We are listening to the Kingdom parables of Jesus, listening to his view of life and the world, and asking “how will it end?” This is a series about ultimate destinies, but rooted in present conditions and realities. The kingdom of God comes, but has also begun. This past weekend we considered the story of the weeds from Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43. Take a moment to reflect on this story before you read further. The parable of the weeds is an extension of the parable of the sower which precedes it. But this parable introduces a new element, an enemy sower, a middle of the night saboteur who attempts to disrupt the good intentions of the farmer. We could call this weed-sower evil, live spelled backwards, the force that opposes the good crop of the kingdom of God. Jesus called evil a thief that wants to kill and destroy, but, he said, he had come to bring life.
This parable doesn’t explain evil -- there is a mystery to it -- but it does assert that the weediness in the world has not been planted by God. That much seems clear. What isn’t so obvious is why, in the narrative of this parable, the farmer would instruct his farmhands to leave the weeds alone, to do nothing about them until the harvest.
I had a conversation recently with a young student who was struggling with her Christian faith. The question she asked was a common one: why isn’t God doing anything about the suffering in the world? Why is God seemingly so passive towards evil?
I replied that, for me, the scandal isn’t that God is passive; the story of Jesus reveals how involved God really is, how much we should see him as an interventionist. But the story of Jesus also shows that he intervenes in a specific way, in a gracious and patient way. The cross is God’s sword turned into a weeding tool. For me the scandal is not that God is passive about what is wrong with the world; for me the scandal is the long wait until the final resolution. Do you know about Psalm 13, the “how long” psalm? Its the anthem of the long wait.
And so we have in this parable a sense that this long wait is something God has deliberately chosen. What does this mean? What is Jesus telling us?
One of the best “gospel” films I can think of is the film Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It is the true story of sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon) and her pursuit of a redemptive relationship with a death row criminal, Matthew Poncelent (Penn). Prejean, as an ardent opponent of capital punishment, fights to save Poncelent’s life from the death sentence he has received from his crime. But more importantly, she fights to save his soul. Poncelent is a guilty, hateful man, and not easy to love. But through Prejean’s loving pursuit of him, he is helped to see the truth about himself, the true nature of the evil he has done, and that despite all of this that he is loved by God. He is able, in time and through Prejean’s loving attention towards him, to reveal who he really is, to become more human and lovable. In other words, he responds. As Poncelent faces his execution, Prejean makes this amazing promise to him: “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I'll be the face of love for you.” As you watch this movie you see how a man overtaken by evil can redeemed from his evil by a loving persistent presence. Time was needed for that. Grace often needs time to reveal what it is.
Is this parable a prescription for Christian passivity? Are we to merely let obvious evils run their course without any intervention at all? This would seem to contravene the historical Christian attempts to overturn slavery, or fight against poverty, or work for public education and health care, all initiatives driven forward by passionate and engaged Christian activists. The story of Helen Prejean and Matthew Poncelent would say the same thing: we are not to be passive but energetically engaged in redemptive relationships.
I don’t think this parable is really calling us to passivity. But it does remind us of our need for carefulness, that as we wait for God’s final resolution of all things we need to be hands off on the matters that only God can judge and set right. But like the story of the good Samaritan, or the story of Prejean and Poncelent, we can and ought to help our brother and sister in need by the side of the road. We might not be capable of pulling out evil by the root, but we can plant a new world by gracious and loving deeds.
ideas and questions to ponder: 1. if you could, what evil in the world would you most like to “weed out”? why? 2. can you think of examples where the attempt to root out some perceived evil actually made everything worse? 3. is there an example in your life of how gracious patience in some way “saved” you? 4. how are you at gardening? what do growing things teach us about the kingdom of God?