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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before July 20th 2014

 

Matthew 13:24-43

24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And 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?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let 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.’”

36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

What I am Learning:

I don’t believe in hell as a place where the bad people go. Nor do I believe in a personified devil.

But I do believe in judgment and I do believe in evil.

In this story Jesus tells in Matthew, the world is a field in which good seed and bad seed is sown. The world is a place of conflict, in which the good and evil are locked in a battle to see which will grow.

The wealthy householder goes out to sow seed – something that was not typical in the first century. He sows good seed in the field. But the evil one sows weeds, that is the plant “darnel” which looks like wheat until the very late stages.

The servants see the weeds and ask if they can pull them up. But pulling up the weeds is not their job, nor is it ours. It is exclusively the job of angels who carry out the wishes of the Son of Man when he comes to set all things to right. The darnel weeds are not dealt with until God’s reign of mutuality is fully realized.

This may sound like Jesus is proposing a pretty Middle-Ages view of life after death as having one of two locations: the good people in heaven with God and the bad people in hell with the evil one.

But notice there is no mention of heaven here. There is only the kingdom of God fully realized on the earth. And of course, the kingdom of God cannot be fully realized while causes of sin exist and evildoers get their way. The angels remove both not so that humans can escape to heaven, but so that humans and animals can live on the earth as God intends. So, no heaven mentioned here. One strike against the Middle-Ages view.

The “Furnace of fire” is a phrase found in the book of Daniel. The king Nebuchadnezzar threw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the furnace of fire for not worshipping golden statue. But God saved them from the furnace of fire because they were faithful.

I don’t know, but I wonder if maybe Jesus isn’t saying that those who participate in evil will be judged and thrown into the fire so that the causes of evil can be burned out of them. During this process there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But it seems to be like a temporary thing as the furnace of fire was for the three in the book of Daniel. This may not be a strike, but I think it’s a foul ball.

Strike Two against the Middle-Ages view!

There is judgment. I don’t think it is judgmentalism but a kind of justice-seeking truth-telling. How can God make us right with God, others or with ourselves unless such truth be told? It can’t! Ultimately, the truth-telling of God, however painful and furnace like, is intended for our healing. How can we be right with God, others and ourselves unless we go through the pain of hearing such truth-telling and accepting its truth?

Prov. 17:3 The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the LORD tests the heart.

Zech. 13:9 And I will put this third into the fire, refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, “They are my people”; and they will say, “The LORD is our God.”

A third strike for the Middle-Ages view comes from the very heart of the Hebrew Scripture. This story of Jesus portrays people as “seeds of the evil one.” While this serves to illustrate for the disciples the conflict between the kin-dom of God and the kingdom of domination, the Hebrew scripture tends not to talk about human beings as anything other than children of God. Evil may sow evil seeds in people. People may participate in evil and even spread it. But they remain God’s children, even if they are estranged children. God seeks to be reunited with these estranged children.

Mal. 3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;

Of course it is all too easy for us to imagine that we are the good seed planted by God and too easy to see others as the bad seed. Other times it is too easy for us to see it the other way. But the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament make it clear that none of us can claim to be right with God, others or ourselves. The line between good and evil resides in all of us. We are all a mixture of wheat and darnel. The question is which one will we sow in our lives and in our communities.

Rom. 3:10-18 as it is written: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.” “Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of vipers is under their lips.” “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Romans 3:22-24 For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

I think that Jesus tells this story to help the disciples know

1) That they are in a highly conflictual context between the kin-dom of God and the kingdom of domination of the Roman Empire

2) That it is not their job to run around killing people they perceive to be evil.

3) To honestly engage in ethical deliberation about the consequences of our actions because this conflict is in us as well as around us.

Lastly, it is important to realize that in Matthew the litmus test for whether we are good seeds or bad seeds is not our theology, our church affiliation or non-affiliation or even our religion. The litmus test in Matthew 25 is whether we give water to the thirsty, food to the hungry and visit those who are in prison – that is whether we care for the vulnerable among us.

Could a God who asks for such care for the vulnerable really throw people away into a fire for all eternity? I think not!

Equally true, however, is could a God who seeks justice for the vulnerable not confront us when we exploit one another? I think not!

I suggest that we accept Jesus’ invitation in this story to rigorous ethical deliberation about how to live lives that reflect God’s deep value for the poor and vulnerable, even as we rest in trust in God’s deep value for us.

Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift.