The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11
July 23, 2017
The Rev. Christine Mendoza
(Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, TX)
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Come Holy Spirit and enkindle in the hearts of your faithful the fire of your love.
As was the case last Sunday, this morning we are treated to another of the parables of Jesus that are found in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. This morning, we read about a farmer who sowed good seed into his field. Under cover of the night, enemy came and sowed weeds all among the wheat.
Most of us probably find it hard to imagine that someone would go to the trouble of purposely sowing bad seed in another person’s fields, but some academics believe that in Jesus’ day, it was a popular method of revenge or punishment. It is thought that the bad seed which Jesus talks about is what is nowadays called “bearded darnel.” Bearded darnel sown among wheat is particularly insidious, because the sprouts of both seeds are basically indistinguishable. Because of this, the darnel cannot be weeded out as soon as it sprouts, lest the wheat be pulled up by mistake. Then, by the time the plants can be distinguished from each other, it’s too late to weed out the darnel because the roots of the darnel and the roots of the wheat become intertwined. Plucking the mature weed will also uproot the good wheat.
Now, I suppose the farmer in the parable could have just burned off the whole field and started over. Instead he pursued the only course which would allow him to salvage the original crop and so he allowed the wheat and the weeds to grow side-by-side until the harvest. Then at harvest time, every plant will be cut. The wheat will be stored in the barn, and the weeds will be gathered for burning. In explaining the parable, Jesus says, “The son of man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evil -doers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
It’s probably accurate to say that, more often than not, we wish to depict ourselves as the wheat. We think of ourselves as on the side of the angels. We imagine that we will watch them sort out all those evildoers (the weeds) and while we (the good wheat) will be gathered and brought to the grand harvest that awaits us in heaven. And, there we will join the righteous who “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father.” In other words, when we hear this parable, we most likely see it as a proper warning for the evildoers, those other people, some of whom we could help identify. But, as for us…. Well, we’re on the side of the angels, aren’t we?
But you know, even having to ask that question – who’s on what side – should remind us that judgment of any person is God’s prerogative, not ours. So, if God is willing to let the wheat and weeds grow side-by-side, why should we presume upon God’s decision? It’s not our job to sort those who belong to the kingdom or to weed out those who do not. That’s God’s job, and God can probably handle it just fine.
A story is told of a woman who decided to take a break after a long afternoon of shopping. She sat down on a bench, opened her newspaper, and reached down to take a few small candies from a bag of them she had just purchased. A well-dressed man was sitting next to her and, much to her chagrin, he also reached down, took some of the candies himself, and popped them into his mouth. The woman was shocked but she figured the best thing to do was to ignore it. So she did. Then she took some more of the candy – and he also took some more and ate them. Then he beat her to the punch and took yet more from the bag. By this time she was incensed. She grabbed the bag of candy, threw it in the trash, and stormed off, muttering to herself, “That awful person. I should have slapped his face.”
Minutes later, she spotted the man standing in front of a bakery with a pastry in is hand. She just couldn’t resist, and the next thing you know, she grabbed the man’s wrist, took a big bite out of his pastry, and walked away. When she made it to her car and reached into her purse for the keys, she noticed an unopened bag of candy. It had been his candy all along!
This story illustrates our inclination to assume that we are in the right, on the side of the angels, and that the other is at fault. We jump to conclusions at the bat of an eyelash, and accuse our friend, loved one, or stranger of callously trampling our feelings, taking something of ours for themselves, of being uncaring of our needs. We all too quickly assume that we are right and that the other, by necessity, is wrong.
Another problem with our inclination to pass judgment is that we often only have part of the whole picture. We only know what we experience and what we understand of that experience. Too often, we lack the God’s Eye perspective that allows us to know the entirety and, instead, we draw our conclusions from our limited viewpoints.
There is a fable that tells of an ancient Persian king who wanted to discourage his four sons from making rash judgments. At his command, the eldest made a winter journey to see a mango tree. When spring came, the next oldest was sent on the same journey. Summer followed and the third son went. Finally, after the youngest had made his visit in the autumn, the king called all four of them together and asked them to describe the tree.
The first son who visited the tree in the winter said it looked like a burnt stump. The second son disagreed, describing it as lovely – large and green. The third son declared its blossoms were as beautiful as roses. The fourth said that they were all wrong – the fruit was so tasty, almost as juicy as a pear. “Well,” the old king said, “each of you is right.” Seeing the puzzled look in the son’s eyes, the king went on to explain, “you see, each of you saw it in a different season, thus all of you are correctly describing what you saw. The lesson for you,” said the king, “is to withhold judgment until you have seen the tree in all its seasons.”
Like this fable, the parable of the wheat and the weeds is also a story about judgment. But it seems to say that God reserves the right to sit in judgment over sin and evil, the right to ultimately and finally distinguish between the relative goodness and badness that each of us possesses. This judgment belongs to God alone and not to us. Yet we tend to act like the servants in the story, eager to go into the newly sown fields and pull up the weeds…even when we cannot distinguish them from the good wheat. We should remember that God teaches us to be patient and let God do the judging in His own time for, as the householder says, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.”
It is our work not to sit in judgment but to labor in the fields we find before us, nurturing and tending the life in our midst without regard to our perception of its worthiness. For we have never been all that good at judging the righteousness of others or ourselves. And when we take judgment into our own hands, we often tear up the good with the bad, perhaps because it is so often difficult to distinguish between the two. It is not easy to discern what motives or circumstances are driving people to ideas or opinions or behavior that we may consider wrong. We usually don’t wait to see them in all seasons.
I am reminded of two other important lessons Jesus taught on the folly of our flawed judgment. The first is from his Sermon on the Mount when he taught: “Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you, for God will judge you in the same way you judge others, and he will apply to you the same rules you apply to others. Why, then, do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye? … First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will be able to see clearly to help take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” And in the Gospel of John, when Jesus said: “Let the person among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”
We know these lessons of Jesus so well that sometimes I think we forget the remarkable challenge and charge that they make. I also think that sometimes, the log in our own eye is too painful for us and we prefer instead to focus on the specks in our brother’s eyes. As if in doing so, we can pretend our own faults and failings don’t exist. But this does nothing for nurturing the kingdom of heaven in our midst, for when we limit our focus solely upon the weeds of the field, we fail to notice the good wheat that is growing all around us. So, this morning, let us let us pray for the grace to leave the judgment to God and instead tend to the life in the fields that God places before us.