So here it is….the story you’ve been waiting for. Here’s Jesus’ response to the question humans have asked for millenia… If God is good, why is there evil in the world? Why are we human beings capable of both the most beautiful acts of kindness and creativity and sacrificial love…and also capable of the most despicable acts of cruelty and violence and abuse? If this is God’s world…if this is God’s kingdom…if God’s in charge…why does evil persist? And how come we can’t seem to get rid of it?
I’m guessing you’ve wondered about that at some point, right?
I think nearly every human in history has wondered that, honestly…including the people who followed Jesus.
And so Jesus tells a story. It’s a story about what the kingdom of heaven is like. ….A story about what God’s world, God’s kingdom…looks like. And he says it’s like this: It’s like when a farmer plants seeds in a field for a good crop. But then…someone else sneaks in and scatters weed seeds. And as the fields grow…the fieldworkers begin to question whether it was good seed that was planted after all. (In other words….maybe God isn’t good after all, with all this bad stuff happening all around us.) So the workers offer to go out and rip out the weeds….but the farmer tells them to wait…because they will just pull up the good stuff too. So he says — Let it be. We’ll sort it out when we harvest. In the meantime, just keep tending the field — even if it means you’re watering the weeds along with the wheat.
Jesus’ answer is that evil creeps in…it’s not what God intended…but it’s there. However…the reality is…we — the slaves, the fieldhands, the people who are tending this world that God planted…really aren’t equipped to root out the weeds…to root out evil. Because we’ll make a mess of it and end up destroying the good along with the bad. Sometimes we’ll make a mess of it because the good and bad are intertwined at their roots. We just go after the weeds and don’t care about the collateral damage. How many of you have lost plants when you’ve been pulling weeds because the weeds had a bigger root system than the plant? And sometimes we’ll make a mess of it because sometimes we aren’t good judges of what’s good and what’s bad. I mean…a mustard plant is a weed, technically, in my wheat crop. But it’s providing shelter and a home for God’s beautiful birds. But me…I’d pull it out, even though God planted it.
Basically, the world is better off if we aren’t trying to pull out weeds…and if we just focus on watering instead.
That’s Jesus’ response.
Friends…there is evil in this world. We know that. The evil of war crimes and gang violence that force refugees to flee desperately seeking safety for their children and themselves…seeking safety in rubber rafts and boats that still regularly sink in the frigid waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas….or seeking safety crossing deserts on foot without water or crammed in the back of trucks with no air. There is evil in this good world of God’s.
There is evil that has crept in …in people with no compassion, no mercy. People who can kill others for being the wrong color or the wrong religion or the wrong nationality. In this good world of God’s, we see, even in Scripture…evil strewn in among God’s own people. Justifying and glorifying violence and war. Just read the book of Judges. There is evil growing in God’s field.
And we all want to get it out. To pull it up. To get rid of it. And we’ve tried. Those stories in Judges that are so horrific…some of them are simply the way those Israelites were trying to “root out” the evil among themselves. Because how do we go after evil? With armies and weapons, right? With lynch mobs and concentration camps. It was, as you know, good Christian folk who were rooting out the evil of black folks in order to protect their communities…who justified the horrors of racist violence. It was, as you know, good Christian folk who were rooting out the evil of the Jews in those concentration camps. It still is good Christian folk who bomb Abortion clinics and vilify the LGBTQ community…to root out evil. And just like in the book of Judges….instead of rooting out the evil…we become the evil ourselves growing in God’s field.
So Jesus says…just quit. Quite trying to purify your field….and instead water it and trust God to sort it out. Because you’re making a mess of it. You’re pulling up my beautiful plantings.
Quit judging and hating and destroying and uprooting. Instead, tend the fields of this earth with mercy. Water them with love. Because, the truth is…that even in fields that look like a mess…God’s goodness is there…in all of it. Like yeast that can’t be separated out. Trust God’s goodness.
I’ve talked about Father Gregory Boyle often…the priest who works among the gangs of LA who wrote “Tattoos on the Heart” and “Barking to the Choir”. Because I think he gets grace. And I think he gets what Jesus means here and expresses it better than most. He nurtures fields that look like nothing but weeds to most of us. I mean these are rough gang members who most of us would gladly rip right out of the soil if we had our way. But he sees God’s precious children, beloved and beautiful. He says he has never met an evil person…never. People who have done evil things…sure. But no evil people. And that vision transforms and gives life to people who the rest of us have given up on. He sees the wonder of weeds….or as the wise sage Eeyore says…he recognizes that ”weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”
We are so quick to pull up and judge the weeds…we never get to know them. At our Leadership retreat yesterday, Val was talking about the importance of our backstories. In the midst of a very divisive world…we become quick to judge, quick to label. And we forget to listen. To hear people’s stories. Because our stories are both beautiful and messy and we learn more about why people are the way the are…why they do the things they do.
I think taking time to listen to each other’s stories is one way that we take care of the fields. Instead of recklessly ripping things out…taking time to get to know the mustard shrubs that truly are part of God’s beautiful plan.
The parable invites us to let God judge, instead of taking it on ourselves….and invites us to love.
But now we need to at least talk about how Jesus interprets the parable for his disciples at the end. Because, speaking for myself, I find it difficult.
I remember when Lee and Chloe and Wyatt and Russell were all around 4, we got the kids Bible story books. When we got ours home…one of the first stories we came across was this parable and it was AWFUL. I mean, it was written to scare the bejeebers out of any kid or any adult for that matter. Basically, their “children’s” version was “If you’re bad…you’re going to be thrown into the FIRE forever!! “ I called all the parents, apologizing…and asked them to rip it out of their books. And I stand by that. I truly don’t think that is the message Jesus intended for us to terrorize kids with.
But as adults, what do we do with this? I mean, I like the part about the causes of evil being burned up. That’s good. Burning up our greed and lust for power and fear and insecurity and hatred and self-righteousness…I’m all for that. Burn it all. But what about the part where he throws the evildoers into the fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? Talk about trying to scare the hell of you…literally. Anyone with a conscience is going to wonder “Am I ok? Am I going to avoid the fire?”. I don’t know how many folks facing the end of life I’ve heard say…”.I think I’ve been a good enough person. I hope so.” What they’re worried about is this parable…this fire. Unbelievable the power a handful of verses have to take away our trust in God’s goodness.
But I wonder, if indeed this is God’s good world….if indeed, we are made in God’s image…I wonder if the fire Jesus envisions for evildoers is not an eternal fire of torment….but rather the refining fire that is so often referred to in Scripture in other places. I wonder if this fire is the one that consumes the dross and refines the gold…that burns away all the garbage, all the things that have polluted our hearts and minds…and so we are completely the children of God we were made to be. And perhaps, at that moment, for those who could not see the evil they caused in this life….for those who could not feel compassion or remorse in this life…the weeping and gnashing of teeth is simply the overwhelming regret and sorrow of having their eyes opened to the pain they caused. It is an expression of grief and anger over the pain over a wasted life as they too become the children of God they were made to be and shine like the sun.
I don’t know, obviously. I’m not Jesus. But I do know that Jesus loves the world. The whole world. Even the gang members of LA. Even the folks I just know are weeds. And I do now that Jesus’ words to the folks who murdered him…were of forgiveness. So I’m thinking I’m not completely off base. So maybe we can quit worrying about the fire…and maybe even look forward to having the pieces of our own hearts that have been twisted be consumed in the flames. So we can be fully the children of God we were made to be.
But in the meantime…my job and yours….is to quit wasting all our time fretting about the weeds and simply to water the fields. To be kind. To listen. To show compassion. To love …even our enemies. And then… to trust Jesus to sort it out in the end. To trust Jesus and his love. Amen.