Life on this earth is filled with challenges. One challenge that we all are familiar with is that of learning how to accept that every aspect of life is a mixture of good and evil, of pure and impure. Take for example, the natural seasons of the earth -- Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall -- and the beauty, comfort and gifts for life which each brings. Yet, within the earth and within the same seasons are forces which may wreak such havoc, destruction and death as to eliminate entire populations or affect their lives for generations.
Take human institutions, for another example. Be they governments, commercial, religious, public or private. Generally, they have been created for the protection and common good of society. Yet, because of the mixed motives of the people involved, these very institutions often become the source of much human degradation, suffering and death.
Actually, we don't have to go outside of ourselves to find an example. Our own purest motives get contaminated by motives that are not so pure, and we experience the conflict between good and evil in our personal actions in relation to self and others. As St. Paul puts it in the letter to the Romans, "...when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand." (7:21).
If only there were some "surgical procedure" by which to lance these evil defects from human life. But, there is not. In this life, the good and the evil are inextricably linked. "You have to take the bad with the good," is a saying I've heard all of my life.
In the gospel reading for today, Jesus illustrates this point with one of his parables of the Reign of God, the Parable of the Weeds. Someone sows good wheat seed in his field, but while everybody is asleep, an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat. As the plants come up bearing wheat, the weeds appear as well. The field hands offer to pull up the weeds, but the owner shows them that in pulling the weeds they uproot the wheat as well. He tells them that at harvest time the reapers will sort out the wheat from the weeds, which will be bundled and burned.
The parables of Jesus are remarkable in their manner of employing natural and human experiences with which his hearers would be very familiar, as windows onto deeply profound spiritual realities.
In this case they knew the weed to be the bearded darnel. In its early stages of growth it is almost impossible to distinguish from wheat or barley. Also, very commonly, the roots of the two become so intertwined that it would be impossible to separate them without plucking out both.
In explaining the parable to his disciples, Jesus equates the sower of the seed with the "Son of Man." The field is the world, the good seed are the children of God's reign, and the weeds the children of the evil one. The enemy sowing them is the Devil; the reapers at harvest are the angels, and the harvest is the end of the age.
Most commentators view this passage in Matthew to be intended as a message to the Church, about Christ's forbearance in the face of the evil which exists in the Church side by side with the good. It warns church leaders against trying to purge the Church by excommunicating all heretics and sinners, and reminds them that at the end of the age, the good will be separated from the bad.
As a parable of the Reign of God, we also have a description of what it is like in the new order of things which Christ came to establish. Good is always being sown. Evil, often masquerading as good, also is being sown. In the final analysis, only that which is good will have life. Ultimately, evil in all of its forms, will be destroyed.
This is a comforting thought. Unfortunately, after all, the Church at the human level is just like all other institutions. It may have a glorious mission to and for the world and a lofty sounding mission statement; but at that level are human beings possessed of all of our mixed motives, drives for survival and power, confusion, fear, greed and other threats to the Church's mission. This probably includes everybody. If we really took seriously the task of purging the church of sinners, who would be left?
There is a story about a congregation that experienced the infinite regression of purging out its "sinners" from one hundred families down to the last couple. "Only John and I are left," said Alice, "and I don't know about him."
Just imagine the impact of bringing a heresy trial against everyone with a different perspective or belief than our own on matters of significance in church and society.
None of this is to suggest that we ignore issues that we feel passionate about. Or that we ignore behavior for which appropriate discipline by the Church is required. What it does suggest is that we have the blessed assurance that in the midst of all of our own struggle, confusion and sin Christ's mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other is being accomplished now -- albeit only partially -- in and through the Church. Moreover, we are assured that ultimately Christ's mission will be fulfilled completely. As today's psalm puts it: "All nations you have made will come and worship you, O Lord, and glorify your Name." (86:9).
In the final analysis, today's message to us is about trusting God to be God. Trusting God's love that while we were yet sinners, God was -- and is -- in Christ reconciling us to God and to each other. Trusting that nothing under the sun or in the Church may separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Savior.