A Sermon by Graham Low
The sixth Sunday after Trinity
23.7.17 at St Mary’s (Year A, Proper 11)
While I was a scientist I was involved in some international collaboration, intended to lead to a common understanding about how certain research results should be interpreted. A vocal minority of the participants had a different view from the majority. After quite a struggle during a series of meetings, with much talking and listening, and re-evaluation of data, we eventually reached a new, deeper, and agreed understanding of the situation. We all felt content with this.
Soon afterwards I trained for and then began full-time parish ministry. Since then I have come to know a good deal about the lives of quite a number of parishes, and in most of them, there have been times when some people have been set on thwarting the views of others and thus preventing the changes that most people have desired. Such conflicts can become complicated and muddy, consuming much time and energy, and progress may either be slow or absent. I have certainly found that resolving conflict in church or religious communities is more difficult than in scientific communities, where independently testable data usually, though not always, leads to resolution of conflict. But in many human situations where, unlike science, there are often neither independent data nor agreed reference points. And so we find that vision conflicts with self-interest. I must stress here that I am not speaking about this parish!!! I am sure that each of you will have had corresponding experiences in your working, social, and family lives. The current turmoil in the political institutions of our country, and indeed of many other countries, is a very disturbing, and I think frightening, example of the same kind of issue.
More than any other, Matthew’s gospel is about such human situations and problems, often expressed at a practical level. These may affect individual Christians as well as church communities: here we can find discussion on anger, sexual behaviour, taxes, church discipline, divorce, hypocrisy, the power of material possessions and so on. We may not always care at first for what we read but we cannot deny its relevance to everyday life, as in today’s gospel passage. We have all been in situations where we have just wanted to be rid of people who noisily proclaim a different perspective from our own. Matthew is writing in response to such difficulties in early church communities.
The language and image of this parable is as with the parable of the sower, which we heard last week. But here a new force enters the scene, an enemy who sows weeds among good seeds. Note that the neither the presence nor the role of the enemy is discussed. Instead we are told about the consequences of the enemy’s work. First the workers become agitated about the sight of weeds among the wheat. Where did they come from? Was the seed the householder sowed free from weed seeds? On hearing of an enemy, the workers want to take matters into their own hands and pull out the weeds to produce a pure crop. It’s quite understandable.
But the householder seems much less troubled by the weeds and tells the workers to be patient. He is not indifferent to the situation and knows that the weeds need to be given to the reapers at harvest: they will separate the good from the bad. Premature weeding will damage the crop of wheat.
We are confronted here with a double message. We may want to banish awkward people from a community group, but that may well be foolish or arrogant. Discipline may have its place, and Matthew refers to it elsewhere. Nevertheless a long perspective is usually called for, and Matthew sees any eventual judgement as a matter for the ultimate judge, God. We are confronted here with the fact that although some in a community may call for banishing those who are holding up other views, they are presuming that they have the right vision. They may also be ignoring that they may pull up some on their own side, the wheat, as well as their opponents side, the weeds. And we might also contemplate the fact that our own lives are a confusing mixture of wheat and weed-like behaviour. Matthew’s account offers encouragement to followers to expect a fruitful mission in spite of the activity of an enemy. Here we are challenged and warned not to separate followers from other people, not to form a separate pure cliques. Rather, Matthew indicates that any separation should be left to other agents at the time when the kingdom of heaven is established at the eschatological judgement, the harvest.
Thinking about the final judgement is not so common nowadays, and can easily lead to uncertainty and even dismay. We may ask: where shall we stand at the coming separation? Matthew’s view is a call not just for talk but for action, and now. He reminds us that deeds may be hypocritical unless they are linked with an inner commitment to do good. Matthew understands that our final judgement will be about how far our thoughts and motivations have been consistent with our deeds and actions. But whatever apprehensions we may have about how and when our final judgement may be, its’ nature remains deeply mysterious. It may be helpful to note that the particular position of this parable in Matthew can take us beyond such worries. It is located just before the parable about joyful pursuit of treasure hidden in a field, and the parable about a merchant who sells all he has to purchase a pearl of great value.
These pictures of abundance and joy in the kingdom of God are for our delight now. We really should not be too downcast about the forthcoming judgement described by Matthew. Instead we are called to live now with a degree of risk, to live with some joyful adventures, to live in pursuit of what is really valuable, to live with boldness rather than fear of failure, and to live persistently doing what we can for the kingdom of God. To resolve to live in such a way is to live in a way that will bring us healing and wholeness.
Matthew eventually tells us that The Son of Man will send angels to effect judgement. The same Son of Man forgave sins and healed many people on earth, before he died at the hands of betrayers, rose again and assured us that we can trust in God’s gracious healing love and promises.