Is 44.1-8, Ps 86.4-13, Rom 8.26-30, Mt 13.24-43
Rev'd Daniel Irvine
Dave Allen once told the story of a particular “fire and brimstone” preacher from the northern part of Ireland who was delivering a passionate sermon on the great judgement that is to come.
“And on that day...” he proclaimed. “On that day the Lord will open up the great book and whoever’s name is not found in that book will be cast out to the darkness, where there will be weeping, and a gnashing of teeth!”
It was at this point that he was interrupted by a little old lady in the front pew who said “But I don’t have any teeth!?”
“Teeth...” said the preacher, without missing a beat, “...will be provided!”
The idea of judgement is not a very popular one for most of us, probably because we can only think about it human terms, with images of human judges and all the flaws and weaknesses of our own justice systems, which more often than not leave a lot to be desired.
Judgement however is an integral part of our understanding of God and how we think about those last things that will occur in some shape or form before the redemption of creation for which we so eagerly long.
After all in the creed we affirm that we believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Try as we might there is no avoiding it, and yet many of us perhaps don’t give it the thought it really deserves.
Now I am not suggesting that we need to sit trembling and worrying about everything we may, or may not, have done, and I am certainly not suggesting that we search the pages of scripture for a list of rules that we could follow to try and guarantee a favourable result for ourselves when the day does finally come.
That is not what the Bible is for, and the apostle Paul makes it very clear that there is nothing we can do ourselves because the work of redemption has already been begun, continues, and will ultimately be completed by God alone, in and through the Spirit, and that the life of Jesus bears true witness to that fact.
But do we really think deeply about judgement, what it means and what it reveals? For instance the simple fact that without judgement there can be no mercy, and we are repeatedly reassured throughout scripture, and in the life of Jesus that God is merciful?
So what can we say about our reading from the Gospel today? What about those weeds that were cast into the fire?
Well while the theme of judgement runs strongly through the parable, and especially so in the interpretation that Matthew provides for it for his community, the message is not focused on the judgement itself, but rather on the timing and the agency of that judgement.
You see, both during the life of Jesus, and during the formation of the early Church, the disciples had to come to terms with the existence of evil and unbelief in the world, even in their own midst, and had to decide what to do about it.
Jesus’ parable asserts that the kingdom, just like the Church and the world, is a mixed bag, a collection of saints and sinners living side by side. It is because of this that there is the temptation for those who consider themselves to be saints to try and purge and pass their own judgements on those whom they deem to be sinners.
But in this parable Jesus is telling those who would listen that that is not to be the case!
In this parable we are all warned about making our own judgements over who is “in” and who is “out”, about who (and what) is “right” and who (and what) is “wrong”.
Judgement is an activity that is to be left to the Lord, and we may all end up being surprised at just how widely God’s mercy really flows.
As tempting as it might be to pull up perceived weeds early, and if we look throughout history and at our own societies, many have tried and are still trying to do just that, we must resist.
If we allow others to make their own judgements, to create a society and a church based only on a single narrow interpretation, with no room for difference or discussion, then theology becomes a dry and dusty discipline of rules and regulations, instead of a quest to know the Living God.
But the question of wheat and weeds, of judgement and mercy run even deeper still. We often think of these issues in binary terms; of right or wrong, black and white, good and evil; when the reality is much more complex, and much more personal.
In a short reflection on his time spent as a prisoner in Soviet Labour camps, Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Solz-nits-in) wrote:
I learnt one great lesson from my years in prison camps. I learnt how a person becomes evil and how he becomes good. Gradually I came to realise that the line which separates good from evil passes not between states, or between classes, or between political parties, but right through every human heart. Even in hearts that are overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And in the best of all hearts, there remains an unuprooted small corner of evil.
(Gulag Archipelago, volume 2).
I think that there is an incredible truth in this idea, a truth that Jesus was trying to explain to those who were listening, a truth that acknowledges that there is the potential good and bad within us all, and that if we were to spend a little more time reflecting on and improve our own lives and a little less time trying to make ourselves into the judge of others then the world might actually become a better place for it.
It might even become a place where God’s kingdom of love, mercy and justice can grow from tiny beginnings, just like the mustard seed, or create a lasting influence, like the leaven in a large portion of flour.
So let us always keep in mind the weeds and wheat within our own hearts and lives, and show kindness, love and mercy to others just as we are confident that our Lord will one day too show mercy on us.
A thought that I feel is beautifully reflected in the following prayer:
On the day of the harvest the straw is set aside, the chaff is blown away by the wind, and the weeds are consigned to the flames. But the wheat, like sacks of gold, is gathered into the barn. Lord, on the day of death, the harvest of my life will be poured out before you, wheat and chaff and weeds together. Let your wise hand sift through it; then keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of your kindness, blow the rest away.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.