Jesus taught in parables for much of the time. Mostly, he left the stories to speak for themselves as his listeners pondered them. Occasionally Jesus explained in detail what he meant by his parables, usually to his disciples who were trying so hard to keep up with him. The parable of the wheat and the weeds (or wheat and the tares in older translations) is one which he explained when asked to by his disciples. Some of what he said is difficult to deal with, suggesting as it does that those who are not in the kingdom of God will suffer torment when they have passed through death. It’s this problem that Rob Bell has addressed in his recent book, ‘Love wins’, which has stirred up quite a lot of controversy and resulted in books being written in response.
At the Sunday noon service the readings were Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25 and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. My sermon is given below:
Some years ago I was doing a Christian course which covered a great deal of ground over a year. One of the topics we looked at was objections to faith. We were asked to find out some reasons why people might reject faith as a reasonable thing to have. I decided to talk to my father, who’s an atheist, to see what he said. His main objection was the evil in the world, and in that I think he has a lot in common with many who find they cannot believe in God, certainly not a loving God.
I can have some sympathy with my father’s point of view. Today is our youngest son’s 22nd birthday. He is going through the day without a care, free to do as he likes, to meet with friends, to drive where he wants to go, to spend his money as he wants to spend it, with no one restricting him unless he chooses to break the law. How very different things were for my father at a similar age! He had married during the phoney war of 1939-40 and then experienced the early war in Europe. He had found himself trapped with thousands of other soldiers at Dunkirk and was evacuated in June 1940, only to find himself sent to North Africa, leaving behind a pregnant wife. On one day as he prepared to go into battle, he received a telegram telling him ‘wife and daughter well’. He recalls that he said, ‘One in and one out’ as he contemplated his own death while celebrating his daughter’s life. Before he was 22 he was taken prisoner at Tobruk and remained a prisoner for the rest of the war. He’s not talked a lot about what he experienced but enough to give a flavour of it.
For my father, evil in the world is enough to lead him to reject faith in God. Many people say that if there was a God he would stop all the dreadful things that happen in the world and the fact that he doesn’t makes faith difficult for them. Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t see belief in God and the existence of evil as conflicting ideas. In his parable he speaks of the wheat and the weeds, good seed and bad. This is what the kingdom of God is like at present. Within the world are good and bad people; good and bad actions are carried out; people have worthy and unworthy motives. Jesus doesn’t rail against this; he simply accepts it as fact. This is the way the world is but that doesn’t mean that God is not loving.
Jesus doesn’t deny that God has the power to make things different. The servants in the parable are keen to uproot the weeds to leave just the wheat to grow. However, the master can see that in the effort to destroy all the weeds, the wheat also will be damaged. If God were to wipe out all evil in the world now, there would be collateral damage to the good as well. It seems that on balance it’s better for the good to grow alongside the evil than it is to risk rooting evil out. More time is given for the wheat to grow strong and bear fruit.
This mixed good and evil world is where we live. There’s a similar mixture of good and evil within each one of us. Paul in his letter sees this fact about the world very clearly. There are those who live according to the flesh and those who live according to the Spirit. The ones led by the Spirit are children of God, or as Jesus says ‘the good seed are the children of the kingdom’. Paul sees clearly that living in this very mixed world means that God’s children will experience suffering. It’s not because God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care, it’s because of the way the world is and it’s the best way it can be without damaging the good along with the bad. Paul sees the very creation groaning as in labour, waiting, longing to be freed from the bondage to decay that it currently experiences, just as we may groan at times to be free from how things are. The psalmist too sees those who serve God being attacked by a ruthless horde which pays no attention to God but is bent on destroying the godly.
If we were to leave the story there it would be a sorry tale indeed, but the story of the kingdom of God contains a ‘now’ and a ‘not yet’. All three witnesses, the psalmist, Jesus and Paul, look forward. Even in the midst of being attacked, the psalmist can affirm that God has ‘delivered my soul from the depths of the grave’; God has helped and comforted him. Jesus looks to the future when it’s harvest time. The reapers go out to gather the harvest, the children of the kingdom, and to bring them into the barn, God’s perfect kingdom. There they will shine like the sun. Paul talks of the adoption of God’s children, the first fruits of the Spirit, and the freedom they will experience.
What about the weeds, the children of the evil one as Jesus calls them, or those who live according to the flesh, in Paul’s words? It’s not popular now to talk about anything unpleasant happening to anyone once they pass through death, except perhaps the most tyrannical of leaders who have killed and terrorised tens of thousands of people. Those people we are happy to condemn to a nasty end. Other than this we are rather concerned about declaring that the Christian faith is the only way to please God and ensure future bliss. Heaven may be polite to talk about but hell most definitely isn’t.
Rob Bell recently caused controversy with his book, ‘Love Wins’ in which he questioned whether those who are not Christian will go to hell. He quotes such passages as: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19) and Jesus’ statement: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). God’s desire is that none should perish but all have eternal life. So does God’s love win over his judgement?
Inconveniently Jesus focuses often on hell and the last judgement. Elsewhere in Matthew he says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). In the Gospel passage today Jesus has the angels go and gather up out of the 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.’ Pretty uncompromising stuff! Bell objected to scare tactics being used to get people to become Christians and I can understand his concerns. Yet as Francis Chan says in response to Rob Bell, God may be acting as a loving parent in spelling out the consequences of our choices, just as we might tell a child what might happen to them if they run out into the road.
The Christian faith doesn’t answer all questions to our satisfaction and that can be very frustrating. We’re left holding in tension the suffering we see all around us, of those whom we love and of strangers, and the fact that God is powerful enough to prevent that suffering. We hold in tension that God doesn’t want any to perish but Jesus didn’t question the final judgement and the existence of hell. How can God’s love, mercy, justice and power all work together in the end?
When struggling with such problems I could take the route that Job’s wife suggested when he was suffering so much. She said, ‘Curse God and die.’ in other words, turn your back on any stupid notion that God is loving and merciful and give up on life with all its unfairness. The alternative route is that of Abraham when arguing with God over the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom: ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’
Paul was faced with the same questions as people suffered around him, particularly those who had put their faith in Christ, who were the wheat not the weeds. His response is one of trust like Abraham, relying on the character of God ‘gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and full of kindness and truth’. The section of his letter we read today affirms his view that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us’.
So like Paul, we wait with patience, hoping for what we do not see, for a time when we are gathered into God’s kingdom to shine like the sun.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor