All gardeners know weeds grow no matter how diligent you are. If you are a gardener like me, the weeds always seem to grow better than the plants I planted! A gardener’s main task it seems is to keep the garden clean of weeds.
In todays reading from Matthew we have a landowner who seems to have more than the normal outbreak of weeds amongst his wheat. And the weeds he is dealing with look like the real deal. Called darnel it is a wild wheat like weed that replicates the real wheat. Weeding it out as it grows is a risky task. What is and what isn’t the real wheat? We won’t know until we go to harvest and then we wil sort it out.
Really? Isn’t it too late then? Does this sound like a Jesus who understood rural life or is it a parable from a later edition with a different purpose?
The Jesus Seminar scholars suggest the following: “The parable reflects the concern of a young Christian community attempting to define itself over against an evil world, a concern not characteristic of Jesus. Letting the wheat and weeds grow up together suggests the final judgment rather than agricultural practice.” [Five Gospels, 194]
And the parable itself seems to point in that direction:
40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
What we have here is another of a number of difficult passages pointing towards a violent end for those who are not of the true faith, the church. It is not our responsibility to judge others; God will do that and will condemn them to a furnace of fire. But don’t worry; we who are righteous will shine like the sun and escape the punishment of those who sit amongst us in this and other communities.
Are we comfortable with this image and language? How does this sit with us in a world where our understanding of people’s behaviour has been influenced by science, psychology and personal experience? Are we able to accept an image of another burning in a fiery furnace and not be challenged by the image of the God it portrays?
Perhaps we are today more comfortable with this concept of punishment than ever before. We live in a surveillance society where one of the fastest growing industries is the prison system; a society in which prison and detainment camps are accepted as part of our response to the plight of others (refugees etc) and where we are quick to condemn others by means of media and hearsay. Perhaps today we are more comfortable with the idea of a last judgement that will separate the wheat from the weeds as long as we are included in the wheat, than ever before.
There is also the fact that we may have become desensitised to the violence in our faith and our liturgy, a violence which reflected a different world view and a different cosmology. On the ABCs the Drum the archbishop addressed the issue of domestic violence and a research paper which stated that Christians from certain styles of Churches are more likely to commit violence on their partners. It was primarily a discussion on the doctrine of headship - males as heads of the household and women as being obedient to that headship. His response is that there will be an apology on this at General Synod if it passes a vote.
At the same time It is important we address the violence in our liturgy and the language of sacrifice and redemption we repeat each time we gather for worship. We need to ask how have we embedded and normalised violence as a symbol of Gods' (understood as male) action in the world and find ways to address this. Domestic and other types of violence are expressions of our acceptance of violence as a way of being in the world and, for the church, violence as an accepted part of Gods action in the world.
It is much bigger than headship.
Are we comfortable with images of eating the body and blood of Jesus, of God sending his son to die on the cross to make us better, of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God to be sacrificed because of our failure in order to bring about redemption and peace?
In discussion with many older people I hear things like; “Well, I cringe at some of the things I hear in church”, “I can’t believe any more in some of the stuff we say in our liturgy”, “I have moved on in how I understand what happens but I still like the form of our service” and more.
Or are we disturbed by such language because it does not depict the God of our experience or the one discovered by rational and critical reflection? Are we ready to explore new ways of taking the ideas expressed in the scriptures and our liturgy and begin to craft a new way of doing church that is relevant to a modern worldview?
Matthew was writing for a community in the midst of a battle to control the synagogue, a battle between traditional religion and the embryonic group who followed Jesus. Matthew was employing language which basically said, let us not try and identify who is a true follower of Jesus, let’s leave that up to God. In doing so he employed an image understand by those reading his words.
We are living in a very different time and with a very different understanding of how the world, and God, works. Is the language of such as the Agnus Dei (which you may have noticed is not part of the 10am service book) relevant or does it take us back to an understanding of human sacrifice Abraham left behind when he decided to sacrifice the sheep instead of Isaac? Are these words and the story they tell the story of God that is your story?
Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.
Jesus, bearer of our sins, have mercy on us.
Jesus, redeemer of the world, grant us peace.
I spend much time with people who are wracked with guilt and shame, much if it seemingly imputed by words they have listened to over and over again in their church liturgy. Is it not time for a careful look at what we say simply because it is our tradition to say these words? Is it time to consider new images and options in order that what we know in our head is no longer in conflict with what we are asked to believe?
Now I know that this may be difficult for some, but the word acts and what we say influences how we see and accept what is happening in the world. Is our acceptance of the violence we see around us influenced by our acceptance of the apparent violence in our faith we attest to each week?
Perhaps it is time for us to begin the discussion on just what we need to be saying and how that reflects our informed understanding of God, faith and scripture. This is a subject our worship committee, like the wider Anglican Church here and overseas, is thinking about and we would be happy to hear your ideas and suggestions in writing.
Matthew’s Jesus poses us a modern challenge, to bring the message of the kingdom of God into sync with the time in which we live, just as he attempted to do to those he was representing at the beginning of the church. Amen.