Grace Before Judgment

  • Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
  • Loop CRC
  • Hope CRC

Years later, after listening to Jesus’ stories, nurturing them in their memories, and retelling them to the community, the parable of the sower must have popped up alongside this parable of the wheat and tares for the disciples.
They are both about planting the seed;
they are both about fruits of the Gospel,
they are both about the germination of Jesus and his message in people’s lives.

But where the parable of the sower shows easily gauged growth,
the parable of the wheat and weeds reminds us of the slow, strange progress of the word.

Where the parable of the sower might produce eager, impulsive field-workers,
the parable of the wheat and weeds reminds us who owns the field.
Where the parable of the sower makes for easy estimation,
the parable of the wheat and the weeds calls for waiting on God’s judgment—and grace.

At first glance, the wheat and weeds is about judgment—where is the grace here? I have to admit, I don’t like these parables about judgment. They make my cultivated self-image of being a loving, accepting—even liberal—soul feel a little at odds with my sense of duty to believe the truth of the Gospel. I’d rather these judgment parables just stepped aside so that we can get to parables like the prodigal son and lost coins and bask in God’s grace and feel good about ourselves.

But this is a not just a parable about judgment and fire: it is a parable where judgment and grace are intertwined in the hands of the Master.

As with so many parables, we have to hear it again to understand. (Even the disciples were dense enough to need the explanation spelled out for them!)

Imagine a farmer who plants wheat. Our farmer is not just any farmer: He owns great expanses of land, commands many workers, and keeps the best seeds from last year’s harvest. And in the spring, the master and the workers sow this seed. The farmer and his workers are confident this will be a good crop: the fields are prepared, the seed is good, they expect the best as always.

That night, while everyone is asleep, the enemy neighbor, jealous of the good farmer, and eager to ruin his success, creeps in with a bag of seeds and sows by the cover of darkness. He has selected the perfect seeds for his devious plan—the Greek “zizania.” Its seeds sleep silently next to wheat, its shoots arise looking the same as the wheat, it grows nearly identical to maturing wheat, and only shows its full difference in the grains at the harvest.

But the farmer is wise in everything, including his hiring. His servants know their plants. And as soon as they notice the invading shoots, they approach the owner.

This cannot be—didn’t we plant the best seed? The zizania is mixed all through, sir!

The farmer is confident. An enemy did it. It wasn’t our seed!

In their panic, the servants propose ripping out the weeds. But the farmer knows better. Sewn grain has no rows—it’s all mixed together. Leave it be, he says. The good wheat is his only concern. Pulling the bad will rip up the good. We’ll wait, he says, until the harvest, and the sorting will happen then. I’ll tell the harvesters what to do. We’ll save the good, and burn the bad.

It makes good sense, and yet precious water will go to the weeds; the wheat will be crowded by invaders; the roots of good and bad will be twined together; and won’t the enemy be satisfied in his schemes?

So what if some wheat was lost to uprooting? Wouldn’t the remaining plants thrive, and cover the lost?

No, says the farmer. This plan is best—leave the wheat be. It’s too precious to risk. I am the master, it’s for me to sort at the harvest. Until then, nurture the fields, wheat and weeds together.

Judgment will come. But for now, says the farmer, a bit of grace—nurture the wheat; care for the weeds. Who knows what will happen?

This is the grace then, before the judgment. The wheat is so important to the farmer that he wouldn’t risk any harm to it.

And the weeds, after all, are hard to distinguish from wheat. Even one wheat plant, accidentally pulled, would be too much grain lost.

Judgment will come, but for now, a bit of grace. Preserve the wheat; put up with the weeds.

It is no surprise that the world is a field so terribly intertwined with good and evil.
It is no surprise that evil has taken root all around us.
And it is no surprise that, like the servants, we question God’s wisdom at times—why not weed now? Wouldn’t it be easier if the world was just us good seeds?

Obviously, this parable is not trying to answer that question. But there is this bit of grace in the parable:

This is a farmer who treasures each plant so much that he would do nothing to disturb its growth.
This is a God who values each believer so much that he would do nothing to disturb our faith.
This is a God who values the fruit of the harvest so much that he will wait out the schemes of an enemy until the time is right.

And when we are secure in that knowledge of God’s love, then we are ready to address the stickier problems of the parable.

When we are treasured, the danger is that we feel it too keenly.
The danger is that we begin looking around, and seeing people we think should be discarded.
The danger is that we start to make suggestions about who God should keep and who God should let go.

We are treasured. Nothing will take that away. But this parable shows a God who is willing to show more grace than we are capable of. Not just grace for the growing wheat, but grace for the invading weeds.

We are not just the wheat in this parable, but also the workers.

And if we are the workers, this parable calls us to something far more difficult than simply growing in the sun and rain of God’s grace.

If we are the workers, this parable calls us to doing the work of farmer. If we are workers, this parable calls us to do what the farmer does: hold back judgment; nurture the wheat along with the weeds; cultivate the entire world, whether we think it will be lost in the final sorting or not.

Sometimes, I think these judgment parables make us nervous not so much because they challenge our view of ourselves as good and accepting people, but because we recognize that buried deep in the back somewhere, we like them a little too much.

I mean, let’s be honest with ourselves. Wouldn’t the world be easier if we could sort out the bad from the good right now? Clearly there are those who need to be uprooted, and pulled out.

How disappointed would we be to loose corrupt politicians, child-abusers, pimps?
What about violent sociopaths, subversive colleagues at work, the kid who makes your kid cry? Sinners, all…

Sinners, all…
Here’s one place where this parable, like the metaphor it is, breaks down.
We are not all simply good or bad.
We are all that complex mix—God’s good creation, twisted and twined with the sin of the world. Sinners, all…

Thank God, then, that final judgment is left to God. How would we know what to pull up? A few years ago, my mother was about to sort through her overgrown backyard. She was determined to pull out everything that didn’t belong, get down to clean soil, and plant only what she wanted. But my brother’s girlfriend, a landscaper, followed her through the yard, named the plants, and pointed out weeds that would be treasures in bloom. Who knows what a scruffy plant could become with a little nurture?

Who knows what we would pull up if God left us in charge?
Who knows what secret stirrings of the spirit would go un-nurtured if we had our way?
Who knows what would never come to bloom if our judgment was final?

Who knows what we might not be nurturing?

If the world is God’s field, if God’s grace falls on good and bad alike, if we are under orders to be God’s nurturing grace in the world, I worry to think what we might be missing.

In fact, there is nothing we can give up on. No person, no organization, no group.

What if we, the church, God’s servants in the field, truly lived by this command to nurture the weeds and wheat alike? How would we be faithful to that command?

Would we see our relationships differently? Would we nurture the people nearest to us, even if they seem like weeds?

What about our vocations? Can we see them as only a way to get by in the world? Or would they become a way to bless the world, and shower grace on all of God’s creation?

What about church? Often we even see other Christians as a nuisance to be tolerated. Wouldn’t we have to grow gratefully alongside people we disagree with? Can we do more than put up with those whom we think are simply a drain on our resources, and view them as people to be nurtured and cared for?

Would we see our communities differently? Aren’t we meant to be rooted in the life of the community in which we are planted? Doesn’t our call to nurture mean spreading God’s grace to “churched” and “unchurched” alike? Would we have to find a way to nurture both our Christian schools and crumbling public school systems? Are we called to pray graciously for politicians we would never vote to reelect and for political parties we cannot abide?

And what are our obligations to those we see as the weeds? To love the kid who makes your kid cry? To care for the broken down and hard to tolerate? To be the love of Christ to people who are hateful toward us? To refuse to let our society lock away “sinners” with no vision for their restoration?

This makes we think that, as a Christian, I perhaps don’t know the right people to nurture!

In the last two years, I’ve developed an odd affection for Johnny Cash—the crusty, outlaw father figure of American country and folk music (when I tell people this, they often think I just don’t fit the profile of one of his fans.)

I think what makes me keep listening is that he has a bad-guy exterior centered around a heart full of God’s grace.

In one song, “Down there by the Train” he portrays this remarkably bad line up of characters, people who “have taken the low road,” waiting like hobos at a section of track where the train to the Promised Land slows enough to jump on.

To say I love the group he describes would be a lie. It includes such class A criminals as Judas, John Wilkes Booth, and soldier who stuck a spear into Jesus. (Let your imagination run wild and add your least favorites.,.)

But I love Cash’s idea that this is a place where they can join the journey, sneaking past the self-righteous of us. A place where the train slows down and a trail of sinners jumps on board. A place where the worst of the worst can be redeemed. A place where grace abounds up to the very last chance.

We ought to know more people who feel like they need grace to the very last minute, more people who look like weeds early in the season. We ought to be planted next to more people we are quick to call “sinners.”

Because, in the end, they might be our best connection to God’s nurturing hope. We are sustained by God’s grace alone. And in the end, those who know they need God’s grace could be the best reminder we have that we need it too.

Thanks be to God.

One Response to “Grace Before Judgment”

  1. steve d Says:

    I quoted this sermon in my very first sermon.