Matthew 13.24-43- The wheat & tares
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Today, in the third of our sermon series looking at Jesus' parables,
we come to one of the most difficult subjects: the question of suffering
and evil. It does not, by any means, say everything there is to say about
suffering, but it does address the specific question of why a loving God
allows evil to continue in the world. It is a subject of great moment.
In the past week we have seen on our television screens images of the
most terrible suffering in Libya and New Zealand and closer to home we
are all aware of people in our own parish suffering right now. There seems
to be no rhyme or reason to it. Bad things happen to good people and from
time to time we encounter some poor people who seem to be walloped by
a series of terrible events which blight them one after another. Evil
seems to know no justice. So why does God allow it to happen?
This is, of course, one of the biggest reasons (if not the biggest reason)
why many people find faith difficult. How can Christians speak of a loving
and just God when the evidence before their eyes is of indiscriminate
suffering? And yet it is often during times of suffering that people most
readily look to us for answers, so if this sermon series is going to help
us to communicate our faith, it has to help us to formulate some sort
of answer to this question.
Now, if it is any consolation at all, this struggle has been faced by
people for as many generations as we can know. One of the most frequent
cries of the Psalms is "How long O Lord?" How long will you
allow the wicked to triumph? How long will you forget us? How long will
you judge unjustly?
And that question is the backdrop to this parable today of the Wheat and
the Tares. The story is very simple. A farmer (later identified with Jesus
himself) plants a crop of wheat and finds that weeds grow up alongside
the wheat - something familiar to every gardener. The farm workers want
to pull out the weeds, but the farmer forbids it because they would tear
up his crop in the process - the roots of the crop are too intertwined
with the roots of the weeds. Instead, the farmer tolerates the weeds for
a season and then, come the harvest, the good crop can be separated safely
from the weeds and the weeds destroyed.
Now what does this tell us that might shine a light on our problem? Firstly,
that God's purposes in sowing life in the world are good. He intends that,
like the wheat, his children should be healthy and fruitful. The weeds
("all causes of sin and all evildoers") are not there by his
doing. God's purposes are good.
Secondly, the story compels us to recognise that we are dangerously bound
up with evil. Just like the wheat and the tares, the roots of our lives
are such a tangle of good and evil that, were justice to be done, we would
all be in trouble. This reminds me of the joke (which I may have told
before!) of the rather grand lady of a certain age who goes into the hairdresser,
sits herself ostentatiously into the chair and demands imperiously: "I
want you to do me justice." And the hairdresser replies: "Madam,
what you need isn't justice. It's mercy!"
And there lies the rub. When life hurts us, we all think we're longing
for justice, but actually what we really want is mercy. I'll illustrate
that very simply. Very few of us think that speeding is a good idea, do
we? And yet, how many of us rejoice when we see a speed camera? We have
a rather equivocal relationship with justice don't we? In my previous
career, I made a good living out of people who came to me seeking justice.
In my opinion most of them received it in Court, but very few of them
recognised it when the got it. The truth was, they didn't really want
justice. They wanted to win.
There is something scary about justice, because it has an uncanny knack
of pointing its finger, not at the people we want to blame, but at us.
I think this story is telling us that we are all jointly responsible for
the evil of this world and for my part I think that rings true. True,
I may not have murdered anyone, but neither have I had the incentive to
do so. If I had been brought up in a violent family, if I lived in poverty,
if I had no hope of achieving a position of respect in society and if
no-one wanted my friendship, I might well murder. And if those things
would drive me to murder, then I have to acknowledge that I have contributed
plenty of hatred and anger and cruel words and cold indifference to a
society that regularly produces murderers.
The Christian writer G.K. Chesterton once came across a series of correspondence
in the Times asking the question, 'What's wrong with the World?' Chesterton
'Sir, I am. Yours, G. K. C.'
And that's why the Christian response to evil and suffering has always
been to avoid blame and instead to confess our sins and seek God's mercy.
What's wrong with the world? I am.
If we are going to demand justice, we have to face the fact that the roots
of our lives are inextricably entwined with the roots of evil and as things
stand, one cannot be torn up without the other. So before we can call
for justice, we have to hope that God will have mercy first.
Fortunately, he does, because the third thing that this story tells us
is that God's tolerance of evil is not the result of his lack of care,
but a sign of his mercy. God longs for justice to be done. If the psalms
repeatedly cry "How long O Lord?" then one of the most frequent
questions the God of the Old Testament asks us, in return, is "How
long must I put up with this wicked and faithless generation?" God
is passionate about seeing an end to suffering. It is only his concern
to recover and transform sinners that causes him to tolerate the weeds
and the wheat growing alongside each other
But, the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted a flaw in my arguments
so far. Not all evil that we experience in this world is the result of
human evil. What about the New Zealand earthquake? What about my friend
with cancer? They're not caused by human sin are they? No, of course they're
not. But there are some important points to make there too.
Firstly, I believe that all the big problems about belief in God occur
when we forget that God is primarily a God of relationship. Remember back
to my first sermon here on Trinity Sunday when I explained that the Christian
God is a God of eternal, loving relationship between Father, Son and Holy
Spirit. And he created the world to be in relationship with him. The trouble
is that we have broken that relationship through our sin. And that has
very serious consequences beyond anything we can understand. That does
not mean that my friend's cancer can be traced back simplistically to
anything he or I have done. But it does mean that what we see in the world
today is not the world as God intends it to be. It's the sad sight of
a world that's drifted away from God's good purposes and is suffering
terribly as a result.
But in order to solve the problems of the world, to steer the ship back
on course, God needs to deal first with the problem of human sin - the
root cause of the broken relationship that's caused all the problems.
And he really only has two options: he can destroy us or he can control
us. If he's not going to destroy us (ripping up the good wheat with the
weeds), he has to get us under control and that means total, dictatorial
control. It's not realistic to expect God to control only the things that
hurt us and give us freewill the rest of the time is it? He either has
to control us all the time or none of the time.
But freewill is the most precious gifts of our existence. It's what makes
us human. And it is a mark of his love for us that God is willing to trust
us, even though we have betrayed his trust consistently throughout history.
But if we accept unfettered freewill, we have to accept that people will
make every possible choice under the sun - you give people freedom and
they just do what they want! So giving us unrestrained freewill means
that the consequences will be unrestrained too.
So neither of those two options - destroy or control, is a good outcome.
And one of the most remarkable things about God is that he has found a
third way. And I say "has found" because God has already acted
decisively to deal with is problem in a way that lets us have our cake
and eat it: he gives us complete freewill and he deals with the consequences
of our sin. He disentangles us from evil so that it can die and we can.
The whole story of God's life on earth, as a human being, Jesus, is that
he dealt with the consequences of our freewill without destroying it.
How? Firstly, by exercising freewill responsibly, not to hurt, but to
love; not to destroy, but to build up; not to gain power for himself,
but to do his Father's will. In Jesus we see God's purposes for humanity
finally lived out in our midst: exercising freewill responsibly and choosing
to return to the relationship whose fracture caused all the problems.
Secondly, his death dealt with our sin. We'll think more on that during
Lent and Holy Week, but to put it very simply, our sin killed Jesus and
his death killed sin. That's what the Cross is all about - a once for
all judgement on the evil of the world. The weeds are under a death sentence
- come the harvest!
Thirdly, his resurrection offers us the chance to live healthy, fruitful
lives, like the wheat in Jesus' story, but disentangled from the weeds.
But there's a twist in the story. Because the decisive action comes too
early - not at the end of the story, but in the middle. The outcome, which
we will see at Jesus' second coming (the harvest) is made known to us
now: the consequences of our actions are made clear, but in the meantime
he leaves us with freewill. The door is opened for us to disentangle our
lives from the weeds: to turn back to lifelong relationship with God,
to weed out the sin from our own lives and to live as healthy, fruitful
wheat. And that door remains open for as long as it will take for us to
turn away from the tangle of weeds and to become healthy, fruitful wheat.
But the harvest is coming - the day when God will finally deal with the
weeds, the evil of the world, but mercy is here first - thank God! And
that leaves us with a challenge because if God is only tolerating the
weeds in order to give the wheat a chance to become disentangled from
the weeds, then the only way to see an early end to suffering is to be
ruthless in weeding out sin from our own lives and helping others to do
the same. So the challenge of this parable is to respond to the suffering
we see and experience not by seeking blame or growing bitter, but by discovering
a passion for God and his justice and righteousness. It is the passion
that I was talking about in my phrase "passionate moderation".
When bad things happen, we Christians are called to get passionate about
disentangling ourselves from the weeds of evil and living for God's righteousness
in a way that moderates everything we do and hastens the harvest day when
the weeds of evil will be torn up and destroyed once and for all. Passionate
moderation - the wisest response to suffering. Let anyone with ears listen!
Preached: - Cliburn, Crosby Ravensworth, Thrimby, 27