The Parables of Jesus: The Dragnet 7-17-16

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

A month ago, as I was preparing for the summer sermon series on parables, we had a LIFE group leaders meeting at which we read this parable. The LIFE group leaders found the parable a bit distressing, and worried about using it. I decided not to use it as the first parable of the series, but couldn’t leave it out all together, since the story appears in different forms in several places and is clearly a part of the Christian witness. We need to wrestle a bit with our understanding of judgment and good and evil as we listen for the word of God this day.

Matthew 13:47-50  Or again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collected all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishers hauled it ashore.  Then, sitting down, they collected the good ones in a basket and threw away those that were of no use. This is how it will be at the end of time.  The angels will come and separate the wicked from the just and throw the wicked into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

July 17, 2016

The Parables of Jesus: The Dragnet 

Judge not, lest ye be judged. We all have heard that statement many times, even if we have not followed it very much. I know I make judgments about people all the time. I decide who I want to be close to and who I want to stay away from if I can possibly help it. I’m not real proud of this, mind you, but I judge people by their looks, by their speech, by their actions, and by the way they drive.

My grandpa was a judge, a well-respected Judge of the Court of Common Pleas. I would love to have been able to ask him more about what that meant to him, what he did and how he thought about it as a Christian man. He died though, before I was old enough to know that his somewhat stern exterior demeanor did not mean a cold heart. It would have been interesting to talk to him about judging people.

We all judge people I guess, by our own standards. We want to be with the people we judge to be good and not with the people we judge to be bad. In this polarized political season, the temptation to dismiss people as being bad is getting all the stronger. I certainly hope we don’t begin to model our behavior on that of political candidates running for top office. We will be hearing a lot about choosing the lesser of two of evils, and that is a sad commentary on what we will put up with in our culture.

 

Evil, judgment, and what to do with them is a strong focus of the parables we read this morning in the Gospel of Matthew. Let me remind you first of when and where we think Matthew was written. Modern scholars tend to date the writing of this gospel at 80-90 CE, 50 to 60 years after Jesus’ death. They think it was likely written not by an eyewitness of Jesus, but by someone writing within the church community of Antioch, north of Israel. Antioch was a city in ancient Syria, part of modern day Turkey, making it particularly appropriate that we are praying for Turkey today.

The church in Turkey was an urban church with some of the ethnic diversity that goes on in urban settings. The religious diversity in that setting was likely as strong as what we experience in our diverse institutions. With the church growing rapidly, it would not be surprising to find them grappling with some questions of who was in and who should be out. They might have been asking how to deal with people who, over time, revealed themselves to think and act differently that they did. Or to put it more bluntly, they might have been saying, “It seems to us that some of our number are as worthless as weeds, so how and when are we to rid ourselves of them?”

When we read the parable with the LIFE group leaders, our concern about the parable was that it talks in stark terms about dividing good people from evil people and getting rid of the evil ones. We didn’t like the judgment of the parable, though we can imagine the early church hoping for that kind of judgment. Jesus in the parable, however, may actually have had the same of kind of concern, we have for the judgmental tendencies of his followers.

Instead of telling them, “You numbskulls! Can I remind you how you have acted every time I really need you? You fickle, betraying, excuses for so-called disciples! How dare you try to get rid of anybody!” Instead of saying that, Jesus tells stories about when judgment can happen and by whom. Jesus always insists that judgment will happen by God in the end-times, in the time when everything is being made right.

One powerful thing about these parables is their frank acknowledgement of evil – in a way that may make us uncomfortable – much more than it’s original hearers. What makes us uncomfortable about the parables especially is their assumption that some people are purely evil and some are not.

When we are called to be disciples of Jesus, we are called to imitate Jesus, to present the face of Jesus to the world, to love and transform the world. At the same time, Jesus is clear with the disciples and with us that the church is not as pure as we would like it to be in its purpose and that intention.  In fact even the church has this mixture of good and evil.

So we in our post-Freud era would reinterpret this passage to some extent, knowing that all of us are some strange mixture of sinner and saint, some mixture of good and evil. The parable of the weeds in particular shows how that mixture is all tangled up together and hard to separate out. We need God’s help for separating the good parts from the bad parts. In the church it takes some patience and care and God’s help to separate out what is good and what is bad about a direction or a stance or a person or a decision.

That’s why the current calls for splitting the church over the election of a Lesbian Bishop in the Western Jurisdiction need to be considered very carefully. Separating out two different denominations is going to be very difficult and messy. Of course each side thinks they are right and good and the other side is wrong and bad, but the bishops’ call for patience and a considered process seems wise to me. Looking carefully at our assumptions and how we judge what is right and what is wrong and asking for God’s help and discernment in the process is going to be very important.

 

Let me say one more thing before I close about my party next week, that sort of fits with my message this morning. I’m a little embarrassed about the impression that I deserve a 20-30-40 party. The truth is that the party is a thank you party to you at St. Luke for being my community these last 20 years, to the United Methodist Church for being my denomination and workplace for 30 years, and to West Philadelphia for being my home for the last 40 years. I am very thankful and Cathy and I are hosting this fun Open House in thanks to my block, to my neighborhood and to the church and bringing friends together from all these different places.

I have made so many mistakes in each of these venues, church, neighborhood and home, that I could easily be one of the fish sorted out to be thrown in the fire. But I haven’t been. I’ve been respected and cared for, listened to and pulled back from the edge, and assisted. That’s why I like the analogy for the church as a “hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” We are like Noah’s ark (you can stand the stench on the inside only because of the storms on the outside.) We are a church in need of God as much as we are a model of God.

We are a place to create safety for God’s people, all God’s people, to pray and commune with each other and with God, to find God’s presence and to become who God calls us to be. May we never presume that we can throw aside any one of us – not one of God’s beloved. We know God claims us all. I hope you can come to the party and celebrate God’s connecting of city and suburb, struggling and secure, and all the mixtures we are of God’s grace and love.

Responsive Hymn: 2173     Shine, Jesus, Shine