(Creative Commons Image by Bernat Casero on Flickr)
Dear Working Preachers,
Good and evil side by side, co-existing without set checks and balances, without resolute criteria for adjudicating which is which, without a sense of qualifications and quantifications that might provide certain conclusions to ease our moral consciences? Perhaps one of the most challenging and problematic issues in the history of theological thought. Where does evil come from? Is it as simple as assigning it to an alternate being? Is it as easily determinable as we tend to think? Is it so readily recognized as we want to believe?
These are the theological questions that Matthew’s parable seems to raise. A first step in preaching this week is to acknowledge these difficulties, to dwell in the discomfort, and to resist any definitive test to secure answers that surely demand far more deliberation than a twelve minute sermon can give justice.
We are really good at assessing what is good and what is not with the effortless phrase, “the Bible says.” But, the problem with evil? With sin? Is that it looks pretty darn good. So close to what seems right and virtuous. So close to our vision of what we imagine good should be.
Matthew’s parable this week is in one sense a warning. Lest we think we have it all figured out how to judge evil from good, moral from immoral, right from wrong, virtuous from unvirtuous, think again. According to whom? When? In what contexts? By what standards? This is the time for some prophetic proclamation. Pointing out the places in our history, in our present, when evil was and is justified biblically, theologically, morally, socially. This alone is worth preaching.
Such is our human inclination, is it not? Our penchant for judgment and condemnation. For declaring the future of those we deem somehow inadequate in faith and Christian life. For assuming maleficence in another as if our own actions are above reproach.
This parable is one that should stop us up short. Really? Who do you think you are? God? Yet many do. We do. A lot.
I recently shared a saying on my Facebook page that appeared in my news feed, “When they discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed they are not it.”
When we start going down the road of making our lot in life electing what is good and evil we may very well discover that others will make similar conclusions about us.
Matthew’s parable invites some honest preaching about the existence of evil. When was the last time you listened, really listened, to how your parishioners talk about evil, about theodicy? Call attention to the ways in which these realities co-exist. How difficult it is to determine the difference until the point when it’s too late. That it is ok. Because in the end, the parable promises that God’s job is not ours. Exuberant efforts to eradicate evil may very well end up only in questioning our own eschatological actuality.
This parable is a description of a reality we’d rather not admit. Maybe even a description of a God in whom we’d rather not believe. Can’t God do something about the enemy, and now? What is God good for anyway if God can’t see to it that evil is eliminated? The parable of the wheat and the weeds is not told for the sake of action but for the sake of honesty. Our presence in the world as Christians is not about a full-blown plan to get rid of evil at every turn.
That our calling as disciples is to seek out and purge sin and evil? Frankly, I don’t want that job. I don’t trust myself. But I do trust God. Our presence in the world as Christians is to be the good. To live the Gospel. To be the light. To be the salt. Because we are, says Jesus to his disciples. This should be good news. This parable calls us simply to be. To be the good in the world with the full awareness of what the resistances will be. To be light when darkness will surely try to snuff us out. To be salt when blandness and conformity and acceptability are always the easier paths.
Maybe you are wondering, but aren’t we called to call out evil? To resist the forces that would deprive those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? To make sure that those who mourn are comforted? To uplift the poor in spirit? Yes. Absolutely. But perhaps not in this sermon. There will be other texts and other sermons that will have us lead a charge for this kind of action.
Perhaps in this instance we believe in the text and take our cue from Matthew’s vision of God. Immanuel. “I am with you to the end of the age.” We are called to just to be. And in order to be we trust that God is with us.
Indeed, God is.