Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
There is something about human nature that prompts us to divide people into groups. Think about it. There are upper, middle and lower class individuals: blue collar and white collar workers, smart and stupid, nobles and serfs, tall and short, skinny and fat. And, of course, how can a clergy person omit the saved and the damned.
Journey back in time with me to the era of the Reformation, where a theologian named John Calvin discerned a theological doctrine known as predestination. Calvin maintained that Christ’s atoning death was offered for the elect, alone.
In a nutshell, what predestination says is this: some of us, through luck of the divine lottery, are members of the “In” crowd. By this, I mean we’re headed toward Heaven. The rest of us, though no fault of our own, are holding tickets marked for a much warmer climate—if you get my drift.
Now, on the one hand, John Calvin held a good grasp of the concept of grace. Grace, after all, is unearned mercy bestowed upon us by God. In other words, nothing that you do will ever get you in any better than you already are with God. Grace can’t be bought or earned, only given. So far, we Episcopalians would heartily agree. Here’s where we differ: In Calvin’s mind, God chose some to receive this blessing, but not others.
What this meant for Calvinists living in the sixteenth century was that life was laced with a certain desperate quality. How could a person be certain they were among the predestined elect? Now, a strict Calvinist would tell you that there is no discernable way of knowing. But human nature, being what it is, there were others who were not about to live with such a degree of uncertainty. And so, we should not find ourselves surprised that Calvinists developed, in popular lore, a multitude of ways in which a person could look at themselves and others and tell if they stood in the light of God’s blessing or dwelt in the shadows, so to speak. So, a person who was healthy and earned a good living; possessed of a well-tempered spouse, charming children and healthy sheep; someone who knew their Bible backwards, forwards and upside down and never missed an opportunity of worship; no doubt, that person would be among the elect. On the other hand, a person struggling with a limp, an individual who lost a fortune in a Ponzi scheme, a spouse who went off the rails, children who got in trouble with the law or someone who struggled with addiction, doubt or despair—suffice it to say, their chances weren’t looking too good. In Reformation period Calvinism, there was, make no mistake, a discernable “in” crowd, and an equally discernable “out” crowd.
And this is what brings us to the parable of the “Weeds and the Wheat”. At first glance, you might think that this is the type of reading that would make a traditionally dour Calvinist positively chortle with glee. You may recall that in this reading we are told: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.” Fast forward into the growing season, and the owner’s servants discover an infestation of weeds while tending to the wheat. Dutifully, they report the unhappy situation to the owner, certain that the right thing to do is to root out and destroy the errant weeds. Bottles of Roundup are assembled as are spades and shovels. The servants have a plan. So, imagine their surprise when the owner informs them that nothing is to be done. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. “Let the weeds grow along with the wheat” he says, until the time of the harvest when the two shall be separated.
The weeds and the wheat, of course, are people. Implicit in this parable is a warning about the danger of making final judgements about who is a weed and who is wheat—for in our zealousness we just might uproot some wheat while attempting to destroy the weeds. God, clearly, is opposed to the concept of collateral damage in the Almighty’s fields. The warning, in specific terms, is this: “Beware of sinners judging other sinners—especially with finality.”
It should be clear enough by now that I’m no Calvinist. If I were, I suppose I’d do my best not to worry about the whole business of predestination and buy a plane ticket for Hawaii, figuring if I’m going to get to Heaven, then I don’t need to worry—and, if I’m destined for Hell, I might as well enjoy myself for the time being and begin the process of acclimatizing myself to the heat. Instead, I’m a believer in grace—not for a few, but for everyone. In other words, I think the ultimate hope and intention of God is that, with the gift of free will at our disposal, we will all choose heaven. All of us. Every single one of us.
With this said, I’m not sure I’m convinced that those of us dwelling in twenty-first century America are much farther away from our Calvinist friends of centuries past. We still like to put people in categories—in fact, one might reason—with the advent of social media, that our skills in this arena have far surpassed those of our forebears centuries ago. Indeed, our nation is more divided now than any time since the civil war. My goodness, we’ve managed to make the reasonable precaution of wearing a mask during a pandemic a political issue rather than a measure of compassion for one’s neighbors. There are those who delight in bullying others, defining them in a host of ways ranging from “Karens” to “Antifa Fascists” and “Black Lives Matter Terrorists”.
All this is why the Gospel passage for today is so important for us to hear. The parable of the “Weeds and the Wheat” stands as a reminder to us that the final judgement is not ours to make and in the mean-time broadly demeaning and categorizing people isn’t helpful in the least. Oh, we can judge behavior, and it’s our duty to do so, don’t get me wrong. Cheating on an exam, losing our temper, hurting others, ignoring the helpless and the hopeless in society, all these are sins, and should be clearly called out, make no mistake. But judging behavior is far different than judging a person and randomly slapping a label on an individual. I might say that I don’t care for what you do. I might even go so far as to call it an offense against God, with good reason. But the Gospel tells me there’s something I don’t have. I don’t have the right to tell you if you’re going to heaven or not. That is not my judgement to make, it belongs exclusively and rightfully only to God. And it should make us wary about our increasing tendency in society to place people in categories designed for no other reason than to wound or demean.
And this (all of this) is good news. It is good news for the servants laboring in the fields and for ourselves. You see, it exempts us from having to be participants in the unhappy and unholy business of categorization. This parable is a gift. It offers us the opportunity to put an end to the ugly game of looking for ways in which to label people “Godly” or “Ungodly”, “Saved” or “Damned” and encourages us to concern ourselves with—well, ourselves. With whether we are making Godly choices in our own lives, or not. In the end analysis, perhaps what the divine Gardner is hoping for is that some of us who show clear characteristics of “weediness” might just bear some good fruit in spite of ourselves. And if we managed to do this, perhaps there is hope for all the others who grow alongside us in this great and wonderful garden of God.
Fortunately for us all, the One who loves us most fully and finally is also the One who will judge us most mercifully. Our God, who knows and loves us has promised us in Christ the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. This, indeed, is a harvest time in which all of us—weeds and wheat alike, can anticipate with hope and expectation. In the name of God, the redeemer of us all. In Jesus’ name. Amen.