Sunday 17 July 2011

Teeth will be provided!

Sermon given at Templederry and St Mary's, Nenagh, on 17th July 2011, the 4th Sunday after Trinity.

Have you heard the old joke about the hell-fire preacher?

Reaching the climax of his sermon about the day of judgement, in ringing tones he declares the fate of thosewho fail to meet the standards of God’s Kingdom: ‘They will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’. At which point an old woman puts up her hand and says “But Rector, I have no teeth”, to which the hell-fire preacher replies “Madam, teeth will be provided”.

Joking aside, it is always worth pondering the parables Jesus uses to teach his followers. The parable of the weeds of the field in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (-30, 36-43) is no exception. So let’s look at it a little more closely.

The images Jesus uses in his parable would have been very vivid and familiar to a Galilean audience.

Weeds were one of the curses against which a farmer had to labour before the discovery of weed-killers - and I guess they still are. In this parable the weed is no doubt bearded darnel, a kind of rye-grass. In its early stages darnel is indistinguishable from wheat. Only when they both produce seed-heads can they be told apart. But by then their roots are so intertwined that the darnel can’t be weeded out without damaging theroots of the wheat. Weeding would only reduce the yield of wheat.

The wheat and darnel can’t be safely separated while they are growing, but in the end they must be, because the grain of the darnel is slightly poisonous. In quantity it causes dizziness and sickness. So the master in the parable gets the reapers to separate them at harvest time. The darnel will be bundled up and burned, while the wheat will be threshed and gathered into the barn.

The idea of an enemy deliberately sowing weeds in someone else’s field would also have struck a chord. It was a crime forbidden in Roman law, which prescribed a punishment for it, so we can be sure it happened.

Jesus tells the crowd that the parable is about the kingdom of heaven, and Matthew records him later explaining it to his disciples, to help them – and us – understand what he meant by it. It is one of several parables recorded by Matthew in which Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to different things – others are a mustard seed and yeast mixed with flour and water to make dough. Jesus is teaching by analogy, and I feel sure we should not take it too literally, but rather look for the underlying messages.

It is the devil, says Jesus, who sows the weeds, the children of the evil one, in the field which is the world.

We all know instinctively, don’t we, what is right and what is wrong. We have been created as souls with consciences, in the image of God, to use the imagery of the Book of Genesis. But we all also experience insistent little voices within us which tempt us to do what our God-given conscience tells us is not right. Theologians call it original sin. Jesus personifies it as the work of the devil. But in these post-Freudian times I think it may be easier to think of it as the bad part of ourselves, that part of own psyche which allows and even encourages us to damage ourselves and others.

Let me illustrate how insidious it is with some examples. Advertising campaigns play on our innate greed by whispering, ‘Because you’re worth it’. They also tell us we can be rich and happy if we buy a lottery ticket, or bet with Paddy Power. It is the thin end of a very fat wedge. Further down that wedge we find unscrupulous interests that seek to persuade us that we and our communities will benefit if we only permit them to build a casino resort in Two-mile-borris. Rev Brian Griffin has taken a brave and principled Methodist stand against it, drawing our attention to the evidence of the damage such developments have done elsewhere. I think we should applaud and support Brian Griffin's stand.

However, Jesus warns us against pulling the weeds in case we uproot the wheat.

He is teaching us not to be too quick in our judgements of others. We are all too liable to classify and label people as good or bad without knowing all the facts. And people can change. We can be redeemed from sin by the grace of God, and equally we can disfigure a good life by a sudden collapse into sin. As Jesus says elsewhere, ‘Let he that is without sin cast the first stone’.

We are not entitled to make a final judgement about the righteousness of any other person – only God has that right. It is God alone who can discern the good and the bad. It is God alone who sees all of an individual and all of a person’s life.

Of course we can’t help forming opinions of others, using our reason which is also God-given, and we are right to do so. And it is surely also right that we should let such opinions guide our actions when appropriate. But we must never forget we may be mistaken, as I may be in my opinion of those promoting the Two-mile-borris casino (though I don't think I am). And we would do well to remember the Quaker maxim – ‘There is something of God in every person’ – and do our best to find it.

But of one thing Jesus assures us – we will be judged eventually, every one of us.

‘Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

When Jesus talks about the ‘end of the age’, I don’t think he would wish us to take it literally as the final moment of time. Rather I think we should see it as a time which will come to us all – as certain as our own death – in which we see ourselves as God sees us: in one piece from our conception to our death; how we have touched those we have met for good or ill; all the good in us, and all the bad too.

At this time we will see clearly: we will burn with torment and shame for the sins we have caused and the evil we have done in our lives. We will weep and gnash our teeth. But for the good we have done, we ‘will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father’.

Let us pray then that by God’s grace and mercy his angels may find us more like the good seed than the weed seed, and gather us up to shine in the kingdom, not burn in the furnace.