The grace of doing nothing

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Reverend Rebecca Newland
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost—20 July 2014

Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

Who here wants to save the world and make everything right? Who would like to weed out bad politicians, geriatric media moguls, terrorists and incompetent and ignorant church leaders? Just imagine if you could just bundle them all up and get rid of them and their unhelpful and downright destructive actions? Wouldn't the world be a better place and we would all be free to create art and good science, play music and wander in the wilderness? Or as has been suggested to me, human beings are a plague on the earth and the sooner our species is extinct the better for the rest of creation. The non-human creatures can then just get on with making little creatures and eating each other in peace. I imagine many of us would like to solve the problems the world faces and one way is certainly to get rid of those we think are the cause: weed them out and burn them.

I probably do not need to tell you, but this has been tried over and over again by individuals and governments and power-hungry dictators. They have a vision of perfect world, created in their image, and they go to any means to make it happen. Let me name some in case you are not getting the connection: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot. They, like others, rip up and collect and burn. Visions of perfect worlds or nations, or families or cities, are very dangerous things. It is particularly dangerous in the church. Who here has been deeply disappointed by the church, a church? Perhaps you or someone you know signed up to the whole Christian thing and then discovered the church was made up of people who were hopeless at being your ideal of a Christian. They turned out to be quarrelsome, full of pride, bigots and more worried about their doctrines then they were about flesh and blood human beings. Maybe they just didn't seem to care enough or be passionate enough. Perhaps the worship was horror of horrors—boring. There is a saying that the church would be a wonderful place if it weren't for the Christians. Some churches and denominations are so worried about having the right sort of church, looking right and being right, that they actively discourage certain people from participating or go to the length of expelling who they believe is the wrong type of believer. They weed them out to ensure a perfect crop.

Getting rid of the weeds was certainly something that the household slaves in Jesus' parable think should be done as soon as possible. However, like all Jesus' parables, there's a twist in this story that challenges how we see the world and what we think needs to happen.

The parable today neatly follows on from the parable of the sower we heard last week. That sower went out to sow with no preparation and flung seed around everywhere. Seed feel in all sorts of places where it did not grow and bear fruit but some did fall on good soil and produced an abundant crop. Last week I spoke of how that sower speaks to us of the abundant and generous nature of God and that our lives are a mix of good and bad soil. The parable of the weeds takes this event further and describes the diabolical actions of an enemy who sows the seed of weeds into the good crop. The sower this week seems to be about to reap a crop much less than perfect because of a lack of vigilance and care. Wasn't he watching and guarding all that hard work?

It turns out that the owner of the crop is much wiser than his slaves. Jesus, as we would expect, knows human nature and relationships in a way that challenges us and shines a light on our impatience with imperfection. The starting place to dig into this parable is the type of weed Jesus is describing. Maybe, when you heard this parable, you imagined a wheat field with a very obvious weed plant scattered throughout. Maybe Salvation Jane in field of Sorghum for those country people out there. However the seed, zizania, in this parable was a kind of darnel, a bastard wheat. It looked just like wheat but the grains were black. That may explain why it was not spotted by the workers. By the time they did notice, the root systems would have had time to intertwine and the grain appear. Wheat and weed grew together such that their root systems were wrapped around each other and the heads of grain looked almost identical.

The enemy at work in this field has been very cunning. He has devised a plan where there is an imitation crop sown amongst the other crop. The differences between them are not evident until they begin to bear fruit. The owner very wisely advises not to try to root out the weeds prematurely, because in doing so one risks the unintended consequence of also ruining the wheat. The central point of the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds itself (as opposed to the explanation) would seem to be that we multiply the evil when we try to identify evil and weed it out.

This parable is ridiculous if one considers the reality of such a diabolical, deliberate method of destroying a wheat crop. Surely their are better ways. But, if one has ears to hear, the parable is a profound exposé of the nature of evil. More to Jesus' point, it becomes a profound depiction of what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is like a carefully cultivated field of wheat, where one discovers that, alongside of that which is intended, there is a parallel reality of systemic imitation that threatens to undo it. And while one's natural reaction is to "rid the world of evil," the reality is that evil's root system is so intertwined with the kingdom that the unintended consequences of such actions are devastating. In fact, one completes the enemy's work by trying to separate the wheat and the weeds prematurely. When that happens what is fruitful, and could be fruitful, is destroyed as well. And so that owner of the field advises 'doing nothing'.

In an article called the "Grace of doing nothing"[1], H. Richard Niebuhr, one of the most famous Christian ethicists of the 20th century, used this scriptural wisdom when in 1932 he counseled the government to not take action against Japan for invading Manchuria. For Niebuhr, doing nothing was not the same as not doing anything. Choosing not to act was instead a deliberate action of patient faith. Niebuhr's argument was a loosing one in 1932. It has been a loosing argument in the early 21st century as well. In trying to rid the world of global terror, not only have countless innocent lives been lost or shattered, but as well every act of overreach against terrorism seems to become convincing propaganda for producing more terrorists. Richard Niebuhr's insight—the insight of this parable—proves itself tragically over and over.

Doing nothing is very difficult at times. We like clear-cut answers. We like to know who are the goodies and baddies so we can make the right choices and clean up the mess. We like to be in control and most of us are hopeless with ambiguity, with those shades of messy grey. With all the weed and wheat mixed up together, with imitation the baseline of how it all fits together, and roots entwined, we have a problem. We have a problem not just with destroying something when we violently try to root out the problem but even with making choices between different options. We do not see clearly. Not seeing clearly means we often need to live with ambiguity, and this can be is confusing and uncomfortable.

It is difficult to live with ambiguity and not having certain answers, to be sure we are making the right choices. Yet that is the nature of reality. The field we live in and our own natures are complex, an intertwined mass of possibilities, of good and bad, of shades of grey. We do terrible violence to ourselves and to others when we push and pull ourselves into what we think are perfect shapes. Perhaps our lives and the lives of others would be immeasurably improved and much safer in the long run if we just stopped, breathed and took the time to discern the right course of action.

One course of action we can be sure is the absolute right one and that we need to do immediately is to leave the judgment about good and evil up to God. This doesn't mean we do not protect the innocent, it does not mean we suspend judgment about how another's actions effect the people around them, but it certainly means that ultimate questions of being, of good and evil, of who is good fruit and who isn't, is God's business, not ours.

Jesus says that God's love shines on good and evil. What happens with all of that is in God's hands. Cosmic justice is for the Lord to discern and act upon. That God cares about justice, about creation being a place of balance, is attested to in scripture over and over again. We make a terrible mistake when we assume we know how to discern individual hearts and minds accurately. Like the household slaves in the parable, we are more likely than not to get it wrong and cause damage as we try and clean up the mess we perceive.

In chapter 12 of Romans, Paul says, "Beloved, do not take revenge, for it is written, vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord". Paul is quoting the Jewish scriptures. As well as being uneasy, I take great comfort from this verse. If there are consequences for evil actions and the suffering innocent people bear because of them, then these consequences are in the hands of God. Revenge is not my business. Destroying those we think deserve it is not to be in our hands. As the saying goes, it is God's job to judge, it is the Holy Spirit's job to convict—that is convince—someone of the quality of their actions, and it is my job to love, to love as Jesus loved, who from the Cross prayed for those who had put him there. From the Cross, Jesus knew that his enemies did not know what they were doing. They couldn't tell good fruit from bad and murdered the Son of Man in a desperate and violent attempt to keep their community safe and uncontaminated.


1. H. Richard Niebuhr, "The Grace of Doing Nothing," The Christian Century 49: 378-80 (23 March 1932).


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