What sort?

20 July 2014
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 11A (RCL)
Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

God certainly chooses the unlikely for the divine purposes. Jacob has little to commend him, ethically, for the job of divine agent. Having extorted Esau’s birthright, and then connived with Rebekah to cheat Esau out of the blessing due him, Jacob is fleeing for his life when we meet him in today’s reading. And yet God shows up in a vision, and assures Jacob that the promises made to Abraham and renewed to Isaac extend to him: he will become the father of a great nation through which the world will be blessed. I’ve joked before that God has to hit Jacob over the head with a rock to get his attention to extend the promise. But, as it turns out, Jacob is standing in the very vestibule of the divine court, witnessing the angels of God entering and leaving with their embassies for the world. This would become the site of the northern sanctuary at Bethel.

As I read the story of Jacob/Israel, I read exilic or post-exilic reflection on the unlikeliness of Israel’s choice as God’s chosen people. Israel, a nomadic people on the fringes of the great empires, through its own scrappiness, finds itself mixed up in the geopolitics of its day, and, as we can witness now, a central player in shaping an enduring monotheistic religion. Who would have thought it?

But there is a warning in all the stories of God’s choice: God’s choice is always for the sake of the other. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel become the forbears of a great nation — for the blessing of the world. Their selection by God is not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the world. The exilic reflection on the history of the nation, and the calamity that befell it point to Israel having forgotten that aspect of God’s choice. The servant songs of Isaiah remind the remnant of the people that they still carry the vocation of blessing the world, now through suffering rather than triumph. God’s call remains true, despite circumstance.

The parable of the weeds among the wheat carries a similar message. We are all too ready to sort people, events, circumstances and anything else we can think of into binary categories of good and bad. The servants in the parable want to sort the plants into weed and wheat; the farmer forestalls our need to sort. I notice several interesting things about the parable. Leviticus 19:19 forbids sowing two kinds of seed in a field — it is an abomination. Granted, the man in the parable did not sow the weeds, but an enemy did; they were not volunteer. That means his field has become an abomination. Remarkably, he does not seek revenge, almost required in the culture in which the story was first told. He isn’t even interested to find out which enemy. Also, Jesus is very careful to tell us that at the harvest, the owner will tell the reapers to gather the weeds first and bind them into bundles to be burned. Binding them into bundles indicates more effort than is needed just to get rid of the weeds. It seems like the bundles will be used as fuel, perhaps in the ovens in which the bread made from the grain will be baked.

Perhaps the parable (not Matthew’s churchy interpretation) reminds us that even those events or people we would rather root out of our lives end up having their usefulness. We often want to see ourselves as God’s chosen, those privileged to enjoy the presence of God. The parable reminds us that God may have uses for all those things and people we want to sort into the weed pile. Even the grain is meant for the blessing of others, not just for ourselves. If we want to see ourselves as chosen, we must remember that God’s choice is always for the benefit of others. We are chosen that the world might be blessed through us. Are we actively seeking to be that blessing?

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