There is a little joke about my fondness for the gnashing of teeth. And it is true. I pay attention to those readings which warn that with the coming of Jesus all may not be perfect, honky-dory, God loves us, we can we do as we will. Remember, “Do as thou will be the whole of the law,” was the catchphrase of that wanna-be Son of Satan Alistair Crowley. I don’t see Jesus saying that. Anywhere. We have laws, commandments. They are obligatory. Yes, we are granted the gift of mercy, reconciliation, but at a price, even the gentle price of self-awareness through the promptings of the Spirit. But the bottom line is that we, like the incarnate Jesus, belong to God the Father and we live by his mercy and to please only him. That is pretty rough. Theologians and preachers soften it by focusing on God’s unfailing love. But it still isn’t a free ride.
And yet in this reading, Jesus’ exposition of his parable of the Wheat and Tares, now called weeds, the weeds are sown by the Father of Lies in a freshly sown field of the Gospel. This is the second of two parables about seed for the harvest, that is, the Word of the Gospel either growing or failing to grow. The more familiar one describes a wider range of possibilities, those that don’t hear the word, those who get excited and then lose interest, those who are drawn away from it by competing words, and those we hope are the rest of us, faithful to the end. Well, we know that is sometimes a little too simple for our complex lives, but it does lay out the pattern of conversion (Matt 13:3-8). This second parable, found only in Matthew, is more focused. Good seed is sown. In the night the enemy comes and sows weeds. Well, not exactly weeds. The Greek uses the word ζιζάνια (zizania) which used to be translated as tares. In English tare has two meaning. First it is a kind of vetch, a legume which produces edible seeds. The other is for a Biblical plant which when it germinates looks like wheat, but is not wheat, and does not develop into a usable grain. This is much more interesting than calling them weeds. And it explains why the Master says to leave them until they mature, because you can’t tell what you are pulling out until they ripen. And isn’t that us all over!
Today’s Gospel (Matt 13: 36-43) is Jesus’ explanation of the parable, and this is where I have to stop and take stock. He says that the good grains are the children of the Kingdom and the tares are the children of the Evil One. He is definitely talking about the End Time, because it is angels that will gather the evil ones and burn them up. The one redeeming sentence to our modern Salvation-for-All ears is that the angels will gather up all causes of sin. And that is good. But we still have the judgement that those others and their sins will be cast into the furnace. And – wait for it – there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. We see this over and over. The sheep and the goats. The whole judgement narrative in Revelation. There is no shortage of warnings that the end won’t be all rainbows and bunnies, but a heavy price for not being one of those chosen for the Kingdom. And that opens up enough cans of worms to keep theologians gainfully employed until the End of Days.
I don’t question that we need those warnings. Secular life is pretty juicy and who wants to be bound to some crazy cult that is no longer the standard for faith and ethics. Christendom is pretty well dead. And those of us who are its remnant are clinging to a God of Love far more than the Judge. Our kindly Shepherd, not the Suffering Servant of the Cross. We like things to be nice. But how can the righteous shine like the sun in our Father’s kingdom when that reprobate, our Uncle George, has just gotten flash fried by the angels of God? Didn’t Jesus teach us about forgiving and loving our enemies? But we are not in charge, are we? It goes round and round as we struggle with what God’s ultimate will for us is.
What this is all about is something we cringe to talk about and that is salvation of souls. What the Holy One makes of our attempts is above my pay grade, but the Church has dutifully tried, sometimes successfully, sometimes making a horror show of Jesus’ gift of his Incarnation and Mercy, to form, teach, support each of us to reach that presence of the Almighty One in whom there is such peace and joy that we walk easily in that salvific moment. Our current Presiding Bishop, the Right Rev. Michael Curry, developed a formation tool called The Way of Love, an Episcopalian take on revival ministry. In the UK, Archbishop Justin Welby has supported a year-long program for young people to live a Benedictine life, an intensive formation for their whole lives. As well there are programs for Young Urbanites to find periods of respite during their day to turn to God. And there are many more protocols here and abroad coming from tweets and other social media platforms. We try. But there is so much more to do. Hopefully we will not make the mistakes of the past and latch onto the fear and terror of damnation but preach and urge and hold out our hands to the love of God. But it never hurts to remember that Jesus warned us about the alternative. So we need to be of great courage and teach, in this everybody-wins world, that metanoia is hard and painful and a joy. That the Cross is ugly and very real and our blood-soaked path to salvation. The hard stuff.
With closing parishes and vicarages it isn’t terribly popular to suggest we need more priests and deacons, but I think we do. With the recognition of the power of the baptismal vows and the utility of the Christian mission of the laity as the priesthood of all believers perhaps we have neglected the role of the ordained not only to provide those sacramental functions which feed us but to show forth lives of total dedication. And to walk around with those white targets around our necks proclaiming The Church Is Alive and Well and Here I Am.
So let’s look again at the parable. The Kingdom is seeded with wheat and tares, tares which look like wheat but aren’t. And we are told that there just may be a fiery end to sins, and even to those who abide in the Evil One. Maybe we aren’t to know which are the wheat and which are the wheat-shaped tares and treat both as our kin in Christ. That is why we have to leave the judging to He who is both our judge and redeemer, our teacher and savior. And abide in him, in his Word and Sacrament, accepting that our lives will be up and down, sometimes wheat, sometimes tares, but at the end, we pray, we will shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.