A Holy and Purposeful Ambiguity
The following is an abbreviated version of this Sunday's sermon.
I run along the boardwalk at the Beach most mornings. (OK… I shuffle, quickly) The boardwalk curls around the volleyball pits and ends by some exercise bars next to the water. That location, out by the rocks, is a favorite spot for people to party.
Unfortunately, many leave plastic cutlery, pizza boxes, liquor bottles, beer cans and half eaten food on the ground when garbage bins are 20 metres away. Frequently, broken bottles litter the space. There doesn’t seem to have been any effort to clean up.
Sometimes there are broken Muskoka chairs or ripped down tree branches that someone tried burning, then left the charred pieces on the ground. Lately many of the planters have been turned over spreading the dirt and killing the flowers. It seems clear that the destruction and mess were intended, not accidental.
The food mess bothers me… but it is the broken bottles and intentional damage to the chairs, planters and trees… that is more disturbing. I think of this as a contemporary version of this morning’s gospel which opens, The kingdom of heaven is compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, the weeds appeared as well.
The weeds in the gospel refer to a specific weed called the “bearded darnel” that looks a lot like wheat especially when it is sprouting but it is poisonous.
In my version of it, many people bring their families to the beach for exercise, swimming and a meal or to walk their dog and they pick up their garbage as they leave …while others come with such disregard for anyone else who might want to use the space after them that it seems malicious. The beauty of the water, the rocks and the trees is spoiled by the vandalism of a few.
The parable is a metaphor for the problem of evil in the world, coexisting with good people.
The gospel continues, when the slaves asked their master, “do you want us to gather them?’ he replied, ‘No; in gathering the weeds you might uproot the wheat. 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.’”
It’s easy to identify the different references in the parable. The sower of the good seed is Jesus. The good seed is God’s message and acts. The enemy is the devil. The weeds are messages that look deceptively good but are really evil. The servants are the disciples. The fire is hell and the barn is heaven
Jesus’ approach to the problem of the weeds sown among the wheat is a “holy and purposeful ambiguity”…live-and-let-live.
It also points clearly to a final judgement…harvest time when he will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
The fact that good and evil live side by side in the world is a reality…but it ends with justice.
We can hear the parable as a reflection on our own behaviours. We can interpret the “weeds” as behaviours that are sown into the way we live. Many examples come to mind…the energy we use for air conditioning, …the oil we use in the cars we drive, …the packaging that surrounds foods and clothing we buy: all contribute to climate change. These forms of resource use are seeded into the way our modern society lives. We can’t eliminate them but we can reduce our personal impact.
It is something we are considering in our book study of Thomas Berry’s book, the Great Work…which, by the way, is still open if people would like to join on July 23th at 104 Kingswood Rd. at 7:00 PM since the first evening was cancelled because of rain.
Another way of looking at this story of the weeds and the wheat is to consider how the two coexist in a person’s life. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, that we heard two weeks ago, he said, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. In fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:15-20) The apostle says… very clearly, that the two competing forces struggle within him. The “weeds” in his life coexisted with his desire to do what God wants.
Remember also that Jesus’ own group of 12 disciples included weeds and wheat. Judas and Peter would betray him…Judas acted deliberately, selling information about Jesus’ whereabouts. While Peter acted impulsively, out of fear…Jesus knew it. Yet he washed their feet during the last supper. He treated everyone the same.
Jesus’ solution to the situation of weeds and wheat growing together is patience. …Let both grow together until the harvest…
It’s a frustrating solution, in some ways. It puts off the judgement that we are inclined to make immediately. It leaves in doubt who will benefit.
In this parable it is hard to tell the weeds from the wheat. Sometimes people who look good turn out to have been evil. The church has sad situations when revered figures took advantage of their position of trust to abuse others. We mistook their true nature.
On the other hand…I work with people in recovery from addictions. Their stories of hitting the bottom are hard to hear. Their lives disgusted them and others. They appeared to be societal “weeds”.
Yet many have turned their lives around. Some of them now work with me on retreats and they bring a sense of compassion and hope to others who are still in the early days of recovery. Had we judged them prematurely, we might have lost the gifts of their experiences as examples of the possibility of recovery and restoration. Many of us benefit from this kind of compassionate suspension of judgement.
So how am I to respond to the situation I often find at the end of the boardwalk in light of today’s gospel? Do I leave it? Do I think, cynically, “It doesn’t matter”? The garbage means that someone has a job picking it up”? Should I curse the people who vandalized and left a mess?
My personal solution is to take a pair of rubber gloves with me on weekends or Mondays…the day after most parties happen…and pick up the worst of the garbage.
(I’m pleased to tell you that I’m not the only one who picks up garbage. A woman, who walks in the area, does the same. I routinely see her putting a plastic bag full of waste in the bins. Some of the people who camp in the bushes pick up the beer and wine bottles and return them to the store for cash. Their scavenging serves a good social purpose. Dog-walkers stop to pick up broken bottles so dogs don’t cut their paws.)
Living with good and evil is part of the human condition. It happened to Jesus, with his own followers. Environmentally destructive living is “baked-into” much of our way of life. We experience it personally, when we feel the tug of our appetites or laziness, compared to what we know is right.
We don’t excuse destructive acts, or sin, but we also don’t condemn people forever, because of them. We hope, personally, that a merciful God will recognize that we are “more wheat than weed”
We also don’t give up the struggle to live according to God’s laws. The point is that we need patience to let God’s grace work, and to let God be the ultimate judge. And sometimes we know that God rewards the patience with a change of heart so the people we might have thought of as weeds, are seen as wheat.
It’s God’s job to judge…not ours.
Peace be with you.