The Danger of Forcing Others to be Good

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 19, 2020
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 The worship service is available at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church’s YouTube site. Click here. I began reading the scripture at 13:50 and the sermon begins at 16:50 and ends at 37:30.  

Opening of Worship: Nothing needs reforming as much as other people’s bad habits.” That’s probably Mark Twain’s most quoted saying. It rings true. It’s easy to see where someone else is wrong and to ignore our own blind spots. We want everyone but ourselves to clean up their act, forgetting the log in our own eyes.[1] Today, we’re looking at another parable from the 13th Chapter of Matthew. Like last week, it focuses on agriculture. This second “big field” parable is about the weeds growing within the wheat. We want everything to be pure, but at what cost? This morning, ask yourself if we really think we’re capable of being an honest judge?

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I was gypped as a child. I don’t remember a sermon on this text. This scripture could have been added to the arsenal I used to make a case for not chopping weeds in the garden. I wasn’t a biblical literate child.

However, I am not sure this reason to not to pull weeds would have worked any better than when I told my siblings that the Bible said they should respect and obey me since I was their elder. Two things you can take away from this: using the Bible for our own self-fulfillment is dangerous, and the Bible is not a “how-to-farm” manual.[2]

Jesus tells this parable because he knows we’d like nothing more than to clean up other folk’s lives and when we attempt to do this, we often create a mess. If the church had paid a little more attention to this parable, we’d have had fewer headaches. Crusades, witch-hunts, inquisitions, and other quests for purity that have given the church black eyes and created massive suffering could have been avoided.

This parable is about the church.[3] We could easily place ourselves in the role of the farmhands who inform their boss of the problems going on in the back 40. “There are weeds in the wheat.” It’s a terrible thing… What should we do about it?

When I was in seminary and working for a church in Butler, Pennsylvania, I took the youth skiing one Saturday. The kids could invite friends. Ryan invited a friend who attended a very conservative church. In our group was another kid named David. This was back in the mid-80s. David was a “skater” and a problem child. On this particular day, it took him only an hour or so for the ski patrol, who had called him down a few times, to revoke his skiing privileges. David got to spend the rest of the day sitting in the lodge with a mother who didn’t ski, but volunteered to come along as a driver, to fix our lunch, and watch over our stuff. I’m not sure if she realized watching over our stuff including sitting on David.

After lunch, I spent some time skiing with Ryan and his friend. Riding up on a lift, this guy, filled with self-righteousness, asked me what kind of church we were to allow the likes of David to be in our midst. He assured me that his church would never allow David to go on their trips. My first thought was to get rid of the weeds and to throw this kid off the lift. But I came to my senses and tried to reason with him about how, if we’re here for anyone, we’re here for the David’s of the world. Then I mentioned about how Jesus seemed to prefer the company of sinners to those who are self-righteous. I began to take pride in my ability to rub his nose in Jesus’ words, until I realized I was no better than him.

You know, there have been times when I’ve wondered why someone was in church. Wouldn’t the church be a lot better if we didn’t have self-righteous folks like that kid on the lift? Wouldn’t it be better if there were no hypocrites giving us a bad name? Wouldn’t it be a lot better in here if we were all squeaky clean?  Probably not; if we were perfect, we wouldn’t need a Savior and we wouldn’t need the church. And if the church was that perfect, without the self-righteous, the hypocrites and those less than squeaky clean, most of us including myself would be out.

Let me suggest this… The farmhands’ question as to where these weeds came from is the same as us wondering why there is so much evil in the world.[4] Scripture doesn’t give us a good answer as to why there’s evil; instead we’re given a prescription of how to overcome it. Our righteousness is not from our efforts, but from Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther realized the church can’t be without evil people. Writing about the parable, he said: “Those fanatics who don’t want to tolerate any weeds end up with no wheat.”[5] This parable reminds us that we have to deal with the weeds and the wheat, the good and the bad. As much of a pain the weeds might be, they can make us stronger (as with a plant that must compete with other plants for nourishment and sun). Furthermore, the weeds serve as a constant reminder that we are not the ones who are in control.

God is in control. And there are many good reasons why God might not want to purify the church right away. First of all, God knows that any campaign to purify is going to create problems. The wheat, whose roots are not fully established, may be harmed when the workers try to pull out the weeds, just as good people are often harmed when someone becomes over zealous and instills a campaign of righteousness.

I’ve referred before to C. S. Lewis’ little book, The Screwtape Letters. It’s the fictional correspondence from Screwtape, an older and well-seasoned demon, to his nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape gives the younger demon advice as to how to win a soul over to the dark side.  Screwtape refers to Wormwood’s subject as a patient.  When Wormwood’s patient becomes a Christian, obviously a failure if you’re a demon, his uncle encourages patience:

One of our great allies at present is the church itself.  Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners… Fortunately, it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished sham…

Screwtape goes on to point out that when Wormwood’s patient gets into the pews and looks around he’ll see “his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided.” Then the demon could make his move.

Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little what kind of people that next pew really contains… Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes… Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient.[6]

This parable reminds us that we have to be careful that our zeal for holiness doesn’t become corrupt and our love becomes hate. If that happens, we’re no better than those whose actions we deplore. Scripture is clear that God has an enemy in the world who would like nothing more than to turn us away from the truth. It’s not always wild and sinful living that cause us to fall; we can also become so consumed to rid our world of evil and we begin began to think we are so important that we ignore       The parable of the weeds reminds us that if our enemy is unable to keep the seeds from taking root, he will as one commentator on the passage observed, “Overwhelm us with a loathing of evil.” In other words, he’ll corrupt our love and use it against us.[7]

Of course, the farmer in the story is God. As the farmhands, we may think we can be in control, but as we find out here, the farmer is wise and wants to make sure that the crop is not harmed by our zealous efforts. Now, there is another underlying message here. We might want to ask why we have to suffer evil in this world… At times, it may even appear that there is a benefit for being bad, for being a weed. But this passage reminds us that sooner or later, everyone gets their due. The evil may seem to prosper in this world, but there’s judgment coming. When the harvest is ready, the weeds will be consumed. Judgment means there will be “weeping and gashing of teeth,” which is another way of saying it won’t be good for the weeds.[8]

What might this passage say to us? It encourages tolerance. As sinners, redeemed by Jesus Christ, we must be careful not to think too highly of ourselves or to be too quick to condemn others. The church isn’t going to always be perfect. In Martin Luther’s writings, he recalls this old saying: “Whenever God erects a house of prayer, the devil builds a chapel.”[9] Trying to destroy that chapel may result in terrible collateral damage.

The church on earth will never be pure, but that’s okay because God is not finished with us yet. If we as the church can be accepting of others in the manner of Jesus, we will draw others to us that may not, at first, look like they belong. But we’re not the one who judges. Instead, we give thanks for those in our midst and love them unconditionally in the same manner that we’ve been loved by our Father in heaven. So, before we go out and volunteer for a crusade or sign up as the Grand Inquisitor, think about what Jesus is telling us through this parable. As farmhands within the story, we’re not in control.

A second thing to consider is that sometimes we might look a lot like weeds and on those occasions, we’d like to experience a little grace (just like others would like a little grace from us). Grace is a powerful tool in this world of ours. A little grace will go a long way toward breaking down barriers and bringing people together. As followers of Jesus, as his farmhands, we need to be showing the world what grace looks like.

In his memoir, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry, Garret Keizer tells of a time he’d stopped at a grocery store to pick up some bananas for an elderly friend he was going to visit. He was smug thinking of his good deed. But then, ahead of him in the check-out line was a woman who had a bunch of little purchases. She paid for them individually. He had no choice but to wait as she fumbled around with these little piles of money. Waiting, he began to resent the woman. As he followed her out of the store, having quickly paid for his bananas, he “shot her that look” that said, “You’re a jerk.” But then, he noticed her opening the door of a large van. On the side was a sign for a local nursing home. Before she drove away, she handed each of the residents who were inside the van, their packages.[10]

We gotta be careful. We just might pull the wheat up with the weeds.

Show some grace this week. People are pretty tense with all that’s going on in the world. It’s easy for us to get upset with “Them,” whoever “them” might be. When we are stressed, we can make bad judgment. So, let’s show patience and trust God to judge, while we do what good we can. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] See Matthew 7:3.

[2] “[T]his story is not about agriculture but instead it is about theology…  do not consult it for best agricultural practices!”  Scott Hoezee, “Proper 11A, July 13, 2020, https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-11a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[3] There have been debates as to whether this parable is about the world or the church, but the evidence and most scholars think this passage applies to the church. See Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation (Louisville; John Knox Press, 1993), 155.

[4] F. Dale Brunner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 28.

[5] Martin Luther,  as quoted by Bruner, 30.

[6] C. S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters (1941, New York, Macmillan 1961), 12-13.

[7] Bruner, 27.

[8] Bruner, 45.

[9] Luther’s Works, 51:173-87, as quoted by Bruner, 27.

[10] Garret Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry, as told by Jill Duffeld, “7th Sunday after Pentecost:  God Does the Sorting,” The Presbyterian Outlook (July 13, 2020, online edition)


Comments

The Danger of Forcing Others to be Good — 14 Comments

  1. There are good and not so good people mixed into every aspect of our society. Some people change as they get older and some don’t. it would be nice if we didn’t have a lot of hypocrites in our society but I just don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.

    • I agree, but all of us can be hypocritical at some point. We just need to seek forgiveness and be willing to forgive and to show grace.

    • I’m with you… None of us like being told that we’re not perfect, but such correction needs to be done with humility and privately in order not to destroy the wheat within the weeds.

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