Wisdom 12.13,16-19; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24–30, 36–43
A good many years ago now I remember hearing the Jewish theologian Dan Cohn-Sherbok talk about Jewish apocalyptic. “Fundamentally,” he said, “it’s about evident justice where ‘the baddies get their come-uppance!’” And, on that score today’s parable hits all the spots. Let the good flourish, get rid of the bad. But it actually resonates with us in many different ways. Think for a moment of Keir Starmer’s efforts to re-shape the Labour party, doing his best to prepare the ground, rooting out anti-semitism and extreme elements and patiently planting good seed, but still the weeds keep coming. For now he seems keener to weed as the good seed grows, not content to wait for the harvest. Time will tell whether that is wise or not. And there are tricky questions, like, ‘Is an Ultra Low Emission Zone a weed or a new kind of grain?’ Or think of the Grand Ol’ Party of American politics: for now it looks as though the weeds have almost completely overwhelmed the good seed. What will happen? Will everything go on growing together; and if they do, what kind of sifting will take place? Will it be clear which is the good seed and which are the weeds or will it just be a disastrous mess?
Less helpfully, the parable encourages us back to that fundamental choice: this is good, that is bad – inviting the crude simplicity that enables us to exclude a whole group of people or behaviours, and even feel righteous about it. A few years ago we were for ever being encouraged to avoid binary oppositions. I remember it being a refrain at Ministry Division meetings, though there it often seemed more like manipulation: a disarming tactic when we raised doubts about the latest strategy being proposed. But now that plea to avoid binary oppositions seems rather to have faded as all sides become more concerned that their vision of truth is being compromised or lost altogether. Now we are encouraged to shut our eyes and ears to all nuance, to every shade of grey and focus on the black and the white. The crude polarisations in the current debate over a true response to those seeking asylum surely illustrate multiple failures in the search for truth. And who suffers? Those trapped in bureaucratic limbo waiting for their claims to be processed, or still more tragically, those who lost their lives in desperate attempts to get here. But it’s always easier when it’s a simple choice: you’re either a weed or good seed.
But Jesus’ parable has greatest force when we read it in the manner of the fairy-stories of old. This is not a story about ‘out there’, but a story about me. I am the field and I am capable of bringing forth a fruitful harvest or a field of weeds, or, typically, a mixture of both. And Jesus, the skilled story-teller gets us on his side. ‘Someone’ he says ‘sowed good seed in his field.’ But it turns out this is not just someone, but a householder, someone of substance. Already I feel a bit hopeful. And Jesus is explicit: I did all the right things, I sowed only good seed – as my slaves confirm. But, despite that, weeds came up too. There is only one explanation. Someone who has it in for me, an enemy has done it. That makes me feel even better. Not my negligence, not some oversight on my part. Nothing to do with me.
But wait: I am not the householder. I am the field. We are talking here about a co-operative venture in which I am less an agent, more a space in which things can be done. When Jesus says ‘the kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone…’ there is an ambiguity. Jesus’ ‘someone’ does point to me, but more importantly to God who brings about all that is good in me; the field too is me. I am that space, created by God in which God’s purposes can flourish, but a space that is also capable of offering hospitality to the forces of evil and destruction. And sometimes there is no telling whether the seed was good or bad: it is what happened to it in the soil that determined the outcome. Vigilance, attention and care are essential on my part: I am not just neutral ground.
Yet we are promised a final clean-up. All the good is set free to shine like the sun; all causes of sin and all evildoers will be thrown into the furnace of fire. For a moment this seems good news, until we turn again to the reality of our own lives and that seemingly inextricable tangle of the good and the bad. May be not all of me, but at least some of me seems destined to eternal fire.
And then we give thanks for St Paul, who isn’t in the business of telling stories, but doing his best to tease out the underlying truth of God. It is not just us, he says, but the whole creation that was subjected to futility – everything caught up in that deadly cycle where the evil that I would not is what I do. But all this is for a purpose for which we wait in hope. The desire in the heart of God is the renewal of all things – that all things may know the freedom that belongs to the children of God. This is beyond our imagining. The world of Jesus’ parables is reassuringly familiar; St Paul’s visions are inspiring, but beyond us. Yes, as Paul tells us, we hope for what we do not see, and we wait for it in patience – well, sometimes…
But it was the reading at Mattins from the Wisdom of Solomon that put all this back in perspective. There is none other but God, who alone cares for all people and all creation, whose sovereignty over all causes God to spare all. Although sovereign in strength, God judges with mildness and taught us by example to be kind and hopeful because we have experienced forgiveness. Living in that space of hopeful waiting is much to be preferred over a forensic identification of the weeds and endless experiments with different weedkillers. God’s patience is infinite and in God we too can be patient and wait for the salvation ready to be revealed at the last day.