What is it about parables? Why did Jesus teach in this way? Why chose such an oblique and indirect method- a method which seems to invite questions and discussion. Why not just lay it on the line? Avoid all subtleties. Give it to them straight. After all what is the point of a teaching method which seems to use as many words in the gospel to interpret the parable as to set it out in the first place. Sometimes the scholars suggest to us that the interpretation isn’t fair to the parable, the emphasis has shifted and the real message has been obscured. This is the case with the parable in today’s gospel-the parable of the wheat and the tares.
Now here’s another parable.
Once upon a time a fire broke out back stage in a theatre. A clown rushed front of stage to warn the audience. The audience thought this was a tremendous joke and applauded wildly. He repeated his warning, they laughed all the more. More they cried, more! Eventually the theatre burned to the ground with most of the people still trapped inside. According to Pope Benedict and he should know that is the situation of theology in our time.
It’s a famous parable from the greatest writer of modern parables. Pope Benedict begins his best book “An Introduction to Christianity” by quoting it. It’s a much better way of making the point than by simply saying: nobody listens to religious teachers these days. Powerful, vivid, graphic. You may not be able to grasp the point at first but you’ll remember the story. It’ll stay with you and you’ll reflect on it and eventually you’ll take the message to your heart. That I think is the point of parables. Powerful, vivid but because it’s not absolutely in your face, gracious as well.
What of today’s parable of the wheat and the tares. It seems an odd one. Not only do we have the parable we also have an interpretation of the parable. There’s also a suggestion – a pretty strong one that something very important is being said here.
“I will open my mouth in parables, says Jesus. I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” From the foundation of the world! Gosh! Are they still hidden? I’m sure that in some ways they still are.
How to interpret it? A clue might be in a comparison between the parable itself and the interpretation of the parable. In the parable the emphasis is on the wisdom of the householder, the farmer shall, we say. Let things alone, forebear. In the explanation the emphasis has shifted to the judgement at the close of the age-to the furnace of fire, to wailing and gnashing of teeth and the righteous shining like the sun. Picturesque details. It’s almost as if Jesus is playing to the gallery. People love a bit of that stuff if they think that hell is someone else’s destination.
The servants of the householder and the householder himself are quick to realise that an enemy has sabotaged his field. What is to be done? Surely aggressive weeding is the answer. Perhaps a counter-strike against the enemy as well is in order too. But no this is not what the householder commands. He says let it all alone. Wait take no action now. Let the good and the bad grow together until the work of discrimination can take care of itself. Some people reading this have suggested that Jesus didn’t know much about arable farming. Others have said that on the contrary the wheat and the weeds within the wheat may look very similar in the early stages of their growth cycles. Best not to do anything now. Harvest everything and then discriminate between wheat and weeds. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
But we all know that this is not a passage about agriculture. This is about human lives and the coming of the Kingdom. It’s also about judgement, God’s judgment and the need for us to forebear from judgment. We have always been tempted to think and have been from the foundation of the world that we can discriminate between good and evil. Having succumbed to that temptation we are then tempted to pick out the evil culprits and eliminate them. These easy solutions lead us towards ever more aggressive and violent solutions to our problems. Often the violent solutions produce results that are worse than the original problem. There is a school of thought that’s sees Jesus himself as a victim of violent attempts to weed out troublemakers and disturbers of our peace- a peace which is no true peace. It was Jesus’ acceptance of the worst we can do that confronted and took away the sin of the world.
So what we have here is a message about forbearance. We should refrain from easy judgments and allow God to be God. We should wait until the harvest. The temptation to rush in and intervene with plans and strategies is easy to succumb to. It’s based on an exaggerated idea of human wisdom and insight and an inadequate faith in the God who makes all things well and all things new.
In response to the request to go into the field and root out the weeds the farmer says no. No, not now. This is not what people want to hear. What people want as the second part of the passage reveals is an easy bit of judgment directed at them-at the bad guys. So that we might feel good about ourselves because we are the good guys.
Now over the years but especially when I used to sit in the pews myself I’ve been irritated and annoyed by preachers who ignored the message of this parable and misused the pulpit to indulge in cheap political points. I could entertain you for some time with the silly judgments I’ve heard expressed. The indulgence of the Soviet Union, the touching faith that the economic policy of the then government was an expression of the Sermon on the Mount and so on. I used to want to interrupt and say. Yes I’ve read the Observer this morning now you tell me about God. Tell us how he loves us and has sent his son to show us how much he loves us.
Political and economic questions are complex and difficult and all the actors including and perhaps especially those with whom we are most inclined to agree are flawed and corrupt. The nature of women and men is fallen. However most people do not feel this way at all. They want God to endorse their own humanistic values and high sense of self worth. When God in Christ calls them to repent they pay no attention and the very idea of faith in a God who takes a lower view of humanity than humanity does of itself seems incredible and absurd.
God did not will a religion of benign flattery of human values. And yet the beauty, wonder and hope that are in the faith are that God loves us in spite of what we are and not because of what we are. That God sent his son not as an agent who would promote our own progressive programmes but rather as a sacrifice in which our values might be transcended in the name of a greater love. So that we might know peace and reconciliation not only with him but also with each other and enjoy a new life that death cannot spoil or foreshorten.
One of the most urgent questions facing our world at this time or indeed any other time is simply this. How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves? Many of us are utterly confident that we can manage this. In this respect we are just like Adam and Eve who listened to the tempter when it said. Your eyes will be opened. You will be like God knowing good and evil. And all this at the very foundation of the world. You don’t have to wait upon God’s judgment, you can be god’s yourselves, you can distinguish between the wheat and the tares. Off you go into the field, declare it a free fire zone, and destroy it in order to save it but at all costs weed out the bad guys. I’m thinking of the Vietnam War here but one also remembers the famous remark of the papal legate at the siege of Beziers during the crusade against the Cathars in the thirteenth century. Asked how the soldiers were to distinguish between the Catholics and the heretics when the city fell he replied “Kill them all, God will know His own”. Clearly he realised that the wheat and the tares couldn’t be easily distinguished. He was right about that! But forbearance, the grace to let God be God, alas no!
Good and evil inhabits the same field –that is to say each and every person. There are no unqualified bad guys or unqualified good guys-the only result of a truly vigourous campaign against evil will be a heap of corpses-good and bad alike.
All this Jesus lived out for us. Those who betrayed Jesus, arrested him, condemned him and crucified him weren’t all bad people. On the contrary they were good people with a sophisticated sense of right and wrong-priests, civil servants and lawyers. As one of them is reported to have said: It is better for one person to die for the nation than for the whole nation to die. This troublesome person is a weed. Pull him out. Well the high priest got it wrong and we continue to get it wrong because we think we can be like God knowing good and evil. No says Jesus, forebear. Don’t cause wailing and gnashing of teeth now. Wait upon God and upon his judgement at the end of time. Above all don’t try to play God but let God be God and as for our self righteous violence we should pray for forgiveness.