Readings Daniel 3, Matthew 13.24-30,36-43
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley
A clash of headlines this weekend: the death toll climbing in Gaza/Israel, and the BBC website’s caption: ‘No end in sight’; the meagre turnout in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections; and then the news that Children in Need has raised £26.8 million, nearly half a million more than last year, and this in the middle of such low economic spirits. What a tangled world.
Tonight’s parable in Matthew’s gospel tells of someone who has a grudge against a farmer and who commits an act of agricultural sabotage, lacing his field with weeds. The farmer tells his workers that they must live with the tangle for now, and only sort the wheat from the weeds at harvest time: do it before then and they might harm to the wheat as they pull up the weeds. The story is directed to this perplexing matter of the mixed-up nature of life, and the mixture of good and bad amongst us and within us. Why are we such a mixed bunch?
Well, life itself is a mixture of good and bad, as the headlines show. We are responsible for some of that, but not all. A person may never touch a cigarette and still get lung cancer, and the most lovable of people can lose the one they love most. Is it a surprise that such a world breeds such a mixture among people? And what is to be done? How far can human beings sort out their own mess? Let’s explore that question though an issue not unconnected with Israel and Gaza.
In the heightened atmosphere following the September 11th attacks, Tony Blair at one point got carried away. He told the Labour Conference that they would keep striving until they had ‘rooted out evil’ from the earth – an ambitious aim, and an unattainable one, for the roots of evil are too deep, too systemic, too tangled to be pulled up in this, or perhaps any generation. Some time later, the then head of MI5, Eliza Mannigham-Buller, said that the security services had 1600 suspected terrorists in their sights. That is frightening, but it’s a tiny number, smaller than the crowd that watched Macclesfield Town play Ebbsfleet yesterday. So why not just weed them all out and pull them in? Because our system – rightly – requires evidence (think of Abu Qatada); because any of these people may be just one cell in a larger organism; because sometimes it’s better (though risky) to let their plans come closer to fruition; because nothing is simple. She added that the root cause (notice how the language of crops comes back again) was ‘radicalisation’ (‘radical’ is related to ‘root’), and solving that was beyond the reach of the Security Service. Let the wheat and the weeds grow together, says Jesus, until the harvest. But when will that be? This present danger, she said, might be with us for a generation.
In case we think all this is just about other people, you will know – in the place where you work or learn, on the street or estate where you live – how wheat and weeds grow side by side. The mixture is even inside our own hearts – good crop, bad crop, their roots bewilderingly intertwined – and even a patently good deed can come from a tangle of motives: genuine friendliness woven with a desire to influence, generosity twisted together with the hope that one good turn will deserve another, well-meant criticism bound up with jealousy, like bindweed round a rose.
Let the wheat and the weeds grow together, says Jesus, until the harvest. But when will that be? Why not now? Some asked that in Jesus’ day, and thought that they were seeing the answer. In the heightened atmosphere around Jesus – sick people being healed, poor people hearing good news at last – it looked like the rooting out of evil was happening there and then. This has led some who study the gospels to say that our parable of the wheat and the weeds, with its message about living with the mess of things for the time being, fits better into the world of the early church – a mixture of saints and sinners waiting for Jesus to return and purify everything – than it does to Jesus’ own preaching. So (they argue) perhaps it was our gospel writer, not Jesus, who created this story.
It may be so. But it may be that Jesus knew that what God was doing in him was something less straightforward than bringing an end to one messy chapter of history and opening a new one, pure and simple. In Jesus’ ministry some were healed – but not all; some had their lives transformed – but not all. Didn’t his own disciples often fail to ‘get’ Jesus? Didn’t one of them sit at his table, and still hand him over to his death? Wasn’t Jesus’ own field of operation a tangled place?
What was happening in Jesus was not that God was suddenly making the world pure or simple. In a way, God was making it more complicated by adding a new, heady ingredient to the mixture. In Jesus the future was invading the present, and you never knew when God’s future might jump up and bite you; or bless you. Wondrous things might happen to one body or one soul, while for others life stayed much as it was. Why it had to be like that we don’t know, but we do know that it is still like that: the eye of faith sees signs which make you say, ‘God is at work here,’ but why are the signs here but not there? Why in her but not in him? In the reading, Jesus offers the disciples an explanation of the parable, and tells them that there will indeed be a sorting out. But not yet. And meanwhile we have to live.
In the tangle of life God calls us sometimes to be signs of God’s future, and sometimes to be patient waiters in God’s present. In the terms of the first reading (the three faithful young men in the fiery furnace) sometimes you get what you need put the fire out, and sometimes you are given what you need to take the heat. And this present-and-future business we find everywhere, from the intimately personal to the publicly political. It’s hard to get it right, hard not to be naïve about what a stubbornly complicated place the world is and not to shrug your shoulders either, but instead to long for the world to be different and to act on that longing, because it is also the longing of God.
All this we bring to God tonight, and in this service God chooses each of us afresh, in the tangle of things that make up our lives, chooses us as agents of his will. We have our preferences, of course. If life is full of pain or excitement, you may want the future to come; if you are in state of fear or happiness you may want things to stay just as they are. What God calls us to embrace may be just what we want, or its opposite. Why God gives this task to me and that to you? That too is a puzzle. You try to make sense of it (and you must) but that only gets you so far. As RS Thomas says,
There are questions we are the solution
to, others whose echoes we must expand to contain.
Our task, therefore, is this: to seek God’s help so that – however we wish things were – we can coolly assess how things really are, and then be kindled in our desire to see God’s will done. We must pray to God for hearts of fire and minds of ice.
RS Thomas The quotation is from his poem ‘Emerging’.
Heart of fire and mind of ice An image attributed to St Symeon the New Theologian and later to Lenin.