Text: Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43
At home, my desk faces a window that looks out into my front yard. As I look out my window these days I can see so much goodness. The thick clusters of deep pink flowers on the crepe myrtle to my left—its branches laden with the fullness of blooms eloquently draping as if they are making an arch by which to pass under. To the right of the crepe myrtle is a gingko tree with its near-perfect symmetrical branches, full of those unique and divinely designed fan-like leaves that have inspired artists of all types. Birds—yellow finches, cardinals, blue-jays—flitter from tree to power line to tree as their songs serenade no one or anyone who will listen. And then there are the colorful flowering plants that fill the hell strip between the sidewalk and road—beautiful reminders of God’s goodness and imagination and love of diversity. Across the road sits a house wrapped by a white-picket fence that can only be described as a Norman Rockwell illustration that depicts a slice of Americana—children playing in the front yard and in the background an American flag proudly displayed on the front porch column waving gently in the summer breeze. Everything that I can see when I look my window these days proclaims the goodness of the world. Life, happiness, continuity, and love.
What I can’t see when I look out my window is the drug deal going down two blocks over—the same block where some evenings the sound of gunshots pierce the silence of the night-time darkness. The view from my window likewise does not take in the housing project three blocks away where children go to bed hungry and mothers lie exhausted because they have worked three jobs just to be able to pay the rent. Looking out my window, I can’t see the dead bodies scattered across a wheat field because the plane they were on got caught in the crosshairs of two countries who can’t break the cycle of military violence. Where I live I look out my window and see children playing in the safety of their front yards and another mother thousands of miles away living on the Gaza strip looks out her window to see children playing amid bombed streets and buildings not sure when the next explosion will occur or what damage it will do.
The world is full of good and evil. From whatever view we have of this world, good mixes in with the bad and bad mixes in with good. That is why, every known language has a word for good and a word for evil. In French bien is good and mal is evil. In Spanish good is bueno and evil is mal.In Germany, good is gut; evil is übel. If our friend Malkhaz were here speaking about good and evil in Georgian, he would use the words kargi and boroti. But in any culture, the concept of good and evil goes beyond just the words themselves. These two universal words “good” and “evil” give expression and definition to a much broader concept of what good is and what evil is. When all is going well, life is good. When disaster or disappointment hits, life is bad. When we act morally, our actions are good. When we act immoral, our actions are bad.
Most of us have been raised within a worldview that is highly dualistic—dividing reality into opposing pairs—all the way from salt and pepper to dark and light to good and bad. I listened recently to a video of Barbara Brown Taylor talking about her weariness with the binaries in our lives that constantly ask us always to decide which side we are on or which side something is on. She speaks in this video about what she has learned from world religions and especially from the Chinese traditions about good and evil; and how these traditions teach that a lot of our pronouncements about what is good and evil have to do with where we freeze the frame. For example, she says, “I win the lottery and that’s good. But then tomorrow the IRS shows up and that’s bad. Then the day after that I’m able to give to a worthwhile cause and that’s good. And the day after that a cousin that I never knew I had wants money for a kidney operation; and so it’s like where do you freeze the frame to call it good or bad? And so, she says, “there is a sense in which life is a constant unfolding in which good and bad come in such cycles. Sometimes the good is kicked into motion by the bad and vise-a-versa. She goes on to reflect on “all the good intentions that issued in terrible results—Christian missions not being the least of them.” And she concludes by saying, “I would love to see some of the binaries defeated—imaginatively, if not really.”
I had a class in seminary with Alan Neely called The Problem of Evil. For those of you who knew Alan, you know what an incredible teacher he was. So this next statement is not a reflection on Alan’s teaching. But here’s the thing I remember from that class. I remember we started the class with no answer for the problem of evil and we ended that class with no answer to the problem of evil. I feel certain we discussed certain philosophies and theologies that offer frameworks for how to think about the problem of evil. But in the end, there were no answers. Only more questions.
Since that time, I have continued to think about that class. I have wondered at different times why the class title wasn’t The Problem of Good and Evil. If God is a good and benevolent God—if God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (all-present)—then how can there be evil in the world? To grapple with the problem of evil is to automatically grapple with the nature of God as inherently good, all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present. And to that grappling, I have to agree with Barbara Brown Taylor that we need to defeat the binaries in our lives—imaginatively, if not really; for simply viewing life and the world through two opposing pairs offers very little wisdom.
To the question of God’s character, I must confess that I do not understand God as an all-powerful God. Nor do I typically focus on the question of God as all-knowing, which inevitably leads to more unanswerable questions about destiny and free will. Finally, it is not very helpful to me to attribute good or evil to God. Good is mixed in with evil and evil is mixed in with good. And God is present with us in all of it. Not present to fix or change or manipulate. God is simply and profoundly present with us—offering what it is that God offers: wisdom, comfort, hope, strength, and love. God is present where good and evil grow together.
Let me say that sentence again. God is present where good and evil grow together. I expect for many of us it is hard to hear the word present without immediately wanting to give God more power than mere presence. The idea that God would be present in our pain, in our suffering, in the evil in the world and not act on our behalf is antithetical to the teachings of the church and what we have been taught about God through the scripture.
Which brings me to the parable we have read this morning of the wheat and the weeds—the good and the bad. I want to begin with the end. Matthew records that after listening to a number of parables that Jesus was teaching, the disciples approach him and ask for him to explain the parable of the weeds of the field. The answer that Matthew attributes to Jesus about the good seed are the children of the kingdom and the bad seeds are the children of the evil one, and that the good children will go to heaven and the weed children will be “thrown into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” is, in the view of most scholars, a Matthean addition. This explanation of this parable is most likely not the words of Jesus. The language, style, and theology of this interpretation are thoroughly Matthean and most scholars regard it as his own composition.
With that, I turn to the parable itself. “This parable of the weeds has many facets, but we can surely see, shimmering behind it, the experience of Matthew’s church—and ours, too. It chronically comes as a shock to find that the world, that the family into which we were born, that even the church is not an entirely trustworthy place. The world has places of wonder, but alleys of cruelty, too. Families cause deep pain as well as great joy. The church can be inspiringly courageous one moment and petty and faithless the next. Good mixes in with the bad. ‘Where did these weeds come from?’ is a perennial human cry.” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII)
When the field owner in the parable forbids the worker’s to go and weed out the field, this is not to be interpreted as a call to passivity in the face of evil. It is not a divine command to ignore injustice in the world, violence in society, or wrong in the church. It is, rather, a realistic reminder that the worker’s do not finally have the ability to get rid of all the weeds and that sometimes attempts to pluck up weeds cause more harm than good. And that is just the way it is. (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII)
The imaginative part of this parable is found in these six words: “Let both of them grow together…” Those who were listening to Jesus teach this parable knew that it was impossible to distinguish between the wheat and the weed until the harvest. The two look almost identical until they are mature plants. Gathering the weeds before maturity meant risking uprooting the wheat. “Let both of them grow together…” Again, I will say, it is important for us to understand that this is not a call to turn our eyes and attention from injustice. But rather, it is a call to purpose. Our purpose is to focus on the wheat—the good—and give it every chance possible to grow to fullness while knowing that the weeds are always mixed in with the wheat. Martin Luther King said it best: “When evil people plot, good people must plan. When evil people burn and bomb, good people must build and bind. When evil people shout ugly words of hatred, good people must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil people would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good people must seek to bring into being a real order of justice.” That is what Jesus is teaching in this parable. We are to focus on the good. Never are we to turn our eyes from the evil, from suffering, from violence, from injustice in the world. But our efforts and energy are in cultivating the wheat—the good in ourselves and in the world.
Good and evil…Let both of them grow together. God is present where good and evil grow together. God does not stand in an idyllic field of pure crop. Nor does God destroy the fields of choking weeds that we sometimes find ourselves in. But God is present in this and every very real moment, where there is good and evil. God is present to our joy, our goodness, our generosity. And God is present to our jealousies, our pain and our disappointment. God is present. And it is enough.