Proper 11A Sermon (1996)

Proper 11 (July 17-23)
Texts: Matthew 13:24-43;
Rom. 8:12-25; Gen. 28:10-19


The Number One Rule of gardening, or farming, is: get those weeds! Well, maybe it’s the number two rule behind watering, but it’s right up there. Heaven knows, I’m not a gardening expert — not like Ellen, who does all the gardening around our house, or like Joy Kousek and Al Beck, our resident gardeners around the church grounds. No, I’m no expert. But even I know that you have to make some effort to get the weeds, or they might choke out the plants and crops that you’re working so hard to help grow. Even a non-gardener, non-farmer like myself knows that.

So what is Jesus all about in this morning’s gospel, telling a parable where a farmer just lets his weeds go? Was he simply not as good of a gardener as he was a carpenter? Didn’t he know that simply letting the weeds go is no way to run a farm? What’s going on here?

I would like to suggest to you this morning that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in telling this parable, right on down to every last detail of poor farming technique. First of all, it has to do with understanding what Jesus was trying to do by telling parables in the first place. Last week, we heard the parable of the Sower, and this explanation from Jesus of why he tells parables:

The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them.’ (Mt. 13:13-16)

What kind of explanation of parables is that? I thought parables were supposed to obvious, quaint little stories. What’s all this about not seeing and not hearing and not understanding? What is it that is so hard for us to see and hear and understand? In two of the verses omitted from the middle of today’s gospel, Matthew adds this comment about Jesus’ parables:

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim things hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Mt. 13:34-35)

Things hidden since the foundation of the world. What is Jesus talking about?

Well, if we can get past the unorthodox farming techniques, I think that what Jesus is talking about is right here for us in this parable of the wheat and the weeds. In fact, it is precisely the surprising response of this farmer to the weeds sown into his field that gives us the clue. We are like the well-meaning servants who right away want to take action and pull those weeds out. But the farmer’s response in this parable gives us a clue, then, to the difference between us and God, between our way of doing things and God’s. “No,” says the farmer to his eager servants, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” (Mt. 13:29-30a)

For in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest. This is God’s way. Our way is to act now and to try to get rid of those weeds immediately. And it’s been our way since the foundation of the world. For, clearly here, Jesus is talking about the existence of evil in the world. He is talking about the fact that God ‘sowed’ a good creation and some enemy came to sow bad seed, to sow evil, into that good creation.

And the real clincher is that that enemy can simply go away after doing his dirty work, because then we, the overeager servants, do the rest. We really mess things up by trying to take the weeds before the harvest, because we end up taking some wheat with it. We are now doing evil. And perhaps that’s the real seeds of evil in the first place, thinking that we know good and evil and acting to purge the evil. Perhaps that’s what has been hidden from us from the foundation of the world. Whenever we respond to the evil in this world by violently trying to eradicate it, we never fail to also kill some good along the way. That’s the evil. In fact, the enemy can simply go away because our violent actions have already spread the evil. We have become the evil. This is the contrast between our way and God’s way. This is what is so hard for us to see, so hard for us to hear.

And it has been that way since the foundation of the world. We read in Genesis 3: “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil'” (Gn. 3:4-5). In other words, the tempter came to the first man and woman in the garden and convinced them that they could know the difference between good and evil, convinced them that they could know what God knows. Adam and Eve were just like the servants in this story, thinking they could know good from bad, a task that only the farmer can carry out at the harvest.

And it has been this way since the foundation of the world. It continues to be that way for us. All those programs, all those campaigns, designed to get rid of evil are — by the muddle-headedness of the world, and the subtlety of the enemy — doomed to do exactly what the farmer said they will do. Since the only troops available to fight the battle lack the knowledge to recognize the real difference between good and evil, all they will accomplish by their frantic pulling out of the weeds is the tearing up of the wheat right along with them.

We know this best from the groups today we love to hate: right-wing religious fundamentalists, terrorists who blow up buildings and planes, para-military groups of rural America, ‘skinhead’ racists. All these folks firmly believe that they know good from evil and are acting by God’s will to ‘pull the weeds.’ We think them to be wrong — but what happens to us when we act to stop them? The real depth of the problem is that, since good and evil in this world commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings — since, that is, there are no unqualified good guys any more than there are any unqualified bad guys — the only result of a truly dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody. And we seem to be getting ever closer to that end, in this century of apocalyptic violence.

This parable of the wheat and weeds is so difficult for us to hear and see and understand that Jesus came to live it out for us. The leaders and crowd who put Jesus to death weren’t all bad people. They were well-meaning people like us, and like those servants who wanted to get rid of the weeds. Like Caiaphas the chief high priest said before trying and sentencing Jesus, “It is better for one person to die for the nation, then for the whole nation to die.” He was really trying to save his field by pulling the weeds. But he got it wrong. And we get it wrong. We’ve always gotten it wrong, thinking that we could be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil. Jesus died at the hands of our gardening efforts that we might finally hear and see and understand.

But, if we do finally get it, does this mean that we no longer have any response to evil? That’s what our second lesson from Romans is about, I think, as it talks of the whole creation groaning for the end of evil. What response to evil do we read here? Hope. Hope that this will someday come to end. But there is another answer that is less obvious, and certainly less attractive. St. Paul says that being adopted as a child of God means suffering with Christ. In other words, our response to evil is the same as Jesus’: it begins by suffering with the victims of evil, by sharing their plight.

An example which sticks out for me these days is the movie “Dead Man Walking,” in which we witness the true story of a Catholic sister who lived out such ‘suffering with,’ suffering with not just the families of murder victims, but with the murderer himself on death row. It is her unconditional love and forgiving presence that enables him to finally accept the full depth of what he did as wrong. Here we see that we don’t even need to completely give up the knowledge of good and evil, but that full knowledge only comes through forgiving love. It is only God’s forgiving love of the cross that allows us to hear and see and understand the full depth of evil in ourselves and in our world. It is in following God’s way of the cross, the way of a suffering and forgiving love that we also discover the truth of both this morning’s parable and the cross itself: the truth of evil in the form of our usual way of doing things, of more actively trying to weed out the evil.

So thank God that God has always had a different way of doing things. “Let both of them grow together until the harvest,” says God. It might also help our hearing and understanding to know that the Greek word for “Let” here is the same one that we often translate as “Forgive.” Forgive both of them until the harvest. Forgiveness. Thank God that that is God’s way. Thank God that Jesus was sent to tell us and to show us. Thank God that Jesus comes again today in bread and wine, so that our weed-pulling (that is, our killing him on the cross) was God’s harvest of a new life lived in forgiveness. Thank God that Jesus comes to say to us today — we who continue to scratch our heads over these crazy parables — that he says to us, as he said to his disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (Mt. 13:17) Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, July 20-21, 1996

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