Posts Tagged ‘wheat and tares’

Ending the cycle of violence

July 22, 2017

Pentecost 7 – 2017

Matthew 13

Marian Free

In the name of God who has no scores to settle, no records to keep, and who knows that goodness will have the final word. Amen.

On my father’s side my family tree is littered with convicts – transported for any number of things from petty theft, to bigamy to high treason. As was often the case, many of these men (they were all men) went on to lead respectable lives after they had served their time or were pardoned. One such man had been send to Van Dieman’s Land when he was just a teenager. As an adult, he decided to stand for Mayor in a town in country Victoria. During the campaign his opponent threatened to expose my relation’s convict past. Instead of being threatened or nonplussed by the threat, my ancestor simply said something to the effect that someone standing for public office could expect that his past would become public knowledge. This apparently silenced his opponent, who realised that if he went down this track there was a possibility that he too might be exposed to embarrassment if elements of his own past were revealed.

Trying to embarrass, intimidate or humiliate another person comes with the attendant risk that not only might it backfire, but that it might also lead to an endless stream of mud-slinging, trading of insults, character assassinations and put downs in which no one ends up a winner. By refusing to get caught up in the game, my forebear put an end to such behaviour before it had an opportunity to take root. His refusal to play the game left his opponent with nowhere to go.

Such might be the point of the first of today’s parables. If we leave aside the interpretation, that almost certainly does not go back to Jesus, we have a tale of a farmer whose enemy has attempted to ruin his crop by sowing weeds in a field of wheat.

As we see day after day on the news the Middle East is no stranger to conflict. In the first century as now, conflicts constantly flare up and grudges are held against those who cause offense – often for generations. It would have been no surprise to Jesus’ listeners that the farmer who had an enemy. In this instance the enemy is not a foreign power, but someone who lives close by. In this case it is possible that the enemy refers a member of a family with whom the farmer’s family may have been feuding for so long that they may well have forgotten what started it all[1].

In a culture bound by the notions of honour and shame, an effective way to get the better of another person was to bring shame upon them. The plan in this case is to make a fool of the farmer by planting zizinia or darnel among the wheat. This would either force the farmer to pull out the crop (wheat and darnel being indistinguishable when seedlings) or to leave both wheat and weed together until it was possible to recognise the difference. No matter what the farmer did he would be exposed to ridicule – either because he had been forced to destroy his entire crop, or because he had allowed weeds to grow up among his wheat. Jesus’ listeners may have laughed to themselves sensing that the farmer has been exposed and brought to shame.

But the farmer has the last laugh. He knows that he will be an object of ridicule whatever he does, but is confident that the wheat will be able to survive the competition represented by the weeds. What is more, if the darnel is left to grow to maturity, it will provide much-needed fuel. At harvest time it is not the farmer who looks foolish, but the enemy. Instead of causing inconvenience and embarrassment, he is exposed as the more foolish of the two. Instead of causing the farmer’s crop to fail, he has provided him with a bonus – fuel to stoke his fires during the cold of winter.

This very different look at the parable reveals it as something of a joke. We can imagine Jesus’ listeners smiling to themselves or laughing out loud at the enemy’s prank (“what a good joke”). We can guess their bemusement and confusion when the farmer refuses to retaliate or to extract revenge on his enemy, but not only goes about his business, but profits from the enemy’s actions. Seen in this way, and without the interpretation, this is a parable that confronts the existing cultural norms and that shows a way out of the vicious cycle of retaliation and revenge. By refusing to react and to pay back his enemy for what he has done, the farmer has broken the cycle of violence. He has demonstrated that a quiet confidence in himself, that does not come from humiliating, injuring or intimidating another has a greater chance of ensuring that his endeavours are successful, that his status in the eyes of his neighbours is not compromised and most importantly that by demonstrating the impotence of the enemy he has exposed the foolishness of perpetuating violence for the sake of violence.

This interpretation of the parable may seem a little far-fetched until we realise that in the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-end) there are six other illustrations that show how someone can break the pattern of violence that characterized first century existence. “You have heard it said: You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “You have heard it said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evil doer.”

Repaying evil with evil ensures that evil will continue to thrive. But if, like the farmer, we have the courage and the self-confidence to say: “Enough is enough”, we will not be condemned or shamed for our weakness, but we will be commended for our restraint. More than that, our own lives will be the richer for it, and our forbearance will have made our neighbourhood, our community and the world a better place.

[1] I am indebted to John Pilch for pointing me in this direction.

The seeds of evil

July 19, 2014

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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