Sunday, February 12, 2023

Phil Kniss: Sorting out the evil

Jesus reveals the nature of God's realm
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Matthew 13:24-43; Revelation 19:5-7a

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We live in an either-or world…
or at least, a world where many people prefer things to be either-or.
And if we’re really honest,
most of us are comfortable in such a world, most of the time.

There is something stabilizing about a world
that we divide neatly into two parts:
good or evil
moral or sinful
right or wrong.
It’s stabilizing, because we always know where we are—
on the side of all that is right and good;
and that there is something fundamentally different
between us . . . and those on the wrong side.

That way of cutting up the world often works,
so long as we stay in the abstract, and on the surface.
Trouble is, as soon as we dig deeper, we hit gray dirt.
Not pay dirt. Gray dirt.
We hit mud. Messiness. We find a whole world, a real world,
underneath the surface, living in the in-between,
making do somewhere between good and evil.

In fact, the real world usually resists anything that’s either-or.
The real world operates on a continuum—
a line stretching here to here.
That is true whatever the topic.
Sexual orientation.
Social class.

A continuum is an inconvenient truth
for those of us who like to sort things.
You know, arrange them in their proper box,
always know where they fit, which side of the red line they are on.
It is upsetting for sorters,
to live with the kind of ambiguity that happens
when our neat and tidy world gets impinged on by the real world.

Maybe you find yourself somewhere in this reality I’m describing.
So maybe you will also find yourself in today’s parable
that Jesus told in Matthew 13.

Jesus was preaching to his own people, a society of sorters,
a people who tended to see the world in two groups:
children of Abraham,
and not children of Abraham.
And they were led by powerful religious bodies like
scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees—
the sorters-in-chief.

I believe Jesus saw through our blindness
in dividing up the world in this way,
so he advocated for a different way of discerning
what is good, what is of God.

The way he got across to people with truth that was hard to hear,
was, largely, through stories and images of the kingdom.

If he had offered his people just a different set of rules,
to replace the old ones,
he could have been easily ignored and brushed aside.
Instead, he led with stories,
tales that touched deeply their own experiences,
stories that first got them to say,
“Yes, I recognize that! I know where this is going,”
and then the story took an unexpected turn,
a shocking plot twist
that often caught the listener flat-footed,
unable to muster a response or a come-back.
And this made Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God
harder to ignore or brush aside.
You could get mad about it. But you couldn’t ignore it.

Now, this parable of the wheat and the weeds
has been read a lot of different ways.
It has sometimes been co-opted by people with an agenda—
whether conservative or liberal.
I’ve heard it be used to reinforce a message of judgement,
since the Master ends up burning all the weeds in a bonfire.
I’ve heard it be used to imply we have very little to say or do
in distinguishing good from evil,
since the wheat and weeds grow up together,
and God sorts it out in the end.

My preferred approach is a simple one.
Read it as naturally and as straightforward I can,
and be open to how the story wants to move me,
in whatever moment and situation I’m in.

Let’s talk about the story itself for a bit.
There are at least four separate characters or character groups
referred to in this story.
There is the householder, the owner-farmer, who plants the wheat.
There are his servants, or slaves, who work the farm.
There is an unnamed enemy who came at night,
with the intent to foil the success of the farmer.
And there are contract reapers,
temporary help hired to bring in the harvest when it’s time.

Keep all those in mind.

Now, let’s think about the agricultural elements of the story—
the wheat and the weeds.
So what kind of weed is this?
The Greek word used is Zizania, which in botany today,
is the name of a whole genus of wild rice.
But scholarly consensus, is that Matthew is talking about
one of the most common and troublesome of weeds
for wheat farmers in his day—darnel.
It was everywhere, and hard to avoid.
Interesting, that Matthew says an enemy planted it,
but surely some would have ended up in the field anyway.

The problem with darnel is not only that it is so widespread.
It closely resembles wheat, at least in early stages of growth.
The regular farm workers noticed it, of course,
because they were being observant.
But if they had taken it upon themselves
to try to rid the field of darnel as it was growing,
it would have been unavoidable
to pull up some good tender wheat as well,
wheat that had not had a chance to mature
and produce its heads of valuable wheat grain.

However, if they let the darnel grow, along with the wheat,
the solution would be far more practical and profitable.
The contract reapers, unlike regular farm laborers,
were expert in telling darnel from wheat,
especially at harvest time.
The ears of darnel stand straight up.
The ears of wheat are heavy, and they droop.
So the reapers, without tremendous effort,
can go through the field and first remove the darnel,
sticking up above the wheat.
Pulling it out will damage very little wheat,
which by now is firmly rooted.
Then the darnel can be thrown on the burn pile,
and the wheat harvested clean for further processing.

It’s all pretty common sense, actually.
And Matthew’s readers would no doubt
have understood very well the farming principle here.
There isn’t much mystery.
(And thanks to Nazareth Village, for making those images
available for our use)

After that parable, there’s two more, almost one-liner parables,
that I won’t spend time with now—
the kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed
that grows into something substantial,
and the kingdom is like yeast,
a little bit leavens the whole loaf.
Both of these speak to the surprising power
of something that seems so small.

Then, after Jesus pulled himself away from the crowds,
and went into a private home,
his disciples came to him asking for an explanation
of the wheat and weeds story.

The fact that Jesus had this sidebar with his disciples
tells us Matthew thought this particular parable,
even more than the others,
was essential for his readers to fully understand.
It tells us, “This one is a gem. Listen carefully.”

So Jesus explains the allegory—
exactly which elements in the story
stand for which elements in their real lives.

Here’s what Jesus said:
“The farmer—that’s me.
The good seed: children of the kingdom.
The weed seed: children of the evil one.
The one who sowed the weeds: the devil.
The reapers who come later to sort things out: the angels.”
You might notice that the regular field hands aren’t identified.
Maybe because that would have been obvious.
If the householder-farmer is Jesus,
they, the disciples, are the helping hands.

Of course, we wonder what to make of this story,
using those parallels Jesus spelled out.
But first we must ask,
what did Matthew’s first readers make of the story?
What lessons would they have drawn?
Then we can translate it for our time.

Not to keep repeating myself—
for details, listen to last Sunday’s sermon,
or my intro to Matthew back in January—
but briefly, the likely context for Matthew’s Gospel
is a church in conflict in Antioch of Syria, around 70 AD.

Now, a little sidebar of my own.
Modern day Antioch is the town of Antakya, now part of Turkey,
and sits near the epicenter of the recent earthquake.
That town of 200,000 residents
has been entirely wiped out, according to reports.
It virtually doesn’t exist right now,
and people are living on the streets and in tent cities.
So as we ponder ancient Antioch,
we should offer up our prayers for the city of today.

Well, at the time of Matthew’s writing, in Antioch
  there is conflict within the church
(among Jewish and Gentile Christians);
conflict between the church and the local Jewish synagogue;
and conflict between all Jews, and the brutal Roman Empire.

This is a church context ripe for
members to judge and condemn others.
And apparently a lot of that was going on,
as we noticed last Sunday in the sermon on the mount.

We can hardly blame the Christians in Antioch
for their tendency to pass judgment on others,
or to consign their adversaries to God’s burn pile.
The opposition was brutal.
Our conflicts are quite tame in comparison, I’m sure.

I think the teaching of Jesus here speaks directly to their situation.
Let the weeds grow up with the wheat.
The lesson is not, turn a blind eye to the weeds.
It is not, be oblivious to the evil around you.
It is not, act as if there is nothing to be discerned.
Rather, echoing his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount,
which we saw last week,
the word to the disciples of Jesus in Antioch,
and to us disciples today, is
be calm
be patient
be trusting of God’s judgment and justice.

As fallible learners of the way of Jesus ourselves,
if we take it on ourselves to start acting like the reapers,
and start ripping out the weeds prematurely,
we may end up destroying wheat in the process.
I imagine that was already happening in Antioch.
Just as it frequently happens in the church today.

What is the public’s number 1 impression of Christians today,
according to poll after poll?
Our judgmentalism toward others.
Our intolerance.
Our willingness to condemn in others,
the things we ourselves are guilty of.

Any idea what that is doing to young and tender seedlings?
How much fruitfulness for the kingdom of God
is being cut short prematurely,
when we, the non-experts, inexperienced in the task of reaping,
get too much in a hurry,
get too agitated over the weeds in our midst,
and start ripping them out too soon?

I think one of the significant learnings for us in this parable,
is the very fact that the landowner’s servants,
were never expected to work the harvest.
Where did we get the notion that we are God’s sorters and reapers?
That’s the work of angels, according to Jesus. And angels we are not.

Our sole task as laborers in God’s fields,
is to lovingly tend the land, as God would,
doing no more than God asks of us.
And let the harvest up to the experts—
the angels of God
who will come when it’s time, and not any earlier.

That should help us all relax a bit.
I don’t mean be lazy. I said relax.
We stay attentive and observant,
when we notice weeds taking root and growing.
We act with wisdom and discernment.
We seek to promote the health of the good wheat
in every way possible.
But we don’t panic about the weeds.
We don’t start swinging the scythe,
with the intent to cut it down,
or yank it violently from the ground.
We trust God, and the angels of God,
to sort it out in due time.

As someone who likes to sort things, I feel like it’s time for a confession.
Please join me if you feel the same.

one God of the wheat fields and thistles,
We confess our lack of full trust in you
and your driving passion for justice,
and your commitment to put the world right.
We sometimes mistake your patience, for apathy;
your grace, for disinterest;
your wisdom, for weakness.
all Give us courage to join you in the struggle,
calmness to wait for your timing,
and forbearance to live with the questions that remain.
one The God of all that is good forgives us,
and invites us to join in bringing in
the coming harvest, abundant and life-giving. 

—Phil Kniss, February 12, 2023

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