Sometimes the longer we ponder something, the more complex it seems to become. Rather than gaining increasing clarity about the thing we are examining, we begin to perceive layers of complexity and uncover new and hidden dimensions. Our reflections leave us with more questions than answers. That has certainly been the case as I’ve pondered the meaning of this gospel parable over the past week.
The parable seems straightforward enough. It is drawn from the agricultural life of the people to whom it was addressed and would have been easily grasped by them. A farmer plants his field with good seed, but discovers that weeds are growing alongside the wheat the good seeds have produced. He suspects that someone has sown bad seed in his field, but he decides not to act too hastily, knowing that if he uproots the weeds prematurely he may well ruin his crop of wheat.
Bible scholars tell us about a particular weed, called “bearded darnel,” that in its early stages so closely resembled wheat that it was impossible to distinguish the two. No farmer dared separate the weeds from the wheat at this early stage, partly because it was impossible to tell them apart and partly because the root systems of the plants became intertwined as they grew. In attempting to uproot the weeds, he was likely to destroy the wheat as well. And yet the darnel had to be separated from the wheat, since it was slightly poisonous, had an unpleasant taste, and could cause illness. The wise farmer waited until the plants were harvested, when it was easy to distinguish the wheat from the darnel, since the darnel over time darkened in color.
Jesus uses the illustration to remind his hearers of God’s grace and patience. He seems to be warning them of the dangers of making judgments about what is good and what is bad. The difference may not be as obvious as it seems, the parable suggests, and ultimately God alone can judge rightly between good and evil. God acts as the farmer in the parable, choosing to postpone the separation, allowing for the possibility that what might initially have been judged to be bad might actually turn out to be good.
The gospel writer adds another dimension to the interpretation by applying the parable to the time of the church. The Risen Christ sows good seed in the world and thus creates the Church, but in the midst of the Church the Evil One sows people who do not belong to the Kingdom. Matthew is greatly disturbed by the mixed state of the Church which contains many who enthusiastically call Jesus “Lord, Lord” and yet refuse to follow his teaching. His interpretation of the parable makes clear that he expects a day of reckoning to come for these false disciples, a day when the glorified Christ will send his angels to purify the Church of all who disregard the implications of Jesus’ teaching.
These points are important to make, especially when we witness how easy it is for human beings to make judgments about one another, to assign to certain persons the label “good” and to others the label “bad.” Individuals make these kinds of judgments about other individuals, groups make them about other groups, nations make them about other nations. So the parable drives home the point: Beware of trying to judge what is evil and what is good; leave such judgments to God, who alone can judge rightly. And if God seems to be slow to act – sometimes allowing the wicked to escape the consequences of their actions or, on the other hand, allowing true goodness to go unrewarded – know that in the end, there is a new world coming in which all such injustices will be redressed.
So the parable helps us recognize that there are hostile powers at work in the world that seek to destroy what is good, but it also cautions us against making quick judgments. It warns us that appearances may not always be accurate or reliable, and that only God, who knows and sees all, can judge a person rightly.
Yes, I thought as I pondered these things, this is certainly true, and it is good for us who are so quick to judge and label others to be reminded of how little we actually know and understand about them, and how much damage we are likely to do if we act prematurely and in haste. Only God knows the whole truth, and only God can judge what is true and what is false.
And yet there seems to me to be another danger here – the danger of remaining passive in the face of evil and injustice, the danger of “withholding judgment” until it is too late and great damage has been done. While some may judge too quickly and act before they fully understand, others may judge too slowly and wait to act even though their judgment is right.
I thought about the thousands of Christians in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s who stood patiently by, refusing to call out in alarm over what was happening to their neighbors. I thought about generations of slave-owners and traders, who never questioned the status quo, and allowed great injustices to be done, without protesting or resisting them or working for change. I thought about how, over and over again, majorities have dominated minorities, dictating what they may and may not do, where they may and may not live, what rights they may and may not enjoy – and all the while few have called out for justice.
Is it right, then, to leave justice to an end time, when God will judge people and nations for their acts of intimidation, oppression, aggression and violence? Is love being expressed when evil is tolerated, or when injustice is overlooked? What are we to make of a parable that seems to suggest that it is best to leave things be, and to let God judge between evil and good?
How do we remain open and accepting and patient towards others, always seeking to better understand them and to give them opportunities to change and become something better than they presently are, and at the same time not fall into the trap of being too passive, too patient, too forgiving? How does love act, what form does it take, when it is faced with genuine evil?
There is no easy way to resolve such questions. At times we may need to hear the admonition to withhold judgment, to allow the weeds and wheat to exist together for a time, to exercise restraint and patience. At other times we may need to hear the call to resist evil and injustice boldly and actively, refusing to tolerate the damage that is being inflicted on ourselves, or on our fellow human beings, or on the world in which we live.
Not long ago I had occasion to watch again Richard Attenborough’s magnificent film on the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi, and I was moved, as I always am, by the ways in which Gandhi managed to balance respect and reverence for others – even his opponents – with his unwavering commitment to truth and justice. He refused to hate or to vilify his enemies and treated them always with the greatest respect and dignity, and yet at the same time, he refused to tolerate the injustices they had imposed upon him and his countrymen. He treated the British with love and respect, and earned their respect in return, but refused to cooperate with their occupation of his country. He was absolutely immovable in the cause of justice. Perhaps he is one example we can hold before our eyes as we consider how to show patience, tolerance and respect to others – even loving our enemies, as Jesus requires of us – and yet refusing to give in to evil and injustice.
Most of us prefer easy answers. But here we are invited to live in a place of holy tension, depending on God’s grace to show us when tolerance and patience towards others is called for, and when we are being called to noncooperation and resistance in the face of evil. There are no simple, definitive answers. We will not respond the same in every circumstance. We often will not agree on what should be done. Witness the struggles within our Anglican Communion. Shall we tolerate our differences and exercise patience toward one another, or must we take a stand for truth, for justice, for the cause that seems right?
There is a season for patience, for long-suffering, for waiting. There is also a season for acting, challenging and resisting. In prayer we seek to make the most godly and loving response. In this and in all things we look to God.
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