July 20, 2014, Pentecost 6 – The Patient Farmer
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This week almost three hundred people, traveling on a commercial airline, were killed when someone shot the plane down with a surface-to-air missile as it passed over the Ukraine.
Violence between Palestine and Israel made the news every single day, but the media seem to have grown tired of reporting the violence that continues day after day and year after year in Syria and Lebanon, and in South Sudan.
200 Nigerian girls are still being held somewhere by an extremist group called Boko Haram, who kidnapped them from their school three months ago.
And in news of a much smaller, and more personal kind, this past Wednesday, one of my sons ended up in the emergency room with a high fever and some kind of serious infection that the doctors haven’t been able to identify yet, and on the very same day my 12-year-old granddaughter had to be hospitalized for psychiatric care.
Carroll read today: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in childbirth until now. And we ourselves groan inwardly as we wait…” The world we live in is a terribly broken place. No matter how strongly we believe in a good and loving God – and I do believe – unless we stay locked inside our homes with no TV or internet or newspaper, and never talk to anyone outside, it is impossible to be unaware that this world is full of suffering and evil. There are some serious weeds in the wheat.
Sad to say, unlike the servants in the parable, who were surprised by the presence of weeds in the Master’s beautiful wheat field, the presence of evil in the world probably doesn’t surprise any of us anymore. We hate to hear it; we might feel depressed or burdened or angry when we see terrible things on the news, but we aren’t surprised by it, because we know that we live in a sinful and broken world. It is very easy to reconcile ourselves to viewing this world we live in as a place more or less outside of God’s jurisdiction, where aside from our small personal joys and comforts we just expect things to be horrible until Jesus comes back and trades it all in for a new model. And that’s why we need to hear the parable of the wheat and the weeds.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field…” Jesus is not painting a picture to explain the problems of life in a world without God; he is painting a picture of the kingdom of heaven: a picture that shows us – we who are the children of the kingdom – how to live in the kingdom of heaven. And it is a kingdom which, for now, is full of trouble. And the point of the parable – or one of the points of the parable, because Jesus’ stories are so rich that they have more to teach us than we could possibly learn in a single reading – the point of the parable that I want to touch on today, is this: What’s to be done about all these weeds in the wheat?
Pay close attention to the difference between the way the servants want to deal with the problem, and the way the Master commands them to deal with the problem. On the one hand, the servants want to get out there and weed, which seems reasonable enough. On the other hand, the Master tells them no, no weeding, and to be patient, to let the weeds grow with the wheat. If we are honest with ourselves, we’d probably be most inclined to side with the servants. If you are even the least bit of a gardener, it is nearly impossible to walk through a garden – even if it is someone else’s garden – and not to reach down and yank out the ragweed you see growing beside the rose bush, or the dandelion spreading its homely leaves in the flower bed. We aren’t all gardeners, but it is human nature, when we are faced with evil, to want to do something about it, or if we can’t do anything, to at least pass judgment on it. That just feels right to us. Hating evil feels like righteousness. It’s one of the main reasons, I think, that we watch the news footage of wars and terrible violence even though it upsets us, because if we can’t do anything at least we can get angry at someone, at least we can lay the blame for the evil at someone’s door. It makes our souls sick to stand by and allow evil to have its way.
But did Jesus really mean, then, that God wanted us to just ignore evil, like the three monkeys with their hands over their ears and eyes and mouth? How can God really want his children to be patient in the face of cruelty and deceit and violence? To be patient would be to tolerate what is wrong, wouldn’t it? It would be to stand by and turn a blind eye to evil, and how can that possibly be what God would have us do?
If we listen to the parable, though, the Master never says anything about tolerating the weeds that the enemy sowed in his field. The weeds need to be destroyed, to be gathered together into bundles and thrown into the fire. The point of the story is that it is not the job of the servants to do the gathering. The reapers, who know the right season to gather the weeds without harming the wheat; they are the ones whose task it is to do the weeding. And the reapers, Jesus explained, are the angels, who will gather out of the kingdom all causes of sin – all that evil that comes from within us – and all law-breakers – all the evil in the world round about us. And on the day of judgment they will destroy evil utterly and entirely, until the children of the kingdom shine as pure and bright as the sun itself. The weeds will be rooted out, once and for all, but it is not the task of the servants to do the weeding. Just so, evil in the kingdom will be destroyed, once and for all, but it is not for the children of the kingdom to pass judgment.
Hating evil feels like righteousness, but what we often don’t recognize is how many of the evils in the world around us are the result of humans passing judgment; the servants of the Master taking the weeding into their own hands. The holocaust, ethnic cleansing, holy wars, vengeance, murders and broken families and broken friendships: there are so many scars on the good field of God’s world that happened because someone wanted to be righteous; someone decided to take vengeance or justice or perfection into their own hands and make it happen by force. They saw weeds that offended them – and maybe they were truly bad weeds, or maybe they only thought they were – but either way, they decided to rip those weeds out by the roots, and in the process they caused untold suffering and loss. We might think of Hitler, or Idi Amin, or Timothy McVeigh, or suicide bombers, but it certainly isn’t only crazy or wicked or fanatical people who set themselves up as judges, either; very often great evil begins with the most well-meaning people of all. God told us, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” Whenever we take judgment into our own hands, we destroy the good along with the bad, as the Master warned the servants, “let the weeds and the wheat grow together, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.”
The way of the kingdom of heaven is patience, but patience is not something we always have a good relationship with. Most of us, I think, feel that we are lacking in patience. But then people make jokes about patience, that you’d better watch out if you pray for patience, because God might give it to you. And the basic idea is that patience is the virtuous but very unpleasant ability to grit your teeth and hang in there. But God’s patience, the patience of the Master who watches the weeds grow in his field and waits for the right season so that none of his wheat is harmed, that kind of patience is not a passive thing at all.
Peter, in his second letter, was writing to a church that was having a hard time with patience. They had expected Jesus to come right back, and yet the world continued, and life got harder and the followers of Jesus were persecuted – Peter himself was in prison in Rome, and near the end of his life. And from his prison cell Peter wrote these words of comfort:“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” “Don’t resent the patience of God,” he urged them. “Be thankful for it, because it is his grace towards us all so that all might find their way to him.”
And we have all known that patience in our own lives, if we look back. How much foolishness and unkindness and selfishness and willful disobedience mark the road that we have traveled from the time we were children until now! But God has born with us, each one of us, year after year, never condemning us and never giving up on us, sending us encouragement when we were weak and disciplining us when we were too full of ourselves. His patience has brought us all to this day and to this place. And he will continue to be patient with us. The patience of God is neither more nor less than love, that suffers evil for a time, in order that he might establish the good for ever. The patience of God is love, that walks with us in the shadows, in order that not one of his children might be left in the dark.