A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 19th July 2020
I’m sure several us have embarked on lockdown projects. Perhaps a room has been decorated, maybe a novel has been read, possibly a skill has been gained.
For us at the Vicarage, it has been the garden that has been upgraded. Now, I need to confess that I have done little of the work. But thanks to the gifts and talents of others, I’m now able to sit in a beautifully-designed garden, with space to enjoy the outside areas of the Vicarage. I’m certainly looking forward to welcoming many of you in the coming weeks and months to enjoy the green, tidy and relaxing outside space we now have.
And yet, barely has the project finished than the weeds have begun to grow again. The bamboo that was threatening to take over the space has made an unwelcome reappearance. Before long we shall be pulling up weeds around the tastefully planted perennials.
Jesus, according to today’s Gospel reading, tells a story about a farmer with a weed problem. “Jesus put before the crowd another parable.” The Greek word translated “put” usually means “sets a meal before someone”. Jesus is giving his hearers food for thought. That’ my goal today.
The kingdom is like someone sowing seeds in his field. At night an enemy comes and sows weeds. Weeds and crop grow together. So far so good. A little point to note: the weeds here are called zizanion in Greek; we translate in darnel. Darnel, if you know anything about horticulture, is a weed that looks an awful lot like wheat. You could only sort out the wheat from the weeds with great care. Apparently the problem was so challenging that there was a Roman law punishing anyone who planted darnel among wheat.
Faced with the challenge of weeds and wheat, and the difficulty of distinguishing between the two, the household slaves suggest a common sense approach. Pull up the weeds they say.
Well, before they get to that they ask the master about the origin of the weeds. He gives them a clear answer: “an enemy has done this.” “Shall we gather them up?” “No,” says the master, “you’d pull up the wheat with it. Just allow them grown until harvest time: then the reapers can pull them up and burn them. The wheat can then be gathered.”
What might we chew on in this simple food for thought? Well, we could chew on the idea of the enemy. Who might this be? Well, we’re not told. Parables open up plenty of opportunities for speculation: history has attributed the identity of the enemy to the devil, heretics and many other categories. The point though of the parable is not the identity of the enemy, but the effect of the enemy’s action on the farmer and his slaves. They are mightily inconvenienced.
Then we might chew on the fact that the strategy taken by the farmer – and therefore something central about what Jesus thinks the Kingdom of heaven might be like – is his decision and instruction to do nothing. Faced with an evil action, there’s no taking to the barricades, no interventionist strategy, there is present forbearance. There may well be a reckoning at harvest time, but the Kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who simply bears with evil. What might that be saying about the way we respond to evil? Might we be wary of taking action against evil out of concern that harm might be done to the fruit of the Kingdom? The farmer seems anxious to avoid collateral damage.
And more than that, since good and evil tend to inhabit not just the same field but the same person, since there are no simple categories of good guys and bad guys, might not any attempt to rid ourselves of evil simply risk eradicating each and every one of us? Remember, the darnel and the weeds look so alike that it perhaps almost impossible to tell what is genuinely good and what is genuinely not. Perhaps, as the parable might be hinting, the real work the enemy is doing is to tempt the farmer into attacking the confusion he has sown. He simply plants a whole load of darkness and waits for the children of light to do his work for him.
When the slaves come to the farmer, they are preoccupied with the problem of evil. “Where did the weeds come from?” they ask. “Why does God allow suffering in this world?” “Why do these terrible things happen?” Fascinating as though this question is, whatever answer you might come up with to it – and Christians have come up with many, many answers – not even one of those answers does anything about solving the problem of evil. It’s all armchair speculation. The only answer that the Bible comes up with is the one the farmer says, “An enemy has done this.”
But perhaps to their credit they don’t persist. “What shall we do about it?” they ask. Great question: none of the armchair speculation, they want to deal with evil. Sadly, though, their strategy is not great. “No,” says the farmer, “let both of them grow.” We could easily pass over that. But the heart of this passage is that word so easily translated “let.” This is one of those moments where a little word in another language has a big impact. The word translated “Let” in this parable has two meanings: it means, as we expect, permit, as in “permit these weeds to grow”, but it also has a second meaning, one that would have been very familiar to the early disciples as they listened to their Lord. It’s the word that ends up being our word, “forgive” as in forgiving a debt or a trespass. Jesus uses it, and so do we, when we say “Forgive us our trespasses.” It’s the same word. So when the farmer says, “let both of them grow” maybe Jesus is inviting us to respond in forgiveness, in bearing with, in letting be. Perhaps all the madness in the world is to be dealt with by a letting be, by a forgiving.
Among the many things that have occupied the church in recent months, very little attention has been given to the question of the ‘why’ of Covid-19. Perhaps in an earlier time, we would have been preoccupied with this question, our doctrines of predestination and suffering and meaning in the midst of this global tragedy might have come to the fore, as we sought to understand quite why God is doing this, or at least allowing it? Perhaps this parable invites us to step away from all of this as idle speculation. Perhaps the answer, the only answer, is “an enemy has done this” and leave it at that. Perhaps what this parable is saying, as we seek to point the finger at those who should be held responsible – China, the government, people going to the beach on a sunny day – is that this is not the way to approach the question. Perhaps the parable invites us to go on watering the goodness in the world, the fruit of the kingdom, knowing full well that the weeds will grow up alongside it. Perhaps our response to the evil is simply to bear with, to avoid the collateral damage, to let, to bear with, to forgive.
This perhaps then leads us to contemplate, once again, the Cross, where one final time, Jesus “let’s” his enemies thrive and still says, “Father forgive.” And perhaps also to contemplate the resurrection, where Jesus comes forth from the tomb bearing the scars of evil, to remind us that he is not going to go back on his word from the cross.
And, right at the end, even if there is to be some sort of reckoning, even if at the end of it all the weeds will be burned, yet at the same time the bulk of this parable has always been about the wheat, the fruit of the kingdom growing and sprouting. If this parable does remind us who is in charge, it also reminds us that this same God has been growing goodness from the beginning. Ultimately, that is our focus, the growing of the wheat, ‘bearing with’ as the farmer does, allowing the goodness of the kingdom to find rich soil in us.