I once had what you might call an adversary at one of our previous churches, an elderly gentleman weighed down with anxiety, anger, and confusion, all of which he liked to take out on me. It seemed like whatever he thought I wanted, he wanted the opposite. And when he wasn't yelling at me, he was stirring up other people so that they would yell at me. I had the most difficult time getting the other members of the church to understand that his unhappiness was neither my problem nor my fault. It got so bad at the end that I had to ask the church leaders to keep him away from me after church. He would get riled up and say something hateful, and I would bark back, and then everybody would be unhappy. It was bad.
But when you're a pastor, you have to be a pastor to everyone. Several times of the course of a few years, this gentleman or his wife would take sick, and I'd have to go out to the hospital or their house to see them.
My wife always used to ask how I could stand to show this man kindness even when he was driving me up one wall and down another.
I told her this story: one day, I took a deep breath and bounded up the stairs to their very green living room, filled with steely resolve for come what may. But he was apparently in no mood to fight. He had a big grin on his face, and a book on his lap. The book turned out to be a scrapbook from his childhood years, which he had recently rediscovered while rummaging around in some closet or another. He wanted me to see a picture of him as a nine-year-old Boy Scout from oh, 1931 or so. See it I did, and wouldn't you know it, it was recognizably him, same smile, but from a much younger, much more innocent age.
Now, this was a man who had owned several successful businesses. He'd raised four girls, been the president of the town council, a pillar of local society. And yet, when I looked up at him that day, it was obvious that he thought that perhaps he'd peaked at age nine in some church basement on the north side of Milwaukee. It wasn't that he didn't value everything else that had happened to him in his life, exactly. But getting a merit badge, now that was an honor.
He gave me grief many times after that. I confess there were times I saw red after one of his provocations. But I would always try to breathe deeply and think back to that nine-year-old Boy Scout, whose father would soon die, and whose heart would never quite be full again. I tried to minister to that kid, even if there wasn't much I could do for the old man he'd grown into.
The gospel of Matthew tells us the wheat and the tares, or weeds. It's actually darnel, a ryegrass that looks very much like wheat in early stages. It's not until harvest time or just before that it becomes possible to tell it apart from wheat. In the meantime, it wraps its tendrils around the roots of everything around it and squeezes the life out of them.
So what looks like wheat sometimes grows up to be weeds, and what looks like a Boy Scout sometimes grows up to be a perfectly awful old man. It seems like a good analogy because it is, and even more apt than you might suspect. My adversary was a skinflint, a bully, at times an unethical businessman. He was mean to his wife, mean to his pastor. He turned his daughters against one another to stay on top of the family system, he divided the town council in the same way, he stirred up trouble in the church. This guy left—leaves—a trail of hurt and aggravation behind him wherever he goes, and still, some of the older folk look up to him. They still haven't sussed out that he's nothing but a bunch of darnel weed, false wheat if there ever was such a thing.
It does no good to judge him, of course, and I hope you won't think that I'm just trashing him for its own sake. I simply mean to illustrate the point that some people start off looking okay, and eventually they prove themselves to be anything but okay. Adolf Hitler was a cute little kid, honest.
The point is less that some wheat turns out to be weeds, though, than it is that all the weeds start off looking like Boy Scouts, if you catch my drift.
I went out to meet Ruth and Dave's new son Nathaniel on Thursday. He's a cute...well, I wouldn't say there's anything little about him. He's eleven pounds, three more than anticipated! But he has a soft, downy head, reddish skin, a good voice and ten fingers and ten toes. There's no way of telling at this point what sort of a person he'll grow up to be. Given that he's Dave and Ruth's son, I assume he'll be just fine, but there just aren't guarantees. Give the kid a chance to do some evil, he's only five days old.
That's how we all start off. Most of us, anyway. Some babies are born with one leg shorter than another, or missing a finger or some toes. But I cannot for the life of me recall any baby born looking downright evil. If you have any pictures to share, I'll be happy to take a look.
It is easier to sex a hen's chick than it is to figure out by looking at a set of babies which one will grow up to be a saint and which a true rotter. Our newborn faces hold no clues as to the course of our moral development, and thanks be to God for that, because everyone, no matter how weedy, deserves to know the love of a mother, at least at first. Eventually, we all begin to make decisions for ourselves, and soon enough we show whether we're wheat or tares.
Even so, it's not enough to say that some people prove their worth and others don't. Even Matthew falls into this fallacy, speaking of those who will be thrown into the furnace, and those righteous ones whose faces "will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." One of the leading theories says that Matthew was part of the church in Antioch, which went from primarily Jewish Christians to primarily pagan converts to Christianity. Some people think he never was sure how those new people were going to work out.
Other ancient texts speak of "the children of the light" and the "children of the darkness," as though we could separate the good and the evil so neatly. It doesn't work. The wheat and the weeds are not just different people, but different elements within us. No one, not even the greatest of saints, gets through life without making some questionable decisions. We all have some elements of malice, of hard-heartedness or evil living within us alongside the good and generous portions of ourselves. The question is not whether we're good or evil, but the extent to which they are mixed within us.
Again, if you have any interesting pictures to share, I'd be happy to take a look.
The moral of this story is pretty much what you would expect. Some people are like wheat: they seed a great deal of life and wind up feeding many others. Some people are like weeds: they suck up the life of all those around them, and give nothing in return. Be like the first, not the second.
Be like the first, not the second, but also: don't bother with the weeding. When the time is right, God will do the judging. God will separate the wheat and the weeds and throw the latter into the furnace. It's not our job to decide who is who, and it is certainly not our job to separate the one from the other, let alone try to convert one to another. I wish I had known that a long time ago. It's not that I would have given up on challenging the bad behavior of my adversary. I don't believe in letting that kind of stuff slide. But I might have approached it differently, with the sense that this man had chosen his path long ago, and unless he chose to take a different road on his own, for his own reasons, there wasn't much that I could say or do to make him change. It's up to God to sort things out, in the end.
And sort them God will. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this parable is the certainty with which it proclaims punishment for evildoing, and evildoers. In case we miss the point in Jesus' parable ("Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned"), Matthew is all too happy to underscore it for us in his explanation of the story. ("they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth").
Some theologians minimize judgment: "God's wrath is like a drop of water," said one ancient Greek whose name always escapes me, "but his mercy is like an ocean." But scripture is clear: there are consequences for our actions. We will be judged on the last day. Good will meet its reward, and evil will meet its just desserts. That again might be taken as a word of comfort that all those awful things that have been done to us will be punished. All wrongs will be righted and all sins will be paid for, one mysterious way or another. As comforting as it may be to know that those who have sinned against us will be held accountable, though, we should not forget that those we have sinned against can expect the same justice on the last day.
I would not want to be in my adversary's shoes when the roll is called up yonder. He has a lot to answer for. But then I wouldn't want to be in my shoes, either. I have a few things that I will find hard to explain as well. No, I will not share the pictures.
We all will. We all will have to stand between the gates to the furnace and the barn doors with some bit of anxiety, trusting in God's mercy and the promise of Jesus to have died for our sins. The good news is that that day has yet to come, and until it does, we still have time to grow into the finest of wheat we can be. Be kind to one another, see the Boy Scout in one another, and be children of the kingdom, hearing and doing God's word of love and compassion. Amen.