RCL Year A, Proper 11
Have you ever felt absolutely certain about something, only to discover that you were totally wrong? A few years ago my son was moving up to a new class in his preschool. There were two different classrooms and sets of teachers that he could be assigned to, and I was absolutely certain which class I didn’t want him in. I had noticed this particular teacher on the playground and I didn’t want her. To my eye she looked coarse, unkind to the children, even trashy – too much makeup, too many tattoos, the trace of too many cigarettes in her voice. Anyone but her, I thought. The night the assignments were posted, I called the school to find out who B. had. And it was that teacher. Oh no, I thought. Oh NO. But the very first day I took him into that classroom, that teacher was there to greet me. ‘You moved here from New York?’ she said. ‘I grew up in New York! You like camping? I love camping!’ B. immediately connected to her, and as the weeks went by I often received photos emailed in the middle of my day of the two of them having a merry old time together. And very quickly I realized how totally wrong I was, how incorrect a judgment I had made about her purely based on my assumptions. I could hear God gently reprimanding me in my head.
Sometimes we’re completely wrong about people. We make judgments based on an impression or hearsay or something they said on an off day, and it can take us a long time to realize that we were wrong. Sometimes we’re wrong about whole groups of people. The church as a whole has had problems with this – from supporting slavery to racial segregation to fights over the ordination of women and gay marriage, we have found ourselves as an institution more than once on the side of what is wrong, adamantly arguing in judgment on other people. Only later have we looked back and seen where we been wrong. And all of those wrong judgments can lead to real damage, in our own selves, in the lives of others, and in the institutions we’re a part of. It is no light thing what we think about others and about the world, because it leads us to act in ways that have real consequences.
Jesus’ parable today highlights these kinds of flaws in our judgment. Good and evil are mixed up in this world, he’s saying, just the way wheat is mixed with weeds in a field. They might look alike; tearing up one might result in damage to the other. The only way to tell will be at the end of time, when the larger picture is revealed, and what you don’t know and understand now will be made clear. Stop clinging to your sense of certainty, and let God be the judge – you cause harm with your misjudgments. Or as Isaiah points out, there is no other god but God – stop trying to be God yourself.
It’s hard to resist, though, isn’t it? As the saying has it, “When they discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed they are not it.” We may not actually think we’re God or the center of the universe. But we’re pretty sure God agrees with us, that we’re standing pretty close to the center ourselves. Whether it’s in our political views or our family relationships, it’s the other people who are the problem. Carried to the extreme, this is what leads us to shoot down a plane we believe to be the enemy’s military aircraft – only to find out that we’ve killed hundreds of innocent people on a jet. Most of the time the effects of our mistakes are smaller than this, of course. And yet they can still be devastating to people around us.
Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, did a lot of preaching and writing a few years ago on idolatry, the worship of other gods besides God. He made the point that idolatry really is the main sin for all of us – not the worship of carved idols and statues, but of other things we have set up as our gods, things that we obey and that compel our behavior. Everything from career success to religion to individual self-sufficiency can become our god, Keller says. And when they are there in place of God, we act accordingly. We sacrifice our family to extra time at work; we get self-righteous about our own faith and how we live it out and bash other people who think differently; we push others away and deny our own need of help when it is offered; and so on, depending on what particular idol we’ve got in top position at the moment. And harm is the result. The sickness of our culture right now is a clear manifestation of that.
The thing is, we don’t set those idols up for the fun of it. We set them up out of fear. When Aaron and the Israelites decided to make the golden calf instead of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain, it’s because they were scared – they were lost in the wilderness, camped by a mountain spewing fire and smoke, and their leader had disappeared. They wanted a god they could see and touch. When we make judgments about people it’s often out of fear as well – with Benji’s teacher, I was fearful of letting someone I didn’t trust take care of him. When we judge other people’s religion or how they do things, when we don’t trust others, when we do everything we can to attain our own wealth and security, it’s all out of fear – fear that we’ll be lost or hurt or something we love will die. Which is pretty powerful as a motivator, even when the consequences are so negative.
Letting God be the judge of the wheat and the tares is ultimately about letting God be in the top position, rather than ourselves or any other idol. It means having to trust God, because we can’t do it ourselves. We don’t control as much as we’d like to think we do. Death and illness and sudden tragedy certainly remind us of that – witness the airplane shot down in the Ukraine, and the deaths and crises closer to home. We can’t control our own outcomes. We don’t know the larger picture. We’re limited in all kinds of ways, and we know that.
But the lack of control doesn’t have to be scary. We may not be in control of what is happening; we may not understand it; but God does. The deeper truth of the parable today is that God has us in hand. As Paul writes in Romans, God works all things for good. We can trust God. If we ground ourselves in daily prayer and time with God, if we put ourselves in mind regularly of God’s love and intentions for us, then we will begin to recognize God’s hand at work in our lives. We won’t need to be so fearful. We won’t need to set up our own barriers and judgments and categories to keep the evil at bay; we won’t need to point fingers at others as the problem, the enemy. Because God is faithful. Ultimately, no evil can harm us; so judgment is not our work. We can be at peace, letting God be God.