Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wheat and Weeds and Cups of Water

So far this week, I’ve been blogging about this Sunday’s gospel lesson—the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). In it, the enemy sowed weeds in the master’s field one night, and, when they grow up amidst the wheat, the master decides to let them remain until the harvest (i.e., the time of the last judgment), at which time they are bound and cast into the fiery furnace. As Jesus interprets his own parable, those weeds are depicted as “the children of the evil one”—people who seem to belong to the devil rather than to God. But that still leaves me wondering who they are. What does it take to be a weed?

Today’s lesson in the Daily Office is from a later passage in Matthew’s gospel account (Matt. 25:31-46). Although I’m wary of making connect-the-dot comparisons from one part of the bible with another, since it’s from the same gospel account, it seems fair to let Matt. 25 fill out Matt. 13. Like Sunday’s gospel, it is also a passage about the last judgment, but this time Jesus makes it clear what distinguishes the righteous from the cursed, and I don’t like what he says.

[41] “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. [42] For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, [43] I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ (Matt. 25:41-43 ESV)

This is one of those passages that I know intimately but still don’t take seriously. What about you? Essentially, Jesus seems to be establishing a righteousness that is based on works: those who minister to the needs of others are worthy of heaven, and those who don’t are worthy of hell. (Did you see that? That was Pauline theology flying out the window.) How important is this approach to righteousness in our daily life?

I’ll admit that there are times when someone walks through the door of the church asking for financial assistance and I wonder to myself, “Could this be Jesus?” Occasionally, when I’m driving down the road and see a hitchhiker carrying a backpack on a swelteringly hot day, I wonder whether I should pull over just in case it is Jesus I’m about to pass by. Sometimes I worry that when I get to the last judgment, Jesus will look at me and say, “Do you remember that sixty-year-old black woman who stopped you in the grocery store parking lot on March 27, 1999, and asked you for five dollars? Well, that was me. You’re going to hell!” But that’s not what this gospel lesson is about. And that’s not what Matt. 13 is about, either.

Jesus isn’t hiding himself. This isn’t Candid Camera. Our journey toward the end of time is not one big reality show, where God is watching to see whether we’ll recognize his son in disguise. Instead, Jesus is asking his disciples and us to shift our understanding of what it means to serve our Lord. The surprise doesn’t come when Jesus takes off his mask and says, “Aha! It’s me!” It comes when we realize that serving him means serving others—when we look at those in need and see that there never was any difference between them and Jesus. That’s a mindset-shift that Jesus brings to the earth. Being a servant in the kingdom does not mean waiting for the king to ask you to bring him a cup of water. It means serving everyone as if he were the king.

That’s a different sort of eschatology that isn’t really a works-based righteousness at all. Jesus doesn’t really care whether we gave the glass of water to the right thirsty person. This isn’t about water at all. It’s about seeing the kingdom as it really is. What does it mean to belong to the kingdom of God? It’s realizing that it’s here and now. It’s acting as if Jesus’ lordship is the dominant principle in our daily lives. Sure, of course that means giving water to those who thirst without considering their status or deservedness.

Maybe that’s the difference between being a stalk of wheat or a growing weed—a child of the kingdom or a child of the evil one. Despite living in a world that is full of wheat and weeds, we live as fully inaugurated citizens of the kingdom. Maybe that’s why the master refuses to pull the weeds up before the harvest. Maybe that’s why he says that to pull the weeds would uproot the wheat—because being wheat means growing and bearing fruit in a mixed field of good and bad.

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