“There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
A preacher was sermonizing about this passage and in his fire and brimstone style strongly emphasized these final words in today’s Gospel.
An elderly gentleman in the back pew stood up and asked, “Reverend, I don’t have any teeth. What about me?” To which the preacher replied, “Teeth will be provided!”
Harsh words in Matthew’s Gospel today. By the way, he was particularly fond of the imagery of “gnashing teeth.” Maybe he should have been a dentist instead of a tax collector. But is that creepy, horrid language really what we’re in for?
When it comes to God, we just never know what to expect and, very often, we’ll be surprised. If someone vengefully plants weeds in your garden, the logical thing to do would be to pull them, no? Isn’t that what Jesus’ audience expected from the story he told?
Jesus told parables to describe things rather than prescribe a resolution. Like the one we heard last Sunday and those we’ll hear next week, this story is descriptive and Jesus is trying to give us an idea of what the kingdom of heaven is like. And most of these parables have a twist. God in Jesus is full of surprises.
So, when it comes to the weeds in the garden of the world, what does God expect of us? It’s pretty clear from the explanation Jesus offers that, with the exception of keeping it a safe place and maintaining reasonable order, God expects us to refrain from taking matters into our own hands. Nobody gets to choose who’s going to be gnashing their teeth. That is totally God’s business. The kingdom of heaven will come not because of what you or I do but because of what God has done and is always doing.
There is an old adage about the two Puritans talking to each other. One says to the other, “There is none so righteous as thee and me, and sometimes I worry about thee.”
Some religious leaders today are no different from the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time, nor from the Puritan who thought he was so righteous. They have a litmus test for who they think is worthy of God’s love—who’s “in and who’s “out;” who is wheat and who is weed. Jesus makes it clear that we are not the ones to judge, to label, or to exclude. Sinners judging other sinners is risky business.
Sadly, there are many religious enthusiasts who want to haul anyone out they perceive as “bad weeds” and who have a very distorted, narrow vision of what God’s kingdom is like, not to mention who will end up there. Theologian Karl Rahner said it well: “The number one cause of atheism is Christianity—those who proclaim God with their mouths and deny God by the way they live and the way they treat others.”
God knows the consequences of deadly herbicides. Spray enough judgment, censure, and criticism around and the entire field—and community—is poisoned. The church must be a refuge for everyone, no matter who we are or where we are on our journey of faith. When religious institutions in any denominations exclude people in the interest of some imaginary and unattainable perfection, it becomes a loveless, legalistic, stagnant culture. Eradication, rejection, and exclusion never produce a hale and hearty growing season. Compassion, healing and renewal are the best fertilizer in God’s garden.
Last Sunday, Jennifer Hudson ended her great sermon with these words: “Being good soil, then, is being open and receptive to the tilling of the Spirit of God; it is allowing God to work through the “junk” to bring the reward. Being good soil is not giving up on ourselves or on the good things we can do because God never gives up on us.”
Gospel lessons like today’s can find us in the territory of what we might call “messy spirituality.” It can leave us wondering what to think about the harsh ending of the text. In the midst of “messy spirituality” we need to regularly call upon God’s wisdom, God’s love, God’s guidance, and the wideness of God’s mercy to find our way in a confusing and weed-infested world. What more does God expect? That we await the harvest with hopeful hearts.
There is a story about a minister who had a strange dream that he died and was trying to get into heaven. When he approached the pearly gates, St. Peter told him he needed 100 points to get in. Proudly the minister said, "Well, I was a pastor for 43 years.""Fine," said St. Peter, "That's worth one point." "One point? Is that all?" cried the minister. "Yes, that's it," said St. Peter.
"Well," said the pastor, "I performed many baptisms, weddings and funerals." St. Peter responded, "That's worth one point."
"I preached thousands of sermons," said the pastor. "That's worth one point," said St. Peter. "I developed a number of excellent educational programs," said the minister. "That's worth one point," said St. Peter. "You have four points now. You need 96 more."
"Oh no," said the minister in a panic. "I feel so helpless, so inadequate. Except for the grace of God, I don't have a chance." St. Peter smiled and said, "Grace of God that counts for 96 points. Come on in!"
Grace—a free gift, an amazing gift. And it is ours for the asking. Thanks be to God.