a sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11)
For Matthew, the story about the wheat and the tares was pretty simple – There are two kinds of people in this world, good people and bad people, wheat and weeds. But crops, and humans, aren’t so simple. How, then, do we get rid of the weeds?
This past week, I took a little quiz that a lot of people were taking on Facebook. It was called, “How Good or Evil are You?” It asked 10 multiple choice questions and then based on my answers, it gave me a score. The questions were things like, “You go to the store but the only parking space left is marked ‘Handicapped Only.’ Do you, a) park there anyway, b) take it if you’re going to be there for less than 5 minutes, c) keep driving around until another spot opens up, or d) take public transportation to reduce your carbon footprint.”
As your priest, I think you all will be happy to know that I’m only 29% evil.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us another parable. A parable is a story that describes the kingdom of God. Today we heard about a farmer who plants wheat in a field. Then while everyone was sleeping, an enemy comes along who planted weeds in the same field.
Now before I go any further, it’s important to understand that Jesus is talking about a particular kind of weed that is very common in the middle east, called Bearded Darnel. Its appearance is almost identical to wheat. In fact, it’s commonly called “cheat weed.” It survives by wrapping its roots around the roots of the real wheat, and competing for nutrients in the soil. The problem the farmer faces is what to do about them. If he sends his servants out to pull the weeds, they will very likely kill a lot of the good wheat as well, since it’s very hard to tell the difference between the wheat and the cheat weed, and their roots are all tangled together anyway. So he decides to simply wait until harvest time. Then the stalks of wheat will bend under the weight of the grain, while the weeds will stand up taller, making it easier to separate them.
For centuries, people have debated the meaning this parable. Who does the farmer represent? Who or what is the wheat? Who are the bad seeds? For Matthew, the story was pretty simple – There are two kinds of people in this world, good people and bad people, wheat and weeds. And when the time comes, the good people are going to live with God, and the bad people are going to be burned.
This explanation works just fine for a lot of people. It has the benefit of being simple: There are good folks and bad folks, sheep and goats, wheat and weeds. All that we have to do is make sure that we’re not a weed.
The problem is that human beings aren’t so simple. Nobody is 100% good or 100% evil. All of us are faced with dozens of decisions we have to make every day – practical decisions that have real life moral implications.
Take the musical, Les Miserables, about a very good man and a very evil man. It’s about a criminal who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and a policeman who chases him. Both characters have good and evil within them; both are wheat and weed.
Most of the people we know have good intentions – we want to do the right thing for our families; we want to do what we know is right according to God. At the same time, we struggle against the temptation to do something else – we look for an easy fix to a financial problem; or we stop off at the bar when we know we should not be there; or give in on a point just to avoid a conflict. Or, maybe we just let ourselves get distracted from doing it what we know we need to be doing. We let emails, phone calls, television, and the internet burn away our precious time, time that we could be spending doing our homework, studying for that exam, or writing that sermon. We get distracted from actively doing the work God has given us to do in the world. These subtle distractions are small sins, really, that take us away from quality time with our spouse, our children, our family and friends and loved ones. Life is full of choices every day, and we can’t always tell which choices are the best for us.
Jesus understood that we are not perfect human beings. He understood that we are both saints and sinners at the same time. He understood that life isn’t aways black and white, that we often live within shades of gray. This is why he cautions us against making decisions too hastily. “Don’t be too quick to judge,” he tells us. “Just wait until we see the fruits. Then God will harvest the wheat, and get rid of the rest.”
It’s not our job to separate the good seeds from the bad. That’s up to God. Instead, our job is to maximize the wheat, to make sure that that part of us grows and thrives. And how do that?
I believe that we do it here, my friends. We do it by following Christ’s example of loving God and our neighbor, without judgment and without shaming. We invite everyone we meet to join us as followers of Christ. We invite them to splash along with us in the waters of baptism, we tell the stories of how God has acted in our lives, we sing songs of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus, and we gather around the altar to be nourished. Through our baptisms, we are joined with the only perfect human, Jesus Christ. And through the Eucharist, we are nourished and strengthened, so that we can do God’s work in the world every day of the week.
Our lives are like empty fields planted with lots of wheat and a few trials and troubles. We are all saints and sinners at the same time. It’s very hard to tell the difference between the will of God and the evil one. That’s why Jesus tells us to simply stop, and wait, and listen, and pray. Gather in community and share God’s holy meal. Splash in the waters of baptism and become one with Christ. We should grow our wheat, and leave the rest up to God.
There once was an old Cherokee man who was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “Two wolves live inside me. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other wolf represents joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The wolves are constantly in a terrible fight inside me.”
“This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too,” he added.
The children thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old man replied… “The one you feed.”
Thanks be to God.