We're basically in the middle of Matthew's gospel right now. And that's not terribly interesting, except that at this central moment we have Jesus doing something very particular. He's telling parables about the kingdom of heaven, about God's goal for all things, this dream Jesus has been going on about since the beginning; he's giving brief snapshots, images and stories that give texture and depth to what he's been doing and preaching all along. He's piling one on top of the other--8 in a row.
As I was praying and getting ready for this morning, I had this image of Jesus turning over a crystal in his hands, and with each turn a new color; at each angle the light is refracted a little differently and we get a fuller picture of what's happening, a glimpse of what God is doing, both immediately and eternally.
But it's more than that. Jesus isn't showing us this kingdom of heaven crystal as though it's something that can be held and examined objectively. Parable-telling is not detached observation. Instead, we find ourselves drawn in, seeing the light refracted, not from the outside, but from the inside. These stories and images are meant to do more than give us a basic understanding of heavenly logistics. Set alongside (that's what parable means) the way things seem to be, these stories and images invite us to see and to know and then to live the way things--in the grace and love of God--really are.
So two things as we get into today's passage: first, these parables are less about information than they are about formation. Here, in the middle of the gospel, Jesus gives us images that help us into, and shape us according to what God is doing in and for this world. Second, I think we should pay attention to the fact that Jesus does not give us one image and say, "Here's how it is with God and God's kingdom." Jesus turns the images over and over again, layers and mingles parable upon parable. Here we have eight in a row, but these are only some of the parables Jesus told to draw women and men into the rhythms of heaven. Some of them are quite different from others. This should remind us that our primary task isn't to get a-hold of God, to understand God objectively and decisively, to have clear answers about the "furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell," as one theologian puts it. The goal is life: life in sync with the ways and means of God; the goal is a life that gives shape and form to our prayer, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as in heaven."
So let's pray about that: Living God, we give you thanks and praise for this day. We thank you that you desire to be known by us, even as you know us fully--better than we know ourselves. We thank you that you give us glimpses into your dream for all things and invite us to share in that dream, to see it come alive in our lives and in this world. Give us ears to hear your word for us this morning, and hearts eager to obey in joy and love. Bless the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds, that they might be acceptable in your sight. In Jesus' name. Amen!
So, like last week, we have a parable that Jesus explains. He doesn't often explain his parables. But this one he does--which, again, is not super helpful for preachers (it does cramp my interpretive style a bit when the Lord straight up tells us what things mean). But on the other hand, it is generally helpful. There is some clarity here. Of course, he adds three more parables immediately after this, so we can't just stop at this point, as if all the questions are answered. There is more to be said. He also adds that phrase, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" so presumably we do have some work to do to hear this well.
But we don't have to do a whole lot of wondering about what the images in the parable are supposed to represent. Which is a bit of a challenge because this passage is full of things that polite, mainline protestant preachers don't tend to want to preach about, and our wiggle room is more or less gone. In order to talk about this parable, we kind of have to talk about divine judgment, which is at a pretty essential part of this parable, and isn't my favorite thing to preach on. I prefer the Mustard Seed parable or the Prodigal Son (Matt 13:31; Luke 15:11). Give me the Father running down the road to his delinquent any day.
That said, I think parables like this one are important to deal with, and we need to do our best to hear them well. I think the urgency and challenge of this parable remind us that there is something urgent and challenging about the gospel. For instance: it's hard to grow the grains of hope and peace and joy and love, in a world that often seems hell-bent on choking those things out. It's a challenge that requires diligence and attention. If there was nothing challenging about the gospel, it wouldn't be worth living for (and it certainly wouldn't be worth dying for). So, it's important to ask what it means to live into this parable. What does it mean to say, as A New Creed does, that Jesus is our judge and our hope?
The first thing I think we need to remind ourselves of is that neither anxiety nor arrogance is a Christian virtue. If this parable about divine judgment makes us anxious and panicky, we're not hearing it well. There's a difference between urgency and anxiety--urgency changes us (which we may need in order to follow Jesus faithfully); urgency moves us to action, but anxiety paralyzes. There's no grace in anxiety. The goal of the gospel is not to have us looking over our shoulders and walking on eggshells. The goal of the gospel is always life and life abundant.
And if this parable makes us arrogant or smug, or over or self-confident we're not hearing it well, either. If it makes us eager for the day when we won't have to deal with our "heathen" neighbors (or the ones we think are heathens), there's no gospel in that, either. That's not good news. It tends to be people we disagree with whom we think are bad, "the weeds." But I often think of Anne Lammott's point that if it turns out that God hates all the same people we do, we don't have a God, we have an idol. Let's pay attention to the truth in this parable, that the servants aren't well equipped to tell the difference between wheat and weeds.
Because, it's true: we're just not actually very good at judgment. Certainly, when Jesus shows up on the scene, we realize that his choices and ours are not invariably the same. He seems to see rather differently. Over and over in the gospels we find Jesus confounding our expectations about who's in and who's out. Or rather, who he's ready to welcome to the gospel party and who he's not. (I don't remember anyone in the second category.) Jesus has no problem including zealous Jews and Roman centurions, tax-collectors and Pharisees, laborers and business folks, lawyers and beggars. It turns out that kingdom grain has the habit of growing out of the oddest, most unlikely plants. We're not especially good at judging between them.
But the good news is that we can trust God to judge well--to judge justly and compassionately, to see clearly, to act not out of impulse but out of divine patience and grace. The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, sings the psalmist. The longer we spend in the company of this God, in prayer and scripture and worship, the more we come to know the enormity of grace in our own lives and in this world. And when that happens, we're more and more shaped not by our eagerness to uproot what we think are weeds, but by the Master's patience. Grace gives us access to a kind of patience, a breadth of mercy that we can't muster on our own. It gives us a radical freedom to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors; to move through the world in the way of the One who didn't call down angel armies to smite his adversaries, but prayed forgiveness over his murderers--not because they deserved it, but precisely when they didn't, when we didn't know what we were doing. (While we were still sinners, Christ died for us, St. Paul puts it.)
And that should remind us that, biblically speaking, when judgment is left to the one who is actually able to do it, it's is actually good news. It is the good news that ultimately sin and brokenness and death have been and will be destroyed, once and for all--they will not keep us separated from God or each other forever. If we pay attention to the whole story of Scripture, the whole story of God with and for this world, the stuff we see coming under judgment is the stuff that an awful lot of us want judged, weeds we want pulled up. It's injustice, it's lack of compassion, it's greed and hatred, it's unrighteousness--our human failure to live rightly with God and neighbor and creation. I suppose that if we're particularly committed to those things, we have something to be worried about--we're going against the grain of the universe. But if we yearn for a world made new, healed and whole, even if we do it imperfectly, this parable is full of hope.
So many of the things that break our hearts, that make us angry, break our hearts and make us angry not because we are perfectly righteous, but because we're created in the image of the One who is. And I would argue that it's not actually good news if we have a God who isn't angry about the mess in us and this world. It isn't actually good news if we have a God who isn't prepared to deal with sin and brokenness and death, even in us--to deal with the stuff we clearly can't.
It's not good news if God is indifferent to the stuff in us and around us that keeps us from loving well, that keeps us from living in freedom and joy, that keeps us weighed down instead of running free in the wide space of grace. This God, the God to whom Mary sings as salvation grows in her womb is not just ethereal warm and fuzziness, or pure being at a safe and heavenly distance from the muck and mire of this world; this God, whom we know most clearly in Jesus, is the One who is prepared to turn this world on its head, to fill empty bellies and wipe away tears, to make all things new. In Jesus, we see the lengths to which God will go to see that dream through.
And when we deal with this God seriously, when we trust this God to judge, then that vision of hope and peace and joy and love which is the end goal, which we hope for in the future, begins to take shape here and now. Imagine if we were to take seriously the promised image of ourselves shining like the sun in the kingdom of our Father, one day unencumbered by sin and brokenness and death. Then we could begin to imagine and live what it's like to be beacons, here and now, of profound, unhindered, love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and gentleness and generosity and faithfulness and self-control; to bear the Spirit's crop always and everywhere and come what may.
We could imagine and start to live what it will be like when evil is rooted out, when injustice is pulled up, when the ways and things that choke out life are dealt with, once and for all. Because that's the end goal of God's judgment--new heaven and new earth, a holy city where God and creation dwell perfectly together, satisfied by the stream of life, healed and nourished by life's Tree. It's the promise that allows us, as Wendell Berry puts it, "To be joyful, though we've considered the facts," to grow in grace and hope, even if all we can see is weeds, because our hope is in the Sower whose harvest is good.
That's the heart of what it means to say that Jesus is both judge and hope. Our judge is not an impartial and distant judge, removed and objective. Our judge has a ridiculous conflict of interest. Ours is the One who has gotten all mixed up in this world, who has not only planted the field, but has walked through it. Our judge is the One who loves us and this world beyond all measure. His aim is not the straightforward separation of the righteous from the unrighteous, with the obviously righteous in and the clearly unrighteous out--that would make for a pretty small kingdom.
Instead, as St. Paul puts it, Christ--in life, death, resurrection and ascension--has become righteousness for us; he's been both judge and judged, so that we might grow in freedom and hope. In Christ, Scripture tells us, the goal is the reconciliation of all things, in heaven and earth, to God. In Christ we have no fear of judgment and no arrogance about our standing. Instead we are set free by grace to bear kingdom grain, unlikely plants as we might be.
And we don't need to wait for someday. In Jesus, the conditions are already established for us to bear gospel grain, for us to bring gospel light. The conditions are already established for us to live as citizens of that holy city (whose gates are never shut!), shining like the sun in a world often overwhelmed by darkness. The conditions are already established for us to live intimate with God, full of life with and for each other.
May God give us the grace and the guts to do it.