Sunday 23 July 2023

Parable of the weeds

Burning the tares

Address given at St Cronan's Church, Tuamgraney on Sunday 23 July 2023, the 7th after Trinity

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

As he reaches the climax of his sermon about the day of judgement, in ringing tones he declares the fate of those who 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 (13:24-30, 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. 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 the roots of the wheat. Weeding would only reduce the yield.

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. 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, and Jesus personifies it as the work of the devil. But in our culture it may be easier to think of it as the bad part of ourselves, that part of own psyche which allows and encourages us to damage ourselves and others.

An example of this is the way many advertising campaigns play on our innate greed by whispering, ‘Because you’re worth it’. They tell women that they will look younger and more beautiful if they buy this or that cosmetic product containing plastic microbeads which are not biodegradable and pollute waterways and oceans. They tell men that they will be more powerful and live more exciting lives if they buy a new car which will pollute the air in cities and damage health. 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 cannot afford to take the steps needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

As Christians we must resist the insistent little voices that urge us to do wrong, to sin. For as St Paul recognises (Romans 8:12-25), we have been given the Spirit of God to help us resist them. ‘When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ’.

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 it is surely right that we should let such opinions guide our actions when appropriate. But we must never forget we may be mistaken. And we would do well to remember the Quaker maxim – ‘There is something of God in every person’ – and try to find it.

We must leave judgement of others to God. But God will judge each one of us eventually.

‘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 we should take it literally as the end 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, all the good in us, and all the bad too.

At this time we shall see clearly. We will burn in the torment of shame for our sins 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’.

I shall finish with the Collect of the Word for today

Saving God,
in Jesus Christ you opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
give us pure and constant wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday 16 July 2023

Sowing the seed

Address given at Templederry on Saturday 15 July 2023 & St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 16 July 2023, the 6th after Trinity

Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (13:1-9, 18-23) is commonly called the Parable of the Sower.

But what is a parable? A parable is a story describing a scene from everyday life, which conveys a deeper meaning. I think Jesus taught so often in parables because they conjure up memorable images, which lead those who hear them to reflect on their meanings, and to discover the truth in them for themselves. However in this case, Jesus chooses to explain it to his disciples, when they ask him why he speaks in parables. No lesson is better learned than one you tease out for yourself! Parables are a bit like slow-release fertilizer, gradually yielding up their truth to people who ponder them.

The parable of the sower comes in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels as well as Matthew’s, and in startlingly similar words. Scholars believe the vivid image was remembered and recorded, and an edited version was used by the Gospel writers when they composed their texts years later. All three Gospels also contain the same authoritative explanation by Jesus of what the story means.

So let us in our imaginations picture the scene, let us reflect on the parable’s meaning, and let us tease out its relevance for us now, 2000 years later.

Let us enter into the parable in our mind’s eye.

So many people wanted to listen to Jesus that he used a boat to address the crowd on the beach. The beach was on a lake, the Sea of Galilee. I’ve never been there, but I see it as rather like Lough Derg. It’s about 40% larger in area, and wider but not so long. Imagine the people crowded on the beach at Dromineer, and Jesus in a lake boat talking to them.

Did Jesus see a man sowing in a nearby field? Perhaps this prompted the parable, and everyone could literally see what he was talking about.

The sower isn’t using a seed-drill; he is broadcasting the seed by hand, just as our ancestors would have done only 150 years or so ago. The seed is in a bag or a basket, and he walks steadily up and down the field, taking a handful of seed and throwing it out as evenly as he can. Even at a distance it is quite clear to everyone what he is doing: they have seen it hundreds of times before, and many have done it themselves.

Imagine a big field divided like allotments into strips belonging to one family, with paths between them, tramped down hard by the passage of many feet. The crowd can see the birds following the sower swooping down to gobble up the seed that inevitably falls on the path, for all the sower’s skill.

Everyone would understand that different parts of the field are of different quality.

# Some parts are stony: don’t imagine small pebbles, imagine great sheets of rock just under the surface, with just a few inches of soil on top, like parts of the Burren, for instance. The soil above the rock warms early, and the seeds germinate quickly, but without a depth of soil the young seedlings will soon run out of nutrients and water and shrivel up in the sun.

# Some parts of the field are infested with perennial weeds: imagine scutch grass and creeping thistle, which will quickly outgrow the delicate crop, choking it.

# But other parts of the field are good land, with a deep, clean soil. Here the crop will have nutrients and water enough. It will flourish and produce a harvest of thirty, or sixty, or a hundred times the grain sown on it.

Jesus said many other things to the crowd that day in parables, we’re told. We don’t know what they were, but I think we can take it that Jesus was proclaiming the good news of the kingdom’ as Matthew tells us elsewhere (Mat 9:35).

‘Let anyone with ears listen!’ Jesus finishes.

Jesus himself explains the parable in terms of ‘the word of the kingdom … sown in the heart’.

When his disciples ask him why he teaches in parables, Jesus interprets the parable for them, no doubt to reassure them that they do indeed understand what he is getting at: 

# The seed sown on the path is the word heard, but not understood, which the evil one snatches away, before it ever has the chance to sprout.

# The seed sown on rocky ground is the word received with joy, but by a person without roots, without character, whose initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution.

#The seed sown among thorns is the word heard by those who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.

# And the seed sown on good soil is the word heard by those who understand it, and act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.

Like those who crowded to the lakeshore 2000 years ago, we are the soil in which Jesus sows the seed.

On a personal level, the message of his parable remains what it was then: we need to cultivate our characters so that as good soil we yield a rich harvest. Each one of us must strive to develop the character traits of attention, persistence, and detachment. Attention, so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes. Persistence, so that we can withstand trouble or persecution when we answer God’s call. And detachment, so that we are not distracted from acting on God’s call by the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth.

For Jesus, the sower is one who proclaims ‘the word of the kingdom’.

That is himself of course. But it is also his closest disciples, the twelve apostles, whom he sent out saying ‘Proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”’ (Mat 10:5-7). No doubt the twelve took comfort from the parable that even when their teaching seemed to show poor results, enough people would accept it to make it all worthwhile.

Before his ascension Jesus commissioned the apostles to go out and make disciples of all nations. Their commission was handed on to others in the developing Church, which in all its varied denomination still proclaims Jesus’s good news of the kingdom today. In Paul’s memorable words Christians are all part of Christ’s body the Church. Today the Church is the sower. Is there then a message for the Church in this parable? I believe there is.

The Church’s sowing of the seed may not seem to be producing a good harvest these days. The fact is that here in Ireland and in Europe generally, taking a broad view across all denominations, more and more people are losing contact with Christ’s Church. We see falling Church attendance, fewer baptisms, and insufficient ordinations to maintain the stock of full time clergy. We need to understand why and do something about it, and for that we need the Holy Spirit to guide us.

But we should not despair. Jesus himself was completely realistic about the prospects for his teaching, and so should we be as the Church. As Jesus realised, no matter how good a job we do as sowers, the sad fact is that many people will not become his disciples, and will not be led to the kingdom of heaven by his or the Church’s teaching. Yet those who do, make up for those that don’t by the rich harvest of good seed they yield – as Jesus put it, 30, 60 or 100 fold.

So to sum up, we can learn these things today from the parable of the sower:

As Christians we need to cultivate the soil of our own characters, to develop the Christian virtues of attention, persistence, and detachment from the world, so that we may yield a plentiful harvest of good grain.

And we should not despair at the state of Christ’s Church today. Rather we should rejoice in the rich harvest of Christian souls the Lord already has. And we must pray for the Holy Spirit of God to guide his Church, and each one of us, to be better sowers of the word in future, so that the Lord’s harvest may be even greater.

Tuesday 11 July 2023

Labouring in the Lord's harvest

Reflection for Morning Worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 11 July 2023

Our reading (Matthew 9:32-38), set for today in the Common Lectionary, tells us that ‘Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness’

Bear with me, as I imagine Jesus going about the cities and villages of Ireland today, in 2023, as he went about Galilee 2000 years ago.

In my mind’s eye, I see Jesus speaking to crowds wherever he finds them gathered together. He proclaims the good news of the kingdom in Muintir na Tire halls, in theatres, in conference centres, in hotel ballrooms, in dancehalls behind pubs, not just in churches.

Jesus sees all too many people in distress, in poverty, unable to pay all the bills and put food on the table. He sees those who are homeless, in ill health, consumed by addiction. He sees those in difficult or broken relationships. Through his words he gives them hope, and he encourages others to help them. He has compassion for them, because he sees them as ‘sheep without a shepherd’, unable by themselves to find a way out of their painful individual circumstances.

Jesus also sees, I am certain, the damage being done to the beautiful planet his loving Father has placed us on. He sees how we have disturbed the balance of gases in the atmosphere, causing rising temperatures, extreme weather, and rising sea levels. He sees how climate change and reckless use of land is reducing biodiversity, damaging the intricate web of relationships between species on which all life on earth depends, including our own. He hears the whole creation groaning together as if in childbirth, to use St Paul’s vivid imagery (Romans 8:22). We now understand that we human beings are the culprits, through our greedy over-exploitation of earth’s finite resources. But we find it very difficult to see how together we can change our ways to protect our planet. We are all like ‘sheep without a shepherd’. But Jesus, our Good Shepherd, surely has compassion for us all as we face these linked crises.

In his compassion, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ And he goes on to commission the apostles to be such labourers.

What does it mean to labour in the Lord’s harvest? It is surely to follow the model of Christ. As a church we believe that our mission is the mission of Christ, and we have identified 5 marks of that mission.

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.
  3. To respond to human need by loving service.
  4. To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Jesus asks us to pray for labourers to be sent out into the harvest. I suggest we should do more than that. I suggest each of us should ask ourselves whether he is calling me or you in particular to be a labourer, and what he is asking of us. A good starting place would be to focus on one or more of the 5 marks of mission. One or two is probably quite enough, because none of us has the strength to tackle them all.

Ask yourself, ‘How can I proclaim good news? How can I support others in the faith? How can I respond to human need? How can I work for justice? How can I care for creation?’