Category Archives: Theology in the News

Separating the Weeds from the Wheat

Sermon preached at Epiphany United Church of Christ, July 20,2014

Scripture: Psalm 139 Matthew 5:38-48

I can see the headlines now:  God’s kingdom is full of weeds! The Almighty blames the devil, but declines to have the weeds removed.” Sidebars include, “Congress calls for hearings on delay of weed-pulling,” and “President sends in FBI to identify and detain saboteur of wheat crop.”

Yeah. We don’t like weeds, especially in our food crops. Those weeds might be poisonous, we’d better have the wheat labelled, “Warning, this wheat was grown in a field containing weeds.”

I suppose you could say I’ve been spending too much time reading the satirist Andy Borowitz. His latest entry: “Boehner drops Obama lawsuit; says it would mean doing something.”

Reading Borowitz and watching Jon Stewart have warped my perceptions. Or maybe I’ve just been reading and hearing too many news stories about the imperfections of the world. I identify much too strongly with the servants in the parable who want to pull up the weeds. In fact, as I read the usual commentaries in preparation for preaching on this text, I focused so sharply on the weeds that at first I skimmed over the opening line.

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.

This is one of several parables that Matthew has Jesus telling the crowd along the lake shore while he sits in a boat just offshore. They’re all about the kingdom of heaven. Weeds in heaven?

No. Commentators say that in the parables that Luke and Matthew have in common Luke quotes Jesus as saying the kingdom of God and Matthew substitutes kingdom of heaven to follow the Jewish tradition of not saying the name of God out loud (or writing it). So it’s the kingdom of God, or as we who want to use inclusive language say, the reign of God, or the rule of God to lose that male king part. Lately I’ve read some people (I think from New Zealand) use the Commonwealth of God.

Sorry to get so pedantic, but I wanted to remind myself and you that Jesus was talking mainly about this kingdom or commonwealth of God’s, not some hereafter world with pearly gates — not that there’s anything wrong with pearly gates. It’s just not the whole story about the kingdom or commonwealth of God.

All through chapters 12 and 13, Matthew’s been writing about Jesus saying this commonwealth is near. “The kingdom is at hand,” he says. I’ve come to believe, along with others, that this kingdom is both now and still-to-come. And we see the split nature of this reign of God in this parable. Jesus says The kingdom is like… but then he also mentions the harvest time as being the end of the age. So it’s both now and to come.

In this part of Matthew, Jesus’s speeches and parables are interspersed with people questioning him, trying to back him into a corner with “gotcha” questions, trying to get him to say something that they could twist and exploit. Things haven’t changed all that much, have they? There always seem to be a lot of people wanting to tear down and heckle people who want to increase God’s love and God’s justice in the world.

So here, in one of his longer descriptions of the coming rule of God, Jesus says it has weeds in it.  Well, it does, doesn’t it? Our world is filled with imperfections. It’s filled with imperfect people, people who do unspeakable things to each other, many times hurting each other in the name of God.

Just like the servants, we can see these weeds in God’s field, whether they’re other people or our own imperfections. But they’re so closely bound together with the good wheat, that it would take a lot of work to tease apart the good plants from the bad and even then, we might damage the wheat. Besides, until harvest time the weeds look a lot like the wheat, especially when you get to the level of the root.

It’s a better plan, says the owner of the field, to wait until harvest, when the good grain of the wheat plant will stand out from the weed. Also I interpret that the owner of the field doesn’t plan to pull up the weeds by the root even then. He’ll just have the harvesters cut the weeds at the base, and the ears of wheat from higher on the stalk.

But here’s the biggest part of the lesson for me, if I identify with the farm hands who first notice the weeds. That is, I don’t get to decide what’s a weed and what’s not. Not now, while the plants are growing and not at harvest time, when the harvesters — who we’re later told represent angels — will be instructed to separate the two kinds of plants.

This parable is rich and can be interpreted in many ways. It has a lot of room for shifting and viewing from different angles. I’d say the scholars and preachers I consulted are about evenly divided that the good and bad seeds are different people, or that the good and bad seeds are found in each of us. Either way, it’s hard for the servants to tell which is which, and Jesus seems to be saying that you can’t really tell until you see what fruit the plant produces.

And even then, Jesus is not suggesting that it’s our job to separate the weeds from the wheat. Judge not, that you be not judged, that’s also in Matthew, chapter seven.  “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

I’ve preached before on the difference between being good and being pure, and how scripture seems to sway back and forth between those who think you please God by pious acts of purity and those who think you please God by peaceful acts of justice. Jesus himself gives guidance for which is most important by citing the two most important commandments, love God and love one another.

But most of us try to do a little of both, don’t we? We try to be pious and respectful, and we try to show love by seeking justice. And sometimes we don’t try very hard, or we don’t try at all.

I almost titled this sermon, “Sometimes I feel like a weed, sometimes I don’t.” If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we’re as imperfect as the field we’re growing in.

Oh, I see I’ve switched identifications. Before, I was a farm hand. Now I’m a plant in the field. Jesus said in his explanation of the parable that the good seeds were sown by the Son of Man, which is what he often called himself. And the weed seeds were sown by the evil one.

Some people seem to be quite certain who the weeds are. Or they’re not at all worried about killing the wheat stalks to get at them. Last week I took a class in Public Ethics at a seminary in Chicago. I read a book about genocide and the author said that the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia actually had a saying, “It is better to arrest ten people by mistake than to let one guilty person go free.” That’s kind of backwards from the way we want our justice system to work here, isn’t it?

But we don’t have to look at Cambodia in the mid 1970s to find weeds entangled with good grain.

We can look at the Middle East, with its conflicts and American involvement. Rabbi Susan Talve just came back from Israel and posted a plea for understanding on all sides. She said,

No one is more critical of Israel than Israelis. As progressive Americans I am not asking you to give your support blindly to either side. I am also not asking you to stop caring. I am asking you to recognize the many complex narratives that make up the situation that exists today that make it impossible and dangerous to take sides. I am asking you to believe with me that even though peace in a completely unstable region that is surrounded by Lebanon and Syria, Iraq, Iran and Jordan may seem impossible, because we are talking about these two peoples Israelis and Palestinians, it is possible. It will take time, it will take work, but we have to believe it is possible and by not sliding into predictable, over simplified rhetoric that takes sides we can be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Maybe it should be no surprise that nations are composed of good grain and noxious weeds. Because each of us has both weeds and wheat intertwined in our field. In my introspective moments, I wonder, is my life producing nutritious wheat or noxious weeds? Or both? How will I get rid of the weeds? Should I get out my Roundup spray right now and try to free myself from weeds?

Uh uh. I may not be a very productive gardner, but I believe Jesus when he tells me that’s not my job. As the psalmist said in Psalm 139, God has searched us and knows us through and through. We can’t escape this knowledge, we can’t fool God. But that’s OK, because, as the psalmist says, God’s right hand holds us fast. The last verse of the psalm asks God to “search me and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts. See if I follow the path of evil, and lead me in the way of eternal life.” Again, I am resisting the interpretation that this is about heaven after we die, but more of a plea to be guided into right living here and now.

One of the commentators I read on Jesus’s parable suggested that God, using angels as God’s messengers, will remove the weeds from our souls, as in verse 41: they will weed out of God’s kingdom everything that causes sin.” And then, this commentator points to verse 43, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.”

Ah, but that interpretation leaves out a few words. The full verse is  “They will weed out of God’s kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And only then will the righteous “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

So who’s going to be weeping and gnashing their teeth? Passages like this make me squirm. I, who believe in an inclusive Jesus and an inclusive God, what am I to make of  evil doers being thrown into a fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”? What happened to “I got wings, you got wings, all God’s children got wings”?

If I think of the end times at all, I confess I feel more inclined to think of a song in the musical comedy, Finnian’s Rainbow. “On that Great Come-and-Get-it-Day. Won’t it be fun when worry is done and money is hay.” No gnashing of teeth there. But Jesus and several prophets warn that some people should fear judgment day. It’s not gonna be a fun day for some people.

The best explanation I have found, one that I can sort of trust judging from reading some of his stuff, comes from a blogger, Steve Cooke, from Sydney, Australia.  His explanation of the right-here-right-now nature of the kingdom as well as it being in the future matches my own understanding. In this particular post he examines the uses of the phrase gnashing of teeth in Matthew and Luke and he finds that often it is aimed at the self-proclaimed elite who focus on purity rather than love and who are more interested in proving Jesus false than listening to what he says. Steve said this:

“Something you’ve hopefully already noticed from reading earlier posts on this blog is that when Jesus told stories or parables about the kingdom He wasn’t always speaking of some future time in the Age to Come. Most of Jesus’ kingdom-sayings were about the here-and-now, and how kingdom-people should prepare for the Age to Come. Of course, some of His stories were about the future, such as the one in Matthew 13 (our passage today) where He said “this is how it will be at the end of the age.” The context will determine whether Jesus is speaking about the here-and-now or the age to come.

(still quoting Steve) So it is that the religious purists who will be rejected “at the end of the age” will go away angrily “gnashing their teeth” with rage because that is how they behave now. Throughout history we have seen “religious” people directing their anger against other believers who don’t measure up to the standards imposed by the purists. The same is evident today.

Putting this together, Steve says, we see that the idea behind this expression is that those who are apart from God attack each other and try to tear each other, much like a pack of dogs fighting over a carcass. Without love there is just hatred and envy. Those who do not live by Jesus’ teachings on love and grace bite and tear each other. Those who live according to God’s way help others, rather than tearing them down. In these stories of Jesus we are being told that the time will come when they will be left to themselves to tear each other apart. We don’t have to wait until “the end of the age” to see this principle fulfilled. Communities, denominations and churches [and I would add, nations] which splinter and divide do so because they are obsessed with their own standards of doctrinal purity or so-called holiness rather than reaching out in love to those who are in need of God’s kingdom, and in the process they tear each other apart.”

Isn’t that well said? I probably ought to read more Steve Cook and maybe less Andy Borowitz, at least for sermon prep.

What I learn from Steve’s vision of those gnashing their teeth is that for whatever reason, those who willingly follow the evil one or do evil, rejecting love — it’s for suckers, you know — are creating their own commonwealth right here and now as well as in the future. A commonwealth where they can tear each other apart.

The good seed, on the other hand, is producing good heads of grain. Now I’m going to quote one of my favorite biblical scholars, John Pilch, who has published 14 books on the cultural world of the bible:

“The landowner knows that the wheat is strong enough to tolerate the weeds’ competition for nutrition and irrigation. After the harvest, the landowner will not only have grain for his barns, but extra, unanticipated fuel for his needs. Instead of shaming this landowner, the weed strategy has backfired and shamed the enemy. The landowner and his servants have the last laugh. The enemy bent on shaming others is shamed instead!

The “something other” or “something more” of this parable may well be the landowner’s refusal to retaliate, to get even with the enemy. In a society dedicated to revenge, the landowner’s victory by seeming to do nothing is a powerful lesson.

Pilch continues, “The confidence of the landowner that his wheat will survive the effect of the weeds is worth pondering. A trust in goodness that is greater than the fear of wickedness could be a powerful weapon against rampant, senseless violence. It has worked before in history, and could work again if given a chance.”

So putting these mixed metaphors together, of the weeds and the gnashing of teeth, we see that bad seed produces bad fruit, or no fruit at all, and that those who function in a kingdom of evil will conduct their lives here and now and in the future in a way that produces weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Whereas the good seed produces good fruit, and those who grow in the commonwealth of god will conduct their lives here and now and in the future in a way that causes them to be gathered into God’s barn where the righteous — those who seek justice — will shine.

For those of us with both good and bad seed growing in us, we can find support for pulling in our fangs and not gnashing our teeth at each other if we trust God’s trust in us.

“A trust in goodness that is greater than the fear of wickedness.” That’s worth holding onto. God has searched us and knows us through and through. And as we’re allowing God to guide us, we can catch glimpses — while we’re still in that weedy field — we can catch glimpses of the commonwealth of God.

“Won’t it be fun when worry is done and money is hay.”

Praise God. Amen.

Framing Christianity

It must be difficult for conservatives who thought they had a lock on churchgoing Christians. In “Media apply God-talk double standard” (July 17), Colleen Carroll Campbell tries to reserve expressions of faith for conservatives and attempts to limit the issues important to churchgoers to “abortion, gay marriage and the banishment of God from public life.” She calls Democrats “secular liberals.”

Many Democrats are Christian; many liberals go to church every week. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, is not trying to attract “conservative churchgoing voters.” His “socially liberal policies” are Christian values, period. Among liberal Christians like me, the concern has not been “the banishment of God from public life” but the co-option of our faith by right-wingers who would frame Christianity on their limited, exclusionary terms. I respect their love of the gospel; I do not respect their insistence that they alone are able to interpret the gospel for society.

In comparing theocratic leanings, it should be noted whose “theo” and whose “cracy.” Mr. Obama’s Christian conversion and baptism occurred in the United Church of Christ, whose roots go back to the first churches founded in New England and the Midwest, including St. Louis. Mr. Obama’s social policies are rooted in Christian interpretation of commands found in Matthew 25 and Leviticus 25.

I agree with Ms. Campbell on one point: A politician’s past action is what matters most. I’ll take the record of Mr. Obama, former community organizer, over President George W. Bush’s.

Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 23, 2008

ONE Sidebar: The Bible on Poverty

St. Louis – Poverty and its attendant problems of disease and malnutrition is “the No. 1 issue facing our country and our world,” says Clinton McCann, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and professor of Old Testament studies at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo.

McCann gave his biblical interpretation of the importance of the event proclaiming Missouri a ONE state and St. Louis a ONE city.

He joined Gov. Matt Blunt and Mayor Francis G. Slay in declaring “we are united” in the effort to end global poverty. He noted that there are more than 2,000 texts in the Hebrew and Christian Bible that address poverty. A primary text, agreed upon by a number of Christian and Jewish theologians, is Psalm 82, McCann said.

The psalm “has a plot,” he said. It sets up a meeting of the Canaanite gods, to which the God of Israel comes and puts the other gods “on trial” and sentences them for not meeting the criteria for how a god is supposed to act. Kings, and by extension all political leaders, are supposed to meet this criteria too, McCann said. It is to:
“Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’ ” Psalm 82:3-4 New Revised Standard Version.

“If we know our biblical roots,” McCann said, “Christians will be committed to the goals of the ONE campaign” and will pressure their governmental representatives to “address the needs of the human family. Everyone here is my brother or sister, my child. I don’t want one of my children dying every three seconds. I don’t want my brothers and sisters in Africa to die of AIDS. I don’t want billions of the world people going to bed hungry every night.

“It shouldn’t be that way, and it won’t be that way,” if people unite behind the goals of ending poverty, McCann said.

Psalm 82

Jim Wallis Speaks to Presbyterian Evangelism Conference

Nashville – Jim Wallis is predicting the decline of the religious right. “Lets not worry about them anymore,” Wallis told a group of nearly 500 Presbyterians in Nashville Friday night. (August 31).
“Our faith can be a catalyst for a new movement,” Wallis told the clergy and lay leaders who were in Nashville for the first national conference on evangelism that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has held in more than a decade. He called for American Christians of all denominations to join a “Justice Revival,” focusing on the teachings of Jesus. Such a revivial movement would focus on national social and political issues, but would go far beyond politics.
“People acting out of faith can do more powerful things” than people activated by hate or greed, he said. Wallis envisions a tour of cities that would combine powerful evangelism preaching at night with protest marches in the daytime – a combination of Billy Graham and Martin Luther King.
“We need a new spiritual movement for social justice,” Wallis said. After such revival events, small groups of enthusiastic Christians would need to follow up the preaching and marching with disciple-making – calling people not just to believe the tenets of Christianity, but to act on Jesus’ call to feed the hungry, shelter the poor, visit the prisoner and to “let justice roll down like water.”
Wallis, president and executive director of Sojourners/Call to Renewal and author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, is a frequent guest on TV talk shows as an alternative voice to Christian Right leaders such as the late Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.
After Wallis appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he said the Sojourner organization got e-mails from people saying they had lost their faith because of money-hungery TV preachers who distort the gospel, clumsy evangelism phone solicitations and pedophile priests. The e-mails went on to say that the writer “didn’t know you could be a Christian and care about poverty.”
Wallis sees “much confusion about what we mean by the gospel message.” He says America has “had some bad religion under the name of evangelism – bad religion pulls out the worst in us. Good religion can pull out the best in us – a love for justice and a pursuit of peace.”
Wallis, who calls himself a progressive evangelical, said Christians “have lost battles in Congress [over the issue of immigration] that were more than justice issues. It’s a matter of welcoming the stranger, and also a deeper opportunity” for American churches to be transformed by immigrants who often have “a deeply personal faith.”
Wallis noted that Congress recently passed a farm bill that continues subsidies to wealthy American farmers – subsidies that ultimately threaten the survival of subsistence farmers in Africa and other areas of the global South.
The liberal Presbyterian denomination has taken “the right positions” on social justice issues for years, he said.
But members of Congress don’t pay attention to position papers. They have their fingers in the air, looking for the way the wind of public opinion blows, he said.
“If we’re going to change this country, we have to change the wind. Having the right position doesn’t change anything until you change the wind.” He called for a “prairie fire” of activism that “would make it impossible for congressional representatives to vote the wrong way.”