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  • Writer's pictureChurch of the Incarnation

On Judgment: the wheat and the weeds

In the Western tradition, following Augustine, the parable of the wheat and the weeds has been applied to the church -- what Augustine called a "mixed body” containing both wheat and weeds. The wheat are the children of God, heirs of God’s kingdom, siblings of Christ, as Paul puts it. They are those who do the works of the Spirit. The weeds that Satan enables to grow are those people who continue in the acts of the flesh, or sinful acts that lead to death instead of freedom and new life in God.

Now of course one reading of this - especially when we include Paul’s letter to the Roman church where he contrasts life in the flesh with life in the Spirit - would be: well here are the wheat, and we know that they’re wheat because we list a bunch of good things they have or haven’t done; and here are the weeds and we know that because we can list a bunch of evil or bad things they’ve said or done.

And from here, we might develop the habit of making judgments about which individuals or maybe even which churches are the wheat who will have eternal life with God and which individuals or even which churches are the weeds who are going to be burned up where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, in other words, hell. From what some of you have told me, this sort of judgment used to be what was delivered from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.

I was talking to Brian Morrison about this on Monday and it got me thinking about what I would have done if I’d heard sermons like that when I first came into the Church. I likely would have turned around and walked back out again. Certainly when I started coming back to Church, I was well aware of what Scripture would say pretty directly: every one of us is a sinner: if anyone says they have no sin i.e. no evil, the truth is not in them. No one does good, no, not one. If any of you are without sin, be the first to throw a stone to begin the execution of this woman whom you caught in adultery. Because we are the offspring of Adam and Eve, we have all inherited sin and the death it brings. We’re caught up in a web of sin from which we alone cannot escape. So we’re all, at various points in our lives, both the wheat and the weeds in this parable. We don’t have God’s power and insight to judge perfectly.

So who then, is a priest to tell me that I am condemned, when Jesus returns, to hell. Is this priest God himself? Does he know every aspect of my life from birth to death? Does he know how others have affected my life or caused me fear or conditioned me to hide away? Does he know how God will work in me in the future? Does this priest know the will of God for my life? Or has this priest, in judging me as a weed, merely repeated Adam’s own sin of imagining he has the same knowledge as God to judge good from evil? Wouldn’t this make the priest himself a weed?

Indeed, this is what Augustine suggested of this parable of the wheat and the weeds. When Jesus tells his disciples to allow the wheat and weeds to grow together so that the wheat is not uprooted by plucking out the weeds, he is using this as an analogy to explain in a basic and concise way that human beings are limited in what we know not only about our own lives and our own faithfulness before God, but most certainly about the lives and ultimate faithfulness of others. So if we try to pluck up what we think are weeds, we might end up plucking out what is or what might become actual wheat. And our presumption to have the righteous judgment of God in our judgments may in fact end up turning us into weeds rather than the wheat we believe we are. Because of this, Jesus implies, we really should leave judgment up to God. It is up to God to separate the good and bad. From our point of view we live together with others, all of us both wheat and weeds. Jesus’s word to us, in light of this is that we should live without judgment of each other as to who is "in" and "out". God alone knows this.

I actually think that this call -- not to judge others in this way during our life -- is much harder to accept than divine judgment itself. Most of us have intuitions about divine judgment (what is right and wrong in our own words and actions and those of others), even if we are uncomfortable with admitting them. We look at the world and see evil and indifference and self-regard and know that, somehow, this will be "righted" -- judged -- by God. It must be. But refraining from doing this ourselves - limited as we are - with others? That is the hard part that even those who rail against divine judgment cannot seem to do well.

Indeed, to judge God's judgments is precisely to be the kind of person who judges others; it is to become a weed rather than the wheat of sharing God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness with others, friends and enemies alike. The wonderful knife-edge of life with God is to give all to him, and leave all of ourselves (and our judgments) behind. We do not really grasp divine judgment; and will not until we meet it face to face. Let us tremble before that future, and take comfort in the fact that our trembling is actually before something that is greater than our moral calculus could ever be. And then turn to our neighbor and recognize that only God has the wisdom and love to understand them; while we have the calling and power to love and forgive – ourselves and others. AMEN

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