Sermon by the Rev. Betsey Monnot, Year A Proper 11, 7/23/17
You have to understand how much we Episcopal preachers love it when our assigned Gospel reading includes the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Yes, it just makes our day to open up the lectionary and see that—particularly when it is attributed, as it is today, to Jesus himself, as he explains the parable of the weeds in the field.
The biggest problem that all of us have with this Gospel reading is that there are a few dominant narratives in our culture, and this Gospel reading appears to fit right into them. Our culture loves to sort people into good guys and bad guys. We, of course, are the good guys, and they, whoever they are, are the bad guys—there is nothing redeeming about the bad guys, and nothing bad about us good guys. If you want to see an example of this narrative in action, simply look at the federal government.
In addition to good guys and bad guys, we like heroes. (These days we occasionally see the hero role played by a girl or woman, but usually our heroes are male.) The hero goes out, proves himself on his quest, and returns triumphant to rule. We want to align ourselves with the hero—we want to be on his side.
The hero in today’s gospel is the person who sowed good seed in his field. The enemy—and we should hear the background music change and imagine a bad guy sneaking around, probably wearing a black cowboy hat—came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. And then the wheat and the weeds grew up, and it became apparent to everyone that there were weeds where there shouldn’t be. The householder (good guy) knew that he had sowed only good seed, and that it must have been an enemy (bad guy) who sowed the weeds. The slaves offer to gather up the weeds right away, but the householder knows that that would only harm the growing wheat. Instead, he tells them, let them both grow up together, and at harvest time the reapers will collect the weeds first and prepare them to be burned, and then will gather the wheat into the barn.
Jesus told this story as a parable of the kingdom of heaven. (Jesus, of course, appears to be a good guy hero that we want to align ourselves with. More on this later.) Afterward, his disciples asked him for an explanation, and Jesus gave it to them, which is quite unusual in the gospels. Turns out that the sower of good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, and the good seeds are the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one, the enemy is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Those weeds will be collected by the angels: “all causes of sin and all evildoers” will be thrown into the furnace of fire, which is where the weeping and gnashing of teeth come in. “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
When we listen to this story with our dominant cultural narratives firmly in place, we find ourselves desperately wanting to be among the righteous, the ones who are the children of the kingdom, the wheat sown by the sower of good seed. There are clear good guys and bad guys, and we want to align ourselves with the good guys. What do we need to do to ensure that we will be gathered into the barn like wheat, and not burned in the fire like weeds? And who will be burned? (although we probably have a few ideas . . . )
The problem here is that our dominant cultural narratives do not provide us with appropriate tools to understand a parable of Jesus. Jesus’ own life narrative, you will remember, does not involve good guys and bad guys, heroes going on quests and returning triumphant. Jesus took a lot of flak for hanging out with what his culture considered to be the bad guys—tax collectors, prostitutes, notorious sinners, you know, the ones that our narrative counts as bad guys destined for the fiery furnace.
And Jesus himself didn’t go on a quest, vanquish his enemies, and return a hero. Jesus, in fact, was vanquished—in human terms. His enemies killed him. Of course, Jesus rose from the dead, but that still doesn’t follow the hero narrative. He didn’t come back and defeat his enemies and show them who the real boss was. They lived out their lives knowing that they had defeated him, and they kept the power that they had. What Jesus did was shift the narrative—Jesus’ narrative is not a simple hero quest, or good guys versus bad guys story. Jesus’ narrative reveals the way Truth works in the world. Jesus’ life shows us that the people we may want to categorize as bad guys are not, in fact, bad guys, and vanquishing enemies and coming home to rule is not the goal of life. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to be willing to follow him—to be defeated by those with more power, and to trust that God can redeem even our failures.
Jacob’s story is an example of this. Today we hear that he is journeying toward Haran, and if we remember what Michael told us last week, that’s because Jacob pulled a fast one on his father and brother and stole Esau’s blessing. He’s basically getting out of town because he’s in trouble. He’s already not really a hero to us, because he’s shown himself to be dishonest and crafty. He sounds much more like a bad guy at this point.
And yet, when Jacob sleeps with a stone for a pillow, he has a dream of a ladder reaching to heaven, and angels of God ascending and descending. God stands beside him, and speaks to him, and confirms that Jacob is the heir to God’s promise to Abraham. God says: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
God is blessing this dishonest, crafty guy, assuring him that he will come back to the land and that his descendants will be like the dust of the earth. That’s what God is like. Jesus hangs around with sinners. God blesses a dubious character. (And in case you might think that this vision of the ladder changes Jacob—well, it doesn’t. He goes on to be crafty in his dealing with his father-in-law, Laban, who is also crafty with him.)
So, if Jesus chooses to spend his time on earth hanging out with sinners and the rejected people of his society, and if God repeatedly blesses people with questionable characters (not only Jacob, but think of David as a notable Old Testament example), why is it that we read this parable of Jesus and put our own notions of good guys/bad guys and heroes into it?
To really understand the parable on its own terms, let’s start here: we know that we are all sinners, and we are all, in part, evildoers. This isn’t something we Episcopalians spend a lot of time emphasizing, but there is a reason that we pray the confession of sins every Sunday. We don’t have to wallow in our sins, but we do have to acknowledge them.
Now: what is it that makes us, each of us, sinners? Evildoers? Perhaps it is deliberately doing things that we know that we shouldn’t do. Perhaps it is deliberately choosing not to do things that we know that we should do. Perhaps it is our mistakes, our inability to do the right thing in particular situations, or to avoid doing the wrong thing in other situations. Perhaps it is our complicity in living in a larger world that falls so very far short of the ideals of the kingdom of God that Jesus showed us—in our world, millions of people lack the basic necessities of life, while others have far more than they need.
Think, for a moment, about yourself. What form of sin are you most subject to? What causes that sin? When have you done evil?
Now, imagine that God has removed the causes of your sin, whatever they are. God removes the part of you that does evil. How do you feel?
When I imagine this, I feel a lightness, a freedom, an energy that I didn’t feel before. It feels like I can do all kinds of things, if these causes of sin are no longer weighing me down, if the tendency toward evil within me is removed. It’s like the wheat must feel, when the weeds are no longer choking it out, no more roots entwining and binding, no more stealing moisture and nutrients, no more leaves blocking the light and energy of the sun. I feel free to grow. Free to live fully. Free to shine like the sun.
This parable is not about good guys and bad guys, and that we are hoping to be the good guys, so that we won’t get burned in the fire. This parable is about the Good News that God sets us free from sin—free from our own causes of sin, free from the parts of us that do evil—and that freedom allows us to shine like the sun in God’s kingdom.
We are loved by God. We are forgiven by God, in the name of Jesus Christ. We are set free to be Christ’s body in the world, to love, and to serve, and to live. We are blessed. And it is for us to go out and be a blessing to the world.