July 19, 2020
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
I’m not a fan of the second half of this parable. I don’t know anyone who is entirely wheat or entirely weed. To see the world as black or white, good or evil, saved or unsaved just doesn’t seem right or accurate. Life is complex, people are complex, and when we make the effort to walk in another’s shoes, coming up with categorical judgments about others is a hard thing to do.
I don’t like the idea of God tossing people away either. It just doesn’t fit with other descriptions of God’s character and desire that we see in the bible or in the witness of Christ. It doesn’t even fit with plenty of other scriptural images of that “Great End” that is the culmination of creation and salvation, yet for lots of people this “in or out” kind of judgment is all they can figure.
A chaplain’s story from the Christian Century comes to mind. He talks about receiving a call to visit a dying man. At the base of the man’s bed sat his eldest son, John. John told the chaplain not to worry. He said his dad was a Christian and had been “saved” for 27 years. John said he was saved as well. The real reason for his call, John confessed, was that the man in the next room over was dying as well, and he was pretty sure that he wasn’t saved. So, John wanted the chaplain to go next door and get the man to accept Jesus before it was too late.
The chaplain writes, “I did not discuss Christian doctrine with my new friend the salvation-whisperer. I did learn that his dad’s neighbor was at peace, surrounded by loved ones after a laudable life of service to others. What I’ll never forget is the revealing picture I caught as I walked away. The two rooms shared a doorway, with a thin partition between. I stood in the doorway and saw two families, probably with very different worldviews, surrounding their departing loved ones in pure expressions of love. The beauty on either side of the wall was similarly striking and holy, and it was hard to imagine God feeling anything but glorified by it all.”
There’s a feisty and brilliant Orthodox theologian named David Bentley Hart who says we have good theological and biblical reasons for seeing things exactly this way. In an article entitled, “Is the ‘Final Judgment’ Really Final,” he rattles off 13 passages all of which point to a universal kind of salvation and he notes that nowhere in scripture does Jesus or anyone else ever talk about a perpetual kingdom of torment presided over by a god-like Satan.
He acknowledges passages like the one we read today, but argues that they do something other than pit a contrasting and horrifying alternative against the one he so easily supports in the 13 scriptures that he names. In fact, he calls it an intellectual timidity to claim that all we can do is uphold the damning passages and the saving passages together in a kind of tension that hopes for the best while living with a nagging fear of the worst.
Instead, he appeals to the ancient theologies of early Christian theologians who argue that the two different eschatological, (or end-time) images refer to “two different moments within a seamless narrative, two distinct eschatological horizons, one enclosed within the other.” He continues, “In this way of seeing the matter, one set of images marks the furthest limit of the immanent course of history and the division therein between those who have surrendered to God’s love and those who have not. The other set refers to that final horizon of all horizons, “beyond all ages,” where even those who have traveled as far from God as it is possible to go, through every possible self-imposed hell, will at the last find themselves in the home to which they are called from everlasting, their hearts purged of every last residue of hatred and pride.
Each horizon is, of course, absolute within its own sphere: one is the final verdict on the totality of human history, the other the final verdict on the eternal purposes of God.” In other words, one shows God’s commitment to justice, to a rejection of all the sin that manifests itself in the damage we do to one another. That stuff just will not stand. The other is God’s commitment to sin’s redemption and to the wholeness into which God’s victory will bring us all.
Our Old Testament passage for today, this famous vision of Jacob’s ladder extending between heaven and earth, is what inspired me to reread once again Flanner O’Conner’s little story “Revelation.” I shared the story with you 6 years ago, and if you remember that I’ll be very impressed. But, I’m sharing it with you again here as we talk about the weeds and the wheat because it is so pertinent to the greater questions of God’s will for creation and humanity’s approach to salvation.
“Revelation,” is the story of a good white Christian woman named Mrs. Turpin who is waiting with her husband in a crowded doctor’s office. There would be room enough for her to sit if the dirty, unkempt child in the corner knew enough not to take up two chairs and if his doting grandmother weren’t so oblivious to everyone else in the room and would tell the kid to move over. Mrs. Turpin does her best to be pleasant, but with the exception of the other well dressed woman waiting her turn, Mrs. Trupin is disgusted by everyone else in the room. It gives her plenty of time to thank Jesus for not making her “colored” or even worse, “white trash.” Mrs. Turpin expressed pleasantries with the well-dressed woman, along with some opinions, which the white trash woman accepted as an invitation for her to join the conversation. All the while an angry, anti-social teenager made horrible expressions and stared daggers at Mrs. Turpin.
After one particularly disturbing expression the teenager’s book flies across the room and hits Mrs. Turpin above the eye, knocking her to the floor. By the time she’s gained her wits the girl is upon her choking the air from her lungs.
It took some effort, but eventually doctors and nurses were able to liberate Mrs. Turpin from her attacker. The girl was sedated and sent away in an ambulance. But, before she goes Mrs. Turpin says, “What do you have to tell me, girl?” And the girl snarls, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Now, Mrs. Turpin knows that the girl is a lunatic and out of control. And yet even so, the words stick. She can’t help but feel that the whole thing happened for a reason. She can’t help but feel like somehow its part of a message from God.
So, later at home, at the farm, she’s hosing down her pigs and railing against God. “Why me?” she cries. “Its no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church… How exactly am I a hog?… There was plenty of trash there (at the doctor’s office.) It didn’t have to be me. If you like trash better, go get yourself some. If trash is what you wanted why didn’t you make me trash?” She goes on and on and finally ends her rant by screaming out to God, “Who do you think you are?”
That’s when Mrs. Turpin sees her own version of Jacob’s ladder. A purple streak cuts through the sky extending from the fields into the dusk and on the streak is a vast swinging bridge going “upward from the earth through a field of living fire.” Upon the bridge were hordes of souls “rumbling” toward heaven. “There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives.” There were all sorts of undesirables: colored people, freaks, lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.
Here’s the best part of the vision. “And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who like herself had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
She was shocked to see that even what she thought was good about herself was being burned away.
In Jacob’s biblical vision he discovered that he was on holy ground. “How awesome is this place!” Jacob exclaims. In a way I think that that is Mrs. Turpin’s discovery as well. She now realizes that she is not the holy ground. Rather, she stands on it with the rest of the weeds and the wheat that are blessed to be there too.
In the end, all of this talk about salvation and eschatology comes down to grace. Are we the kind of people who are saved enough to know that we exist by virtue of the generosity of God? Are we the kind of people who can look with a sense of that generosity upon others? Are we the kind of people that can live with the hope that in the end of all ends God’s generosity will have transformed us all into the radiant ranks of the truly saved?
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