Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 20 July 2014
Sermon preached by Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 12.13, 16-19; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
‘Another parable he put before them, saying:’
‘The disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”’
When Jesus speaks to the crowds in parables drawn from the world of farming, he is not giving advice on horticulture as if he was an expert being interviewed on “Farming Today” or Gardener’s Question Time. He is speaking in parables about the kingdom of God which is present, personified, in himself. He does so against a background of increasing hostility and rejection.
In face of this, Jesus does not give up his public ministry. He still preaches to the crowds, but as in today’s gospel, we see him also instructing his disciples in private.
We often think of parables as simple tales suitable for children and simple folk; to be left behind by the more sophisticated. But there is something about parables which makes them particularly suitable for advanced learners too. Simple they may be, but they are also profound. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, they open up deep insights into the ways of God. For those who are ready learners, parables unlock the secrets of the kingdom. For those whose minds are closed, parables remain a closed book.
Many of the parables are about trouble – seed falling on stony ground or into poor soil, as we heard last Sunday, weeds growing up amidst wheat. The message of these parables helps disciples to understand why Jesus encounters trouble, why the good news of the kingdom is not being received with joy by everyone.
The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares applies in three places:
1. to the ministry of Jesus.
2. to the life of the Church.
3. to the future judgement at the end of the world.
So, first of all, the parable is meant to assure the disciples that the rejection Jesus encounters, the weeds threatening to overwhelm the just sprouting wheat, is the result of enemy activity rather than of a defect in the message and work of Jesus.
Secondly, in the life of the Church, the parable presents the realities if the Church: there are weeds as well as wheat within the Church. The Church is like the field in the parable. Weeds are entangled in the wheat; good and evil are mixed together. The parable assures us that this is not the way God wants it to be and it will not always be this way. Selfishness, abuse, greed, and hatred are enemies of God, and the fact that they are an inevitable part of God’s people does not mean that they are part of God’s will. The fact that the Church always has its share of hypocrites does not make the gospel hypocritical, nor does it destroy the integrity of God. When all is said and done, this evil will not endure; the goodness of God will prevail; the tender wheat will be protected and saved.
The parable frees us from the burden of having to “play God” and set things right all by ourselves. The slaves in the parable wonder what they should do and are assured that it will be all right to leave the weeds growing in the field. The weeds will not choke the wheat. The farmer is in control of the situation and knows what to do. The weeds will be destroyed at the time of the harvest, and the success of the harvest is assured.
This does not mean that the Church should sit complacently and does nothing in the face of corruption within its ranks. Later in the Gospel, Jesus spells out a process for dealing with internal problems in the Church’s life. One of the things the General Synod was doing last week when the TV cameras were not there, was more work of ensuring that children and other vulnerable people are protected from abuse within the Church. A task which we now know is necessary across a broad spectrum of institutions – a fact which still does not excuse the Church from the task of confronting what has happened in its past and doing our best to ensure that it does not happen now or in the future.
However, the parables does mean that the ultimate victory of the kingdom of heaven does not depend on the stainless purity of the Church. This allows the Church to be patient and confident and not to launch fearful and destructive inquisitions, tearing itself apart in a puritanical zeal to punish wrongdoers. Notice in the interpretation of the parable that it is the angels who come to carry out the judgement, not the servants, not us.
There is an amusing story of Pope John XXIII – recently canonised – who on becoming pope was visiting the Holy Office (formerly known as the Inquisition). He asked if they had a file on him. They did because he had been suspected of doctrinal errors at an earlier stage of his career. A salutary warning to heresy hunters.
In the Letter to the Romans, Paul uses another image to encourage patience in the face of difficulty: that of a woman giving birth: “The whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly while we await adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Some among us have direct experience of labour pains, indeed some quite recently, others in the past. Yet others have been there in a professional capacity as midwives or doctors, while husbands of my generation and since have been there in a supportive role rather than pacing up and down in the waiting room.
Sometimes, the life of the Church seems to involve a good deal of groaning in labour as we struggle to bring something new to birth, and especially if at the same time we are trying to do that in a way which does not drive others out; which does not regard them as the children of the enemy.
The third application of the parable, to the final judgement, is dealt with when Jesus explains the parable to his disciples. Having finished his public sermon-in-parables, Jesus now withdraws to the privacy of a house and the company of his disciples. The teaching continues as he instructs his disciples about the meaning of the parables he told earlier. That teaching role continues with us as he calls us from our mission in the world to be instructed by him in his house.
It is on the third and largest canvas, that of the future of the whole world, that he now turns.
Jesus himself is the farmer who sows good seed, the children of the kingdom, in the field, which is the world. The enemy, who is the devil, sows wicked children in the same field. The good and the bad grow side by side until the harvest, the end of the age, at which the reapers, the angels, are sent to divide the wheat from the weeds. The weeds, the evildoers and their works, are thrown into the fiery furnace of judgement, but the children of the kingdom will be preserved and “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13.43).
These stark, uncompromising, unequivocal pictures of good and bad are typical of Matthew. This strong stuff can lead to misunderstanding.
This terrifying vision of a fiery judgement has made people afraid of a God who dangles sinners over a blazing pit. It has been the stock in trade of hell-fire preachers who seek to frighten people into the kingdom of heaven. But while the language is graphic, its intent is to encourage the disciples by reassuring them that all that opposes the gospel is impermanent and destined for oblivion.
The second way of misunderstanding this language, is for Christians to look out at the world and to think of ourselves as the Lord’s special favourites, the insiders, the ones who will “shine like the sun” in the end. We relish with smug self-satisfaction the thought of worldly types being rounded up at the grand finale, collected like weeds and burned in everlasting fire.
But the truth is that we are ourselves a mixture of good and evil. Sometimes we are faithful, and sometimes not; one moment we are loyal disciples, and the next we take sides against the kingdom. Even Peter was capable of moving from being the solid “rock” to a treacherous Satan in the space of minutes.
Now there are probably not many among us who espouse this kind of language. A good many of the people who come to churches like this one are often escaping from that kind of language and attitude in others. For us, there is a salutary reminder in this parable and its interpretation that, contrary to a widely held view, judgement is not something confined to the pages of the Old Testament. God is, as the reading from Wisdom says, one whose sovereignty over all causes him to spare all, who judges with mildness and forbearance. But we can distance ourselves from God.
But with all its sensational images, this interpretation of the parable is good news for frail human beings struggling amid the ambiguities of life. It shows a God who is a careful, wise and loving farmer cultivating and nurturing the world and caring for us as well.