Rev. Mike Lager
St. John’s, Fort Smith, Ark.
July 17, 2011
Proper 11 Year A
“No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with the weeds …” Matt. 13
Hester was new to the town. She was a lovely young woman; strong and industrious. She was devout and found her place in a “conservative” Christian church that had a defined set of rules regarding righteous living. But Hester was human, and was found out to be pregnant out of wedlock. The church and town was outraged at such an egregious sin. They were quick to serve as judge, jury and executioner of a punishment. They decided to publicly shame and humiliate her by … forcing her to wear a capital letter ‘A’ buttoned to her dress … a scarlet letter ‘A’ …
Of course you recognize the plot about Hester Prynne from the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel The Scarlet Letter. The story was written in 1850 about a 17th century Puritan community where church and law were intertwined, and Christian holiness according to their standard was the measure for being a part of the kingdom of God.
In a real sense it reminds us of the biblical image around righteousness and holiness lived in community when we read the story of a woman who is caught in adultery (Gospel of John chapter 8). Like Hester, there is no male held accountable, and the community uses shame and physical violence to control and excise evil from its midst. In both stories the accusers are quick to judge and mete out punishment.
In our human desire for justice this is a common occurrence. The church comes at it honestly. The early monastic movement used the image of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ we heard in our Old Testament reading, as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Each rung climbed is a holier and purer life. The goal was to eliminate sin and thus grow closer to God (John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Late 6th/early 7th cent.).
BUT THEN WE READ JESUS’ TEACHING ABOUT THE WEEDS AND THE WHEAT. What audacity. Jesus’ parable says that the wheat – the righteous, and the weeds—the unrighteous, should live together. Uprooting the wrong-doers or evil-doers is not a part of the equation for living in the kingdom of God.
What might be behind Jesus’ thought? Christ knew the human heart. He knew that the power to judge and dictate punishment is a sure recipe for corruption. (In fact, our novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne illuminates this reality when we come to find out that it is the Rev. Dimmesdale who is the father of little baby Pearl.) Judgment and punishment are God’s responsibility our parable expressly tells us. When we begin judging other’s lives, we risk setting ourselves up as God and that is a precarious spiritual place to live. Surely there might be ‘weeds’ in our own life. Surely we might not be all-knowing and miss a piece of the puzzle about another person’s actions.
The most challenging aspect of this parable is that Jesus wanted his followers to live together—both the righteous and unrighteous were to live together for the course of their lives. But why? It’s so much easier to ‘root out’ and separate ourselves from anyone who is different, or judged by the Church to be immoral or evil. Living together in community demands growing in grace, love and tolerance for another of God’s creation. It demands that we learn we are not perfect and can rely on another imperfect person to help us when we need their support. We find that we grow as we help others who are struggling. We grow spiritually as we live in times of strength and weakness – righteousness and unrighteousness; and remain as part of the sacramental community of faith. Just as God uses bread and wine to convey God’s grace, so God uses good and evil to convey grace into our life.
Maybe Jesus wants us to know that when we are our most ‘human’, we will never be separated from God’s embrace of love. We need not bear the burden of helping God judge other’s with the purpose of removing evil from our presence once and for all. (note: all spiritual discipline is rooted in reconciliation rather than shame/guilt/purging.) What a great gift of freedom to love and give, without the burden of judging.