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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Wheat and Tares, plus 2 (Matthew 13.24-43)

Sermon by:Robert Austell
August 7, 2011
Some Music Used 

 Prelude: "Hungry" (Scott/arr. Howard)
Song of Praise: "Holy is the Lord" (Tomlin, Giglio)
Hymn of Praise: "Lord, Speak to Me" (CANONBURY)
Offering of Music (children's quartet): "The Mustard Seed" (Anna Laura Page)
Communion Hymn: "Our Father in Heaven" (Wyse)
Song of Sending: "Hear the Call of the Kingdom" (Getty/Townend)
Postlude: "Postlude on 'Old Hundreth'" (Bock)

Wheat and Tares, plus 2
Text: Matthew 13:24-43

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Today we are looking at several of the parables of Jesus. Parables are stories with a point. I’ve compared them before to jokes with a punch line. If you get to focused on the details or the symbolism, you can miss the point. One of the first jokes you probably learned was “Why did the chicken cross the road?” The punch line may make you groan or make you giggle, but if either happens when you hear, “…to get to the other side,” then you got it. If you are wondering why the chicken is off the farm, whether it’s a country road or a six-lane interstate, or any number of irrelevant questions, then you won’t get it. That’s a hint of what a parable is like. Even when Jesus goes to lengths to explain the symbolism of characters in a parable, like he does twice in Matthew 13 (the sower and the tares), the parable is still about the punch line, about the main point, and those “with ears to hear” are those who get it and understand and learn.

In Matthew 13, Jesus is “sitting by the sea” (v. 1), and is teaching from a boat to a crowd on the beach. He tells one parable (the sower) about hearing the message about the Kingdom of God. And then, having explained it, he tells six more parables ABOUT the Kingdom of God. Today we will look at the first three of these (the point of which are repeated very closely in the second three). I want to start with the two shorter ones, then we will end with the parable of the wheat and tares. 

The Mustard Seed and the Leaven (vv. 31-33)

The two parables of the mustard seed and the leaven are short and to the point. They would have required “ears to hear” because they did fly in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day, but they are nonetheless pretty straightforward.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which grows from the smallest of seeds to one of the largest garden plants, so large that it looks like a tree (it’s a plant) and birds will even nest in it. If you remember all the Messiah-expectations of the time, that God would send a warrior-king to replace the Roman Empire (kingdom) with God’s Kingdom, you can see that comparing Jesus’ teaching ministry to the smallest of seeds is a good comparison. Why not a mighty oak? Well, perhaps a mighty cedar, more appropriate to that part of the world. Because that’s what the people were expecting… something to rival Rome. Instead, what God sent was more like a garden plant. Hah! I was only comparing the form of a parable to a joke, but this one actually would have sounded like a joke to their ears.

But God’s kingdom was neither a cedar-like human empire nor a uninspiring minor plant. Rather, it was something different and unexpected (though not unannounced!). It was like the mustard seed and plant that grew from humble beginnings to offer shade and nesting because of its extraordinary size (up to 10-feet in some cases). But here’s the real punch line that follows the “not-what-you’d-expect” of the mustard plant. Jesus alludes to Hebrew scriptures that describe God’s work of establishing His Kingdom like “birds of every kind nesting in its branches” (Ezekiel 17:23 and others). In those scriptures, the nesting birds represent the nations and people of the world, whom God promised to bless through the covenant. The real punch line of this parable is a connection back to the original covenant with Abraham, revealing God’s heart for the nations of the world. That’s the picture here – not of God’s Kingdom as a mighty tree to compete with or overthrow Rome, but God planting and establishing a Kingdom through His people for the blessing of the nations of the world. That’s the same promise God made to Abraham, and Jesus is announcing that Kingdom in his ministry and through parables like these.

The parable of the leaven (or yeast) is a good counterpart to the mustard seed. And it is a good parallel to the lighthouse/searchlight metaphor we’ve used so much at Good Shepherd. Lest one come away from the parable of the mustard seed thinking that God will simply plant His Kingdom and invite all who would come to find it and nest there, the parable of the leaven also illustrates that God’s Kingdom is in the world and for the world. God’s people and God’s Kingdom are to permeate the world around us, having a transforming and “blessing” effect wherever we go and embody God’s Kingdom. We are to be both the safe haven and refuge of the mustard plant and the sent and blessing people of the leaven.

As you read through the rest of the New Testament, you see both these parables enfleshed in the history of the early church, as they first struggle with and learn what it means to welcome in Gentiles and then are propelled forth by the Holy Spirit to carry the Good News to the nations. 

An Enemy at Work: the Wheat and the Tares

The parable of the wheat and the tares is a little bit different. For one, the disciples ask Jesus to explain it privately afterwards, so we have his explanation where we are left to figure the other two out. And it’s longer than the other two. There’s more there to think about and understand. But we’ll still look for the main point or punch line… the “gotcha” we don’t want to miss.

On one hand this is another parable about the Kingdom of God. But the standout detail in this one is the presence of an enemy. We don’t hear that in the other parables. There is an enemy to God’s Kingdom. And in the parable, that enemy doesn’t attack, but mimics the Kingdom by planting alongside and among it, resulting in a contamination of the harvest.

In the parable itself, upon recognizing an enemy at work, the laborers ask if they should gather up the tares (weeds) that the enemy has sown. But the landowner cautions that doing so will uproot and damage the wheat. Instead, they are to wait until the harvest time and separate them by their fruit, when it is more evident which are wheat and which are weeds.

In Jesus’ explanation, given in private to the disciples, he notes that God’s Kingdom likewise has an enemy – the devil – and the world is God’s field. Note that – not just the church, but the whole world is God’s field. And it is the same field of the world that God’s enemy has sought to contaminate and ruin.

The punch line or twist in this parable is that it starts out by comparing God’s Kingdom to a man sowing seed. Jesus has just tread that ground with the parable of the sower and the seed, so this seems like more of the same. But he ends up talking, not about the Kingdom as much as about God’s judgment and sorting by our deeds. Both in the parable and in the much more vivid explanation, the parable ends up with God’s judgment and separation of good and evil, including a description of the horrors and the glories of how that judgment comes out. 

Pre-emptive Weeding?

I am sure it was for the disciples as it remains for the modern church: a temptation to do the pre-emptive work of weeding the field. Why else would Jesus mention it? There is something in us that wants to decide who is in and who is out, and sometimes even pre-emptively act on those decisions. We look from our vantage point of being inside the church and think, “They could not POSSIBLY be wheat!” Or we judge one another in the church and plainly or subtly say, “You must not be real wheat.” And we uproot and damage someone, becoming the very stumbling blocks (v. 41) that we would want to see cleared out of the Kingdom. We also miss the point of both the other parables, missing the fact that God’s Kingdom is not about securing ourselves and families, but about being both the refuge (mustard tree) and the witness (leaven) for the WHOLE world that is God’s field.

But wait, wait, isn’t there such a thing as church discipline, and isn’t that an important teaching in scripture? Yes, it is! But the purpose of discipline in the church, as between parent and child, is to teach and RESTORE fellowship. That is not what is being described here. In this parable, we are reading about the judgment that separates the faithful from the unfaithful, and Jesus teaches not only that we will harm people in so doing, but that it is God’s job alone to do that work, and at the end of God’s redemptive plan, not today.

This has great bearing on all kind of things from mission to evangelism to who we welcome into our fellowship to our response to our own denomination and culture, but at the bottom of all this is that we are called to offer refuge and witness, mustard and leaven, lighthouse and searchlight, grace and truth. We should never feel satisfaction at someone turning from truth or distancing themselves from God, but cherish the desire that all the world know the expansive love of God through Jesus Christ. 

A Pretty Complete Description of the Church

As I reflect on these three parables, full of home-spun metaphors of gardening and cooking, I see an amazingly full-orbed description of the Church, an earthly expression of God’s kingdom that is at once, wheat entangled with weeds, a covenant-fulfilling refuge and home for all the nations of the world, and, in the power of God, a transformative and leavening influence on culture, lives, and that same world. In the wheat and tares, we also wrestle with our own tendency toward judgment and small-minded thinking and are challenged to let God be God and learn what it means to BE the Church, full of grace and truth in the world that God loves.

Lots to ponder… for those with ears to hear. Amen.

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