The seeds of evil

Pentecost 6b. 2014

Matthew 13:24-30 (31-33) 34-43 (see below)

Marian Free

(It is always difficult for a blog to represent just what is actually said, and the tone with which it is said. I was unhappy with what I wrote last night and so spoke from the heart. The update – what is immediately below – represents as best I can remember, the verbal edition.)

In the name of God who sends rain on the just and the unjust. Amen.

 

(Sung before the reading of the Gospel:

God is love, and gently enfolding

all the world in one embrace,

with unfailing grasp is holding

every child of every race.

And when human hearts are breaking

under sorrow’s iron rod,

then they find that selfsame aching

deep within the heart of God.

Timothy Rees 1874-1939)

 No doubt you, like me and countless others, woke up on Friday to the news that flight MH 17 had been shot out of the sky over Ukraine – presumably by pro-Russian separatists. No doubt you too have spent the time since in a state of bewilderment and incomprehension. How could such a thing happen? How could anyone wantonly take the lives of nearly three hundred civilians who have nothing to do with your cause? How could a civil war so far away and in which we have no stake come all the way to our shores? The impact of the loss of life is more powerfully felt because twenty-eight of those on the flight are our fellow citizens, friends of our friends, people whom we might have known. We are not at war and yet we, and many others who are equally removed from the situation, have been affected by an act of war.

The how and why of these questions belong with a broader group of questions – how could the Rwandans, the Serbs and others slaughter vast numbers of their fellow citizens – former neighbours and friends? How can would-be lovers throw acid in the faces of the women who reject them? How can men gang rape a woman to the point of death or rape teenagers to settle a score with their family or tribe? How can men and women commit acts of torture, degrade other human beings? How can anyone force children to become soldiers? How can a person traffic others into slavery or into the sex trade? How can people stroll through a shopping mall indiscriminately shooting anyone they see? How can such evil and ugliness persist in a “civilized” world?

How? How? How?

On a day like today when there are so many questions, we have to ask ourselves what does the gospel have to say in such a situation. In particular what does today’s gospel have to say?

At first glance today’s gospel makes it easy – the devil did it. This response is problematic for two reasons. The first is this, that Matthew or someone telling the story before Matthew has radically changed the original parable as told by Jesus. In Mark, chapter 4, we find the same parables that Matthew has grouped together in chapter 13. Mark’s version however, is that of a sower who sows seed and goes to sleep and wakes and goes to sleep while the seed grows. (The sower does not know how it grows.) The writer of Matthew has added an enemy, weeds and reapers. Not only do these appear to be additions to an original, but they don’t really make sense. What enemy would go to the trouble of sowing? It would be much easier to wait until the wheat was ripe (and dry) and set fire to it. Furthermore, who would make a large collection of weed seeds (which might affect their own crop)? Finally, darnel (the weed) carries a fungus that is hazardous to the wheat. Leaving the weed to grow until the harvest is not really an option.

It appears that the original parable was adapted to answer the same question that we might well be asking at this time: What has happened to the kingdom of God that Jesus promised? Why does the world look so different from that which we might have expected as a result of Jesus’ preaching? By the time Matthew is putting pen to paper, Jerusalem has been destroyed, the Temple razed to the ground and the community for whom Matthew is writing has been forced to leave their homes. This is not what they expected. The parable is recast to enable them to make sense of the current situation.

That said, there is another reason that taking the parable at face value is problematic – for to do so would absolve us of our complicity in the affairs of the world. It would be to make the assumption that some among us were good, in contrast to the others who are not.

I can’t answer for you, but I know for sure that I am a long way from perfect and while I do not wish to share my flaws with you, I can assure you that they are many and that I am as yet only a poor reflection of the child of God I was created to be. Until I, until you, are perfect and perfectly fitted for the kingdom, the world will remain violent, unjust and cruel.

And this is where the parable as told by Matthew shines a light on our current situation. Good and evil exist side by side in the world and in each one of us and, failing a miracle, will co-exist until the end of time. It is this our brokenness that excludes us from passing judgement. Only God, who is without flaw, can truly distinguish good from evil, and as a result, only God is in a position to judge.

In the meantime, it is essential that we who are concerned with the kingdom do all that we can to ensure its presence in the world – by allowing God’s love to expose the presence of evil in our own lives, by making Jesus’ life the model for our own and by giving the Spirit free reign to produce in us the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It is only when we are not part of the problem that we can be part of the solution. It is only when we allow God full reign in our lives that we can begin to alleviate the sorrow that is “deep within the heart of God”.

 

Matt. 13:24   He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Pentecost 6. 2014

Matthew 13:24-30 (31-33) 34-43

Marian Free

In the name of God who sends rain on the just and the unjust. Amen.

No doubt you, like me and countless others, woke up on Friday to the news that flight MH 17 had been shot out of the sky over Ukraine – presumably by pro-Russian separatists. No doubt you too have spent the time since in a state of bewilderment and incomprehension. How could such a thing happen? How could anyone wantonly take the lives of nearly three hundred civilians who have nothing to do with your cause? How could a civil war so far away and in which we have no stake come all the way to our shores? The impact of the loss of life is more powerfully felt because twenty-eight of those on the flight are our fellow citizens, friends of our friends, people whom we might have known. We are not at war and yet we, and many others who are equally removed from the situation, have been affected by an act of war.

The how and why of these questions belong with a broader group of questions – how could the Rwandans, the Serbs and others slaughter vast numbers of their fellow citizens – former neighbours and friends? How can would-be lovers throw acid in the faces of the women who reject them? How can men gang rape a woman to the point of death or rape teenagers to settle a score with their family or tribe? How can men and women commit acts of torture, degrade other human beings? How can anyone force children to become soldiers? How can a person traffic others into slavery or into the sex trade? How can people stroll through a shopping mall indiscriminately shooting anyone they see? How can such evil and ugliness persist in a “civilized” world?

How? How? How?

Evil permeates the world in which we live. This, it seems, is the problem that confronts the community for whom Matthew writes. They know that Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God and yet the world of Matthew’s community does not resemble the kingdom any more now than it did before Jesus’ came. In fact the situation could be said to be worse. Jerusalem and the Temple have been destroyed and the Matthean community has been forced from their homes. Why, they might be asking, have things not turned out as they expected? Why has the kingdom not come to fruition?

At the time that Matthew is writing, some fifty years have passed since the death of Jesus. In that time Jesus’ teaching has been passed on and sometimes adapted to meet changing circumstances. This process may be reflected in the parable included in today’s gospel, that of the wheat and the tares. We can make this assumption because a similar parable occurs in Mark. The Markan version makes more sense in the context of the parable of the sower and the parable of the mustard seed with which it is told. Mark’s parable is simple, while the farmer sleeps, the seed grows though he does not know how, the farmer wakes and sleeps and the seed grows until it is ready for harvest (Mark 4:26-29).

Matthew or someone else has retold the parable in the light of their experience of the world and added new elements so that it makes sense of their situation. That this has happened, becomes clear when we realise that many of the aspects of the story do not really make sense. What enemy would think to sow weeds and at night? Even if he did think that this was a good idea, it is very unlikely that anyone would have sufficient seeds of the weed to hand? In any case, apart from the obvious inconvenience at harvest time, the weeds in the story have made little or no difference to the final crop. (In reality, darnel contains a fungus that in turn damages the wheat. It would be worse to leave the weed than to pull it out.)

We cannot know for sure in what form Jesus told the parable or whether both versions come from him. It does seem clear though that the author of Matthew uses the parable in a way that reflects the experience of his community – that, even though the Kingdom of God has been sown, evil continues to be real and effective in the world.

Nothing has changed. There is still little evidence that the Kingdom of God has come. Terror and violence persist to a greater or lesser extent in all parts of the world, and this despite the best efforts of local and international law-makers. Increased communication and better understanding of different cultures and faiths has made little difference to peace, harmony and goodwill. People continue to commit atrocities and inflict cruelty on others. Innocent men, women and children continue to be caught up in disputes that don’t directly concern them. Locally and internationally violence against individuals continues.

It would be easy, like the author of Matthew, to place the blame elsewhere, but one thing that the parable tells us is that the good and bad exist side by side and will do until God’s kingdom is firmly established. Humankind is capable of the greatest good and the basest evil. We have no need of an external power to sow the seeds of discontent, anger, hatred, greed, envy or fear. To a greater or lesser extent, all of those characteristics exist side by side with love, compassion and contentment in each one of us. In the final analysis, only God can distinguish evil from good, and only God can root out evil from the world.

Our task in this lifetime is to do our best to be part of the kingdom now – by allowing God’s love to expose the presence of evil in our own lives, by making Jesus’ life the model for our own and by giving the Spirit free reign to produce in us the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When, in our own lives God is all in all, we will have played our part in the coming of the kingdom.

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