All Souls Worship 19.07.20

Rev'd Geoff Haworth


Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and gathering them around him, he taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

              Blessed are the meek. Blessed are they that mourn. Blessed are the merciful.
              Blessed are you when you are persecuted …
“Excuse me, Lord,” replied Simon Peter,”are we supposed to know all this?”
And Andrew said, “do we have to write it down?”
And Philip said, “But I don’t have any paper.”
And Bartholomew said, “do we have to hand this in?”
And john said, “The other disciples didn’t have to learn this.”
Then one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus’s lesson plan and inquired of him,
“Where is your anticipatory set and where are your cognitive objectives?”
And Jesus wept.

As you listened to the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat, you may have been asking some questions about it. Such questions as - Who would go to the trouble of sowing weeds among the freshly-sown seeds of wheat? Why would they do such a thing? And why did Jesus tell such a parable? What really is the point of it? Before I deal with such questions, let’s take a moment to reflect on what a parable in the Bible is, on why Jesus told them. A well-known and fairly crude definition of a parable is “any earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” In fact, interpreting parables is an activity  that has moved through different phases, and been expressed by a range of different scholars – from C.H. Dodd to John Dominic Crossan, from Joachim Jeremias to William Herzog. There are different traditions of parable interpretation, and as one tradition loses momentum, it is replaced by another one. The parables are endlessly fascinating, and people’s perspective of them keeps on changing, as the world around us changes too. I’m sure that parables could be written about how the world’s leaders have – or have not – responded to Covid 19. 

But let’s return to the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat. Matthew in his Gospel has placed it
immediately after other parables of sowing – especially the parable of the sower, who sowed some seeds on the path, that the birds ate; and some seeds that fell on rocky ground, and other seeds that fell among thorns, and finally, seeds that fell on good soil that grew and proliferated. Matthew has a habit of expounding the parable, and then providing an explanation or interpretation of it. So it is with the parable we’ve heard today. Matthew gives it special significance – “The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field.” We understand that sowing good seed is a way of saying that God’s word is being taught, and is going to bear good fruit – of people who’ve heard God’s word and been changed by it for the better, who’ve learned to help other people, to pray, to know God, to love God – all the good things that come from being a disciple of God. 

In the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat, the sower of good seed discovered that there was a
problem. Among the shoots of wheat springing up, there were also sprigs of weeds. The weeds greatly bothered the householder’s slaves, who said to him: “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” Clearly, it was not usual for weeds to grow
among wheat seedlings. The “weeds” refer to an unwanted plant common in the time of Jesus, known as “darnel”, a poisonous plant that was definitely regarded as a scourge. The master responds to the slave’s questions by explaining that the weeds had been sown by an “enemy”. What
sort of enemy would so such a thing? And why? Imagine you’ve planted, in your garden, some especially attractive flowers and shrubs, which you will take pride in displaying to your friends and family members. And then, to your dismay, you discover paspalum and matagouri shooting up in your beloved flower bed. You didn’t plant them there – so who did? You’d be looking at your neighbours in a new light!

But for the householder in the parable, the problem was even more dismaying. His economy and
his pantry depended on there being a healthy crop of wheat. If that crop were damaged or poisoned, the results would be devastating. How would he deal with the problem? His slaves suggest
a way; shall we go and gather them? The householder has wisdom on his side. No, that would not be a good solution. At the early stage, it would be impossible to distinguish clearly between a small stalk of wheat, and another of darnel. If you tried to pull out the darnel, you’d end up pulling out just as much wheat. The enemy who planted the weeds would have worked that out. So instead, the
householder comes up with a safer plan. Wait until harvest time. By then, it will be possible to clearly identify the darnel. The reapers will be instructed to collect the weeds first, and bind them up into bundles to be burned. The burning of the bundles of weeds will happen in fireplaces, rather than in the open fields. That way, the various households will have guaranteed fuel for fires to heat their houses and cook their food. The weeds can be put to constructive use. And the crop of wheat can be harvested separately. Yes, more work for the reapers – but more reward for the householders too. It’s a classic instance of making the best of a bad situation.

So much for the earthly story of the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat. What about the heavenly meaning? Once heavenly meanings are sought, then possibilities for disagreement open up. Biblical commentators and clergy have almost infinite scope to expound conflicting ideas, and to enjoy academic and theological arguments. Commentators I’ve read suggest that the explanation of the parable, in verses 36-43, comes not from Jesus, but from Matthew. If you follow this theory, then it seems clear that Matthew treats the parable as an allegory – a story with a hidden meaning. You can’t get to the meaning, until you’ve decoded the symbols in the story. So, in the explanation,
one symbol is the “one who sows the good seed” – that’s the Son of Man. The field is the world. The good seed are the children of the Kingdom of God. The weeds are the devil’s children; the harvest is the end of the age; the reapers are angels. Put all the symbols together, and the theological point of the story becomes clear. The angels of the Son of Man will expel from God’s Kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, “and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
If you accept that Matthew wrote the explanation, you need to understand the Christian world for
whom Matthew was writing. It was young, it was under severe persecution from Romans and elements of Judaism. It was struggling to be seen and heard, let alone understood. The explanation of the parable makes sense to an embattled community, where declaring Christian faith could be
seen as a hostile activity, and yet those who were killed for their Christian faith could be seen as
shining like the sun. The explanation, which I believe Matthew did write, seems geared up to justify the righteous – those who’ve held fast to their faith, and resisted urges to compromise or move away to another faith. It is also extremely tough on the opponents of the Christian community. They will be thrown into the furnace – we may assume that this means hell – where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The battle lines are drawn up. Choose which side of the conflict you’re on, in other words. A tough message, for tough times.

Or so we may think. And yet, wherever the Church has taken root, there has been conflict. The very early Church had fights about what their creeds of faith should be, about the divinity or humanity of
Christ, about the meaning of baptism. The medieval Church had fights about what orthodox faith might be, and what was heresy; about what authority the Church should have over society; about who could be branded as enemies of God. And our Church today has its conflicts too. We know this only too well, as we look around and see how many different brands of Church there are, and take notice of the beliefs that divide them. Some churches are extremely conservative; some are moderate in their theology; others are extremely liberal. Some struggle to minister to gay, lesbian, and people of other sexual orientations, while others welcome them as God’s children. Some churches are based firmly on a particular race or ethnicity of people, and others do their best to include all-comers, regardless of race. Today, if a person or group of people disagree with the Christian theology of a particular Church, they can always split away, and create their own.

And that’s what happened to our Anglican Church in New Zealand, several years ago. There was division about what doctrines of the Church were weeds, and what were wheat. The division didn’t happen all of a sudden – it was slowly taking place behind the scenes, fed by numerous impassioned discussions. Those who wished to divide from the mainstream Anglican Church bided their time, and waited for the appropriate moment. Then they split away, ordained their own bishop, and worked hard to set up new churches, anchored in their own ultra-conservative theology. I don’t question their sincerity – but I do question their decision to set up a separate church. At a time when Christianity is under increasing threat, from a world which tries hard to portray the churches as being backward-looking and irrelevant, why create yet another split, that will weaken the Church’s standing, and create more basis for division? The Church, and the breakaway group, at the very least need to talk to each other, in an attempt to understand each other better.

There was a time, hundreds of years ago, when huge strife, probably violence, would result from an attempt to split the Church. Much use was probably made of the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat – or, at least, of the explanation that Matthew attributes to Jesus. But Matthew lived at a time when it was commonly believed that the age was about to end, and that the Son of Man with his angels would come to restore order, reward the righteous, and punish the evil-doers. We know that such an age is yet to come, and that the faith community will be judged, not by end-of-time violence and destruction, but by its effectiveness and impact on God’s world. 

In God’s name, may we be a Church effective at proclaiming God’s good news, at offering peace and healing to a broken world, and at reconciling with one another. So may the love, power and grace of God melt away our disagreements and doubts, and the fire of God warm our spirits and lighten our way. Amen.

 All Souls Merivale    19 July 2020

Romans 8:12-25     Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43


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