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 what is ever implied by 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, Syria, 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 self identify as 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 some form of 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 explained 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 should not be not in dispute although what 2nd 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.