Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
When Allison learned that her digestive problems were caused by a five-inch tumor blocking part of her colon, the first thing she thought is, “I want it out. I want this foreign thing removed from my body.” All three of her oncologists, however, consulted her to start with six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the tumor and kill peripheral cancer cells before operating. Operating immediately, due to the tumor’s size, would irreparably damage vital tissue. Although she accepted their advice, fear of the unknown was at the front of her mind because she would not know if the tumor was responding to treatment until the date of her surgery. Allison’s story was not an uncommon one on the oncology ward where I served as a hospital chaplain during seminary. Pre-surgery therapies like the ones that Allison received have proven to have better outcomes when they are feasible, but treatments that involve waiting and the unknown can be excruciatingly painful.
I’m sharing Allison’s treatment with you because the doctors’ approach to her cancer parallels God’s response to our Sin in the parable that Jesus shares today. When the servants in our parable discover that weeds have been mixed with the good crops, their first inclination is the same as Allison’s: to yank the weeds out. But the Son of Man responds, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”
Waiting is often the most difficult demand of love. When we care desperately about the someone, the practice of inaction can be excruciatingly painful. I remember sitting with a pair of parents in a conference about their son. Their boy had made a series of poor decisions and they were frustrated. I had a long working relationship with these parents, and we all had come to agreement that one part of this boy’s behavior was a response to the pressure he perceived his father was placing on him. These were well-meaning parents, but identifying the problem didn’t make addressing it any easier, particularly on the father. At one point during our conversation, he slapped the table and burst out, “I wish I could just force him to see that I don’t care about this the way that he thinks I do!” You might be able to imagine a moment like this. The man’s wife whispered sympathetically, “Honey…” and he sunk back into his chair looking like a little boy because he knew that using anger to communicate his feelings to his son would only cause the boy to feel more pressure. The problem would get worse. Not unlike Allison’s doctors and the Son of Man, these parents realized that the best way they could love their son through his insecurity was to give him time and patience. When the boy’s shame shrank, they would be able to operate, just like Allison’s doctors, but the waiting was excruciating for everyone.
Those of you who were here last week may remember that we are working through Jesus’s parabolic discourse, which contains a series of seven parables. All seven parables are trying to communicate something about the kingdom of God. You may remember that our parable begins with “The kingdom of God may be compared to…” These parables are helpful tools
because they provide us with familiar reference points for a topic that is otherwise entirely foreign to us. Each of these parables equip us with a glimpse of the Truth, which we must weave together to begin making sense of Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God.
The first parable that we explored last week invites us to consider the many types of soil in each of our souls: the path, the rocky soil, the weedy soil, and the good soil. In that parable, we hear that God throws seeds at our souls with reckless abandon, trusting that some of those seeds might find good soul. This week, the parable invites us to hear that God’s first priority is rescuing us, and that it is God’s nature to wait on the harvest for as long as possible in order to rescue us from the weeds, even when the waiting is excruciatingly painful.
In order to understand the full riches of this parable, we need to avoid the secular trap of thinking that our souls possess integrity, which, from a Christian perspective, they do not. We began to address this challenging notion last week when we considered the possibility that each one of us has all four types of soil within our souls. We examined that we are sinners (true), that we are redeemed by Christ on the cross (true), and that we are in the process of sanctification through the Holy Spirit (true). Each one of these statements is true at the same time; we cannot be contained within a single narrative, and we need all of these realities to know the full depth and breadth of God’s love for us.
To return to this subject from a slightly different angle, we could say that, from the moment we are born, we are contaminated by the world, a world that is designed to be good (indeed “very good” according to Genesis 1), but it is also a world that has suffered a terrible tragedy. In the words of today’s parable, “an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.” These weeds of “sin” are not a moral problem: the Original Sin is not an action (this is not about “doing good and bad things”); rather, Sin is the rupture of our relationship of trust with God and the resulting introduction of fear and death into the human being. To use fancy words that pastors learn in seminary and become obliged to deploy to justify our existence: sin is an ontological problem rather than an ethical one.
In Christian theology, therefore, “sin” is not a debatable phenomenon; rather, it is a reality the way that the weeds in the field are a reality. Sin cannot be wished away or washed off by “being good.” In the imagery of our parable today: no matter how wonderful the wheat might be, the weeds are still weeds, and the weeds are sowed among the wheat of our souls. Just like last week’s parable, today’s parable is acknowledging that the field of our souls are not pure, no matter how urgently our political ideologies and tribes might insist otherwise. We do not need a theology degree to know this reality in our gut. Every one of us can look inside our own heads and hearts and realize that there are weeds among the wheat. Even our noblest actions are often contaminated with self-interest and resentment that we conceal from others because we know that they are ugly. This does not make our noble action ignoble, but it does complicate our narratives of integrity.
Two years ago, I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with some of the Church’s trustees. The book is an inspired reflection on God’s creation: a hymn to existence. In her chapter on creation’s “Fecundity,” Dillard addresses the subject of today’s parable when she writes:
"The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. It is a covenant to which every thing, even every the hydrogen atom is bound. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die; you cannot have mountain and creeks without space, and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is…Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death. The world came into being with the signing of the contract. A scientist calls it the Second Law of Thermodynamics…This is what we know."
Time. Just like in today’s parable, it all come backs to time. Dillard’s wonderful image of space being married to time and death provides us with another way of thinking about the problem of world. From the moment we are born, we are stuck in time, and time is finite. There is never enough of it, and time leads us to death. This is what Dillard means when she say that “Time does not go anywhere without his great dog Death.” This is the problem of sin, and it is not up for debate. This is the weed among the wheat of today’s parable.
As gloomy as this may sound, the miracle of the Gospel is that God transforms the problem of death into the means of our salvation through Christ’ death and resurrection. Instead of avoiding death, Jesus moves through it towards a life that is no longer bound by time (or sin).
Listen again to Paul’s language in his letter to the Romans: “if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” From a Christian perspective, there is no scenario where death is not on the table for us. The soil of our souls lacks integrity; there are weeds amidst the wheat. The question is whether we embrace a death that leads to new life by allowing the weeds to burned, or we succumb to a death that is ultimate by allowing the weeds to choke out the entire field.
How does this look in practice?
Perhaps there are weeds in our lives that have been choking our souls? Are there broken relationships, toxic habits, pockets of insecurity that leave us vulnerable to the whispers of the devil? These are the whispers that say, “God does not love you. God is not real, and, if God is real, He would have nothing to do with you.” These are the whispers that say, “Death is ultimate, and you should be afraid.” If you have heard these whispers, then you know how powerful they are, how deep the roots of these weeds run. In fact, these weeds are rooted beyond the reach of our memory into the very dust of creation into which God breathed his life-giving Spirit, because that is the soil that the devil poisoned with seeds.
The most powerful moment from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia comes when Aslan, the Lion who is a Christ figure observes of the Witch who is his enemy, “though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time.” Can you see how C.S. Lewis’s Aslan and Annie Dillard both connect our sin to the reality of time and death?
The good news is that there is a power that is deeper than the dust of creation through which the devil works, a power that precedes time and the death that it brings. This is a power that knew the cost of creation from the beginning, before time, before the weeds were planted in the dust of Adam’s soul. God knew that his enemy would plant the weeds, so he foreordained to send his only Son to destroy death forever: when the time was right. That is the Word of God (the deeper magic), and in it we can trust that we have nothing to fear of Time or his great dog Death. There is life waiting for us on the other side of the unknown.
So…what happened to Allison? When she woke from surgery, she learned that the tumor had shrunk to less than half an inch, and she has been cancer free for ten years. What happened to the boy? With time, his parent’s love broke through the darkness of his insecurity and shame, and he came home to them. Today’s parable tells us that God’s first priority is rescuing us, his children, and he will wait until the time is right, no matter how painful that waiting may be. Thanks be to God. Amen.