The Pope arrives in heaven after his death. St. Peter says, "Frankly, you're very lucky to be here."
The Pope says, "Why? What did I do wrong on earth?"
St. Peter says, "God is very angry with your position on women becoming priests."
The Pope says, "He's mad about THAT?" St. Peter says, "She's furious."
Well, given the heat and humidity of the day, I thought that might be a better way to start than to talk about the furnace of fire and burning weeds. Actually, the point of the joke is simply this: 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 the audience here expected from the story Jesus told?
Well, actually, the religious people of his time expected that a Messiah would clear the field of all the weeds once and for all. And there are religious leaders in our own time who want a perfect church with people who do exactly as they say and who make no waves.
Just one quick aside before I go for the bottom line—Matthew, the author of this Gospel, just loves this stuff about the “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Once a fire and brimstone preacher was giving a sermon on this and a little old man raised his hand and asked, “Reverend, what happens if you don’t have teeth.” “Teeth will be provided,” replied the minister.
It should be a comfort to us who may be confused by some of what we hear in the Gospels that the disciples did not understand the point of this parable. So they take him aside. “Jesus, sorry to say we don’t get it. Where can we buy a copy of Parables for Dummies.”
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 because Jesus is full of surprises.
So, when it comes to the weeds in the church’s garden, 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. 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.
In the meantime, we are not the ones to judge, to label, or to exclude. Sinners judging other sinners is risky business. Sadly, there have been and still are many religious enthusiasts who want to haul anyone out of church 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. Some religious leaders today re no different from the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time. They have a litmus test for who they think is worthy of God’s love.
If we are serious about drawing others to Jesus as a result of our own discipleship, we must be serious about the example we offer. The theologian Karl Rahner put 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, deprecation, 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 we exclude people in the interest of some imaginary and unattainable perfection, we become a loveless, legalistic, stagnant culture. Eradication, rejection, and exclusion never produce a hale and hearty growing season. Reconciliation, healing and renewal are the best fertilizer.
What more does God expect? That we await the harvest with hopeful hearts. God’s wisdom is not our wisdom. And, in the end, She will always surprise us.