Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
One of the rather obvious through-lines of our readings this week is judgement, which is a theme that Matthew the Evangelist returns to over and over again in his Gospel. In fact, if ever you find yourself trying to source a piece of scripture that contains the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” it almost certainly comes from Matthew speaking about God’s judgement.
Today, we hear in our parable that the weeds that the devil has sown into the world will be thrown into the furnace of fire. Judgement is coming. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The theme of judgement is one that has been avoided at significant cost among us well-meaning Christians who find ourselves drawn towards images of mercy and grace rather than “brimstone and fire.” Many of us would much rather listen to the Beetle’s hit song All you Need is Love than read through Matthew’s rather blistering account of God’s judgment. In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr made light of this preference within liberal Protestant theology in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he knew what he was talking about. Nearly one hundred years later and many of us still find ourselves a little squeamish when preachers like me start talking about sin, judgement, and a furnace of fire.
The people of God, twisted among weeds as we are, have a long history of using judgement and hell in abusive and manipulative ways, so I empathize with those among us who might be uncomfortable with the theme of judgement, but ignoring it misses the central point of our parable today and of Matthew’s entire gospel:
The judgement of God is Good News.
Consider the world around us. Is this the world in which we want to live? For many of us here at the Church of Ascension (including myself), the superficial answer may be, “Yes!” But this can only be my answer if I contain my understanding of “the world” to my privileged and tiny bubble at the Rectory here on the lake and in my wife's and my cozy home in central Virginia. If we look at the world as a whole, from North Korea’s despotism to human trafficking and global warming, to Nuclear destruction and systemic racism, to the extraordinary poverty and disparities of wealth around the world, most of us would have to admit that this world could use a little judgement.
Something is broken in the world, and it needs to be fixed if God’s kingdom is going to be realized. This is what the protesters in the streets over the past few months have been proclaiming, and it is the same revelation that the servants in our parable point towards when they say, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” Something is wrong! There are weeds in with the wheat! What should we do? Naturally, the servants ask the farmer, “Do you want us to go and gather [the weeds]?” The farmer’s response is NOT what the servants expect, and, in its original context from Jesus, the emphasis of this parable would almost certainly have been on the farmer’s response to their question: “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”
Just as the farmer will endure the weeds in order to save the wheat, so too will God endure our sin in order to save our souls. This is nothing if it is not Good News. God’s judgement does not tolerate collateral damage in the way that human judgement does. God is patient, and he will wait until every one of his children can be brought into his kingdom before he sends in the reapers.
But what does that mean for us right now? We live in a culture that is addicted to immediate satisfaction. We want our justice now; we want it hot; and we want it pure. So what if a few wheat get lost so long as we eliminate all of the weeds? This was the logic of the “body count” strategy of the Vietnam War. So what if we kill a few million poor Vietnamese so long as we stop Communism? This was the Pharaoh’s logic when he built his temple. So what if a few thousand Hebrews die so long as Pharaoh cements his legacy? This was the logic of the insecticide DDT. So what if a few million birds die so long as we kill enough mosquitoes to combat malaria? I hope that we might see in these examples how God’s judgement to refuse the servants’ request is good news for those of us who are tangled up among the wheat and the weeds. God’s judgement insulates us from human intemperance.
God is asking his servants to wait until the harvest is ready to separate the wheat from the weeds. Parents and educators know how difficult this waiting can be. We must wait for our children to mature before they are capable of receiving instruction. First, we “potty train;” later, we require please and thank you. First, we teach grammar; later, we teach poetry. The progress can be frustratingly slow at times; however, when the harvest is ripe, the words from our first reading in the Wisdom of Solomon come into focus, “[God is] sovereign in strength, [He] judges with mildness, and with great forbearance [He] governs us; for [He] has power to act whenever [He] chooses” (Wis. 12:18).
When we are ready, God extracts us from our sin without harming our souls. Of course, God’s judgement is always resisted by our sin, the weeds in our soul, because they know that they are destined for the furnace. Let me illustrate how this kind of harvest works with one example: I ministered to a tremendously successful lawyer in one of my first parishes who struggled with addiction. Superficially, he was addicted to stimulant drugs, but he was more substantively addicted to success. The stimulants were the means through which he stayed focused and worked long hours at his law firm. Giving up the drugs, was -- to his mind -- giving up his success. It wasn’t until he was in his 50s with buckets of money and professional accolades attached to his name that the wheat in his soul finally matured. He woke up one day and realized that all of his success had come at the expense of his closest relationships with friends and family, and it had come at the expense of his health and his sanity. Finally, he saw with some clarity. The harvest had arrived, the roots of the wheat were deep enough to sustain the loss of the weeds, and God acted quickly. This man went into rehab, got sober, reestablished relationships with his estranged children, and returned to the Lord. All of this came at the cost of losing his job at the law firm and everything he thought had mattered. But he gave the job up freely because his soul was mature enough to let go of the weeds. One by one, all of the weeds were burned off, but not before the wheat in this man's soul was ready to be harvested, not without the weeds reigning dominant, in this man’s case, for many decades.
Waiting is never easy, because it requires hope in a harvest that is yet unseen. In the interim, the weeds appear to run wild. God is asking us to trust in his judgement, and not to impose our own judgements prematurely. In fact, our desire to force our own vision of salvation on those who are not yet ready for the harvest is itself a weed in our souls -- a weed that tries to assert itself as wiser than God. Paul summarizes the posture of faith that this parable encourages beautiful in our passage from Romans today, so I will close with an adaptation of his words:
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, [we] groan inwardly while we wait [for the harvest]. For [it is] in hope [itself that] we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:22-25 alt)”
For those of us here today who are hungry for judgement and justice right now, the message seems clear: Let us hope for the harvest to come, and trust that God’s judgment will be Good News when it does arrive because it will arrive when the harvest is ready.