Wisdom 12.13, 16-19
Matt 13.24-30, 36-43
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
One of the difficult things about Matthew’s gospel is that there is quite a lot of anger in it. Wailing and gnashing of teeth is one of Matthew’s distinctive turns of phrase. Most biblical scholars think that Matthew’s gospel was written close to Palestine, most probably in Syria, a good educated guess for the precise location would be Antioch, written by a Jewish Christian writer who belonged to a mixed church community of Jewish and Gentile Christians. The gospel was probably written in the aftermath of the Jewish-Roman war and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, a catastrophic time for the Jewish people, and in a time of conflict between Rabbinic Jews and Jewish Christians, and also between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Understanding this troubled and violent context may help us to understand some of the imagery that we find in Matthew’s gospel; it may help us to understand the focus on questions of judgement and justice, and the anger that at times seems to go with that.
Wailing and gnashing of teeth seems to us to be rather at odds with the gospel of love and forgiveness that Jesus proclaims. And yet the early Christian communities, not to mention Jesus himself, had to deal with the often violent rejection of that message of love and forgiveness. The Parable of the Sower, that we would have heard about last week had my back not seized up on me, is in part an attempt to explain why some respond positively to the gospel, and others do not. The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares that we have heard today explores similar territory, but it deals not so much with the problem of the rejection of the gospel as with the problem of the existence of evil in the world.
I had a conversation on the phone with my brother the other day. As some of you know, he lives in Greece with his wife, who is Greek, and my two nephews. They live in a house close to the sea, and they have a little land to cultivate. And so we naturally fell into comparing notes about gardening. I’m growing rhubarb and lettuces; he’s growing aubergines and watermelons. Once we’d finished a sort of brotherly bragging over the variety and success of our crops, we got onto weeds. I thought I had it hard with bindweed, ground elder and invasive green alkanet. But my brother told me that in Greece, weeds are something altogether different, tough and vigorous and thorny. If you want anything at all to grow without wearing yourself out and cutting your fingers to shreds in the process, the only solution is to put down thick black plastic and cut holes in to plant your aubergines and so forth, with a sort of makeshift irrigation system laid underneath the plastic. And even that isn’t always enough to keep down the weeds.
Greece of course is not Palestine, but it is not a million miles away, and so I suspect that the weeds my brother has learned to contend in with in Greece are similar to the sorts of things that Jesus has in mind in this parable.
But coming back to the wailing and gnashing of teeth – you know there’s a good Ian Paisley story about that, I’m sure most of you have heard it before, but if you haven’t I’ll tell you afterwards – coming back to the wailing and gnashing of teeth and the fire, there is here a question about how we deal with these sorts of difficult biblical passages, which all too often in our history we have tended to want to use against people we disagree with. This isn’t an academic question – the whole business about fires really does have a very unpleasant history, as a day out in Oxford will tell you.
The book of Psalms in many ways provides the bread and butter of the prayer life of Christians, and if you join me here for Morning or Evening Prayer using the old Prayerbook, you will see that I along with many other clergy and laypeople pray through all of the Psalms each month. People often talk about how lovely the Psalms are, and of course some of them are, but many of them are not. We find in their verses some pretty blood-curdling lines directed against the enemies of the Psalmist, and prayers that God would smite his enemies. The portion of Psalm 86 that we read earlier is one of the very gentlest examples of this type. One of the traditional ways for Christians to understand these psalms is to internalise this “enemy” language. So thinking of our own lives, is our enemy really the person who stands a couple of inches too close to us in the queue at Waitrose? Or is it rather the anger that wells up within our breasts and leads us to start a row with them, or to deliver a withering passive-aggressive stare, when all we really needed to do was say “Would you mind terribly just keeping a little more distance, thank you so much”. The enemy that we need God to help us to smite is not the next-door neighbour who doesn’t cut their hedge, but the jealousy and anger and intolerance and selfishness that wells up time and time again within our own hearts. It is within our own hearts that we find those terrible thorny weeds that no amount of heavy black plastic will keep down, and well may we hope that the angels of God would bind them in bundles to be burned.
But with this parable we have to deal with the inescapable fact that in the explanation the tares are described not only as causes of sin but also as evildoers. And here even the most liberal-minded Christian has to come to terms with the reality of divine judgement. There is real wickedness in our hearts, and there is real wickedness in the world, and where the goodness of God comes into contact with that wickedness, there will be a divine response. But the really important thing that this parable has to tell us about divine judgement is that it is, in fact, divine judgement. It is not human judgement, and it is not for us to start pulling up the people we regard as the tares and throwing them to the fire, metaphorical or otherwise. We are told explicitly in this parable that we must not attempt to do this, and how different Christian history would look if this instruction of Jesus had been faithfully followed. This parable is above all an exhortation to patience and to tolerance and to leaving questions of final judgement and justice to God.
Yes there are causes of sin and yes there are evildoers, and yes we must play our part in furthering God’s loving purposes in the world. Most of the time that will be by the love we show our neighbours, but there are times too when Christians are called to a prophetic denunciation of wickedness. This parable is certainly not about passivity in the face of evil. It is rather about leaving questions of final judgement and final justice to God. And this is why any sort of totalitarianism, any sort of thought police or system of total surveillance is profoundly anti-Christian. In every attempt we human beings have made to produce a perfect system through the coercive power of a commanding central authority, whether it be political or religious, we have always ended up pulling up more wheat than tares, and creating hell rather than heaven on earth.
So let us attend rather with God’s help to the tares in our own hearts, for God knows they are thorny and stubborn enough. Let us fight causes of sin and evildoers by our love and kindness and generosity, by loving our neighbours as Jesus has commanded us to do. And if we must confront evil in others in a direct way, as now and again we will have to do, let us do it with patience and persuasion.
And let us both take heart – and also take heed – of the fact that the final judgement and the final justice is God’s alone.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.