On Sunday, November 15th, Br Michael preached the following sermon at Evensong.
For those who wish to listen instead of reading a transcript, a recording may be found here: https://soundcloud.com/michael-topple/wheat-and-tares
May the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in Thy sight, O God, my strength and my redeemer. Amen
Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn…
I was rather pleased to see I was down to preach this evening. Sadly, there was something of a selfish reason behind my happiness. I, rather foolishly, assumed that, as this parable seemed so self contained, it would be a doddle to preach on. I could just re-read Jesus’ explanation and then sit down – job done. Alas, it seems not.
One of the arguments laid against the church and Christianity in general goes something like ‘If God is so loving, why did he allow x to happen?’. Sometimes, this can feel a compelling argument. There are all to many things going on in the world at the moment that are truly dreadful – we need only look at the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, the recent plane crashes or earthquakes in the Pacific to get some idea of the troubles that exist in our world.
Tonight’s parable, although not a direct answer to that question, does show that God’s rule is not straightforward – ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways’ says God in Isaiah 55.
The fact is, God has absolute power over the world. ‘Our God is in heaven and does whatever He pleases’, David tells us in Psalm 115. He is entirely able to step in and stop any action, word or thought without needing give any thought to anything else – He is in total control. Instead of doing this, however, God gives us freewill – the ability, to an extent, to take stock of our lives, to make rational decisions and to then live by them. This is enormous power that He gives us – power and responsibility given to no other creature on Earth – we are truly blessed.
How would we feel then, I wonder, if God were to come along and take this power away from us? Would we react well to the idea of being instantly judged, like contestants on a talent show, by every act we commit? What if every thought, word or deed was weighed and instantly judged in the scales of his absolute holiness? Would we be prepared to pay that price? Indeed, would we survive paying that price? No, we could not live lives as we know them if God were to judge every action instantly. Instead, God waits.
These parables, like God’s rule, are all about waiting. Waiting is something I find difficult at the best of times. Imagine how that farmer felt, watching his precious wheat growing alongside the darnel – incidentally, it is likely to have been darnel that was growing, as, until it is picked, it looks very similar to wheat. Imagine the frustration on the farmer’s mind as he watched the enemy’s weeds growing alongside the wheat, taking all of the nutrients and goodness from the soil, to the detriment of the good crop. Now imagine that frustration, but imagine it a hundred-fold, and we might begin to get some idea of how God feels each time we do things we oughtn’t. Waiting isn’t only present in this parable. In other parts of Matthew’s Gospel, we hear about the woman who had to wait for the yeast to spread through her dough. We hear about the birds who had to wait for the mustard seed to grow into a huge tree from a tiny seed. God’s kingdom comes to those who wait.
The trouble is, Jesus’ followers back then and, to an extent, we now, don’t want to wait. Jesus said that the Kingdom was present where he was, so for His followers then, they wanted their share now. They weren’t interested in God’s timetable – a timetable that has been established from the beginning and complied with by all creatures, ever. They had their own timetables and they were expecting that God would conform to them.
It is interesting to notice how obvious Jesus tries to make this parable. It is a real dig at those who misunderstand His message. As soon as the servants find the weeds, they go running to their master, all in good faith, no doubt, to tell him about them. They want to go straightaway into the fields and expunge the weeds, barely noticing that their actions could have dire consequences on the corn.
Jesus may well have also been aiming this parable at the revolutionaries of his time – the rebels, if you like. People like some of the Pharisees. These people were willing God to act, even offering to help, yet Jesus’ message is telling us that the Kingdom doesn’t work like that – God isn’t like that.
At the heart of this parable lies the concept of patience – one of the seven virtues defined in the Catechism of the Roman Church. This patience, however, isn’t just for us, the servants, but for God, for the owner of the field, as well. Like the farmer, God doesn’t like the sight of the weeds growing in the field, but equally he doesn’t want to harvest the crop too soon, risking the destruction of the good plants.
A simple, dumbed down, explanation of this would be to say that God is ‘delaying his final judgement’ – but this can easily be misinterpreted, painting God as an uncaring or inactive ruler. This misunderstanding, of course, is totally blown out of the water by the ministry of Jesus, on earth. When Jesus was on earth, He showed compassion, He showed strength, He showed love, yet He also showed patience – although He overcame evil, He continued to warn that the final overcoming of the enemy was yet to come.
As Christians, we can look to Easter, to the cross on Calvary, to see that God did indeed act suddenly and dramatically to overcome sin and evil. Sometimes, thanks to the number of years that have passed, it is all to easy to forget that, quoting the BCP, ‘Jesus made a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’.
‘How though’, some people ask, ‘could someone’s death on a cross have put away sins that are only committed two thousand years later?’. To answer this my friends, I need you to imagine something for me. Imagine that, from the moment a person is born until the moment they die, they are followed by a film crew – a fly on the wall documentary of their life. Imagine that, as with any documentary, the crew are able to record all of your actions, but, unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen, they are able to see into your inmost thoughts and feelings too – all those secrets you hold in your heart, all those thoughts that you hope you never make public – they are all recorded. Now imagine that the film is sent to people whose opinions of you really matter – perhaps to your parents, your children, your friends. On the whole, I’m sure they’d be pleased with your life, but there would probably be some parts that you would really want hidden – no-one is perfect.
If this was to apply to everyone, it would only make sense that Jesus had a film of his life made as well – perhaps, because it was so long ago, it was recorded on VHS or BetaMax – some really old technology. A major difference, of course, between us and Jesus is that, unlike humanity, Jesus really is perfect. His film would be totally devoid of sin – there would be no blot in his copybook – his film would be perfect. Anyone shown that film would be unable to find fault. Now imagine that, when we die, as well as going to our family and friends, the film also goes to God. It is on the film, that God judges us. Bad news for us, I expect – our films are pretty shoddy – box office flops you might call them. There is, however, good news – when Jesus died for our sins on the cross – it wasn’t just a simple death – we swapped videos. Jesus was judged on the merits of our videos; and we on His. Jesus went down to Hell to suffer for the sins our videos showed – we’ve just proclaimed that in our Creed – but thanks to His Divine Nature – he was able to overcome Hell and rise again. We, on the other hand, having been judged based on the life of Jesus, will be waiting in Heaven, in the place He prepared for us.
The fact is, the strife is over – the battle is won – Jesus ensured that for us nearly two millennia ago. What we now await are the spoils of victory – the after match party – the full outworking of those thoroughly amazing events.
To quote Bishop Nicholas Right, ‘We wait with patience, not like people in a dark room, wondering if anyone will come with a lighted candle, but like people in the early morning who know that the sun has arisen and are now waiting for the full brightness of midday’.
Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.
The only way that we can ensure that we aren’t placed in bundles ready to be burnt is if we change, in order to look like wheat when we are picked; and the only way to do that, is to turn to Jesus and beseech him to swap videos with us. We trust in his undying mercy that, should we ask and truly believe, it will be done and that is something we must be eternally thankful for. Let us pray:
Your Son, Jesus Christ, came to earth in order that we may be saved.
Help us to not appear like the darnel in your field, but rather like the wheat, that when the time comes for harvest, we may be placed in your barn, to dwell with you forever.
We ask this, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord.