I wonder how many of you listening to me today are fans of Gilbert and Sullivan? Gilbert in his lyrics was gently mocking his society, and sometimes not so gently. Like many comedians of the present day, Gilbert exaggerated the mores of his society until they became ridiculous and people were able to laugh at themselves. The first G&S that I was really familiar with was the Pirates of Penzance. It’s a very silly story about some pirates, (who all turn out to be peers of the realm) A Major General who has many, many girls who are wards in chancery, all of whom need husbands, and a group of poor long-suffering policemen who are trying to capture the pirates. One of the best known songs is sung by the police Sargeant, who sings,
When a felon’s not engaged in his employment
or maturing his felonious little plans
his capacity for innocent enjoyment
is just as great as any honest man’s.
Our feelings we with difficulty smother
when constabulary duty’s to be done,
ah, take one consideration with another
a policeman’s lot is not an happy one.
When the enterprising burglar’s not a-burgling,
when the cutthroat isn’t occupied in crime,
he loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling
and listen to the merry village chime.
When the coster’s finished jumping on his mother,
he likes to lie a basking in the sun
ah, take one consideration with another,
a policeman’s lot is not a happy one.
Gilbert is poking gentle fun at the police, certainly, but more particularly at the society that chooses to use a force to police its citizens and a judge to decide who is guilty and who is not. Of course, society has long functioned like this, and that impulse of humanity to judge is what Jesus is talking about here in this parable of the world and the kingdom. This is a parable, intended to shine a light on something that we might not have seen about ourselves.
Jesus describes, to his audience of fishermen, a farmer who sows good seed in his field but while they were all asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. When the good grain comes up so do the weeds and the farmer says that they will do more harm than good if they try to root up the weeds.
It is tempting to think that , here in the Kingdom, the devil has placed evil people, who have to be removed in order for the Kingdom to flourish. Jesus’ words to them is that we can’t root up one without damaging the other. The problem is that the roots are intertwined.
In this current crisis, we have been thinking a lot about our political leaders and, as always, their behaviour is being put under the spotlight. Imagine how easy life would be if politicians came clearly labeled, ‘weed’ or ‘wheat’. But alas, they are all a mixed blessing, aren’t they? And the same applies to the law enforcement agencies, that have also been under the spotlight. Gilbert has the Sargeant of Police expressing the dilemma that the felon might be quite a nice chap, when he’s not doing the wrong thing, but surely the same can be said for the police- they can be our protectors, and at the same time, those who kneel on the neck of another human being.
Jesus says that the Son of Man, is the one who sows, and what he sows, in this case are the children of the kingdom and at the same time the evil one sows the children of the evil one, and they all grow up together and you can’t root up the bad without rooting up the good.
The problem is that none of us is wholly good nor wholly bad, so it is much better to leave it to the angels to do the sorting out.
This parable is found only in Matthew’s gospel and if we subscribe to the view that Matthew’s people are busy defining themselves against their neighbours this must have been a salutary word for them. Jesus is gentle- he doesn’t say here that which he says in other places, ‘judge not lest you be judged’, or ‘vengeance is mine, says the Lord’ but he tells his listeners to leave it to the angels to sort it out at the end point. This is a word of compassion, I think, for those in the Kingdom of God, as well as a warning that human judgement might be costly in terms of the good fruit of the seeds that have been sown.
And when you think about it in those terms we all know people for whom a judgemental attitude in the church has meant that they have left, and the benefit that they might have been to the community of Christ has gone with them. It always sounds good to try to stamp out the sin from people’s lives but it can’t be done without damage being inflicted. Jesus says that the angels will collect up the causes of sin and the evil doers at the point of judgement, and again that evil will be consumed in the fire- burnt up, or refined away. And the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom.
Incidentally, to equate the furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth as the evil is burnt away, with some idea of hell, is erroneous, I think. Rather, it seems to me much more like the crucible through which we pass to be refined, and indeed I am sure that much of the agony has already been experienced as we pass through life itself.
Between the parable and its explanation, Jesus gives two more little parables of the kingdom, that of the mustard seed that begins very small but grows to importance, and the yeast that works right through a quantity of dough to cause it all to rise. These two are also encouraging pictures, for us, I think. Jesus, has a number of these little pictures of the kingdom and after we have have heard some more next week we can build up a picture. I think the important message about the Kingdom of God is that it is not necessarily the way that humans want it, or expect it, to be.
We talked last week about the quotation from Isaiah. This week Jesus is referencing Psalm 78 and the prophet is the Psalm writer, Asaph.
‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables;
I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’
This is a bit different to the idea of wilful blindness that Matthew is implying in the earlier quotation from Isaiah, I think. The idea here is that the parables will make explicable things that have not been known, rather they have been hidden. I think it is very interesting that it is a parable talking about judgement that is revealing something that has been hidden from the beginning. It certainly has been a constant feature of human society to want to judge, and not just judge but execute justice as well.
For us this week the take home message is don’t judge, or try to root up the evil in other’s lives but leave it to God. As Gilbert points out to us nobody is wholly bad, but we are together all human and fragile, and fractured and marred, but at the same time bearers of God’s likeness, who are capable of seeing beauty and being kind. And it is in that likeness to God that our identity as children of the kingdom is to be found.
The OT passage we read today from Isaiah gives us a picture of the kind of God that we are dealing with- this is God Eternal, first and last, or alpha and omega as the Christ is described, and God is our redeemer. And that is a word that is hard for us to understand in our modern English. The redeemer was one who had responsibility to bail you out- the redeemer was kin and helped you when you needed it. Don’t be afraid, God says, I am here for you from of old. I love you and redeem you. In Psalm 86 we have the description of God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. This is our judge, not our peers, thank goodness. And it is like this God, that we are called to be. It is because of our likeness to God that the kingdom will grow, that the wheat will bear fruit. We are to learn that which has been unrecognised from the beginning, which is that we are partners with God in the redemption of our world. It isn’t our place to judge, but rather our place to grow and flourish, giving the fruit that will last, for our brothers and sisters. It is our job to reveal God who is steadfast and merciful, gracious and always loving.
Rev. Roberta Hamilton