St. Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
Words matter. And words about the Absolute – about God – matter absolutely. Let that thought hover over you for a couple minutes as we unpack a bit of the parable that Jesus puts in front of us in today’s Gospel.
We hear in today’s parable that the Son of Humanity has cast good seed everywhere – the Gospel – the Good News – has been sewn throughout of this world – in every place and in every time. But an enemy – all that is against the Good News – and enemy has entered the scene, and that enemy of the Gospel has scattered all over some bad seed – in this case, darnel – counterfeit wheat, an annual grass that right up until the harvest looks a whole lot like wheat to the untrained eye. Now, knowing that bad seed has been sewn and is taking root, the always-willing-to-be-helpful servants – the followers of Jesus – they want to rush into that field to uproot all that bad counterfeit wheat. Now a normal farmer, at this point, would of course say to those wanna-be-helpful servants, “By all means!” And any half-way decent farm-worker servant would be able to tell the difference between the real wheat and the counterfeit wheat, would go out and pull up the counterfeit grain, and would then be rewarded. Which is, of course, how we would like this story to be told. But Farmer Jesus seems to understand the servants far better than they – or we – are able. The Farmer understands that we, the servants, are going to make a complete mess of the field whenever we go into it trying to weed out, root out, the counterfeit grain. And not only are we not always so great at distinguishing the good from the bad, but in our weeding frenzy, we traipse all over the good wheat thereby destroying much of the good while never really or completely routing out the bad – we, the forever-undiscerning servants, we end up doing far more damage than the enemy could ever have done – leaving the enemy really quite pleased with him- or her- or its-self, thank you very much. Seriously, it doesn’t take a degree in history to know how much evil has been done by the Church throughout the centuries in the name of rooting out, weeding out what was evil to the undiscerning sight of the Church. Just go ask the Jews or Muslims. Or blacks. Or LGBT folks. (You may add to the list at your leisure and without much brain strain.)
And so it is that we hear Farmer Jesus say concerning this mess of a field – at least in English – “Let both of them grow together until the harvest . . . . let the evil and good grow together until the harvest.” Time to go back to the opening salvo – that words matter – and especially words about the Absolute. We just heard in English how Farmer Jesus says, “let the evil and the good grow together.” But in the Greek of the New Testament, the language of the early Church, for our word let in this sentence Jesus uses the word ἄφετε (áfete) – a word that would most certainly resonate loud, louder, loudest in the ears of early Christians, who in the liturgy on the Lord’s Day, and in their daily gatherings as well, used that same word in a very particular prayer. Ἅφεσ (Áfes)” they would say, “Forgive us our sins as we also ἀφίεμεν (aphíemen), forgive those who sin against us.” The Farmer’s response to our deadly weeding projects is not merely to let things be, but to forgive both the noxious weeds – the bad – and the wheat. Our response to such a tale of course is to blurt out, “Are you crazy Jesus?? Not only do you want me to let the evil be, but now you’re telling me I have to forgive the bad weeds as well as the good wheat???? What sort of God are you?? Indiscriminate forgiveness for all?? Doesn’t that just give everybody license to do anything and everything they damn well please???” Wow – talk about how words matter . . . Change “let” to “forgive” and look what happens – bad enough “render to no one evil for evil” – worse that it all gets forgiven.
With that, now seems as good a time as any to talk ataing about the Church’s teaching concerning the two Kingdoms of God. On one hand – traditionally, the right one – we have God’s Kingdom of Grace – the Kingdom where all things – to our great chagrin as well as to our great benefit – where all things are forgiven. This is the Kingdom wherein the Church, the Servants in today’s parable, are to resist not evil, are to render to no one evil for evil, but are to forgive the good and the evil people alike just as we are forgiven the good and the evil we do. (And yes, the parable asserts forgiveness for both good and evil – since we’re both at the same time.) So – that’s God’s Kingdom on the right.
… and so in God’s Kingdom on the right—the Kingdom of Grace—all do get in, all the little children along with those who stole their innocence, all of the offended and all of the offenders …
Then there’s God’s Kingdom on the left – which is a sort of emergency situation made necessary by the ever-pervasive reality of what we call “sin.” For the sake of the vulnerable, for the sake of peace, for the sake of keeping chaos at bay, God has instituted government and has placed some people in positions of authority – rulers, police, parents, teachers, pastors, bishops, and others – to keep good order. To government and to those in authority, God grants the power to say “No!!!” to those persons and things that threaten the weak, that threaten peace, that give rise to injustice and inequity. But make no mistake – on this shadowed planet groaning in travail, this power and command to say “no,” this power and command to punish wrongdoers, this power and command to stave off chaos, this power and command to set limits, this power and command to put lawbreakers in jail – is as often as anything the lesser of evils. So, while it was arguably necessary to go to war against Hitler and fascism, in order – among other things – to save our Jewish sisters and brothers from total extermination, that war, along with every war, resulted in the slaughter of many innocents and the destruction of much that was good. Someone good and innocent nearly always suffers when somebody is punished or jailed for a crime.
As terribly contingent as God’s Kingdom on the left is, to do away with it is not an option – even in the Church. And so it is, for example, that someone in authority must stand at the doors of the church and say to a convicted pedophile – for the sake of the defenseless – for the safety of the children here – you may not enter. And no, this banishment, this separation from community is not ideal; somehow, someone will be diminished and/or hurt as a result. At the same time, however, the one blocking the door must proclaim – to the offender and to all the world – that in the end, all causes of evil and every evil intent will be burned away from each and every one of us – and so in God’s Kingdom on the right – the Kingdom of Grace – all do get in – all the little children along with those who stole their innocence – all of the offended and all of the offenders; in the eternal Realm of God, God’s Kingdom on the right, God’s will to forgive, God’s letting-go of sin and evil, this, God’s will – is being done – as it is upon the Cross from which Jesus proclaims, ἄφεσισ (aphesis), forgiveness, to the whole world, forgiveness for everyone – no exceptions – forgiveness for even the enemies of God who crucify love daily.
And so if, with me, it absolutely kills you to even begin to entertain the possibility that in God’s Eternal Kingdom – everybody gets in – those who did good and the evil alike – if that grace just kills you as it does me – well, that’s a good thing – for as we keep on saying in the creeds of the Church, in words that Absolutely matter – it is only and precisely those put to death by grace who are being raised to the life of the ages. For you know, only the dead can be raised.