Today's sermon is based on the lectionary readings for the second service: Matthew 13:24-43
The sermon this morning is, I think, a sermon for adults only.
Some of you might be wondering whether you should be thinking about ringing the Superintendent after the service. Others may be having the opposite reaction and thinking ‘Finally! My sort of church!’ But I’m afraid there won’t be any sex, drugs or rock-n-roll today, so no-one will have to ring the Super.
The reason that this sermon is for adults only is that I think the reading is for adults only; it requires some complex thinking and reflection. This is not a straight-forward Sunday School lesson with a simple message.
This reading is an exercise in reflection and response on a complex message, and some of us may have different responses.
This is one reading where I really don’t think the preacher can go to the commentaries and then come back and say ‘This is the message that God is trying to tell us in this passage.’ For one thing, the commentaries themselves say that this passage is complex and multi-layered.
This sermon is my personal attempt to reflect on the reading. I suspect that in hearing my reflection, you may very well think ‘But hold on a minute, the text also says this!’. I suspect you’ll react that way because I think that’s precisely what the text is meant to do! And, so with that warning, let’s have a look at the text.
Back to the Text
I’d like to first observe that the reading is topped and tailed by two passages that deal with who is and who is not a genuine disciple of Christ.
The section entitled The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat talks about letting the wheat and the tares grow together until the final harvest. Christians are told to leave judgement of other individuals in the church to God.
We’re told that although the tares have been planted in the church, that God will deal with ‘fake’ disciples at the last judgement. And it’s made clear in verse 28 that the tares have been planted by the enemy.
At the end of this reading, the section entitled Jesus Explains the Parable of the Weeds gives what we could almost call ‘an assurance of damnation’. At the end of time, God will deal with the impostors who have been masquerading as faithful Christians and they will be burned up with the fire.
In the middle of these somewhat dark passages, we have two parables that are more hopeful: The Parable of the Mustard Seed and The Parable of the Yeast. These two parables are not just ‘hopeful’: they actually seem be arguing for belief in fragile hope in the most dire of circumstances.
So, one small mustard seed will be deliberately planted and it will grow to be a great plant that shelters living creatures. Normally, one would not carefully and deliberately plant a mustard seed, one would scatter the seeds by the handful, in the knowledge that a small minority of seed will yield fruit. But here there seems to be an image of God’s deliberate cultivation of something fragile.
In the Parable of the Yeast, a tiny quantity of yeast – probably enough to leaven a few loaves of bread – is being put into about 50 pounds of flour. The tiny amount of yeast will leaven the bread dough, and it will make enough bread to feed about 100 people. This is an image reminiscent of God’s offering of the wedding feast to those in the highways and byways. It’s reminiscent of the feeding of the 4000 and the feeding of the 5000.
So, in this morning’s one passage of scripture, I see two narratives which seem to have very different messages.
On the one hand we have a difficult message about the eternal consequence of being a fake disciple of Christ. On the other hand, there is a message of God’s generosity and hope.
The Tares and the Wheat
In thinking about the Parable of the Tares and the Wheat, I have to say that I find this parable both troubling and encouraging.
The troubling bit, to me, lies not just in the fact that the church is given a very stern warning about the eventual fate of ‘impostor disciples’, but we are also not given any way for the church on earth to determine who is an impostor. Now, I guess that’s hardly surprising given that we are also told quite plainly – and, this message is about the only plain message in today’s reading – that it is not we who are to pass judgement on the spiritual state of impostor disciples. We are told quite categorically that we are to leave these individuals to God’s judgement.
So on the one hand, we can rest assured that God will ultimately deal with false disciples. On the other hand, we don’t have a clue who these people might be! What if I am a false disciple? What if someone I care about is a false disciple? In that instance, wouldn’t it be good to know what the criteria were for being a wheat or a tare?
So what do we do? Do we avoid judging others at the expense of not knowing what it means to be a genuine disciple of Christ?
You can see why find this passage troubling! I feel I’m left with something of a stale-mate here.
In the Light of Hope And Grace
In order to break the apparent stale-mate of the parable of the wheat and the tares, I want to turn first to the other parables in this reading and then secondly to the wider Gospel message.
As I said earlier, the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast are both parables of hope. They are parables of God’s abundant provision in difficult circumstances.
These pictures are not those of a God who is miserly with his kindness and who is sitting up in heaven just waiting for us to do wrong so that he can judge us for everlasting condemnation. They are pictures of a God who takes particular care to make sure that the smallest form of life is nurtured and the greatest number of people are fed.
At the heart of the Gospel message that Christians proclaim is the glorious truth that God desires the salvation of everyone who ever lived.
In order to save us, God came down to earth in the person of Jesus. Jesus taught us God’s message of peace and forgiveness. Jesus was crucified because of our sins and he rose from the dead so that everyone who believes in him can claim his resurrection and have eternal life.
The message that we proclaim as Christians is the message of an outrageously generous God who forgiveness knows no end. Indeed, as this morning’s Call to Worship from Isaiah demonstrates, this message of forgiveness is not exclusive to the New Testament. Isaiah quotes God as telling humanity: ‘For I will not continually accuse, nor will I always be angry; for then the spirits would grow faint before me, even the souls that I have made.’
Rather than being a compulsive accuser, God is a compulsive forgiver; Jesus was a compulsive healer. That is at the heart of the good news of Jesus.
When we read bible passages about God’s judgement, we need to always read them in the light of the good news of the Gospel and in the light of the cross of Christ.
This doesn’t mean ignoring passages about judgement, but I do think that it does mean remembering that God’s judgement is always carried out in the overall context of his desire that all people should be saved.
Judgement is the Lord's
I suspect that this is why God reserves final judgement for himself and why he forbids us to be the judge of our fellow Christians.
When human beings judge others, very often we do it in the certainty that we are right and that the other person is wrong. When human beings judge others we often do it with an attitude of self-righteousness and superiority. At last I know that I do.
How many tiny shoots of life have I killed off with my self-righteousness, how many small mustard plants just bursting out of seed? How many loaves of bread have I ruined, loaves that are never to rise, never to feed people hungry for the good news of the gospel?
God judges people with an attitude of kindness, an offer of forgiveness and with a perfect knowledge of the person’s thoughts and motivation. This is why God reserves the act of pronouncing judgement for himself.
This morning, as we reflect on this difficult passage together, let us remember together God’s generous love and his offer of forgiveness. Let us remember that God went to the ends of the earth to reach us with his love. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus bridges the gap between God’s perfection and sinful humanity.
Let us remember the words we sang earlier:
For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
And let all God’s people say Amen!