July 19, 2020 Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30 & 36-40
Good and Bad Plants.
In a recent survey this question was asked: “If you could ask God only one question and you knew God would give you an answer, what would you ask?” The most common response, offered by 17% of those who could think of a question was “Why is there pain and suffering in the world? If God is all-powerful, all-knowing and perfectly good, why does God let so many bad things happen?” This question raises what philosophers call “the problem of evil.”
A related question is “why do people do evil things”. The Judeo-Christian tradition of course uses the word sin as the reason why a good creation spun out of control.
The Pharisees during the times of Jesus approached the problem of evil in an interesting way. Their belief was that the coming of the Messiah would introduce a time when the world would be cleansed from sinners and evil. They anticipated the intervention of God in the world and the destruction of evil forces. They believed that when the Messiah comes the dead would be raised to face judgment. The faithful would be rewarded and the sinner would be punished.
They believed that God would decisively intervene in human history and God would do so in one of two ways:
a. by people converting and accepting God’s Kingdom, or
b. by the destruction of those who don’t convert. Israel’s enemies, unbelievers would be judged and destroyed.
And it seems as they could not wait for people to be judged. Some wanted to do the judgment themselves and immediately!
Now I am not suggesting that our parable answers all our questions about evil, sin and sinner, but it at least gives us something to think about!
Matthew’s Gospel tells the parable of someone sowing good seeds in his field. While everybody was asleep an enemy sowed bad seeds. Soon good plants and bad plants appeared. The parable presents us with a very typical contrast: good seeds and bad seeds!
The workers, when they saw the field, asked the obvious question: “Where did these bad plants come from?” The enemy did this!
Another question follows: “Do you want us to go and gather the weed, that is get rid of them?” This seems like the logical thing to do – get rid of the weeds, give more space and nutrition to the good plants! Get it done as soon as possible!
The master unexpectedly replied: “No, Let’s wait otherwise we would uproot the good plants with the bad ones. Let them both grow together until the harvest.”
Let both of them grow together! Let’s wait! Patience!
Someone once said that if you’re too impatient, you can make rash decisions with terrible consequences. If you’re too patient, you can waste vast stretches of your life pursuing the wrong goals. Patience is a virtue, and yet sometimes it can be a waste. Wisdom is called for!
Good plants, bad plants, the master and the enemy, wait for harvest time!
In order for us to understand this parable we need to understand its context. During the first Century of the common Era, when Christianity was still viewed as a Jewish sect, the main criticism directed at the new Christian movement went something like this: “If Jesus really is the Messiah, why did his coming not result in the destruction of evil forces?”
Why is there still evil in the world? Was Jesus really the Messiah?
The parable warns against a premature cleansing of the people of God. God’s people, the new Israel had to learn that good and evil, righteous and unrighteous co-exist in this world. As one NT commentator writes: “It is not the task of God’s people to bring division between people.”
I think we can learn a few things from the reading: good and bad still coexist in this world. Evil is at work or as one commentator says: “The enemy sabotages the work of the master.”
The slaves of the master want to do something immediately: “Do you want us to go and gather them?” As I said, on the surface it seems like the appropriate thing to do. Get rid of the weed! Get rid of evil! But the master’s answer comes as a surprise: “No! For in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest time….”
We sometimes become impatient when we see how evil impacts on the goodness of creation. We want to get rid of those who are responsible for sabotaging the work of God. We become impatient when we feel that our society is slipping. We want to get out and get rid of those whom we consider unwanted plants! The parable issues a warning: “Not so fast! Be patient!”
Now this of course does not mean that the church has to accept or tolerate evil. It calls for wisdom and patience. Being patient does not mean that we stay on the sideline and do not become involved in ministry to our world. Of course, we should do whatever we can to make the world a better place and oppose forces of evil, and work for the promotion of what is good! We have to resist evil that comes in the form of injustice, hate, war, discrimination – we have to resist the work of evil.
At the same time the parable is teaching that it is not our task to play judge and cleanse the world or to divide the world into two groups – them and us, good and evil! “Leave the weeds and the plants, don’t try to uproot the weeds because in the process you may do damage or uproot the good plants as well.” We have to be patient for God is the One who is the Judge!
When I think about this parable, I think it is true that we the church, sometimes look at the world and we place people into two categories: the righteous and unrighteous, the good and the bad, the ones who are right and the ones who don’t get it. And then we want to weed the bad ones. We label them, we question their motives, and then as a last resort we find a text in the Bible that support my view and judge the one who disagrees. And then I feel that I have defended God’s Kingdom. And we do this very impatiently and very definitively!
In the process people, let’s call them good plants, look at the way the church judges and pushes people away, they see how people are questioned and assessed, and in the process these good plants are harmed, they become alienated from the Gospel.
When they see how intolerant, judgmental and self-righteous people of faith sometimes are, they respond: “I love the Christian message, I love Christ’s words, example and actions, I love God’s grace, but I am not comfortable with the way some people speak about Jesus and how they implement their faith – so I retreat in my own little private personal chapel.” The truth of the parable is that the premature weeding damage the good plants. This happens when people of faith consider themselves judges of others! We cannot and should not play the role of God.
There obviously is an inner tension in this parable: It calls for patience but it also acknowledges the harm of evil. And as God’s people we need to resist evil.
If anyone understood the view of the Pharisees that God would come to judge with divine wrath it was the Apostle Paul. He was after all a Pharisee and an important one too. He initially viewed Christians as his enemies because they were, according to him, God’s enemies. He wanted to weed out these bad plants. In doing this, he was 100% convinced that he was serving God in the process. But then, as you know, he came face to face with Jesus and all of a sudden, his view and his whole life changed.
And it is this man that now in his letter to the Christians in Rome says: “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. We can now call God Abba, Father and God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God.”
No more fear! No longer enslaved by old ideas and judgmental views that perceive the world as a place where my background and my achievements determine God’s disposition towards me. No longer constantly worried that God’s mood may change and then I will be punished. No longer fearful that other powers may play havoc with my life. No more fear because God is our loving Parent who has made us God’s own! And as God’s children, guided by God’s Spirit, no more arrogance or considering myself better than you!
Now this theology is not any different from the OT. When Israel was in Exile, they felt abandoned, they wrestled with the question: “What did we do wrong to deserve this?”
They felt anxious and fearful because their future was uncertain. And then God says this: “Do not fear or be afraid! You are my witnesses! I am you God, I am your rock.” These words lifted the spirits of those who felt pushed out, vulnerable as aliens in a strange land! They held onto their comfort that God was their redeemer!
Their task was not to judge, or to get rid of the bad plants, or to put people in categories of us and them, good and bad. No, their task was simple: They had to be witnesses of what they had seen and had experienced. They had to share what they had seen and experienced. Nothing more, nothing less.
Unfortunately, they were a forgetful people and over time they convinced themselves that their task was to be more than witnesses. They had to get rid of those who disagreed with them, they wanted to be judges instead of witnesses.
They viewed those who disagreed with them as their enemies and God’s enemies. When God sent the Son into the world, they rejected his message because they saw him as a danger to their view! They viewed him as an enemy.
We too are called to be witnesses of what we have heard and seen with spiritual eyes. We have seen God at work in Christ. We have witnessed God’s love for humankind. We have witnessed that God is the forgiving God, a merciful and gracious God who made us whole! And as God’s witnesses we can fearlessly approach the future, resisting evil with courage but at the same time with patience waiting for Christ’s return. Amen.