Have you seen it? It may be my favorite bumper sticker of all time. “Dear Jesus,” it says, “please deliver me from your followers.”
Good words to remember as we look at our text today. Because Jesus is pretty great. But some of his followers can be a big disappointment.
This morning the narrative lectionary invites us to ponder some parables. These parables tell us a little about the kingdom of heaven. And, if we listen carefully, they may also tell us something about ourselves.
We are, still, in the Gospel according to Matthew. But we have jumped ahead a few chapters. Jesus has been preaching and teaching and it is going…OK. Not great. The early Jesus movement met with some success –some people heard the message, dropped everything and decided to follow. But most people did not. Most people listened politely and then turned away. Jesus and his followers have felt the sting of rejection. It is has been kind of rough.
So, now, in chapter 13, Matthew pauses to ponder all of this. Rejected, ignored -we have the experience, but what does it mean? Jesus tries to tell us, by sharing some parables about the kingdom of heaven.
But let’s make sure we know what we are talking about here. Let’s define some terms. What exactly do we mean by “kingdom of heaven”? And what is a parable anyway?
Remember, in Matthew’s Gospel, the “kingdom of heaven” does not mean the afterlife or where you go when you die; it means shalom. It means peace and justice and sharing. It means God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven –It means something different from the world we know now.
Jesus preaches the kingdom. He wants us to know what it is. And so, sometimes, Jesus tells parables about the kingdom.
The Gospels suggest that parable was Jesus’ most characteristic way of expressing himself. It says so right there in our text for today: without a parable he told them nothing. Like he would launch into yet another parable and Mary Magdalene would turn to Peter and say, “That is so Jesus.”
“Parable” comes from a Greek word that means “to set side by side.” You illustrate the nature of something by comparing it to something else –like a metaphor or a simile. But behind the Greek word “parable” stands a Hebrew word: mashal. And mashal means “enigmatic speech.” It is not about defining something; it is about pointing us to mystery that defies definition.[i]
And that is what Jesus does in his parables –he points to realities that are bigger than us, things we cannot entirely understand.
Like the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat. We have had this story for 2,000 years and I’m pretty sure we don’t get it. And my proof that we don’t get is right here in Mathew 13.
It is a simple enough story: A farmer sows good seed in the field. But weeds come up as well. What happened here? An enemy has done this. That’s what the farmer says. So…should we pull up the weeds? Oh, no. That would be dangerous. You might pull up the wheat as well. Let it all grow up together. All will be sorted out at the harvest.
The parable reminds me of Charlie Wilson’s War. Near the end of the movie, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character tells the story of a Zen master who observes the people of his village celebrating a young boy’s new horse as a wonderful gift. “We’ll see,” the Zen master says. When the boy falls off the horse and breaks a leg, everyone says the horse is a curse. “We’ll see,” says the master. Then war breaks out, the boy cannot be conscripted because of his injury, and everyone now says the horse was a fortunate gift. “We’ll see,” the master says again.[ii]
To me, this is the message of the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat: We don’t know. We want to know—we think we know—but we do not know. We want to sort the world into saints and sinners, unrighteous and righteous. We want to line everybody up and know which side everybody is on.
But we can’t. We can’t know that. And when we try to figure that out, well, all we do is tear up the wheat. When we judge others, we undermine the good we have done.
Perhaps the greatest spiritual discipline is the practice of withholding judgment, of leaving enough room for the grace of God. And the two hardest words to learn in the English language? “We’ll see.”
But Dear Lord Jesus, deliver me from your followers. Because the people who follow Jesus took this story about without holding judgement and turned into a story celebrating judgement. And they did it right here in Matthew 13.
See, I have a hunch about this passage. I can’t prove it, but verses 36-43 just don’t sound like Jesus to me. The allegorical interpretation where everything is symbol for something else…Jesus doesn’t talk that way. Jesus doesn’t think that way. No, this sounds like the church. I think Matthew 13:36-43 is a just a blatant instance of the church doing what the church so often does: missing the point.
Because this was a story about withholding judgement. But suddenly it becomes a story celebrating judgement: the fiery furnace, the weeping, the gnashing of teeth. In this version of the story, everybody knows exactly who is wheat and exactly who is a weed. In this story, the righteous get rewarded with smug satisfaction. The weeds go to hell and the wheat gets to watch.
It was a story about the spiritual practice of withholding judgement. But the church got it all twisted, turned it into a story celebrating judgement. And then we put it on the lips of Jesus.
Dear Jesus, deliver me from your followers. Because Jesus is pretty great. But a lot of his followers are a big disappointment.
I mean: look at me.
When I left evangelical Christianity and came into the United Church of Christ—when I first found a church like Plymouth—I thought my judging days were behind me.
But I was wrong. The judgement habit is hard to break.
I think it must be religion. Religion makes people judge-y. Religion motivates us to distinguish and divide, to separate and sort: the righteous and the unrighteous, the sheep and the goats, the Cyclone and the Hawkeyes.
We like to say we don’t do that here at Plymouth Church. And maybe you don’t. But I know I do. I do it all the time. Mostly because I am lazy. Feeling smug, feeling superior is so much easier than actually working for the kingdom of heaven. Standing up for immigrants and migrants and the stranger at our border? That is hard. Feeling superior to government officials is easy. Casting a critical eye on my white privilege? Examining my own complicity in racist systems and structures? That is so hard. But tut-tutting about the latest stupid racist thing said by some member of Congress? Super easy. Truly welcoming GLBTQ folk into the life of our church is incredibly hard work -25 years and we are still trying to get it right. But hating the churches that drove them out? I can do that in my sleep.
When I get all self-righteousness, it feels like I did something. It feels good. But I am reminded of the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber. She says “Self-righteousness feels good. For a moment. But only in the way that peeing your pants feels warm for a moment.”[iii]
I may have made my way into the United Church of Christ but I am still a religious person. In my experience most religious people would rather indulge in the cheap pleasure of self-righteousness than engage in the hard work of love.
But thank God, Jesus seems to have a soft spot for religious people. Even though we are judge-y. Even when we put words in his mouth. Even though we can be insufferably self-righteous. Jesus just keeps inviting us to lay off the judgement, to make room for God grace, to get over ourselves and get on with the business of love.
Religious people can be such a drag. But God loves us enough to deliver us from us.
[i] Douglas R A Hare. Matthew. Interpretation: A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993), pp.146-147.
[ii] This account of the Zen Master’s story is lifted from a New York Times editorial: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/21/opinion/21iht-edmovie.1.9374975.html