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An Undivided Heart

. 7 min read

Thanks to Joel for sharing the message on July 23! Note that the video is incomplete.

An
Undivided Heart
July
23, 2017: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis
28:10-19
Psalm
86:1-17
Matthew
13:24-30
He
put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to
someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep,
an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when
the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And
the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow
good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He
answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want
us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds
you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together
until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the
weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my
barn.’”
I like
to imagine that my grandmother would at the very least be suspicious of the
householder in Jesus’s parable. It was she who taught me to manage the business
end of a hoe and put me to work in the corn and bean patch, spending long hours
digging up the weeds that threatened to choke out the young plants that would
help feed us in the coming months. A garden full of weeds was not simply
unlikely to produce a large enough crop for the late summer rituals of canning
and freezing; it was to my grandmother also a sign of laziness, which she could
not abide. Her garden had to be clean and orderly.

Of
course, the situation in the parable Jesus tells is not precisely the same as
it was on that marginal subsistence farm in the hills of Appalachia; the parable’s
field was more like our hay meadow than our vegetable garden. The wheat sown by
the landowner was a grain crop, cast broadly by hand and growing wherever it
took root. Over time such fields, when well-managed, wouldn’t grow many weeds,
and apart from the vagaries of weather and disease, good farmers could expect a
regular healthy crop. We can imagine the surprise of the landowner and his
servants, then, when they discovered a field full of weeds. To the servants’
query—“do you want us to go and gather them up?”—the landowner, no doubt an
experienced farmer, replied “no,” understanding that their efforts to tidy
things up would risk uprooting the wheat, and that this was a matter best
resolved at harvest. Until then, there would be no “clean,” garden, free from
corruption; the weeds would grow in the midst of the wheat, and any efforts to
change that were likely to do more harm than good.
This
text, along with the Psalm and (had we read it) the Epistle, which comes from
Paul’s letter to the Romans, are about division and corruption, and ultimately,
judgment. “Incline your ear,” says the Psalmist, “for I am poor and needy… Give
me an undivided heart that I may revere your name.”
The
parable is one of the few that Jesus actually takes time to explain, which he
does straightforwardly a bit later in the chapter. He tells the disciples that
the landowner who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, Jesus himself, and the
good seed sown is the gospel—the good news that God’s peaceable reign has
irrupted into history. The wheat born of the good seed of the gospel are those
who have heard the gospel and received its invitation to become part of God’s
reign—the “children of the kingdom. The bad seed and the weeds it produces are
the present reign of brokenness and darkness and those invested in perpetuating
it. In this time between the times, when the kingdom has broken into history
but is not yet fulfilled, the children of the two ages live together; at the
end of the age—the harvest—it will be part of the work of God to separate the
two, delivering them to their respective fates.
All of
that is fairly straightforward. But the subtext of the parable—its unspoken
point—is not just that any attempt to separate wheat from weeds prior to
Jesus’s Second Advent is destined to fail and will almost certainly do more
harm than good; it’s also a commentary on why
such an attempt will fail. In the background of the parable we hear echoes of
an oft-quoted saying from the Sermon on the Mount, just a few chapters
previous: in the same discourse where Jesus warns his disciples about the
dangers of a divided heart and the impossibility of serving two masters, he
also tells them, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with
the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the
measure you get.” Yes, Jesus says, the human race is a disappointment, and sin
is a real problem; but if you’re really worried about purity, you might want to
start with the person whose teeth you brush every morning.
The
practice of reading the parable this way extends at least as far back as the
late fourth century, when Saint Augustine, then a bishop in North Africa, faced
a crisis in the churches he oversaw. Eighty-some years earlier, around the year
300, the Roman Empire had engaged in its last great persecution of Christians.
That persecution was especially severe in North Africa, such that many
Christians, including a significant number of priests and bishops, renounced
the faith, turned over its sacred documents, and offered the required
sacrifices to an effigy of the Emperor. When the persecution ended a few years
later and the new Emperor issued an edict of tolerance prohibiting the
persecution of Christians, many of these traditores—those
who had “handed over” the articles of the faith to the pagans—declared their
desire to repent and rejoin the church.
The
Christian community was divided over how to respond. Among those who had
remained faithful were a significant number of rigorists, led by a bishop named
Donatus, who insisted not only that there could be no repentance for those who
had renounced Jesus, but also declared that baptisms performed by traitorous
priests and ordinations done by apostate bishops were invalid. There was no
room for such people in the true church, and they needed to be turned away.
The
controversy that ensued was not simply an administrative nightmare, but a
threat to the very fabric of the Christian faith. For when purity is made the
sole standard of belonging, all manner of questions about the type and extent
of the purity in question are bound to arise. Augustine addressed the
controversy swiftly and decisively, turning to the parable of the wheat and
weeds to do so. Yes, he said, the church was full of women and men—including
clergypersons—who at one time or another had failed to live the kind of lives
to which Jesus called his followers. These failures were serious matters, but sorting
them out and purging the church of them was an all but impossible task, one
best left to God, whose judgment is without flaw. Until such time as God saw
fit to render that final judgment, the church would continue to exist as a corpus per mixtum—a “mixed body” that
would simply have to fumble along, with God’s help, as best it could.
Eleven
centuries later, an Augustinian monk and professor of Theology named Martin
Luther took Augustine’s insights and nuanced them even further. Yes, he said,
the church had always been and doubtless would always be a mixed body, filled
with both the righteous and sinners, and God would eventually render judgment
toward both. But, he pointed out, it was not only the church that was mixed;
the conglomeration of wheat and weeds was also a spot-on metaphor for each one
of us, who are all, he said simul iustus
et peccator­
—at once and the same time both righteous and sinful. To a
greater or lesser extent every one of us suffers from a divided heart, and only
by virtue of God’s steadfast love and endless mercy will any of us escape the
furnace of judgment.
Luther’s
insight is certainly consistent with my own experience; perhaps the same
is true of you, as well. If you worry, as I sometimes do, that you are alone in
your shortcomings, you might take encouragement from knowing you’re in good
company; listen to these words of another follower of Jesus who often found
himself falling short, saying, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do
it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I
do… So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies
close at hand… Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of
death?” Who indeed? Well, the apostle Paul, who wrote these words, answers his
own question, and ours, declaring, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our
Lord!” It is, finally, a matter of grace that rescues us; as a character in one
of Graham Greene’s novels declares, “Tout
de grace
”—all is grace.
The
declaration that “all is grace” means forgiveness, but it also means a great
deal more. Luther’s insight was accompanied by a mistake that has been often
repeated through the centuries, especially among Protestants. Luther, or at
least some of his followers, not only believed that our only hope was God’s
mercy, but also that in this life we are destined to remain bound by sin, with
little hope of change. To think otherwise was not simply wrong, but dangerous,
for it tempted us to believe ourselves capable of earning God’s favor.
But this
is wrong, a misunderstanding of biblical teaching and a profound
underestimation of the scope and power of grace, for grace is not simply about
forgiveness, but also about transformation. Grace is about changing us, making
us more the people we’ve been made to be, more capable of the genuine happiness
God intends for us. As the baptismal liturgy declares, the grace of baptism is
a portal into the great drama of God’s mighty work in the world and membership
in the New Creation. So when we gather for worship or partake of the sacraments
or encourage one another as friends, God’s Spirit is at work, reorienting us that
we might live and work with the true grain of the universe.
That is
an important part of the lesson of this parable. The fire into which the weeds
are thrown does not only represent final judgment, condemnation, and punishment,
for in scripture fire functions at least as often as a means of purgation—the refining
disciplines by which God purifies us.
Seeing
this is a great gift that frees us to be patient, with ourselves and each
other, and gives us hope that we are not destined forever to be divided,
neither within ourselves nor among one another. It enables us to step back and
take the long view, best captured by an enduring refrain from the great
preachers of the black church, one Dr. King loved to declare:
“Lord,
we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna
be. But thank God, we ain’t what we was.”
Thank
God indeed, for we are pilgrims, going up to Jerusalem, marching to Zion,
making our way into the new Creation. And though we have not yet arrived, we
are by God’s grace well on our way. Amen.