a bad grade. I needn’t have studied! It was all in God’s hands.
Well, my understanding is more along the lines of God had given me some abilities, but it was my responsibility to use those abilities, to study and work hard and then see what I had accomplished. If I hadn’t studied or worked hard on that exam and had gotten a bad grade, it wouldn’t have been God’s judgment on me. It would have been judgment that I brought on myself.
That’s sort of a long way around to wrestle with what’s happening in this passage. But, I suspect what we hear as God’s judgment is more Jesus pointing consequences – consequences that would be experienced as judgment. The towns had seen the power of God in and through Jesus – but they had rejected the signs. They did not repent (that is turn from) the ways that separated them from God’s ways. They were going to reap the consequences of continuing to live apart from what God was doing.
Maybe the judgment that we often attribute to God is that we live with the consequences of our own actions – of our own willingness to turn away from God. Anna Carter Florence wrote: “No sooner does Jesus finish lambasting those high-and-mighty, good-for-nothing towns than he abruptly turns around and offers one of the gentlest words in scripture….’Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ Does this strike anyone else as curious? Righteous indignation followed by warm invitation. Zealous anger paired with tender comfort. Judgment—and grace.”
We tend to hear Jesus’ words as the promise of future retribution. But, perhaps, those who rejected him are already living with the consequences that rejection. What Jesus offers them is a different future – one that embraces God’s ways, one that moves from the brokenness they know to fullness of life that is possible when it is lived within the loving grace and mercy of God. We could rehear Jesus’ words as a lament – a soft lament in the Jerusalem Bible, “Alas, alas.” Or an angry lament in that modern translation. “Damn it! Why don’t you accept what I’m offering you? I want you to know the fullness of God’s grace! Come to me.”
It’s easy and tempting to look for a someday scenario when God will thunder into the midst of human society and divide the good from the bad – and judge all those who contribute to the messiness that is so much a part of human existence. But Jesus’ call wasn’t a someday invitation. He offered it to those who were living in the midst of the mess. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden.”
We might ask, instead, what it is in our world that burdens us – as individuals, but maybe even more so, as the entire human community. We might ask what labors lead us not to life but to brokenness. What goals and ideals separate us from the good ways of God? What in human life today would cause Jesus to cry over us and say, “Alas, alas!”?
The passage calls us to look honestly at our own society. Where are we aligned with the values of God’s realm? Where have we turned away? We need to wrestle with our attitudes toward the poor, the invisible, the marginalized. We need to look at the systems and the laws that guide our communal life – and ask how they embody God’s call to justice and mercy, to compassion and love. We are living with the consequences of our own sin. We see it in the violence that erupts in households, neighborhoods, and communities. We see it in the desperation of many. We see it in the growing intolerance – for strangers, for foreigners, for those who look different, have different lifestyles, worship differently. We are being judged – living the consequences of our own brokenness. And it is to that brokenness that Jesus speaks when he issues the invitation to “Come.”
The yoke that he offered was not a burdensome yoke – it was the yoke of living within God’s ways – of having the human temptation to rebel contained by God’s loving, guiding presence. Jesus offered to teach them the ways of God, the ways that would lead toward the world God intended.
The word “yoke” sounds intimidating. It challenges that desire we have to be “free,” free to make our own decisions and our own choices. But this yoke is a choice given to us. We can choose the ways of God that lead toward the healing of the woes that we human beings know. Like the cross, it is our own decision to take this yoke that Jesus offers. When, as, we do, we find that the yoke is the grace needed to move from the world’s broken ways. That promise is for those who hear his invitation. And then, when we have taken the yoke, we continue his work of inviting others to take up the yoke and of easing the consequences of greed and selfishness, of fear and hatred, of all those things that separate us from one another and contribute to the violence and brokenness of the world.
It is a familiar story. God asked Abraham to take his son – his only son born within the covenant – and sacrifice him. Let’s be honest. It is a horrifying story! I pulled out a book of Bible stories for children to see if it was included. And it was. I thought, “This is not a kid friendly story! I don’t want children to have to wrestle with the God who is presented here – God who demands a child sacrifice. It’s a hard enough story for adults.” We might wonder how engrained this violent story is in our religious consciousness. How has this story influenced the way children were and are perceived in the church or even in the wider culture? How do we imagine God? As the blood thirsty One who demands sacrifice? Is that not the way the crucifixion is often interpreted? God demanded a blood sacrifice – and his Son Jesus was crucified to satisfy God’s hunger for justice.
A few weeks ago I spoke of the danger of reading the Bible as if it were science. There is also a danger in reading the Bible as if it were a history book. I often refer to the need to consider the context of a passage. That context is not only the surrounding story or passage; it is much broader. The context includes the culture and the perceptions of the people who remembered and valued the story. The Interpreter’s Bible Commentary says that although this story dates back to pre-Israelite days; it was shaped through the years, shaped by the experiences of the Israelites. So, what we have today is not purely historical. It is a theological story that tells us about the Israelites and their experiences.
The danger of seeing this as merely the telling of something that happened in the past is that we lose sight of its pull on us. We lose sight of the ways it has influenced our understanding of who God is and what God demands of us. We don’t acknowledge our discomfort with a god who would demand a human sacrifice. We don’t acknowledge our anger at a father who was willing to follow such a god. Yet, without wrestling, honestly, with the problems of this story, we can then easily accept the idea of God who would demand the sacrifice of God’s very Son – and say, “Yeah, that’s OK.”
The Interpreter’s Bible suggests that the Israelites in exile saw themselves as a combination of Abraham and Isaac. As Abraham, they were those who had heard God’s promise. Yet, they had, they were, experiencing the pains of exile. Like Isaac, they faced an uncertain future. Many had died. In the exile, they were tested. Would their faith endure?
We know that this story presents a test for Abraham. His faithfulness is being tested. Why? The test is to help God know whether or not God can move forward to fulfill the promise and the intent of the promise that God had made to Abraham. Could, would Abraham continue to trust God so that God could bring about the future God intended? God is waiting to see. Walter Brueggeman says that this “is not a game with God; God genuinely does know…”
“God genuinely does not know.” God made promises about the future and invited Abraham to be the means of bringing that future to life. But, their relationship was characterized by many ups and downs – times of faithfulness and times of doubt. God needed to know if Abraham could trust enough to continue the journey.
That question may have contributed to the importance the exiles placed on this story. In their context, the story of Abraham offered hope. After the testing, if they were faithful, there would be redemption and renewal. Abraham found an animal to sacrifice in Isaac’s stead: the exile would not be the end of Israel, but God would restore them. The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son becomes less a story about a vengeful, bloodthirsty God and more about a story about the relationship between God and God’s chosen ones.
“God genuinely does not know.” That’s a fascinating observation – and theological proposition. “God genuinely does not know.” We tend to describe God as all-knowing. The Calvinist tradition made that a bedrock of its theology – resulting in the fear inducing concept of pre-destination. Since God is all-knowing, God knows who will be saved and who won’t be saved. I have heard theologians suggest that this theology developed when Calvin’s theological works were re-organized. The idea of pre-destination was the only way to make sense of the flow of concepts.
The idea of pre-destination may not be in the forefront of our ideas about God. But do we not refer to God as the One who is totally in charge? Accidents or illnesses are perceived to be God given, God planned. If God is in charge, if God has given us certain leaders or systems, then we must be accepting of them.
We speak of free choice, of freedom – and then proclaim the God who is totally in charge. So, when things go wrong, we are resentful of the God who has “inflicted” us.
The “God is in charge of everything” theology leaves no room for human brokenness and human sin. It leaves no room for the idea that, like Abraham, sometimes we live according to God’s call and sometimes we walk away. The Interpreter’s Bible suggests that, like Abraham, God was being tested in this story. God needed to know if Abraham was capable of the life to which God had called him. God had taken a risk in calling Abraham. God wanted to know if Abraham was willing and able to trust the promise God had made.
The Israelites in exile feared that they had been cut off from God’s promise. God was asking them, in their exile, if they could continue to be God’s people, trusting that God would provide a future where there seemed to be no future. And, perhaps, in the exile, God was asking God’s self if this people could be trusted to be carriers of the promise. When their future seemed bleak, just as the future had seemed bleak to Abraham, the Israelites proclaimed their faith.
God is vulnerable to our faithfulness. That is a fascinating idea. I’ve always wondered in the Advent Christmas stories, “What if Mary said no?” Well, maybe there were others who said no, making God look elsewhere. So, God’s promise was fulfilled – through the one who said yes to God’s plan, to God’s vision. It couldn’t happen without Mary’s yes. And, later, it couldn’t happen without Jesus’ unwavering yes even as he faced death. The promise is trustworthy. But, we human beings always have the freedom, the power to deny that promise, to cut ourselves off from it.
One of the best reflections on the passage suggested that we not read or hear this story as a legalistic test. This testing takes place within a relationship. Abraham says “yes” to God’s call, not out of the blue, not out of some extreme legalism, but out of past experiences of God’s providence and goodness. He says yes to this challenging, horrifying, request because he trusts God. And God finds that Abraham can be trusted to continue to follow God’s plan.
It may be hard to hear a story that speaks of God’s vulnerability. We sing and proclaim the Almighty, the Omnipotent, Omnipresent God who rules over the world. The Biblical witness testifies to the Creator God who shaped the world and created its inhabitants. But it also testifies to the God who in love allows those inhabitants, particularly the human ones, to make mistakes – to even reject God’s love and God’s plans. God loves us. But that great love means freedom, not coercion. It means God continually takes risks – calling us to live in trust, but accepting the reality that too often we turn away.
The risk taking, vulnerable God is not the God of which we speak often – or sing often – or pray to often. We want the God who is in control, making all things the way they should be. But, that isn’t the God of love. Such a god is the despot god – who dictates the ways of human beings and does not allow them freedom. The risk taking, vulnerable God is the God who says “I love you so much that I give you the freedom to be with me – or apart from me: to accept my ways and be part of my plan – or walk away.”
There may be something comforting in proclaiming God as the One in charge, the One responsible for the way things are in the world. But, then, how do we reconcile that image with the injustice and suffering and violence that is so much a part of this world? When we proclaim “God fully in charge” we often find that proclamation used as an excuse to do nothing – to be silent in the face of injustice, or to proclaim suffering to be God’s will, or to accept violence as the way of the world. If, instead, we begin to see God as lovingly waiting for our acceptance of God’s ways, maybe we begin to see our own responsibility in the world’s brokenness. Maybe we begin to see the brokenness not as something to be borne but something that calls us to trust in God so that we may be part of God bringing forth healing and transformation.
Paul wrote of the need to “grow up” in the faith. Sometimes growing up means hearing the old familiar stories in new ways. Growing up in the faith may mean that we move from seeing God as the all powerful parent who directs and controls all that we do. Growing up in the faith means we accept the parental love that allows us freedom – and, ultimately, that we accept the parental wisdom that invites us to join in God’s good work. The testing is daily. We always have before us the opportunities to choose between the ways that lead to destruction and brokenness and the ways that lead toward the promises God has made to this world. And God is asking, “Will you join me? Are you willing to give yourselves to my vision and my ways?”