23rd April 23 – The Parable of the Weeds

23rd April 23 – The Parable of the Weeds

Matt 13:24-30, 36-43

My Nan used to have a poem up on the wall in her kitchen.  I might have told you about this before.  It was a parody of ‘all things bright and beautiful’ called, ‘all things spray and squattable’ – the first verse begins, ‘But what we never mention, though gardeners know it’s true; is when he made the goodies, he made the baddies too’.  It goes on to talk about greenfly on the roses and maggots on the peas; slugs, drought, frost, midges, nettles – and weeds.  And just to round it off, it finishes with these words: ‘But still we gardeners labour, midst vegetables and flowers, and pray that what hits the neighbour’s will somehow bypass ours.’

That, although a bit of fun, is a genuine theological point.  There’s something we talk about – the proper term is ‘theodicy’ – the argument of how God can be this almighty, all-powerful creator when all this bad stuff is around.

One argument for that is given in the poem.  Somehow, for some reason, God made that bad stuff too.  God is totally in control, and he made humans who would sin and go their own way and do horrible things; he made Satan who would tempt us; he made a world which is painful and difficult.  And some will reason that, as we sang earlier, ‘God is working his purpose out’.  That there is a purpose behind all this, that the sin and horrors we see around us are put there by God to help us to grow, to make us strong, to give us opportunities to show love and generosity and charity, to make us compassionate.  Some will argue that good comes from suffering, that God sends punishments or discipline to bring people back to him.  These views say, God is completely sovereign.  Nothing happens without his say-so.  Therefore whatever happens must be his will, for purposes that we just have to trust are good and he knows better than we do.

Many people find that argument a bit shaky, for various reasons I’m not going to go into now because it all gets a bit deep for a Sunday morning, I encourage you to look into it.

But some people say, ok God created people but he created us with free will, and the horrible stuff people choose to do he will allow because he wants to uphold that freedom, but it isn’t what he wants.  And we’ll come back to that later.  Here we can argue that God can bring good out of evil without having to say that he caused it.  Then there are other views that uphold the goodness of God but say that somehow he chooses to limit  the use of his power in some way so as to allow the world to function, and the things that go wrong aren’t really down to him at all.  And maybe all of these arguments are true to some extent, in some situations – there is unlikely to be one single answer that fits everything that happens.

That’s the argument in a nutshell.  As I say, it’s quite deep and complicated, I probably haven’t really done any of these arguments justice but I just wanted to give you a flavour of the different ideas people put forward.  But I want to come back to Jesus’ parable.  Because this is, in a way, part of his argument too.  But for Jesus, it’s not that God has total control and chooses to introduce sin and its effects.  It’s not that people have control and mess up what God has planned.  It’s not that God is powerless to stop it.  For Jesus, it’s not about God at all.  There is something else at work.

God – the good God, the Almighty God, in the person of Jesus – sows good seed in the world.  Jesus said this good seed stands for the people of the kingdom, but we have to realise that ‘the people of the kingdom’ don’t just come out of nowhere as opposed to ‘the people of the evil one’.  We don’t believe that some people are not created by God!  Jesus, in a world of people, creates people of the kingdom.  Great!  God makes good stuff.

But seeing these ‘people of the kingdom’ being created, the devil can’t leave it alone.  He can’t touch God’s people, we need to notice that, he doesn’t go and remove the seed God has planted.  But he does a bit of planting of his own.  Evil thoughts, evil desires, creating in his turn his own people, left to live amongst God’s people in the world.

And as the shoots of God’s people grow up, so do the weeds of the devil.  Remember what happened on the thorny ground?  The weeds choked the shoots, making them unfruitful.  We are surrounded in the world by those who are weeds; who have been coerced by the lies of the devil to cause difficulty to God’s people.

And in Jesus’ story, the servants asked the same question we ask.  God, aren’t you good?  Didn’t you make things good?  Where did this stuff come from?  Why are bad things happening?  Why are people doing such awful things to one another?  And the response?  An enemy did this.

This is not God’s will.  All the evil and injustice and mistreatment; anger, greed, oppression, power-grabbing; all that stuff in the world is not of God’s doing.  It isn’t something he put there because he wants the world to be like that; something that for some mysterious reason of his own God had planned and purposed, either for our growth or even for his glory.  God does not want this.  The enemy wants it.

But God allows it.

God doesn’t immediately go out weeding.  Wouldn’t that be better?

It depends, I suppose.  Better for who?  I mean, for a start I have grown seeds, and to be honest the seedlings look a lot like weeds for quite a while.  I have frequently nurtured the green shoots springing up in my plant pot only to realise a week later that a new, different shoot is growing, that is actually the thing I planted.  Conversely I have been known to pull up weedy-looking things only to realise when I got them out of the ground that the seed-case was still attached – this was the thing I was meant to be nurturing!  So there is the question of whether or not it is clear that a weed is a weed, and not wanting to pull up a seedling by mistake.

We also know that the roots of weeds can go quite deep.  And we pull up one thing only to find that others around it are dislodged, disturbed.  The danger is, especially if the weed is stronger than the plant, that the plant will be damaged or even destroyed in the weeding process.  The stronger the weed, the harder it is to get up without hurting the surrounding plant; the weaker the plant, the more likely it is to struggle both with the weed and with the weeding.  So the other problem with weeding is the danger of damaging the plants you wanted to grow in the first place.

This farmer is someone who counts and values every single one.  Who doesn’t want a single seed to be damaged or lost.  Who knows that the person now growing who may look like a bit of a weed could turn out to be his anyway; that the person with a weak faith needs nurture and not disturbance; that the removal of the works of the enemy could damage or destroy his own people.

So we find, if we take this parable of Jesus seriously, that the reason God allows the work of the enemy to continue is, purely and simply, an act of love.  It doesn’t feel like it, we don’t want it to be that way, but it is because God loves each one of his people that he refuses to do anything that might jeopardise them, however hard that can be for us to understand.  But, I say again, it is not his will that the world should be like this.

I believe, though, and this is not in the parable, that God does work within and among his people, strengthening them, helping them.  I believe he works among those of the enemy, seeking to transform them.  And I believe that the people of God – us – will continue to grow and to bear fruit for him, in spite of the world around us.

So much for theodicy.

If we accept that sin and evil is not God’s will for the world, we also know that it pains him.  That when we suffer, he suffers.  And Jesus on the cross is the ultimate example of that; of God suffering for the evil that happens in the world he has created.  But the parable is not just about why God lets this go on.  It is also a message of judgement.

At the end of the age, that is the final judgement, all those works of the enemy will be destroyed.  ‘Everything that causes sin and all who do evil’ will be thrown into the fire; and ‘the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’

How does that make you feel?

I mean, on the one hand all that bad stuff, all that causes trouble and distress, temptation, death – all that is gone.  But then, that includes all the people who do evil.  And we might have a good idea of people we would like to be in that camp!  We might look forward to the day when the world’s genocidal dictators, or child molesters get their comeuppance.  Those murderers, persecutors of the church, defilers of innocence.  People who do what is clearly evil.

But where do we draw that line?  If it were up to us to judge?  King David committed adultery and murder – they are evil acts, should he go in the fire?  The guy who shoplifts to feed his starving family?  What about closer to home?  Your partner who downloads illegal films?  Your friend who likes to tell you all the juicy gossip?  Or even more – you who listens to it?

The thing is, when it comes to judgement I think we all subconsciously judge by our own standards.  The things I do are not evil, as such… But the things I don’t do, well they can be judged, they can be punished.  We had a week at college this week talking about relationships.  And they warned us that this could be difficult for some of us.  On Monday, and Tuesday morning, it was all about homosexuality.  It was fine.  Interesting discussion, different views, sometimes got a bit heated but in general a fairly comfortable conversation.  On Tuesday afternoon though we talked about singleness.  Much less controversial, much ‘easier’ you might think.  But I found it incredibly difficult.  Because homosexuality was about other people; singleness was about me.  It is so easy to say what ‘they’ should and shouldn’t do; it is so difficult to apply the same criticism to ourselves.

Jesus said, when faced with a woman caught in adultery and charged with the death penalty, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  It’s a good job, really, that it isn’t up to us to judge who gets thrown into that fire.  Because our instinct might just be “anyone worse than me”.  But in reality, when we take a good look at ourselves, we find that there is evil in all of us.  We are not the standard, God is.  Jesus can judge.  Jesus can say, “anyone worse than me”.  Where would that leave any of us?

The apostle Paul said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  We know that.  But he goes on to say, “and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

When we look at the passage again, maybe we notice that one word specifically is written in the present tense.  “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.”  Not all who ‘have done’.  For what we have done, if we repent and turn to God there is the grace and redemption of Jesus who forgives us and makes us his own people.  The judgement is on people who do.  Who live a life of continuing evil, unrepentant, uncaring.  As those who belong to Christ we should be seeking to live a life of goodness and holiness, growing like the wheat and producing fruit.  When we do wrong, as we will, coming back to him again and again in repentance.  Trusting in the Holy Spirit to guide us in the right ways.  And having confidence that at that day of judgement, we will be those shining like the sun in the kingdom of our Father.

So as we take this parable as a whole let us remember the God who loves us in the trials and tears of this world; who does not want us to suffer but suffers alongside us; who will one day bring an end to sin and evil and death; and let us take heart.

Let us pray.

Lord, sometimes life seems so hard.  Sometimes there seem to be more weeds in the world than wheat, and we don’t understand your purposes.  Help us to trust you.  Help us to know that all you do and all you allow is out of love for us, and to turn to you for strength.  Help us not to judge others but to look to ourselves and the way you want us to act; forgive us for those times when we do fall short, and help us to live a life pleasing to you and spend eternity in your kingdom.  Thank you Lord for Jesus, who came both to share in suffering with us and to defeat the evil that so pervades our world.  Thank you for sending your Spirit to keep us and to guide us.  By His power may we grow and bear fruit.  In your holy name we pray.  Amen.