a sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11A)
Life isn’t always black and white. So what do we do with the shades of gray?
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’m happy to report 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. And Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like a farmer who plants wheat in a field. Then while everyone is sleeping, an enemy comes along and plants weeds in the same field.
Now before I go any further, you should know that Jesus is talking about a particular kind of weed that is very common in the middle east. It’s called Bearded Darnel and it looks almost identical to wheat when it’s growing. 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 much 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, when the stalks of wheat will bend under the weight of the grain and the weeds will stand up taller, making them easier to separate.
For centuries, people have debated the meaning this parable. Who does the farmer represent? Who or what is the field? Who are the bad seeds? And for Gospel-writer 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 heaven to live with God, and the bad people are going to go to the other place.
This explanation works just fine for a lot of people. It has the benefit of being easy to understand. There are good guys and bad guys, sheep and goats, wheat and weeds. All of us are the good wheat and all of them are the weeds.
The only problem is that it’s wrong. Because whenever we decide that we know who among us is wheat and who are the weeds, we’re falling into the same trap as the farmer’s servants. We just don’t know. We can’t tell who belongs in the kingdom of God, and who should be thrown into the furnace of fire. And every time we try to do it, we guess wrong.
Unfortunately, this happens a lot in institutions. Whenever we hear about governments or religious institutions that close their doors to people who are different from whatever their idea of a “good person” happens to be, they are basically saying, “we are the wheat and they are the weeds.” It might be someone who has a different understanding of God, or experiences a different way of loving, or looks different from us, or has a different political point of view. But the sad fact of the matter is that governments and religion have a pretty poor track record for being the open and welcoming as Jesus intended for us to be.
But there’s another way that we might interpret this parable, one that takes into account that human beings aren’t so simple. None of us are 100% good or 100% evil. All of us are a mixture of good and bad, saint and sinner, wheat and weed. All of us are faced with dozens of decisions every day – moral decisions that have real life practical implications. And we don’t always make the right choice.
I think most people 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 we sit silently when we should speak out. Or maybe we just let ourselves get distracted from doing 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 with our family, doing our homework, 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 most importantly, from God.
Jesus understood that life isn’t always black and white – we all live within shades of gray. All of us are both saints and sinners at the same time; we are both wheat and cheat-wheat. And whenever we try to draw lines between ourselves and the other guy, Jesus ends up being on the other side of the line. He ate with the sinners, not the Pharisees. He lived among the poor, not the power elite.
Any time we draw lines between ourselves and the other guy, Jesus ends up being on the other side of the line. Does that mean that we are called to simply turn a blind eye to the evil in the world around us. Absolutely not. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have an obligation to confront evil and injustice all around us. But it does mean that we need to be mindful of the fact that God’s work in us is not complete yet. Jesus didn’t say that the kingdom of God is like a rock or a mountain that never changes. He said that the kingdom is like a field where things are planted and grow and in due time they are harvested at the appropriate time. Our job is to maximize our own wheat, to make sure that the good within us grows and thrives. And at the end, God will separate our wheat from our cheat.
Several years ago, when the Episcopal Church was struggling to come up with a faithful response to the issue of same-sex relationships, our bishop at the time, Bishop Henderson, said that whenever the Church has been faced with the question who is “in” and who is “out,” the right answer was always the more open and inclusive one because God blesses those things which are in accord with his will, and redeems those things that are not.
God blesses those things which are in accord with his will, and redeems those things that are not.
Our lives are like empty fields in which God planted lots of wheat. And as we have grown, we’ve certainly picked up a few weeds along the way, a few sorrows and troubles, and few times we wished we could have done things over. We are all saints and sinners at the same time and sometimes it’s 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. We should grow our wheat, and leave the harvest up to God.
Thanks be to God.