Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Blurring of Lines [Matthew 13.24-30] (21 July 2002)

For the associated PowerPoint presentation click here.

Just recently Prayerna began liking the botanical characters in Veggie Tales. I know probably more Veggie Tales’ songs than I care to confess to. However, the lyrics of one song have struck me as quite interesting. Here’s a snippet. “If your friends tell you that you gotta be cool/ Remember what you learned in church and Sunday school/ Just check it out/ The bible tells us what it’s all about.” The implicit assumption is that the bible recommends one kind of behavior and that we happen to know exactly what that kind of behavior is. If we dig further, we could say that there is the assumption not only that there is one kind of behavior, but one set of beliefs.

How comforting! We all like to be assured that issues of life and death are black and white. After all, if the song can claim black and white status for behavior that is trivial for the most part, certainly the bible will tell us in clear cut terms what behaviors and beliefs to adopt for issues of eternal consequences.

So let us see what the bible says about such things. Turn with me to Matthew 13.24-30.

Let us set the parable in context. The Gospel of Matthew contains five long sections of teaching initiated by Jesus. That is, these are teachings given not in response to a query or claim made by someone else. The first is the Sermon on the Mount in chapters five to seven. The second is the so-called mission discourse in chapter 10. The third is the series of parables of the kingdom of God in chapter 13. The fourth is the teaching on church discipline in chapter 18. Finally, in chapters 24 and 25, Jesus teaches about the coming of the Kingdom of God. The parable we are dealing with is in the third of the speeches. The parable is the second in a series of seven parables.

Before going on to the parable, we must consider three things that are essential to the interpretation of parables. First, we must treat each parable on its own terms, without merging it with other parables. For example, in the first parable, humans are compared to various kinds of soils. In our parable, we are different kinds of seed. In the third parable, suddenly, we are birds nesting in a tree!

Second, we need to remember that a parable is not an allegory. An allegory is a story in which each element represents something in real life. For example, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory. In an allegory, the characters are clearly defined. We know, for example, that Evangelist evangelizes. That is all he does. Obstinate refuses to believe anything, while Pliable believes everything. In other words, in an allegory, the characters are one-dimensional.

In a parable, on the other hand, the characters are true to life. C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are examples of parables. One of the children, Susan ends up not believing, while Emeth, an opponent of Aslan, ends up in Aslan’s kingdom. Because of this fluidity, the purpose or meaning of a parable does not lie in identifying one-to-one correspondence between its elements and real life.

This gets us to the third point. The meaning of the parable lies in our identifying with a character in the parable. I know this is a little vague. So let me use our parable as an example.

In the parable, Jesus describes a common scenario in first century peasant life—a family feud. The enemy of the main character tries to subvert his plans by scattering weeds into the field.

This reminds me of chicken rice. Not only is that the name of a Singaporean delicacy, but also the title of a movie that Pauline and Simon had Alice and me watch with them. The story in the movie involves two feuding families, both of which happen to run stalls selling the delectable chicken rice. However, both stalls are in the same food court. This comes to the notice of the authorities, who must decide which stall to close. The movie shows each family trying to insure that the other family’s stall will be closed. One family places rats in the other family’s stall. The second family places roaches in the first family’s stall. And so on.

In the parable, the goal of the enemy is to frustrate the plans of the protagonist. Remember, the meaning of the parable lies in our identifying with a character in the parable. To help us do this, Jesus starts us on our journey of interpretation by making the following allegorical identifications in his explanation in vv. 36-43. 

We, twenty-first century, English speaking, city slickers are separated from Jesus’ audience in three ways—time, language, and geography. We must learn to hear Jesus as his first audience would have heard and understood him.

The good seed Jesus refers to is the wheat seed, which obviously produces wheat. In the first picture, you can see what wheat looks like. The weed that Jesus refers to is known as darnel or rye-grass. The second picture shows what darnel looks like. As you can see, the two are very similar. In fact, it is only when the wheat grains mature and dry on the stalks that darnel can be differentiated from wheat.

In addition, the roots of darnel are wiry and become entangled with the roots of wheat. The master in the parable rightly observes that the reapers would uproot the wheat if they chose to uproot the darnel.

A third fact about darnel is that its tiny seeds are hallucinogenic before they dry up. In dealing with darnel, one can become intoxicated and begin to imagine all sorts of things.

These three facts about darnel and wheat give us a clue to what Jesus is telling us through the parable. He is telling us two things. First, it is difficult to distinguish those who follow him from those who reject him. Second, the lives of those who follow him are intertwined with the lives of those who reject him. Third, there is a right time and place for divine justice—and it is not now!

Now I have often heard the interpretation that the master restrains the reapers just as God shows patience and waits for unbelievers to believe. This goes completely against what Jesus is saying. After all, darnel remains darnel and wheat remains wheat. No farmer allows weeds to remain in the field because he thinks that they might—just might—overnight become good food!

The master in the parable does not hope that the darnel would become wheat. Rather, he is concerned about the wheat that he planted. He wants the wheat to ripen and dry so he can reap an abundant harvest.

Moreover, the master is not worried about the presence of the darnel among wheat. Rather, he is worried that his reapers are unable to do the important job of distinguishing darnel from wheat. What if they mistake a stalk of wheat for darnel just because the grain has not yet grown on the stalk? What if they think a stalk of darnel is standing alone and uproot it only to find three stalks of wheat also land in the fire? What if, while handling the immature seeds of darnel, the reapers begin hallucinating and think that they need to save the darnel and destroy the wheat?

You see, the master’s main worry is not that his crop has been contaminated and has become impure but that justice might be dealt out swiftly and prematurely. After all, premature justice is justice miscarried.

Throughout church history, the church has been preoccupied with identifying true Christians.

Do we not all still do this? Do we not try to draw all kinds of lines to assure ourselves that we are in and that others are out? We use all kinds of markers to draw a sharp line between those who are saved and those who are not saved. Like the Veggie Tales’ song, we approach the issue of salvation as though it were cut and dry. We assume we know exactly who is in and who is out. Moreover, we even assume to know why?

And we even manage to fool ourselves that we are not disobeying Jesus’ words in Matthew 7.1-2 where he tells us, “Do not condemn.” Let us be honest. To believe a person is not Christian is to believe that that person is going to face God’s judgment. It is as good as saying, “You are headed toward hell!”

What qualifies us to make such a judgment? Do we really know the person as Gods does? Yet, we do it all the time! From the general principle that those who believe in Jesus will be saved we frighten people with the opposite—those who do not believe in Jesus are going to hell.

However, drawing for the parable, what if the person we are frightening is a child of the enemy? Can you envisage a farmer speaking to a stalk of darnel and saying, “You know, all the weeds are going to be burnt. You don’t want that to happen, do you? Why don’t you just become wheat?” On the other hand, what if the person is a child of the kingdom, who has not matured? Can you imagine the farmer speaking to a stalk of wheat and saying, “You know, wheat stalks have wheat grains. You don’t have any grains. You must be a weed. Don’t you know that the weeds are going to be burnt?”

The absurdity of the two situations should give us pause. Jesus has warned us sternly against drawing conclusions about the eternal destiny of people. Yet, we do it all the time and say we are following Jesus. What hypocrites we are!

Moreover, in the parable Jesus says that even the angels are unable to make the distinctions we make without a thought. How prideful we are!

In the parable, Jesus tells us that the lines are not as clear as we think they are—or, at least, wish they are. The lines are blurred. How do we know for sure that I am not a weed that just looks so much like the real thing? And how do we know that Saddam Hussein is wheat that has not yet matured?

But if the lines are blurred, whom do we witness to? And whom do we evangelize? May be we need to redefine what we mean by those terms. If by those terms we mean ways by which we attempt to bring people into the kingdom, our parable warns us against even attempting such a thing. For to attempt to bring someone in is to first assume that the person is out, which, as we have seen, is merely condemnation disguised.

However, these terms did not originally refer to bringing people in. Rather, to witness to Jesus was merely to give testimony about Jesus—testimony that he brought the kingdom of God to this earth, that he healed many, that he raised many, that he taught marvelous things, that he upset the status quo, that the authorities put him to death, that the Father raised him, that he reigns now with the Father, that he has sent his Spirit to continue his mission through his people, that he will come again to consummate his love for us.

Similarly, to evangelize was to announce the good news through deeds and words—the good news that God has brought his kingdom to earth in the person of Jesus.

Simple things these are. There is no pressure in these to bring people in. We are merely telling anecdotes about a very good friend. But these are no inconsequential anecdotes. These are anecdotes around which history turns.

Do you wonder why so few of us ever share the good news about Jesus? I sure did. But as I have thought about it, I have come to the conclusion that we have done it to ourselves. In our attempt to have a pure church, through our desire to know who is in and who is out, with our penchant for drawing sharp lines we have taped our mouths and cut off our hands.

Think. Think of a close friend who does not believe in or follow Jesus. Do you not wish this person shared your faith? But how do you approach him? If you begin to share about Jesus, you know that, at some point, the person is going to ask you why what you share is so important. What do you say? You could say, “If you don’t believe this you’re gonna fry!” Or you could say, “I believe this. And do know how much my life has changed since?”

Which option is easier? For my part, it is easier to talk about how Jesus has changed my life. I can talk about that as easily as I can talk about how Alice, Prayerna, or my parents have changed my life. And when it is that easy, people will realize that it is easy precisely because it is so real.

Moreover, which option is honest to our parable? Since Jesus warns us against premature judgment, I cannot sentence someone.

The key to the parable lies in v. 29 where the master says, “No! For in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” Jesus’ point in the parable is that the two kingdoms—the kingdom of God and the counterfeit kingdom of Satan—grow simultaneously. Between the time when Jesus first announced the kingdom of God and the time when he returns to bring the kingdom fully, the true kingdom and the fake kingdom exist side by side. More to the point, it is extremely difficult to differentiate between the two kingdoms. Indeed, according to the parable, it is impossible!

It is sad that, despite what this parable teaches us, through most of church history, the church has been preoccupied with identifying the signs of the true kingdom. Many answers have been suggested. Some describe what a Christian ought to be. For instance, a Christian must live a pure life, which raises the question, “What behavior is off-limits?” Or a Christian must be baptized, which raises the questions, “When?” and “How?” A third approach is that a Christian must believe in Jesus, which raises the question, “Believe what?”

Other answers describe what a true church should be. For instance, a church must teach biblically sound doctrine, which raises the question, “Which denominations are orthodox?” Or a church must administer the sacraments, which raises the question, “What are the sacraments?” Another approach is that a church must be led by the Holy Spirit, which provokes the question, “How does one decide?”

A third set of answers deal with the effects of the kingdom on society. For instance, the kingdom promotes prosperity, which begs the question, “Why then was Jesus a pauper?” Or the kingdom promotes health, which requires the question, “Why then do we still suffer?” Or the kingdom promotes virtue, which begs the question, “Why then are we so devoid of character?”

My point is that all these approaches ignore what Jesus has told us—that the two kingdoms are difficult to separate. More precisely, the kingdom of God exists where we often do not see it, namely outside the church. And the kingdom of Satan exists where we hope to be safe from it, namely in the church. If you doubt this last claim, read the letters to the churches in the last book of the bible.

The news that the two kingdoms are difficult to differentiate must have been hard for the disciples to take in. After all, in first century Palestine, the line between the unrighteous, whom God would condemn, and the righteous, whom God would bless, was very clear. For them, the Romans were the unrighteous and the Jews the righteous. And here Jesus was saying that the line was not that clear. More to the point, he was saying that even attempting to draw the line was ridiculous.

I have driven home the main point of the parable in a number of ways. The line between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan is blurred. We are faced with the crucial question, “Why does Jesus tell this parable?” In other words, “How are we to respond to the parable?”

How we are to respond, of course, depends on the character with which we chose to identify. The only two characters open to us are the wheat and the darnel. The first question Jesus’ audience is faced with is, “Are you wheat or darnel?”

The most common knee-jerk response to the question is, “Of course I am wheat!” There is hardly anyone who would openly claim to be the offspring of Satan! We all function within a worldview and belief system that assures us we are children of God. And it is here that the parable asks us the world shattering question, “How are you so sure?”

Given what we know about how similar wheat and darnel are, we can appreciate the question. How indeed are we so sure? As I have said, every method we develop to determine who is a child of God and who is not merely leads to questions that Christians have answered in a variety of ways. How indeed am I sure that I am a child of God?

The second question Jesus’ audience is faced with is, “Is the person next to you wheat or darnel?” Again, following the logic of the parable any definite answer we give forces us to answer the question, “How are you so sure?”

This parable is masterful in that it asks us the same question without regard to the character with which we chose to identify. And like a good parable, it traps us and ensnares us until it is not we who are interpreting the parable but the parable that is interpreting us.

The parable challenges every boundary drawing bone in us. It questions every inclination we have to make hedges around ourselves. It rebukes every attempt we make to determine who is in God’s kingdom and who is not.

1 comment:

  1. I understand that we shouldn't be judgmental, but what about ourselves. It's frightening to think that while I believe I may be wheat, am I really darnel? I hope not. How then can I be sure?