Homily. July 20, 2014

Proper 11, Year A: 20 July 2014So. Here we are again. Hard on the heels of last week’s parable, the author of Matthew has placed another one about seeds and grain. But this time he is more direct. He has Jesus begin by stating that this teaching reveals something about what the reign of God, the kingdom of heaven, is like. Then follows a seemingly straightforward story about farming, but again with an unexpected twist in the middle. And finally we are once more left with a properly enigmatic conclusion, as he simply walks away and leaves the crowds wondering.

You gardeners in the crowd get what the twist is, of course, the moment at which the realism of the story breaks down: name me one self-respecting farmer who is going to allow weeds to grow in the middle of a crop until they all ripen! For one thing, the weeds will simply choke out a good deal of the legitimate crop; for another, if allowed to flourish they will produce their own bumper crop of seeds to plague next season’s planting. I know last week’s parable said that we were only responsible for scattering the seed, but this seems to actively advocate bad agriculture! So what does this story mean?

Generally I encourage people to not try to pin down a parable; we should leave it open-ended and wrestle with it instead. Try to apply its meaning to our own life situation. But as much as I advocate this approach, today I also want to explore the world of the parable a little, to see whether we can narrow the focus. What follows is my take on the parable of the weeds; see how it fits for you.

First, if this is an allegory of the kingdom of heaven, then the Master who sows the good seed is obviously God, who in creation pronounced everything good. And that seed may well be humanity itself, originally created and blessed with the image of God, but corrupted and led astray by some satan, some adversary. But Theo, you may ask, how is this an image of the kingdom of heaven? Sounds more like an image of the Fall to me. Just wait.

I am intrigued by the idea that the enemy came while the Master and his household were sleeping. Farmers, of course, have no duties to the sown crop that need to be done at night; every positive measure called for has already been done by day. Other things being equal, the seed in the ground will do the rest of the job entirely on its own. The mystery, in other words— the mystery of both the sowing of seed and the sowing of the kingdom— can, will, and does fend nicely for itself, that you very much. Furthermore, where last week Jesus developed the imagery of the parable of the sower in such a way that this mystery itself seemed in danger (from the birds, from the rocky ground, from thorns) today’s parable gives no such hint of perils. From start to finish, the working of the seed is not seriously threatened at all.

Very heartening. To me this speaks to the presence of that divine spark of our original nature planted in us and working out its purpose whether we recognize it or not. Of course we have already recognized that things can go wrong: there are those weeds, after all. But it is important to be clear about how the parable presents this: the Master’s enemy comes and sows the weeds. And even so, the weeds in no way seem to interfere with the growing of the wheat. The emphasis seems to be not on any danger to the crop’s growth but rather on the response of the Master and his servants. No matter that the servants may have plausible proposals for dealing with the problem as they see it; their very proposals, the Master tells them, may cause more harm than anything else. To be sure, he goes on to assure them that at some later, riper time, he will indeed interfere with his enemy’s plans. But the principal thrust of the parable as an image of the reign of God seems to be not the final redress of wrongs but the present forbearance of them. Evil is to be suffered, not resisted; in the end, it will take care of itself.

At first hearing this seems a little hard to take, especially in the light of world and national events. But there is more to the parable. The weed that the enemy sows is darnel, an annual grass with long, slender awns or bristles that looks very much like wheat indeed. What does that say about the relationship between the kingdom and evil in the world? It seems to me—and current events seem to bear this out every day— that programs designed to get rid of evil are, due to the muddle-headedness of the world and the craft and subtlety of the enemy, often doomed to do exactly what the farmer suggests they will do. Since the only troops available to fight the battle are either too confused or too busy to recognize the real difference between good and evil, all they will accomplish by their frantic pulling of weeds is to tear up the wheat right along with them.

Worse, since good and evil in this world commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings— there being no unqualified good guys any more than there are unqualified bad guys— the only result of a truly dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the annihilation of literally everybody. Which puts the finger on the whole purpose of the enemy’s sowing of the weeds. He has no power against goodness in and of itself: the wheat is in the field, the kingdom is in the world, and there is not a thing he can do about any of it. Evil, like darnel, is a counterfeit of reality, not reality itself. It is a parasite on being, not being itself. But the enemy doesn’t really need much power, does he? He only has to act minimally on his own to wreak havoc in the world; mostly he depends on the forces of good to do his dirty work for him, insofar as he can sucker them into taking up arms against the very confusion he has introduced. Notice that he doesn’t hang around; he doesn’t have to. He simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him.

Back to the parable. When the plants come up and bear fruit, when the grain ripens, the weeds appear as well. The mystery of goodness is going along swimmingly, the kingdom is coming along quite of its own accord, and its growth and fruitfulness are established facts. But the mystery of iniquity seems unfortunately to be doing just fine as well. True to its nature, as a counterfeit to reality it also pretends to growth and fruitfulness. And the servants, quite understandably, want to know how this could have happened. “Master,” they ask, “where did these weeds come from?” Classic question, isn’t it? If God is in control, why is there evil in the world? And then the corollary: given that evil exists, what are we to do about it?

The answer to either part is not very helpful, not in any direct way. First the Master says, God says, “An enemy has done this.” Now this may disturb your notion of God, as it suggests on the surface a rather less-than-Supreme Being, but it’s all the answer we’re going to get from Scripture on the question of the problem of evil. And then he says, “Let it be. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” The Greek word used here for “let” is actually the same as the word used in the Lord’s Prayer when we ask forgiveness for our sins and those of others. In other words, the word for permission and the word for forgiveness is the same. The master says, “Permit/forgive both of them to grow together until the harvest.” This is important, because it suggests that the parable is actually saying we deal with evil not by attacking or abolishing the things or persons in whom it dwells, but by a letting be that is a forgiveness that is a suffering of that is even a permission, all rolled into one. Such is the farmer’s advice, the Master’s advice, God’s advice, to us who are servants.

What in the world do we do with that?? Well, I did say that this answer wasn’t very helpful. Certainly now we are caught on the horns of the parable and must struggle with it, today as when it was first told. Suddenly what seemed a fairly straightforward—if slightly enigmatic—story has become almost unbearably complex. Suddenly we are reminded that Jesus went through torture and a painful death on a cross rather use his power to destroy his enemies. That the principal purpose of forgiveness is for the sake of our own souls, not whoever has harmed us. At the very least it is now clear that if the essence of the kingdom, hence of God, is forgiveness, then the mature fruit of the seeds sown by God in the first place— in other words, human nature in its created state— is also characterized by forgiveness. No wonder we are in danger of rooting up this good fruit— betraying our created nature— when we engage in acts of retaliation!

In the end, if we take this line of parable thinking seriously, it challenges us to trust that even in the face of all evidence to the contrary, God is in charge and the mystery of the kingdom will get its own way. It counsels us not to get involved, at least not in acts of revenge or in trying to control others. Do I hear overtones of “judge not” here? Or more? It reminds us that we have only to be concerned with ourselves and our actions, to practice radical forgiveness, and to leave the rest to God.

And having said this, Jesus left the crowds and went into the house.