Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11A] - July 17, 2011 (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Romans 8:12-25)

Well, the movie event of my lifetime took place this weekend, and I didn’t even participate in it. The final installment of the wildly successful Harry Potter franchise opened on Friday and, as expected, shattered all box office records for an opening day. It pulled in $92.1 million dollars, which is $20 million more than the previous record-holder. That’s what happens when an entire generation of youth grows up reading the same seven books in sequence.

I’m a late-comer to the Harry Potter phenomenon. I resisted reading or even watching the movies until earlier this year. For others of you who are unfamiliar with the stories, you should know there are seven books, each of which chronicles a year of a young wizard’s education in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, that young wizard being Harry Potter. Each year Harry grows a little older, a little wiser, a little more proficient in wizardry skills. He also grows a little more aware of a cosmic battle going on between good and evil that somehow implicates him and, as we find out, everyone around him. That’s the genius of the series that makes it so popular: Harry and his friends have aged along with an entire cohort of our youth. As of this weekend, it is over. The tagline for this final episode that appears on the movie posters that emblazon every theater from here to Timbuktu contain three simple words: “It all ends.” Seven years at Hogwarts, eight movies. I suppose those who have followed along know what “it” is, in this circumstance. Currently I am getting ready to begin the fifth book, so “it” hasn’t ended for me yet, but I know it’s moving in that direction. (Just a point of privilege: I would appreciate it if people would not spoil any plot details for me. I’ve enjoyed the suspense of the series thus far and would like to continue to do so!).

I do not consider myself to be Harry Potter aficionado, but I have enjoyed one feature of the books that is done remarkably well. You see, the world of Harry Potter is populated with a dizzying array of creative and colorful characters—wizards and witches, giants and elves, mystical creatures of all kinds and, of course, muggles, the name for regular humans like you and me who have no wizarding powers. What is so interesting is that you never can be sure exactly who is on what side, be that good or evil. The author of the series, J.K.Rowling, has done an expert job at keeping the reader in the dark just long enough about who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy. There are a handful characters about whose intentions you have no doubt, but a great many are purposely ambiguous, and the plot is driven by Harry’s attempts to navigate this world. I suppose when “it all ends” these things are revealed to us. The evil will perish and the righteous, good guys go on to shine like the sun. At least, I hope.

I suppose all this means nothing to those of you who haven’t been caught up in the Harry Potter phenomenon, but—fear not!—we have the biblical version of essentially the same thing in the gospel parable this morning. Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds (or, the wheat and the tares, as it is sometimes known) is like a 1st-century allegory for the cosmic battle between good and evil, between the forces that obey God’s word and respond to God’s grace and those forces that seek to undermine God’s goodness. The wheat is the result of the good seed, the words and deeds sown by the Son of Man and, presumably, those who follow him and abide in his righteousness.

The weeds, on the other hand, are the result of the bad seed sown by the evil one, the enemy of God’s plan for love and mercy for God’s people. He is a crafty spreader of lies, this evil one. He works in the dark and is rarely caught in the act, disappearing just before sunrise. Some people doubt he’s real, but evidence of his existence is all around.

And like the world of Harry Potter, it turns out there is some ambiguity in this field gone wild. For even though the slaves are aware that someone has sown weeds in amongst the wheat, the two are not as easy to tell apart and separate as you might think. The particular weed that is growing is actually a close look-alike of the good wheat. Scholarly authorities point out that this weed was likely darnel, a common agricultural pest in Jesus’ time. In fact, darnel had leaves and a stalk of grain that is virtually indistinguishable from regular wheat. Only at the time of harvest was it clear: wheat had grains that were brown and that were so heavy that they drooped. Darnel, on the other hand, had black ears of grain that stood up straight.

Under the soil, too, darnel and wheat grew together. The roots could intertwine and find nourishment together. So, even if the slaves were able to tell each plant apart before harvest time, pulling up the bad weeds could also uproot the good wheat, and that would be counterproductive. The householder, knowing all of this, of course, commands them to leave the weeds alone. As aggravating as it may sound, they are to tend the field like usual and let the two grow side by side. In due time, however, the householder will send in the appropriate workers who, knowing the difference between the good and the bad, will separate them once and for all. Interestingly, that is not the work of the slaves. Their job is to labor in that time of ambiguity, when the good and the bad are sometimes clear—but not always; when the hope of a pure field and a productive yield are sometimes visible—but not always; when the wisdom of the good householder is sometimes evident—but not always. And eventually it all will end.

For Jesus’ first disciples, I imagine this parable served to bolster their work on the kingdom’s behalf. They had likely been working alongside Jesus, even doing some good deeds of the kingdom on their own, and were perplexed that in and amongst their labors for righteousness some bad things were happening. Some people weren’t responding in faith to the good news about Jesus. Some people weren’t receiving him with hope and joy. Some people weren’t hearing of his mercy and then learning to practice forgiveness and love themselves. And if the disciples weren’t perplexed by this point, they certainly would be later on when they would make it to Jerusalem and the opposition they would meet would end up nailing Jesus to the cross.

Evil seems to work its way into the best of situations. Which of us has not experienced frustration and disappointment at the weeds that grow among the good wheat, or a desire that the field could just be purified at the outset? We picture a nation, for example, where everyone comprehends the need to cut the government’s deficit spending…or, as the case may be, where everyone appreciates the need to raise taxes. We desire a family where there are no black sheep and no personality conflicts. Or a congregation where everyone thinks and believes the same things about every issue. Perhaps those are not really examples of evildoing, but we do dream of communities where children can walk home from school or camp without fear of being abducted by people who will do awful things to them, or where we go through airport security without having to take off half our clothes.

And just as we like to dream of such a world where God’s good plans are never crowded out by intrusive evil, it is also somewhat satisfying to think about systematically going around and ridding the world of anything we know is wrong, pulling the doggone things up by the roots, once and for all. That’s what the slaves naturally want to do, and that’s likely where Jesus’ disciples will want to take this as they take up sides with his vision for a world redeemed. Yes, waiting until the end to sort this all out seems a little counterintuitive, yet if we don’t heed his command, we risk diminishing the householder’s harvest…and it is his harvest, after all.

Photo: Thomas J. Abercrombie
Jesus’ own explanation of this parable when he goes inside the house with his disciples could leave us thinking that an individual is either all one or all the other—there’s a weed here…oh, there’s another one there!—when the reality is a little more complex than that. What about the mixture of good intentions and evil intentions that each of us cultivate in our own lives? The apostle Paul happens to talk a good bit about that in his letter to the Romans, noting the endless conflict between the good he knows he should do and the selfishness and sin that come so readily. When we take a good look at our lives, especially in the light of the cross of Christ, the weed-ridden and darkest moment of God’s life, we come to realize that the task of the slaves is really the better option, for in the zeal to uproot and eradicate all sources of evil we would eventually have to turn the spade to ourselves.

And that’s another reason I find Harry Potter intriguing. By and by, even the main characters in those stories who seem clearly on the side of good realize they have the ability to think selfishly rather than altruistically. They, too, must navigate a world where the path to good and evil runs right through their own hearts.

The farming advice that the householder gives to his slaves sure might strike us as peculiar, the wisdom of letting it all grow together a little muddled. It is hard at times to keep our mind on the fact that a good harvest will yet come out of all this mess, not to mention the mess of our lives, but perhaps it’s best to leave that up to the one who raises Jesus from the dead…to the harvester who grants new life after every bit of suffering…to the Lord who promises to vanquish everything that stands in his way…to a God who prizes every good thing that can come from his people.

Eventually it all will end, as Harry Potter learns, it all will end. The final movie will come and all will get hashed out. As we, the people of God wait for our final installment, as the world groans toward that grand unfolding where good reigns and the mercy of God’s kingdom come, it’s best that we tend to the field in prayer and worship, service and encouragement. Even as the strangling weeds continue to pop up it’s best if we wait and keep the good growing, nurtured by the word, our own roots sunk deep in baptism, and tend to the precious grains of good faith in ourselves and each other. Yes, it’s best if we keep things growing, my friends…keep them growing and rejoice at the wheat that is here. As a line from a U2 goes, “always pain before a child is born, I’m still waiting for the dawn.” For, indeed, we are waiting.

I’m afraid I'm going to need to plow through the last three books to learn what Harry Potter discovers in his final chapter (remember…don’t spoil it for me!) but--thank God--because of Jesus Christ we already know ours.

Psst! The weeds don’t win.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. I'm so looking forward to meeting you sometime this fall when you baptize my grandson!