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Wheat and weeds growing together

The message from the gospel today is basic and straight forward. It is about trusting God to sort things out in the end and not being too quick ourselves to try to sort the good from the bad. That is partly because we are likely to make some judgements that are not very good when we try to discern who is on the Lord's side, and partly because even if we can see clearly who belongs and who might be an intruder we are likely to damage others in our attempts to tidy up the Lord's field. It was the damage we are likely to do to others in the process which was given by the landowner in the parable as the reason for not intervening to pull out the weeds. 

There must have been a good many people amongst the followers of Jesus both before and after his death and resurrection who did not feel very comfortable with some of the company they had to keep. The disciples tried on occasions to drive away those people they thought were unworthy who were trying to reach Jesus. [eg Matthew 20:30; Mark 10:47] They also tended to think that a final judgement should be made there and then when things did not go as they ought. For example, they asked Jesus about calling down fire from heaven on villages which would not receive them [Luke 9:54]. Certainly, the company they kept because they were with Jesus was a cause for criticism from the community leaders of the time (as we had cause to remember recently). Or similarly, eg.:- 

Some of these experiences must have been recalled often when in the early church questions arose about whether of some who were amongst them really belonged. But it was not quite that simple. They knew that a general doctrine of inclusiveness regardless of what people did or believed is not Christian teaching. It did matter what people believed and how they lived. The members of the fellowship were supposed to have repented of their old ways and to be trying to live a new life with Christ. Paul even rebuked the Corinthians for having among themselves someone who was leading a notoriously immoral life. 

It was not an easy question and it never is, this question of tolerance and inclusiveness where it appears to encourage evil and falsehood. Much the same applied to teachers of the way of Christ. Some were true to him and some were not, and it must have been quite difficult for small groups of believers not in close touch with other congregations to work out who were the true apostles of Christ. 

They were not silly enough to imagine that sincerity was enough or that each could follow their own inclinations. Consumer religion or making up your own smorgasbord of spirituality was not "all the go" then. Truth and unity mattered. It must have been in the midst of struggles of this kind that Matthew was moved to recall, and to pass on to others in what he wrote, the parable that Jesus told about the wheat and the weeds. 

Let them grow together until the harvest

As any gardener will know, the weeds seem to come from nowhere. You plant good pure seed and it is as if some enemy had stolen in at night and planted weeds, for there they are growing amongst the plants you want as if they have every right to be there. If you have everything nicely lined up in rows it is not so very difficult to get in there with a hoe or just to pull them out. Human life is usually not so well ordered. In a farmer's field of wheat or some other crop that is broadly dispersed, as human beings tend to be, it is not so easy. In fact farmers don't generally try to remove weeds from crops of that kind. It must have been so at time Jesus told the story too.

Later the explanation is given that the wheat is the children of God and the weeds the children of the evil one. They are to be allowed to grow together. 

It is worth taking notice that the word translated "weeds" in modern versions, and "tares" in the old Authorized or King James version, actually refers to a plant "darnel" that looks like wheat. In the story as Jesus told it he was contrasting a false grain with a true grain. It was a matter of what the plant could produce. As he said on a number of occasions, it is by their fruits you will know them; sometimes it is hard to tell them apart while they are growing in the field. 

They would be sorted out later, in God's time. It will be done by his agents, sent out by the victories Son of Man, our Lord Jesus Christ, when he comes into his kingdom:- 

Matthew goes on the tell of the rubbish being burnt on the fire. That is an image that recurs quite often in the gospels. We do not have here a laissez fare doctrine of live and let live as if all may do as they please and it does not matter. In the long run, in the end, it will be clear that there is a difference between the wheat and the weeds. 

Some belief in a final judgement is an important part of the faith in which a person can trust God to work things out. There are many ways in which it can be expressed, but if you have no such belief, you will be much more inclined to try to do the Lord's work here and now. If you cannot trust God to bring in the kingdom you might well think it is your job to sort out the wheat from the weeds. 

Many a church and many a community has been destroyed by such a lack of faith leading to a self righteous and judgmental assumption of responsibility. There is today a powerful modern sectarian movement of this kind. People leave congregations or cause a split because they judge that some fellow members do not belong to the Lord. They are wrong. They might be right to challenge false teaching and lack of commitment, but they wrong are to separate. And they are wrong to try to separate others into groups according to their final destiny in the judgement of God - only God can do that.

There is some qualification, however, to that general principle of constraint and waiting for God to act. There may be circumstances where Paul's advice to the Corinthians "Do not be mismatched with unbelievers" and to separate from those who worshipped idols (2 Corinthians 6:14-18), might apply. That was in a situation in which the differences were plain and obvious to all on both sides and there was no mistaking who was who. The survival of the church in a particular place might be at risk if a separate identity is not secured for believers. The question there was not to decide who belonged, but what to do in a given relationship with those who defined themselves as not belonging to the fellowship of believers. That is very different from overeagerness to make definitions clear when they are not. In another case, also in the church at Corinth, Paul advised them to "Drive out the wicked person from among you." (1 Corinthians 5:13). Again it is different, that is in a case of notorious wrong doing that was obvious to all, to unbelievers as well as believers. It was not a question of difficulty in discerning who were members of the family, but of discipline within the family. 

There is irony too in this, in that people who are keen to separate the true disciples from the false think they are acting in faith to do the Lord's work when in fact they are demonstrating a lack of faith. It is a kind of self indulgence. In their eagerness to assume final authority for themselves they are no better than the modern libertarians who imagine that in end they need not fear being accountable to anyone. 

I am sure I do not need to apply this in detail to the church today. Its meaning is obvious. It calls into question the narrow sectarian attitudes of those who demand action or threaten to walk away when they see in a fellowship any who they believe, perhaps for good reason, not to be true Christians. It equally calls into question the attitudes of any who do not believe in a final judgement, and sadly that has been thought the only modern alternative. You do not have to hold a primitive view of the world to believe that in God's own way, in his time or beyond time, evil will be banished and the faithful will receive their just reward. It takes a highly selective reading of the New Testament not to see that Jesus taught clearly that people would be accountable to God, and at a time of God's choosing. The point of the parable is that we should leave it to him. 

Waiting for the children of God to be revealed

As we look to the future, what kind of world do we think it will be? When we baptize a small child, what sort of world will it be that a little child, baptised today, will grow up in? Do you think it will a very mixed world: one in which there will be much that is good and much that is bad? -- Plenty of wheat and plenty of weeds? We have learned in recent times to value diversity, to appreciated the way that things differ and how people with very divergent outlooks can contribute to a rich and varied life in community. We have learned to allow for people having different values and to be careful not to say they wrong just because they are different. If its something like the sort of food people eat or the colour of their skin, that is fine, or even varied opinions on social questions might contribute to debate on what will be found to be good, but sometimes tolerance is extended to the extreme that there is no true belief or any objective truth or any ultimate right and wrong. In that extreme there would be no point in waiting for the truth to be revealed in the end. We will not help any child to grow to maturity in Christ or into the fulness of humanity if we believe that! 

Together with this great mixture, and its relativistic values, we have been taught to accept change and this has gone to the extreme of a false religion of progress, so that any cause which manages to have itself identified as progressive is almost impossible to oppose. Is euthanasia or a homosexual way of life progressive? Why would proponents of such beliefs have you think them progressive? Because "progressive" is thought to be good and irresistible, the necessary way of the future. So, despite all the talk of tolerance, values are crushed if they can be stigmatized as "conservative", not progressive. A new kind of authoritarianism arose a few years ago with the "politically correct" ideology. There was a new culture of conformity to a particularly narrow view of what is "progressive"; but people are waking up to it. A child baptized today will not be served in her development if her family, the church and the community do not have the courage to challenge such pressure to conform to a false religion. 

[In 1996, when this sermon was first preached, I wrote:- Oddly, it is quite recent. Less than five years ago, in September 1991, I was giving a seminar at the University of California at Berkeley, and I described a social phenomenon I had observed in Australia in the year or so before, a new kind of pressure to conform, which I called "a new kind of authoritarianism". "Ah", said one of the Berkeley professors, "Political correctness!" That was the first time I had heard the term, though I knew immediately what it meant from my recent experience, and we have heard it so often since that it has almost lost its meaning! Can it be only five years?]

Is it not a strange thing that people who have counselled tolerance and who deny any ultimate truth have ended up trying to shame other people into conformity. Indeed, some have tried to use state law and the courts to require conformity to their supposedly "progressive" way of thinking, and some places they have succeeded. They are no better than the extreme "conservatives" or "fundamentalists" whom they fear and despise and who equally invoke repressive measures to impose their judgments. The need to allow the wheat and weeds to grow together remains. I expect that we will see continuing struggles of this kind, but it will be without point, or any hope, unless we believe that the truth will out in the end, that right will triumph over wrong, and that it will happen not in our time but in God's time. The Christian faith leads us to expect fulfilment of God's purpose that we human beings should fulfill our potential to become children of God. As Paul wrote to the Romans in the epistle for today: 

There are basically two kinds of change: growth and decay or life changes and death changes. False prophets of progress who make an absolute value of "change", as something that is always good, might at times promote life, but they run an equal or greater risk of promoting death or destructive change. In Christian faith we not only look with hope for life and growth, but we are set free from decay and death. It is in that hope that we wait for the children of God to be revealed. 

While we wait we have no need to be ashamed of what we believe. Indeed it is imperative that we do not fall into the trap of saying that because it is difficult to tell the wheat from the weeds, and dangerous to try to separate them, the difference does not matter. The difference is a difference of life and death. To is so important that it must be left to God. 

If we really believe that, we will with confidence keep our vows as a congregation in the service of baptism. So, in answer to the challenge, 'to maintain the life of worship and service, that this child and all the children among you may grow in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the knowledge and love of God.' We answer, 'With God's help, we will live out our baptism as a loving community in Christ: nurturing one another in faith, upholding one another in prayer, and encouraging one another in service.'

So the wheat and weeds will grow together and in the end the children of God will be revealed.

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