Proper 11A: Wisdom 12. 13, 16-19; Romans 8. 18-25; Matthew 13. 24-30, 36-43.
In the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13.24ff), two things might attract the attention of some Christian readers: judgement and fire. We have an unfortunately long history of sitting in glad judgement over other people, and have always had a grisly fascination with fire, presumably because of its ability to put an end to us in an unimaginably painful way. This is no doubt why the imponderable experience of those who were killed in Grenfell Tower cut through to our hearts and minds even amid an appalling surfeit of horrific news. In a world of bad things, this was as bad as it got.
Alas, it is another aspect of fire, evoked by the burning of darnel, to which many minds will naturally turn. This is the use of fire by the religiously powerful to impose their might and the conviction that they are right against any who have the audacity to belong to a different tribe with a different view. Our art and literature are rich in references to the belief that the legalised incineration of opponents reflects the just actions of a righteous God. Paintings like Fra Angelico’s Last Judgement, or the frescoes that adorn the walls of a thousand Orthodox monasteries, depict such scenes of infernal agony that the living are encouraged to conform and live peaceably, keeping the commandments of God as shall be by law defined. Those who fail to do so may expect a retribution such as that described by James Joyce in his hellfire sermons. If the ‘storm of darkness’ and ‘intolerable stench of offal and nauseous decomposition’ don’t get you, the eternal heat surely will, as the blood of the damned ‘seethes and boils, the heart glowing and bursting, the bowels a redhot mass of burning pulp,’ and so on (Portrait, chapter3).
This focus on the infernal is encouraged by Matthew, whose references to fire and hell are more in number than the other evangelists’ combined. A greater ‘precision over the judgement language is required’ in consequence. Although Matthew’s ‘Gehenna’ is often translated as ‘hell’, it refers more properly to the municipal tip outside Jerusalem, a place for the valueless to be dumped and destroyed. ‘This does not lessen the dire warning in Jesus’ Gehenna sayings: the fiery threat of the Hinnom Valley functions as a potent symbol of judgement and separation. But it does mean that the vivid medieval images of the Doom paintings recede somewhat’ (Ian Boxall, Discovering Matthew).
It is good to remind ourselves of this, to remember that we are dealing with metaphor, not with a sort of weirdly geographical reality conjured by artists and propagated by tireless merchants of bigotry and hate. Even if the Gehenna metaphor warns of rejection and destruction, this particular gospel passage commands a patient coexistence with those of other tribes and beliefs, and a concomitant determination to leave all adjudication of our respective theological claims to God alone.
Like us, Matthew knew what it was to belong to a divided community. We will leave it to scholars to decide the precise characteristics of his communities. It will be sufficient for us to acknowledge the different groups who had irreconcilable understandings of what it was to be Jewish and whether faithful Jews were forbidden, permitted or required to make a faith response to the claims of Jesus Christ. These were no merely intellectual conflicts but rather a marker of identity, a birthmark of belonging. They led to antagonism, to positions entrenched and defended. Finally, they led to the conviction that some people were so far from God —weeds to the true servants’ wheat— that they needed swift extirpation and final fiery destruction.
The same instinct to do down our opponent is visible in all the divisions that breed fear and loathing in our world. The ill-tempered discourse about the future of the UK and its part in the EU is symptomatic of national disunity and no doubt creative of deeper rifts in families and communities. The fact that we cannot respond even to an appalling event like Grenfell without exchanging in a series of highly-politicised claims and counter claims is as lamentable as it is predictable.
The Church does no better. Our ongoing failure to come to terms with the diverse ways of reading Scripture means misery for many and a severe distraction for all. Consigned to an endless yelling about love, sex and gender, we become identified only by what divides us and are increasingly unable to see any goodness in those who have ceased to be brothers and sisters and have become opponents. This is not the way to resolve the mighty matters before us. Dismissing others or walking away ourselves is not the way of growing together till Kingdom come. We will need more than childhood games of goodies and baddies if we are to be instruments and evangelists of God’s Reign.
For this, we will need patience, to refrain from judgement, and to work tirelessly for a genuinely mutual flourishing so that all might reach fulfilment. This is the most surprising thing about the parable. It recognises that both wheat and weeds are differently productive. We must avoid the presumption of the hellfire preacher that the parable is about the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the good. The wheat ground into flour presumably enjoys no more pleasant an experience than the darnel that is cut, bound and burnt. Such matters, the parable insists, are left to God the judge, whose eternal truth sheds light on human failing; but whose mercy finds a way for all that God has created to serve God’s purpose, whether as grain ground into flour for bread or sheaves of wild wheat burnt as precious fuel.
Flour and fuel need each other for fulfilment and purpose and those who seek to serve the kingdom of God will not dare to impede this process, but will learn the interdependence of all human beings, however much we disapprove of them, or however little we expect of them. As Walter Bruegemann has put it, ‘the human self is not an independent, autonomous agent but is always and necessarily preceded by one radically other than us, who summons us into existence’ (The Covenanted Self).
This does not require us to start believing that bad is good or that injustice is tolerable. But it does mean that we must approach our divergences in a radically different way, inevitably with our own thoughts and feelings to the fore, but tempered with the humility to expect that God will shine a light on things we have not expected, causing us to look with eyes more like Christ’s, and to love with a heart more like his.
Or, as Bishop Westcott has beautifully expressed it in prayer,
‘O Lord God, in whom we live and move and have our being, open our eyes that we may behold thy Fatherly presence ever about us. Draw our hearts to thee by the power of thy love. Teach us to be anxious for nothing, and when we have done what thou hast given us to do, help us, O God our Saviour, to leave the issue to thy wisdom. Take from us all doubt and mistrust. Lift our thoughts up to the heavens; and make us to know that all things are possible to us through thy Son, our Redeemer Jesus Christ.’