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 replied briefly:
'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…for now.
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 February 2011