First Thoughts on Next Sunday’s sermon topic (17 July): the Wheat and the Tares

First Thoughts on the Sermon for Sunday 17 July, The Wheat and the Tares.
(with acknowledgment to ideas – possibly now distorted beyond recognition – from Rex Hunt, http://religioustolerance.org , John Pridmore, and William Loader)

Some of Jesus’ stories have lost something over the passage of time – but Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares takes on new urgency in this age when we are surrounded by competing teachings, different versions of religion and many who tell us that theirs alone is the one true faith.

Perhaps we need to start by looking again at what Jesus used as his example. The Greek word which is translated for weeds here is “Zinzania” – the weed that fools you. In some wheat producing areas, tares are weeds often now called Bearded Darnel. The darnel in itself is not poisonous. It could be eaten and cause one no harm. The problem is that it plays host to a fungus called the Ergot Smut fungus, which is deadly to both human and beast. Bread contaminated with the fungus is poisonous. The catch with it is that unless the farmer is blessed with super vision, the early sprouting darnel – the zinzania – looks superficially like wheat. Later on it does become more obvious – the grain from the darnel is smaller and darker and the plant itself is shorter, yet in practice as any farmer would tell you, weeding the wheat paddock once growth is properly underway would be disastrous.

The way the farmer deals with the darnel weeds, is either reaping above the height of the darnel – or more often these days, to run the wheat and weeds through a thrasher that first removes the chaff from the wheat and at the same time runs it over a sieve which allows the smaller Darnel to fall through and be cast off with the chaff. The deadly fungus goes away with it.

So what then do we make of the parable when we are thinking of the competing versions of Religion. There are, I believe, 19 major religions in the world, most of which have a variety of sub groups of belief. Wikipedia, that great mine of often trivial information puts the number of Christian denominations alone at about 38,000 and given the chequered history of the Church there can be no question that most would believe at least some of these would qualify both as deadly and as poisonous. Within each denomination too there is a range of attitudes, knowledge and belief. (Sit in on a Church leaders meeting if you don’t believe me!)
Between many churches differences exist on matters such as: whether or not abortion is permitted, whether or not celibacy is required for religious leaders, requirements for animal sacrifices, and mode of killing animals for consumption, appearance factors (for example if shaving is allowed, what if any jewellery is to be worn and whether or not women’s heads must remain covered), birth control usage, agreed calendar, acceptable clergy gender, clergy organization and hierarchical control, meeting day, documentation, acceptable foods and drink, place of fasting, attitudes to war, family power sharing, family types, gender of deities, homosexual rights, the form of approved meeting place, nature of humanity, dates for New Year and Christmas, the allowed number of deities, origin and age of the universe, how prayer should be conducted, whether or not pre-marital sex is permitted, role of women, sacred texts, how suicide is to be viewed, surgical modifications to the body, special clothing, symbols, etc. (List adapted from the website http://religioustolerance.org )
Jesus appears to be saying – not that the followers of the different belief systems and all their individual followers all have it correct – but rather that we should not be the judges of precisely who the developing poisonous seeds are represented by in his story and that rather leave the judgement of this to the harvest of final outcomes.
With the huge number of religions to choose from we might pause for a moment to stop to acknowledge that there is probably no way of knowing for certain that any one of these religions is absolutely correct. If more followed Jesus advice perhaps there would be more by way of religious tolerance – fewer examples of religious genocide and far fewer examples of unpleasant attitudes to those of other faith shown in places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Cyprus, Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, the U.S. etc.and in fact if we really want to get down to it, a neighbourhood near you.
If more people accepted their religion as the best faith for them, but at the same time recognized that there are other religions which teach about other views of spiritual truth, perhaps there might be more acceptance of other systems of morality, other religious practices, etc. Despite their presumed shortcomings most religions do have followers whose beliefs seem to motivate people to lead better lives.   Look at the very low crime rate in Saudi Arabia for example.
So Jesus appears to be saying that despite failures in actions and intent we should not judge and reject those who don’t seem to be conforming – and that is probably the standard way of interpreting the parable, but it seems to me that there is an even more urgent message – namely that we ourselves should not make the ready assumption that it is we who are the true growing ones and it is the others who contain the poison. After all if the true growing plants can be confused with the harmful weeds in the initial stages then the assumption that our lives are the desired outcome should not be too readily assumed. For example I have often heard it said that Islam is a bad religion – and one that leads to ill-treatment of women and the existance if suicide bombers. Yet if you read what the Muslims are saying they are claiming that it is the Christians who are dangerous. Soldiers who are Christian have killed many innocent civilians in places like Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. We also have the evidence from numerous surveys from such experts as George Barna telling us that those identifying as Christian are not markedly different in their behaviour from those who do not call themselves Christian. Same marriage breakdown rates, similar crime statistics and so on. At the very least this should give us cause to pause before claiming that we alone have our lives as they should be.

You will also hear Church folk sling off at those they consider to be heretic – the conservative Christian view of Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons for example. The words the so-called heretics use are after all little different from the words we use – but those words are the easy part. The real test comes in what we do in response to the words we say that is important. For example we regularly get glimpses of the starving children in Africa in short segments of the TV news. If we are eating a nice dinner while we are watching – and doing nothing in response to what we are seeing – should we really be certain that it is only other hypocrites who need the judging. Should we therefore only be certain that it is the Buddhists, the Hindus and the Muslims who are in need of help?

Well who is right? Jesus is very clear in this allegory of the wheat and the tares. No-one, he seems to be saying is sufficiently wise to sort out the good from the bad in another person’s heart. Frankly we do not know what is in another’s heart. Some for example get a raw deal in life. You may be born with a brain defect….a chemical imbalance which gives you a bad temper. What you become is a product of many starting points and many influences. Whether or not the outcome is the best possible is not for others to judge. That may well be a question for final judgment yes – but it is not our final judgement.

I am reminded of the opening words of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether the station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”.

I am sure for many Christianity seems to be simply measured by which group you are connected with. Are you a Methodist – or a Roman Catholic – a Muslim or a Hindu – but if we know that, is that sufficient? Well, according to Jesus – actually no. And there are some very good reasons why his parable is justified. For a start statistics show clearly that most people stay more or less with the faith they are born into. If you happen to be born in Saudi Arabia to Muslim parents – you would almost certainly be brought up Muslim – whereas in the US Bible belt it would be almost as certainly be a conservative Christian. It would seem manifestly unjust if you were to take the blame for where you were born.

In any case, if it were Christianity you were born into while you may well accept the label of Christian yet this is no guarantee you would be following the entire spirit of Christianity. You may for example greatly admire a Christian – perhaps it was the one who introduced you to the Gospel…your mother – or perhaps your Sunday School teacher – and of course there is a place for wise teaching. But you know – sooner or later you have to decide how to order your own life. That your mother – or Sunday School Teacher or Bible class leader or Minister or wise friend happens to be a good Christian wont help you when it comes to your own situational choices in later life.

Yet the judgements made of others are all around us.

You don’t have to look far before you encounter those comforting discriminations that keep our society what it is today. Howick with its new Asian population is called Chowick by those who dont like Asians. Christians often see their version of religion as superior to that of the Muslims. If you believe Christians are mainly folk of good-will look sometime at the variety of vitriolic sites on the internet attacking the followers of Islam.
I am indebted to the Progressive Christianity website of Rex Hunt for the following two quotations.

‘A sense that there is an enemy marks many societies, religious and otherwise. It is almost as though we need an enemy, an other, against whom to define ourselves. This need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, even create enemies for survival… A mild paranoia keeps some people going and gives their lives meaning. There’s ‘them’ and there’s ‘us’. The simpler,the better. This is the stuff of prejudice. Religion is (often) exploited to hold the prejudices in place’ (Loader/web site).

Yet sometimes there are helpful truths in those who follow other religions.

David Ranson is an Australian Catholic priest.
In a recent article in the publication Eremos, on reconciliation,
Ranson records a comment by the Buddhist Dalai Lama.
When asked did he hate the Chinese, the Dalai Lama replied ‘no’.
‘He remarked that the Chinese were indeed dominant and that he had no possibility of overthrowing them by might. Were he to hate them therefore no change would occur in the Chinese. But change would certainly occur within him. His own heart would become more tense, bitter and rigid. The only way forward then was to let go of the hateful feelings that might arise. In the space that ensued perhaps there was a greater possibility for peace’ (Ranson 2002:7).

That there is evil in the world is not in dispute although what 2 Thessalonians Ch 2 verse 7 calls the mystery of iniquity leaves us little further ahead in answering the implied question – why?

But let us not overlook the servant’s second question – not so much why the evil, but the much more positive: What should we do about it? Whatever the answer we construct, perhaps we should take Jesus literally in that whatever course of action we choose, we should not start with judgement.

(PS   Last week when I posted some first thoughts on the Sunday Sermon I got plenty of hits – and absolutely no response.  It would be helpful to get some feedback on this post if only to find out if this aspect of the site is useful to visitors.)

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14 Responses to First Thoughts on Next Sunday’s sermon topic (17 July): the Wheat and the Tares

  1. Cherel says:

    “if it were Christianity you were born into while you may well accept the label of Christian yet this is no guarantee you would be following the entire spirit of Christianity.”

    Here you are acknowledging what I have tried to point out to you on many occasions. Christendom is filled with non-Christians whose behavior does not represent Christ and yet it is attributed to Christianity by label.

    This is an interesting teaching but seems to miss the point of the parable. Jesus was not saying the tares were indistinguishable from the wheat. The workers pointed out the fact that there were tares among the wheat. They could see the tares and they knew they were not wheat! The problem was in separating the wheat from the tares. Trying to get the tares out of the wheat field before harvest time would destroy some of the genuine wheat and Jesus found that unacceptable.

    God is the endtime judge but Jesus, speaking of current affairs, said, “By their fruit you shall know them.” The Bible does not teach us to go around in a fog never knowing the difference between truth and error. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” We are supposed to know the truth (light) and share it so that others can find their way out of the darkness.

    We should not judge another’s heart but we should certainly have enough judgement to understand the difference between truth and error in Christianity and among different faiths.

  2. peddiebill says:

    Since you believe I have missed the point of the parable I’ll score this comment as a thumbs down on the sermon. I wonder if Bill Loader was right!

  3. Marty says:

    I don’t think Bill is missing the point at all. You, Cherel, seem to be saying that because the workers think they recognize tares, they have the right to judge whether they are or not. Jesus tells the workers to leave the tares alone because they don’t have the authority nor the insight to make that kind of judgement. And because they don’t have that insight they will surely destroy some of the wheat if they do start separating it. Only God has the authority to make that kind of judgement. Thumbs up on the sermon!

  4. Cherel says:

    Let the Word speak for itself.

    The servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where did this darnel come from?’ “He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’

    Jesus did not tell them they were confused about the darnel. He did not tell them to pretend the darnel was good wheat! He did not instruct them concerning making judgements about good and evil. He agreed with them that the darnel was among the wheat because the enemy had sown them there.

    “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them up?’
    “But he said, ‘No, lest perhaps while you gather up the darnel, you root up the wheat with them.

    Jesus clearly told them why they should not try to separate the wheat from the tares. Again, He didn’t tell them they were wrong to see the tares or mistaken about what they saw! He did not say, “Judge not that you be not judged!” on this occasion. No, Jesus simply knew it would be impossible to get the tares out of the field without destroying some of the wheat and He is not willing to destroy any wheat!

    Let both grow together until the harvest, and in the harvest time I will tell the reapers, “First, gather up the darnel, and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn.”‘”

    Jesus is in charge of His endtime harvest and will oversee the final separation of good and evil people. That’s what the parable teaches us. We are to do everything possible to live at peace with all men– wheat and tares– even when we are wise enough to recognize the difference.

  5. Marty says:

    I’ve been studying a bit on this and I like what Brian Stoffregen says: ” The central problem in the parable is not the weeds and wheat, but the impatience of the slaves and the assumption that they knew exactly what their lord wished. ” What a lesson in humility, which is one of the things God requires of us. I’m anxious to see what my pastor does with this parable.

  6. Cherel says:

    How you arrive at that conclusion is beyond me. The servants asked their Lord if he wanted them to remove the weeds and then complied with his instructions. Nothing in this parable indicates that the servants had bad motives or did anything wrong.

    • Marty says:

      Cherel, I can see many angles on this parable, not just the one you presented. I certainly don’t question your rendering of the parable. It is viable. You stated it quite eloquently, but I do believe there are other things to see here as well. Anyway it wasn’t my conclusion, but Brian Stoffregen’s.
      http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt13x24.htm

    • peddiebill says:

      Cherel, I thought the whole point of parables is that they present truth in an accessible way that can be understood at different levels. You understand the parable at one level yet Brian Stoffregen notices something different. My sermon reveals yet another set of understandings, and no doubt as I learn more these understandings will change. I have no wish to insist that everyone only accepts what I believe – and in any event if they did they would be perpetually handicapped by the limitations in my insights and knowledge. Can you not allow Marty the same freedom to notice – and indeed be excited by what he discovers? That he then goes on to say “..I am anxious to see what my pastor does with this parable.” suggests that he is still in learning mode.

      • Marty says:

        Thanks Bill. I do have a thirst for learning and will probably be listening much closer than I usually do to the sermon this Sunday simply because of this post. However, I gotta tell ya I’m a she, not a he. :)….Wife and mother of 2, grandmother of 4 and nearing retirement….hallelujah!!

  7. peddiebill says:

    Whoops!!! Sorry about that. Eccles of the Goon Show had some good advice about telling the difference. He said the girls go backwards when they are dancing. Unfortunately even that isnt a good guide these days.

  8. dave says:

    I am not sure whether this comment is more suited here or to the essay about Learning from more than one faith. Both are about multiple religions.

    In the ‘God created’ worldview and considering the world today, God created all the human races in the world and the various ethnic groups in them. God created the respective cultures in those ethnic groups and then God created the various religions that were compatible with those cultures – compatible meaning their teachings found a resonance sufficient to survive. These religions range in size (or popularity) from the large religions of the world, like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, to the primitive multiple deity religions found in small indigenous societies.

    The Rigveda, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism and one of the oldest texts in any Indo-European language, was composed before 1100 BCE, long before the oldest books of the Old Testament were compiled in the 6th Century BCE. Confucius, the influential philosopher of ancient China, lived in the 5-6th Centuries BCE, long before the life of Jesus.

    Within this inherent diversity of humanity, how is possible for a person, adhering to the beliefs of one religion, to make the claim that his/her religion is the one and only true religion of God?

    All it takes is someone to claim he/she hears the voice of God so he/she knows the path God has chosen for his people and he/she can prove it in the ancient scriptures – and when a group of people believes this claim they have found the true religion. Apparently all the other religions that God created were errant!

    The critical danger arises when this religious group becomes aligned with a political entity, giving it the force to persecute and suppress anyone who does not conform to its beliefs.

    Does the parable convey the need or justification for religious certainty? I suggest not. The diversity of humanity also suggests any claims to such certainty cannot be adequately justified.

    • peddiebill says:

      There are some issues in your comment that are worth thinking about. The comparatively short history of the Christian Church within the history of humankind – and the changing nature and variety of the Church within that short period makes us look harder to see what actually is unchanging and what is of eternal value. It would be interesting to do a similar study on the other great religions to see if in fact the unchanging and eternal bits are compatible – or even identical. I agree with the political alignment difficulty and wonder how much for example the Roman Empire shaped what a majority now say is the essential part of Christian belief.

  9. Marty says:

    My pastor took a similiar route as you Bill. Here is what is written in our GPS guide:

    “The Takeaway: There is tension between the urge to purge imperfection and the obligation to accept, forgive, and restore…the task of judging between good and evil belongs not to us but to Christ.

    The Challenge: The biggest challenge for each of us is to resist the urge to judge and attempt to pull the “weeds” in our world.

    How: Pray earnestly for understanding. Make a commitment today to discover ways to be engaged in the reconciliation of the world around you. Leave the judgment to God. You will be richly blessed!”

    He talked about the “us and them” and the “either/or”. He talked about having patience and loving kindness with all in our path of life.

    Then a quote is added from Barbara Brown Taylor:
    “What the Boss seems to know is that the best and only real solution to evil is to bear good fruit. Our job, in a mixed field, is not to give ourselves to the enemy by devoting all our energy to the destruction of the weeds, but to mind our own business, so to speak – our business being the reconciliation of the world through the practice of unshielded love. If we will give ourselves to that, God will take care of the rest.”

  10. peddiebill says:

    Thanks Marty. See if you can talk your pastor into tackling the mustard seed next Sunday!
    The Barbara Brown Taylor quote is a good one. “the reconciliation of the world by the practice of unshielded love” is great imagery.

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