The covenant of holiness

23 July 2017
Seventh 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

Paul is always a good place to start. In this passage, Paul speaks of the adoption of Christians as sons (he uses the image of sonship in the Greek, for theological purposes – Israel was God’s son; Jesus was God’s son; Christians are God’s son) as fundamentally important to the salvation of the entire cosmos. Just as the first humans were to be the stewards of the cosmos, so the covenant with Abraham was to restore the distorted relationship between humanity and the cosmos. Now, the revelation of the glory of Christians as heir of God and joint heirs with Christ will finally accomplish what the previous covenants have not been able to accomplish: the restoration of the glory of the cosmos.

This passage is organized around two guiding images: the new people of God being led by the Spirit through the wilderness, and the labors of childbirth. All of creation is groaning for the revelation of the new son of God, the new Israel, the new Jesus. We will inherit Jesus glory (if indeed we suffer with him), and in so doing restore the universe to its rightful glory. That’s quite a vocation.

In the parable we hear in Matthew (at least the parable itself, if not the explanation), we also hear a call to patience with the current state of things, in hope of what is coming. I find it remarkable in this story that the farmer is absolutely uninterested in who was the enemy who sowed weeds among his wheat. In the system of honor and shame that governed relationship within the ancient world, the farmer has been deeply shamed. This is the more obvious when we remember the injunction in Leviticus against growing two kinds of seed in one field: such a field becomes unclean and incompatible with God’s holiness. One would expect a landowner to seek to discover such an enemy in order to exact vengeance and restore his own honor. But, in this story, he just shrugs and accepts things as they are.

And at the harvest, he will tell the reapers to gather up the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, and then gather the wheat into his barn. That the reapers are to take the time and effort to bind the weeds into bundles indicates that they are to be used as fuel in the ovens, rather than simply thrown aside for burning. This fuel will back the bread made from the wheat.

Parables are by nature multivalent — they can have many meanings. This parable could be read at the level of an individual life. Some good things happen in my life, and some bad things. My temptation is to want to root out the bad things, but take care, the parable says: you don’t know what damage you might be doing, and who knows what use those bad things will end up having. It can also be read at the level of the world, much like Paul’s exhortation to patience with suffering – it is leading to the redemption of the cosmos.

Matthew narrows the meaning to the mixed nature of response to the message of the Kingdom. God will sort out the wicked at the end of the age. While this interpretation relieves us from having to decide who is evil and who is not, it impoverishes the possible reading of the parable. In any event, it indicates that the current state of affairs is not the final state of affairs. With Matthew’s interpretation, it is our temptation secretly to identify weeds and wheat (and we almost always fall among the wheat!).

The first humans sought to know good from evil, just like God, and that is the sin which distorted the relationship between humanity and the cosmos, the relationship which awaits the revelation of our adoption for the redemption of the cosmos. The farmer in this parable might be a good example to follow — before that redemption, our task is to cultivate the field, and leave the results in God’s hands.

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