Uncomfortable Paradox (Seventh Sunday after Pentecost)

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When I was a kid, we used to play a game called, “Cops and Robbers.” Maybe you played something similar. Basically, it was a glorified game of tag. We split into two teams: the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys chased the bad guys until they were caught, and then they were taken off to jail, which was usually a back patio or swing set. The robbers would try to escape and then it would start all over again.

It was a fairly innocent game. I’m not here to say it wasn’t. But, the reason I use it as a backdrop to our conversation today is because this notion of ‘policing’ others, of pitting good against bad, of solving problems by locking them away, is one that’s deeply ingrained in all of us.

Our ‘favorite’ solutions to the world’s deepest and most painful problems with sin and brokenness are bullying them, punching people in the nose, locking them away, and… when all else fails, there’s always the electric chair.

And, often we concoct eternal-life variations of the same procedures: God is waiting in the wings to toss all those who don’t follow the rules into hell (AKA the divine electric chair). This seems barbaric and utterly incongruent with the character of God revealed to us through Jesus.

Now, before I get into the rest of the sermon, I want to state up front that I am keenly aware that in today’s particular the Gospel plainly speaks to the ‘sorting’ aspect at the end of the age. Jesus says, without apology, that evil is doomed: “At harvest time, I’ll instruct my reapers to collect, bundle, and burn the weeds.”

I feel that I have to take that piece seriously.

But mostly what I need to take seriously about it is it’s God’s job to do the sorting, judging, and deciding. Not mine. As a pastor and follower of Jesus, I believe that nobody is beyond redemption. And, that it’s not my job to decide who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Not that I’m not tempted to do so… it’s just not up to me. I know I can’t fully reconcile the whole question of good and evil. I know there are so many things that shape circumstances, people, and reactions. I know that God created all people in God’s image. And so, how evil comes to be, how people get twisted away from that image – I don’t have the answers.  

Much of life is not clear cut and much of life seems like lived paradox.
Paradox means being able to see things as “both-ands,” instead of “either-ors.”

Which is why this parable is actually quite maddening. It seems clear that the wheat should grow and the weeds should be pulled out. It seems like an “either-or.” Ask any farmer and they’ll tell you that what Jesus is proposing here is preposterous. The practice of not pulling weeds is no way to run a farm. The weeds will choke out the good wheat, and the weeds will seed out and plague next year’s planting season too.

Do nothing?!
I don’t know about you, but doing nothing isn’t really in my DNA.
Leave BOTH the wheat AND the weeds.

See, I always jump to: what does Jesus want me to do? Yes – WWJD was a super popular bracelet acronym and can be helpful, but not always. It really promotes either-or thinking.

Plus, I tend to lead with confidence (or arrogance) rather than humility when it comes to moral gardening: “Jesus, trust me, I know how to separate the weeds from the wheat. Let me at it, please, and I’ll have that field cleared for you in no time! Let’s get the work over with now — why wait? Let’s settle the question of who is good, and who is bad.  Who belongs, and who does not.”

Clearly Jesus should not put a machete in my hands.
Before I get ahead of myself and become ridiculously annoyed with Jesus’ unwillingness to let me garden, I want to take a step back.

You may remember that last week I had to preach about seeds too. And what was super helpful to me (and hopefully to you) was to imagine Jesus’ demeaner, his way of engaging with the situation, how he was feeling…  before jumping to my own conclusions about what I should do.

In last week’s sermon I shared how I believed Jesus was joyous as the kingdom was being scattered. Recognizing and holding that joy made a difference in my perspective and life.
This week I think Jesus is unfazed. Cool, calm, and collected. He states without flinching that evil is real, insidious, intentional, and dangerous. And he seems hardly concerned.

He doesn’t deny the reality of evil. He’s pretty upfront about it. But, it’s like he knows it’s all going to work out in the end. This is both irritating. And good news.

It’s irritating, because I’d like to get to work and root out the evil. Or, at least Jesus could get to work.
And it’s good news, because eventually everything that chokes, starves, breaks, distorts, poisons, and harms God’s children, will burn away. 

Not because God hates the world.  But because God loves it. 

I actually think this parable is more about learning to hold together truths that seem bizarre, counterintuitive, and irreconcilable, like: love your enemies; turn the other cheek; my yoke is easy and my burden light; whoever loses their life will gain it; let the weeds grow.

These seeming contradictions force me to lean into my faith in the midst of confusion. It is good news that Jesus’ words are robust enough to bear the weight of a messy world. Because, Lord knows, the world is messy. Beautiful and full of hope, but downright messy.

But, I’m still uncomfortable with this parable. I hear Jesus asking his followers to hold truths in tension: Evil is real and show restraint in deciding who and what is evil.  Sitting with the uncertainty of ‘when’ and ‘how’ and ‘who’ is hard for me. It doesn’t suit my personality at all. And yet, it’s the most faithful way to approach the beautiful mess that is the world in which we live.

Jesus invites us into the practice of courageous paradox. It takes courage to say, “This is true — and this is true also.  I don’t know how, but God does. I’ll trust that in good time new and beautiful things will flourish.

One other little hard truth that this raises for me: The issue of recognizing paradox begins inside of us, in how we hold our own internal paradoxes. If we can’t hold our inner complexities as “both-and,” instead of “either-or,” we can’t possibly extend that kind of grace to another person.

Isn’t this parable such an uncomfortable, hopeful, confusing paradox?
So very suited to life today.

The gift of this parable lies not in the retribution at the end – which, in case anyone cares, I think they strong-armed Jesus into giving them some fire and brim stone, because that’s human nature…
But, the gift is in the charge to grow where you’re planted.

Which isn’t doing nothing, as I accused Jesus of in the beginning.
We grow in a ruined place – yes, but as we do, we enrich the soil, we can appreciate the abundance surrounding us, and we hear the songs of the people and birds. The tenacity found in the wheat is that it fearlessly engages with life. This resolve helps grows our hearts, so that it’s able to hold it all – happiness and messiness, clarity and confusion, love and loss.

Maybe the confounding paradox is the field is both out there, and it’s also in here.
Maybe the kingdom of God grows both in time and space, and also in the specificity of one life.