23rd July 2017 5.00 p.m. Arnhem
Sermon Living together patiently Matthew 13:24vv Rev Dr Jos Strengholt
If only those refugees would not be in our counrty, our land would be so much better. With their vote, many people in England, Holland, the USA, agreed to this idea. We must get rid of ‘bad’ people. And of course, people who are not like us, they are bad, are they not?
If only John, or Mary, would not be a member of our church, our meetings would be so much more lovely. Would it not be great to have a church that consists of really nice and good people only? One rotten apple can spoil everything.
Jesus responded to such ideas with the parable of the good wheat and the bad tares, both growing up in one plot of land. How to deal with bad people, or evil, in our midst.
1 Agricultural parable
The parable we have read is one of many in which our Lord Jesus Christ uses images from agriculture. All people in Israel would understand this, because almost all people, even those living in cities, had their own plot of land.
Tares were one of the curses all farmers had to work against. The tares Jesus mentioned was what in Latin is called Lolium Temulentum, also known as bearded darnel, poison darnel, darnel ryegrass or cockle. Do not for a moment believe that I knew these names. For me all weed seems to be like grass. I had to look this up…
But farmers in Israel knew the difference. It was not so hard to distinguish darnel from wheat when it has matured. But in its early growth, it is very hard to distinguish. So initially it grows up together, and by the time it is clear what is the poisonous darnel and what is the desired wheat, the roots of the plants are so intertwined that it is impossible to uproot the darnel without also destroying the wheat.
The picture of a man purposely sowing darnel in someone else’s field is by no means a matter of imagination. This was actually sometimes done. In the Roman Empire this crime occured obviously so often that it was officially, by law, forbidden and its punishment was laid down.
The slaves of the landowner asked the man whether they should uproot the darnel. Now this is not a very realistic question, because they knew that this would not happen, they knew it was a bad idea. But exactly in order to bring his message home, Jesus uses this unrealistic question. It made the listeners think. They all knew what the normal procedure was. Only at the time of the harvest, the wheat would be separated from the tares. The sickle would go into the grain, and then the stalks of darnel would be taken out, and burned.
So the idea in the story by Jesus that the slaves would uproot the bad plants before it was harvest time, was very strange. No wonder the disciples did not get the point of the story and Jesus had to explain it.
Maybe those slaves in the story, with their desire to uproot the evil plants, represent the disciples, or even us. Who among us has not questioned why God allows evil to grow and thrive? Who among us has not wanted to take matters into our own hands and root out the evil in our midst?
But the master stops the slaves from doing anything of the sort. Not we but the reapers – Jesus says, the angels – will eventually uproot evil.
“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (13:41-43).
It is the angels — not any human beings — who are authorized to pluck out the weeds, the tares, from the wheat.
And this is so hard for us to accept. Why does God allow evil to exist. Why can we not try to make the church a place of perfect people only? Why not let our governments act as a morality police and combat all things that are morally wrong! The most obvious answer seems to me, that we may be so easily mistaken in deciding about who is right and who is wrong.
We have well develeoped ideas about who belongs and who doesn’t belong — in this country, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, in our jails, and on our deportation lists. We know who deserves life and who deserves to die.
We know who the weeds are that need to be uprooted and thrown into our fires of judgment. In other words, we know where our borders are. And who is allowed to cross them. Well, we think we know.
We may believe we are doing the world and God a great service when we decide amongst ourselves who gets to belong and who doesn’t, when we decide what constitutes the tares and the wheat.
But a person may appear to be good and may in fact be bad; and another person may appear to be bad and may yet be good. We are much too quick to classify people and label them good or bad without knowing all the facts.
God knows the hearts of people. Darnel and wheat can look so similar, that we must really withhold our quick judgment of others… God will judge, one day.
So this parable teaches us to be patient. Yes, we may be sure about who or what is wrong, and who must be expelled from our community. But God wants the plants, good, and bad, to grow up together.
The parable does give the impression that the world consists of two sorts of people – good and bad. But I think this dualism is superficial, and let me tell you why.
Let me repeat Matthew 13:41: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire.”
All “causes of sin” wil be dealt with in the end. The Greek word for “causes of sin” is skandalon, from which we have the word ‘scandal’. It also meants ‘stumbling block’. Matthew uses this word stumbling block, skandalon, a few times in his Gospel.
Jesus warns those who put a stumbling block (skandalon) before any of the “little ones”; it would be better for them to have a millstone put around their neck and to be drowned in the sea (18:6-7).
Also, he warns you that if your hand or foot or eye causes you to sin (skandalizo), it is better to cut it off or pluck it out and enter life blind or maimed, than to be thrown into the “hell of fire” with body intact (18:8-9).
This is hyperbolic language, of course, meant to make us aware of how serious it is to lead people into sin. Matthew says that all ‘scandals’ will be thrown into the fire.
But you know when Jesus also used the word ‘skandalon’? When He tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
So should that evil man, Peter, be excommunicated? In spite of these strong words and Peter’s repeated failings, Jesus does not give up on Peter. The darnel eventually becomes precious wheat.
So perhaps we should not press the logic of the parable too literally. In agriculture, tares do not become wheat. But God can change people. Matthew’s story holds out hope even for those who stumble — yes, even for the one who is called a stumbling block!
Judgment has to wait until the harvest comes. Then all people will be judged, not by any single act or stage in our life, but by our whole life. And therefore we must be so careful not to judge people prematurely. And to leave judgment to God.
This also means, that the idea that we must withdraw from the church of God because it is not perfect and because there are imperfect people, is rejected by this parable of Jesus. First, we must not uproot ourselves – because that is damaging. Damaging for us, but also for those that we consider evil. By leaving our community, we also uproot those who need us.
This is certainly how St Cyprian in the beginning of the 3rd century in the city of Carthage (now Tunis) understood this parable. He warned the sect of the Novatians, who wanted to leave the catholic church in order to create a church of truly committed Christians:
Although tares, or impure vessels, are found in the Church, yet this is not a reason why we should withdraw from it. It only behoves us to labour that we may be … vessels of gold or of silver. But to break in pieces the vessels of earth, that belongs to the Lord alone, to whom a rod of iron is also given. Nor let any one arrogate to himself what is exclusively the province of the Son of God, by pretending to fan the floor, clear away the chaff, and separate all the tares by the judgment of man. (St Cyprian (?-258), Lib. 3, Ep. 5, to Maximus)
St Cyprian says it is arrogant to think we can judge people.
3 Right and wrong
All this should not make us think that the distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, christian or not christian, does not matter. It matters a lot. The issue is, we as feeble humans do not have a perfect instrument to measure others, and even if we had, to uproot evil from our midst is premature and it damages us all.
William Barclay, the Anglican priest who wrote a very useful series of comments on the Bible, says:
There is always a hostile power in the world, seeking and waiting to destroy the good seed. Our experience is that both kinds of influence act upon our lives, the influence which helps the seed of the Word to flourish and to grow, and the influence which seeks
to destroy the good seed before it can produce fruit at all. The lesson is that we must be for ever on our guard.
So there is real evil. The servants of the master recognised it. Jesus blamed the devil, the evil one, for sowing evil in this world, among us. So we must be on our guard.
But we must be on our guard, in the first place about our own life. Judgment will come. Judgment is not hasty, but it comes. Humanly speaking, in this life the sinner often seems to escape the consequences, but there is a life to come. It may be that, humanly speaking, goodness never seems to be rewarded, but there is a new world coming to redress the balance of the old.
And the only person with the right to judge is God. Only God can discern the good and the bad; it is God alone who sees all of a person and all of his or her life. So we must guard ourselves; make sure that we bear fruit, as good wheat. Worry about yourself and less about others.
Thank God judgement is not up to us! We can leave the weeding to the angels, and get on with the mission Jesus has given us — proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God that is drawing near.
Would you change if other people judge you? I guess not. Embracing people into our community is a much better way to draw those people into the light. And even if people do not change – God knows the heart and he is the judge.
We should be less worried about the tares in our midst, and more focused on bearing fruit as good wheat.
Getting rid of the tares in our own life, that should be our focus. Our responsibility as Christians, as children of the kingdom, is to bear fruit.
So let us bear fruit – as much as possible. Fruit like love, peace, kindness, that is what God is looking for. Kindness even to people who are dead wrong and who need change. Show this fruit of love – even for bad people, just as God loves this whole world.