“Wailing and gnashing of teeth!” A discomforting phrase for many of us, and yet a significant theme in the Gospel of Matthew. The idea is that our actions and our attitudes have consequences. If we destroy other people, ignore and deface the dignity of other human beings, deny or role as stewards of God’s earth and dishonor the goodness with which God has made creation, bad things will happen, and not just to other people we don’t care about. To us.
Now, there are some passages in the Bible that would seem to imply that God’s will for healing and redemption will be done for everyone, that God’s grace is relentless, it will not give up until it has claimed us all. There are some such passages in the Bible, but not in Matthew. In Matthew, you have to do the right thing. Otherwise, sooner or later, it’s going to be crispy critter time.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus engages the question, why doesn’t God get rid of all the evildoers in the world. Why does God let them stay and hurt and destroy?
As is usually the case, Jesus’s parable turns the world upside down. Here are two examples of the world turned upside down. First, if you were a landowner with slaves, a plantation owner in Jesus’ day, you might stand on the edge of the field and direct your slaves to plant the wheat. You would not dirty your hands with such menial work. You would not plant the wheat yourself.
But this God is not a plantation owner, standing up there in heaven all smooth and pretty in his suit commanding us to do this and that and if we don’t do it he will cast us into the fires of hell. This God is with us in the field, with us in this world. This God sweats with us, works with us, gets hands dirty with us, cries with us, laughs with us, dies with us. This is Emmanuel, God with us. This God loves us.
Second, if any of you have ever kept a garden, you will know that if you see a weed springing up, you have to pull it right away. Because if you don’t, it will immediately become a thousand other weeds and take over the garden. And if you lose a few carrot sprouts or a tomato plant in the process, well, that loss is acceptable compared to all the rest of the carrots and tomatoes which you will save. Likewise, in the first century, if you were a farmer and you found weeds growing in your field, you would pull them up as quickly as you could. Problem was that this particular kind of weed was a weed that we call darnel. Until harvest time, it is hard to tell the difference between darnel and wheat. So if you try to pull it up, you will almost certainly pull up some of the wheat too. Also, the roots intertwine, so some wheat will come up if you pull the weeds. Which is fine, usually. You have to sacrifice some wheat to get rid of the weeds.
But this God, this sower does not play that numbers game. This God cares about every grain of wheat that has been sown. This God loves every one of you and me. None of us, none are expandable.
So the landowner says “Wait.” “Wait till the harvest.”
This parable may be uncomfortable, even scary for some of us. But for others, it can be good news. If we have to live underneath the iron fist of someone, if we have to endure the overwhelming power of someone either in our home or at our job or in a nation, who decides for themselves what is good and what is evil, who is important and who is not, someone who, in other words, pretends to be God, and oppresses us or hurts us or uses us, if we have to live under the tyranny of someone like that, then this parable can be good news. It is good news for two reasons.
First, this parable makes clear that even if someone seems to be getting away with horrible things, seems to be effectively acting as God in their homes or workplace or nation, they are not God. There is someone more powerful out there and a day of reckoning is coming.
Second, it can be very hard, when we live under somebody else’s fist, it can be very hard to remember that we are children of God, precious in God’s sight. Instead, we feel like we are nothing, like dirt, like we are less than human. This parable reminds us that we are wrong. Even if we live under tyranny, even if we feel horrible about ourselves, there will come a day when God will make us shine like the sun.
In our own Lutheran tradition, we have an idea that we are all both sinners and saints at the same time. We are both weeds and wheat at once. This idea frees us from two kinds of bondage, two kinds of demons. First, it frees us from bondage to fear and anxiety. We are saints. We are wheat. We are good people, not because of the good things we have done, but rather because God has made us good already through the cross of Jesus Christ. We do the right thing, not in order to get into heaven, but because heaven has gotten into us, God has made us heaven’s emissaries to do heaven’s work on earth. We are God’s people by God’s grace, not our own. So we don’t have to worry about going to hell.
The idea that we are both saints and sinners also frees us from a second bondage, a second kind of demon. It frees us from the bondage to arrogance and superiority. Yes, we may do many good things. Lutheran world relief may be active in over seventy countries. We may be touching many lives through St. Matthews Area Ministries and through our upcoming work with Kentucky Refugee Ministries. But we are still sinners. We are still weeds. We do not have to uphold the illusion of superiority to ourselves or anyone else. We are only human.
Thanks be to God that we are saved by grace. Thanks be to God that God loves us.