Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 17 July 2011
Wisdom 12:13,16-19; Psalm 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43
Matthew gives an interpretation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds which turns it into an allegory of sorts, a story in which each character or action stands for something else and which can be decoded to give its ‘real’, literal meaning. I sometimes hear this parable explained as a warning that there are always some of ‘them’ in the midst of ‘us’, and that it is often hard to tell the difference between the genuine and the fake Christian, in the early stages anyway. But Jesus’ parables are powerful precisely because they are not allegories. Matthew’s interpretation is one valid interpretation, but it is not as if having this explanation for the parable does away with the need for the parable itself. The story Jesus tells is more than a nice wrapping for a message that could be stated more prosaically. Parables are like little balls of dynamite which explode in our awareness in different ways, unearthing a truth about God’s reign which shakes our conventional established values and ways of looking at the world.
Reflecting on the parable of the wheat and the weeds, I am struck with how much I want the world to be black and white, easily carved up into the goodies and the baddies, with me firmly in the first category. But life is not that simple. In fact, it seems that not only is there lots of ambiguity, but the very quest for perfection and purity can itself be destructive. Aggressively digging up the weeds can destroy the little shoots of wheat. Even in my own life, how good am I really at distinguishing wheat from weeds anyway? I have had the occasional shock of recognition when it dawns on me that the parts of myself that I am proud of, those aspects I have worked hard to cultivate, may in fact be weeds – hypocrisy or the repression of the very uniqueness God has gifted me with. And those things that I consider to be weeds – the parts of me that don’t fit my idealized picture of who I should be, may be the very aspects through which God could most clearly shine. Little wonder then that Jesus calls us to live graciously and patiently with ambiguity.
The Wisdom reading is excerpted from a passage recounting God’s giving of the Promised Land to God’s people, which involved wresting it from the Canaanites. This (from a contemporary perspective somewhat disturbing) story of the destruction of the Canaanites by God lends itself to a triumphalistic telling: God fights on behalf of good ‘us’ to destroy evil ‘them’ and give us the land completely. Instead, the sage emphasizes the mercy and the patience of God. He stresses the gradual nature of the conquest which gave the Canaanites plenty of opportunity to repent, indicating God’s concern for them as well as for God’s own people. In fact, God is understood to have the care of all, and not just those who call themselves by God’s name. Here is a picture of God which looks a bit like the field-owner in Jesus’ parable. The sage reminds us that it is precisely God’s mercy and patience with our enemies that gives us confidence ourselves. If God ruthlessly destroyed the enemy, what then of the ways and times when we ourselves are not living up to God’s standards? And if God is kind to those who fail, we should be too – to ourselves and to others.
The psalm which is a plea for help strikes this same strong note of confidence. It is because God is gracious and forgiving that the struggling believer can call upon God for help. God’s power and goodness are not exercised in a harshly judgmental way, for God abounds in kindness.
Living with ambiguity means that we often don’t even know what we ought to be praying for. Sometimes when we think we know how to pray we get it wrong. But Paul reminds us that the transformative work of God isn’t dependent upon us knowing exactly what to ask for. God is at work in us through the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit within us knows what God is doing. So even in times of confusion we can trust God with the process.
Here is the reading from Wisdom, which is not found in all versions of the Bible:
There is no god besides you who have the care of all,
that you need show you have not unjustly condemned.
For your might is the source of justice;
your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.
For you show your might when the perfection of your power is disbelieved;
and in those who know you, you rebuke temerity.
But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency,
and with much lenience you govern us;
for power, whenever you will, attends you.
And you taught your people, by these deeds,
that those who are just must be kind;
and you gave your children good ground for hope
that you would permit repentance for their sins.
(Wisdom 12:13,16-19 NASB)