Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 23, 2017
Thomas Saying 57
I want to start by reading a different version of this parable of the weeds and the grain from the Gospel of Thomas. The version in Thomas is shorter and more cryptic than the more embellished and fable-like version that we hear today from Matthew’s gospel. That, at least, suggests that it is the older version of the story. The Gospel of Thomas is sometimes called the fifth gospel. It does not appear in the New Testament, but there is reason to believe it was created in roughly the same time frame as the canonical gospels. It doesn’t have the status of the four in the Bible, but it is consulted often in comparison with them. If you put yourself back in the first century and imagine an audience of Galilean peasants, like those who lived in the region where Jesus ministered, Thomas’ version of the parable can be interpreted in a way that contradicts assumptions. It allows for the possibility that it’s the weeds that represent the kingdom of heaven rather than the grain that the landowner planted. The weeds are unwelcome, stealthy and persistent in the work of interfering with the plans of the wealthy and powerful one in whose field they have grown. The landowner isn’t certain that his slaves could eradicate the weeds without ruining his crop. In the parable, the wealthy man’s conundrum is that he can’t live with the kingdom but he can’t live without it either. Once God’s domain has entered into time and space, it’s difficult to get rid of. The landowner’s power and the kingdom are incompatible. He can’t see beyond what he already has and realize what the kingdom holds for him and everyone else, but with the weeds and grain left standing side by side in the field, it’s possible that he will come to understand.
Matthew embroiders the original cryptic tale and gives us something more conventional. The weeds grow alongside the grain, the landowner resigns himself to letting them live until the harvest, but he has a plan for separating out the two kinds of plants and when the time comes, the weeds had better look out. In this lesson we encounter one of Matthew’s favorite expressions, “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Of the seven times it appears in the New Testament six are in Matthew; the seventh is in Luke. We also encounter the motif of Jesus’ followers being separated out from everyone else.
When I’m driving on the highway I drive at the speed limit and change lanes carefully. When someone goes roaring past me at 85 miles an hour, cutting back and forth across the two lanes of slower moving traffic, I gleefully imagine passing that driver a mile or two down the road in the company of the highway patrol. I imagine honking my horn or opening the window to wave at the miscreant getting his or her just deserts. In several decades of driving, that has actually happened two or three times at the most. And I’ve never honked or waved, but I gloated in a big way.
Matthew’s image of the weeds going into the fire at the end of the story is a more extreme form of the kind of revenge I imagine for those careless drivers. This separation of the righteous from evil doers is not uncommon in the New Testament and it’s certainly not uncommon in the formal teaching and theological imagination of the church. In the Episcopal Church we don’t really dwell on it anymore, but every once in a while someone says something to me that makes me think the idea is still alive and well among 21st century Episcopalians. That is, the idea that if you believe the right things you’ll be rewarded after you die, but if you believe something else or behave badly you won’t be rewarded, you’ll be punished. Whether we see it that way or not, there are plenty of Christians who do. It reminds me of a graffito my husband described seeing on a wall at the University of Northeast Louisiana where he spent his undergraduate years. It read: “it is not necessary to believe in hell to go there.”
This idea of reward and punishment for right and wrong religious belief is a curious one. Why isn’t righteous living reward enough in itself? Does that depend on how you define righteous living? For example, is the deprivation and annoyance of having avoided drinking, dancing, and profanity for all those years so great that whoever undertakes that discipline thinks he or she jolly well better get something in exchange? Is it so frustrating to know that someone got away with being a thief, a liar or worse that a faithful Christian cannot rest without the assurance that the scoundrel will spend eternity in a state of torment? Because, really, we don’t get to decide.
Human beings want to fix things and the quicker and easier the fix the better. Think of the blamestorms that erupt in departmental meetings or shareholder conferences when something isn’t going right. How are we going to fix this? Whom will we hold responsible and punish because this thing we don’t like is happening?
You may be familiar with the work of Ronald Haifetz. He teaches in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He has written about two kinds of problems that institutions, organizations and societies deal with. He calls them technical problems and adaptive problems. Technical problems have a known solution. It might need to be discovered, but it exists. Such problems respond favorably to things like good management, adjustment of equipment or calculations or getting people with the right skills to work on them.
Adaptive problems are not so straightforward. They are things like poverty, systemic racism, institutional change. They arise when our values are at odds with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They require people to take a hard look at the mismatch, examine their values and often adapt them to fit better with changing circumstances. You could say that Jesus invited the society in which he lived into this type of process. He challenged an economic system that put 98% of the resources into the hands of 2% of the population. He challenged a culture of pervasive violence that glorified domination. Like other leaders who have brought adaptive problems to the attention of the societies in which they lived, he was murdered by those who benefited from the existing system. More recent examples are Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk and Mahatma Gandhi. Such leaders are not always killed, but they can be dealt with harshly. Think of Margaret Sanger or Galileo. Dealing with adaptive problems is difficult and dangerous. Even when the consequences are not so dire, the people faced with such a problem tend to look for a technical rather than an adaptive solution. Think of “just say no” or “broken windows” policing.
This story of the weeds and the grain has meaning that is grounded in the first century with Jesus’ earliest followers and it touches on the revenge narrative that figures in the theological imagination of the church, but I think it has another dimension as well. Sometimes the problem you’re dealing with is complex enough that you just have to watch and wait for a solution to emerge from the process. Human beings want the quick fix. That’s as true of the church as it is of secular organizations and communities. That desire for the fix leads us to operate from a point of view of anxiety. All of Jesus’ talk about lilies of the field and birds of the air goes out the window when the air conditioners needs repairs or we have fewer people in the pews on Sundays. This landowner in the parable has something to teach us.
The church is living through one of those times when our values and our circumstances are at odds. We have, in the last few centuries valued wealth, possessions, buildings and large numbers of members. We have traded on a position of automatic respect that society accorded the church. Things are different now. Among younger generations of Americans there are fewer people who identify with organized religion. The church has dabbled in politics and misused power in ways that motivate distrust of institutional religion. People who want to be church members often haven’t been brought up within a particular religious tradition. Theological brand loyalty is a thing of the past. Church members choose churches on the basis of convenience or what it offers them rather than what they believe. The church is under pressure to satisfy consumers rather than making disciples. Religious institutions are inherently reluctant to question their own values. We ask ourselves: If we do that, what do we really stand for? If our values change, does that mean we were wrong before? One method of dealing with the mismatch between values and circumstances is to develop a parallel culture. You know of churches that have their own schools, family activity centers, gyms and coffee houses. They give people a way to live in the cultural bubble without facing the mismatch. The Episcopal Church hasn’t done that. We value the goodness of the created order which includes the quirks and foibles of human history and culture. We look for ways to live the life of the spirit in the midst of the real world, but that regularly brings us face to face with the mismatch between who we have been as a church and how we fit into the larger world that is changing around us.
Here’s one simple example. Think about the check out counter of a supermarket. How do people pay for their purchases? With cash? With checks? With credit or debit cards? How many times have you wept and gnashed your teeth at the end of a line behind someone who is writing out a paper check? It’s been that way easily for ten years if not twenty, but throughout that time churches have fought tooth and nail against receiving payment of pledges and other contributions with plastic. Trinity has finally made that leap for some things but we have not made it entirely convenient. Our big hang-up and that of many other churches is that payment processing costs money. Some churches still refuse to accept payment electronically. We have an entire generation or two who pay almost exclusively with plastic, but the church is still fighting it. Our values in conflict are our genuine desire to have younger members participate fully in the life of our congregations, and our determined frugality that fights spending money for “frivolous” reasons. The technical part of the solution to that problem is to establish electronic payment that is easy and convenient to use. The adaptive part of the solution is to rethink how we match our resources to our mission and broaden our thinking about how we really welcome a diverse group of members into Christian community.
These complex, adaptive questions are what I’ve asked the vestry to deal with. In the last 2 ½ years they’ve worked hard at changing the way they work, shifting from day to day details to the big picture. It is human nature to want to avoid the tough questions and look for easier problems to solve. We can’t turn our backs on the technical problems, but we can’t hide behind them either. If we imagine the church as the landowner in this parable a technical approach to the problem would be to delve into finding a method for pulling weeds that didn’t harm the grain. We could put all sorts of time and energy into teaching people how to tell them apart and how to pluck the weeds safely out of the ground. There’s a problem with doing it that way that goes back to Thomas’ version of the parable that I mentioned earlier. It’s likely that the weeds represent the kingdom of heaven. If that’s true, their presence is incomplete without the grain because building the kingdom is not yet finished. Better to let it all grow, cultivate it and watch the transformation take place before our eyes. When it’s ripe, whatever we don’t use immediately, we won’t throw onto the fire, but onto the compost heap. It may well come in handy later on.
The Rev. Lauren Lyon © 2017