Wheat and Tares

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in the light of the London bombings 7/7/2005
St Mary's Church, Trinity 8, 17th July 2005
Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13: 24-30; 36-43
Questioning the Role of Religious Communities

It is inevitable I suppose, in the wake of the dreadful events of ten days ago in London and the association of those events with a religious tradition, that the whole question of the legitimacy of religious belief and the consequent behaviour patterns of faith communities should become a matter for animated discussion once again. I am afraid that, notwithstanding the strong words of religious leaders in this country and the determination among them to express their solidarity one with another (as some of us were able to do last Friday at the Council House here in Nottingham), we who are people of faith must expect to be interrogated by many others who are not. And I cannot blame them.

The history of religion and inter-church and latterly inter-faith relationships is one of which we have little reason to be proud. Oh, I know and am happy to proclaim that there have been wonderful examples of goodness and steadfastness and self-sacrifice and faithfulness to the principles of God's love for all creation, as there have among people of no faith. Of course there have; and without them the church would have collapsed long ago. But religious conflict has also been at the root of many of the nastiest episodes of the history of our world, and the ease with which religious principles have been ambushed and kidnapped by self-seeking, power hungry tyrants at every level of society within as well as outside the faith communities should surely be of the most profound concern to us.

We are all implicated

The fact that the London bombings could be carried out by people crying the name of God should send us all onto our knees. Those four young men and those who recruited and inspired and trained them are, however painful it may be for us to recognise it, intertwined in our world and in our life as a community of faith, and it does not stand the test of either history or of current affairs simply and naively to hold up our hands in horror and say they are not of us. Condemnation of the act of terror – of course, there can be nothing else. In the luxury of the cold light of day and from our really rather comfortable lives we can together say, as all have done especially the British Muslim leadership, 'No, not in our name.' We can readily and rightly dismiss angrily the cowardice and inhumanity of those who lead terrorist groups and plan these evil acts and then recruit young disaffected adolescents, brainwash them and send them to their deaths, while they disappear into the mist to continue their awful programmes. We can express our most profound sympathy for all those whose lives have been destroyed, damaged and terrorised in the process; many, perhaps even most of them, ordinary folk who might well have been actually or in spirit just a few days earlier demonstrating in Edinburgh for justice throughout the world. But we cannot dismiss these people as sort of random, disconnected personifications of evil, destroying all that is good just for the sake of it. They are entangled in a deeply flawed and unjust world in which we too are entangled, and by our action and our inaction we are implicated too. Terrorism grows in seedbeds that are fertile. We must examine every aspect of our individual and communal lives. We must understand our own weaknesses and temptations, our evasion of responsibility, our ineffective nurture and education of one another, our unwillingness to speak out and to act in the face of injustice at every level of human relationship. We must kneel in penitence and ask God the Holy Spirit to take us by the hand and to lead us towards all truth. And until we have cleansed ourselves, and allowed God to purify us – a lifelong activity – we should be very wary of trying to isolate evil from good, wheat from tares.

The desire to purify

The need to pull out and destroy what pollutes the goodness of the world and to pretend that we can present perfection seems to affect every area of life. The Christian tradition through the centuries has consistently sought to define the good and the evil, and has from time to time tried to cleanse the world of that which does not fit its own version of good. On every occasion that attempt has ended in ignominious failure. The mystery of good and evil has tested the world since it began. But Jesus was extraordinarily full of insight into the nature of the world. Good and bad are simply part of the experience of the world. Of course the great mythological stories of the book Genesis attempt to give rhyme and reason to it all; but for our purposes they simply co-exist in this world and always have done. We do not understand, nor do we know how to handle, that huge question mark over human existence that enables genocide against races, or mass murder by a doctor, or dictatorship, or corruption. But if we have any honesty and any humility at all, we know that every single one of us is entwined in that battle between good and evil in our own lives, let alone the lives of our families and communities.

Go back for a moment to that scene as Jesus tells his parable. Never mind the crowd - it is his disciples who are grappling with what he tells them. They know, or think they know, right from wrong, good from evil, they understand about blessing and curse, virtue and vice, wheat and weeds. Not that they're farmers any of them; but the fishermen among them - what is their first action on landing a catch? To separate the good from the bad, the edible from the poisonous, the marketable from the tiddlers. "You can't do that in the field of this world," writes one of my favourite commentators, "If you did that, if you tried to separate the good and the bad, radically like that, you would spoil it all. The two are so closely intertwined, so radically in their roots, that pulling up one means pulling up the other. Let them both grow, trusting in God....Goodness will win, light will conquer darkness. Don't be afraid!"

The Failure of Imagination

Ian McEwan – as one commentator said this week, 'the closest thing we have to a national novelist' – wrote after the attacks in New York and Washington in 2001:

One of the chief crimes of the hijackers was a failure of imagination: to imagine what it must have been felt to be a prisoner in one of those doomed planes. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

Those words are not only a challenge to hijackers and bombers. They challenge us to our core in all our relationships. But perhaps we today, as part of a faith community that seems to be having great difficulty in imagining what it is like being different, allowing and rejoicing in the diversity of creation, whether we are arguing over homosexuality or whether women may be bishops, and seem to assume that those who think and act differently must be wrong and therefore cast out, must examine the basis for our exclusivity very carefully indeed, for it seems to me that we are not modelling either the church or the society that Jesus envisages very effectively at all.

The Pilgrim Church: Wheat and Tares

As Archbishop Romero, that saintly martyr from El Salvador said:

If a church wants to pride itself on having only holy members, it won't be the true church, for Christ has said that his church is like a field where wheat and weeds bear fruit. While we live in this pilgrim church we have to be together, wheat and weeds.

And we must be that for the sake of the world as well, for only then will we begin to understand and act on our responsibilities for all whom God has created, terrorist and victim, oppressor and oppressed, wealth creators and slave labourers, Christian and Muslim and those who profess no faith – all known, loved and longed for by our God who will deal with judgement in divine time and in divine ways. May God have mercy on us all.

Andrew Deuchar

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Last revised 24th November 2005