Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 ‘The Problem of Evil’
I want to talk today about the problem of evil. A heavy, exhausting topic I know. But, in my honest reading of the scripture for today, there is no other place to go. As an aside, I was lamenting earlier this week that I wish the texts for the summer months were not quite so…weighty. Can’t we just deal with something nice and easy, I asked my colleagues. “Name for me one scripture that is easy,” one of them responded. Well – that put me in my place. So, today we are dealing with the topic of evil.
And I need to be very clear about something right at the beginning. The concept of evil is one that I haven’t been able to grapple with. I have trouble reconciling my understanding of God with any ideas of evil. I can’t wrap my head around it. I can’t seem to make space alongside God, the source of good and life, for evil. God is too big – there isn’t any more room. So, what to do with the problem of evil? Because, as a student of history and an active participant in our current world – I cannot deny that there is evil in this world, as much as I would like to. I can’t close my eyes to it, I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. 21st century prophet Rev. Dr. William Barber said recently, “Too many people have become too comfortable with other people’s deaths.” And, he is right. That is an accurate observation of our world today. So, it has become more and more clear to me – I need to make room for evil in my understanding of the world and in my understanding of God. And, I wonder if that is what Jesus is trying to do with today’s parable of wheat and weeds. I wonder if he is trying to help his followers make room for evil.
In this section of scripture, we are in the midst of several parables in which Jesus is trying to explain the Kingdom of God. And because the Kingdom of God is ultimately beyond our human ability to understand, Jesus uses parables – a teaching technique that relies on our ability to use our imagination to take an idea that is bigger than we can truly grapple with, and make it approachable. This parable is the perfect example. Jesus is saying that in the Kingdom of God, which is the completion of God’s promise for creation, evil will not exist. It will be gathered up and destroyed. And in the Kingdom only good will remain.
But the problem is, Jesus says, that we are not there yet. The Kingdom of God hasn’t been realized yet. Evil still exists. In the midst of the wheat there are weeds. We have to make room for evil, Jesus says. And this is where I stumble. This is where I want to grab Jesus by the shoulders, shake him and yell, “That’s not good enough Jesus!”
Here’s how I want the parable to go: in verse 28, when the slaves ask the master if they should gather up the weeds, what I want the directive to be is this: “Yes, grab those weeds right at the base of the stem and pull them up by the roots so they can’t come back. And then go through the field every single day, pulling up more weeds by their roots.” But, that is not what we hear Jesus teaching. Jesus says in the parable that we are to leave the weeds among the wheat, because if we try to pull the weeds ourselves, we may pull some of the wheat. But, at the time of the harvest, it will all be taken care of, so not to worry. What Jesus is saying here is it’s not necessary that we spend all of our time scouring our world for evil to uproot, instead we need to trust that God will fulfill God’s promise – that in the Kingdom of God evil will exist no more. And in the meantime, we need to make room for evil.
And to be perfectly honest, now I don’t want to grab Jesus by the shoulders and yell, now I want to put my hands on my hips, look Jesus in the eye, and say just like any defiant three year old, “No, I’m not gonna.” I’m not going to make room, I am not going to trust God to work it out, I am going to save the entire world all by myself. I am going to work myself into exhaustion uprooting all of the evil I can find, and not worry about accidently pulling wheat instead of weeds. Then, I stomp off and try to prove just what I can do.
Which, by the way, is exactly how I acted once when I was really little and was told by my brother and dad that my five-year-old self could not shovel the entire driveway after a massive snow fall all alone, that they would take care of it. But, I stomped outside and with my tiny little red shovel I sure tried. Turns out though, they were right. I couldn’t do it all on my own.
Jesus needed to help his followers understand that they could not do it all on their own too. Throughout the Gospels we watch and listen as Jesus was showing the people that a different world was possible. Jesus’ entire ministry was helping people to recognize and realize that God had something better in mind for God’s creation. Jesus taught his followers that what is now – injustice, persecution, destruction, evil – will not always be. Evil is not of God, Jesus taught. Jesus is teaching this revolutionary understanding of God and getting the people excited. And some are becoming inpatient – they don’t want to wait, or they don’t fully yet trust in God. So, just like me more often than I care to admit, they decide to take matters into their own hands and attempt take on the role of God. Jesus understood this temptation. Jesus understood that his followers were going to be forever tempted to push God along, and the consequences be damned. Jesus understood that some of his followers were going to stomp off defiantly and try to prove that they could do it all on their own. That they would think they didn’t need help. That they would think they didn’t need God.
We need to make room for evil because it is beyond our abilities to destroy it all. We need to make room because otherwise we will spend our entire lives pushing and pulling, and tilting at windmills, trying to figure out what is good and what is not. We will spend our entire lives judging the world and our neighbors, destroying what we think is evil, and far too often uprooting what is good in the process. And all that does is remove God completely. Jesus says we need to humble ourselves enough to trust God, to trust in God’s promise, to trust in God’s time. And the thing is, by making room for evil, what we are actually doing is making room for God and for God’s work in the world.
I sit very uncomfortably with this lesson because I am far too often one of those people who try to save the entire world without help, and without the guidance of God. And my Beloved Community, I know that I am not the only one. In the United Church of Christ we believe very strongly in an active faith, that working for justice is a primary call of what it means to be Christian. And so we read this scripture, think that Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t bother to work for justice, and therefore ignore the lesson or, more dangerously, try to prove it wrong. But, that is not what Jesus is saying. Nowhere in this lesson is Jesus saying to accept injustice, nowhere in this lesson is Jesus saying we need to accept evil. Jesus is saying that evil is not of God and will ultimately be destroyed. And part of our faith is to trust that. We can and should still work for justice. We can and should continue to help the wheat flourish, to help the good grow strong. Because, here’s the thing, if we spend all of our time focused on evil, then the good gets ignored and withers. And then, nothing will be left.
When it comes to the problem of evil we need to trust in God. We need to trust in God’s promise. We need to trust in the realization of the Kingdom of God, even if that realization doesn’t happen as quickly as we want it to. So, instead of spending all of our time hunting out and uprooting evil – because, if we are truly honest, we alone cannot judge what is truly evil – let us instead spend our time nourishing the good. Let us create a world in which the good grows strong. Let us spend our time nurturing instead of destroying. And let us trust in God. If this lesson sits uncomfortably with you, well, I get it. It sits uncomfortably with me too. And I think Jesus knew that, which is why he needed to teach us. It is a hard lesson, but a vital one.
Let us pray:
Good and loving God, the world in which we live is far more complex than we would like. We look around and see hurt and pain and want to fix it all. We look around and see evil and wonder if in fact you are to blame. While our faith in you and the teachers of Jesus Christ assure us that you are good and just, we far too often spend our time judging the world and our neighbors, and try to take on your role. We confess this temptation to you and are so grateful for your grace and forgiveness.
Help us, God, to trust in you. Help us, when we are feeling overwhelmed by the trauma we see around us, to lean into your embrace first. Help us to open ourselves up to you in prayer and to listen carefully for your still-speaking voice. Help us to bring glory to you in everything we do, and give us pause when we try to take the glory for ourselves.
Ever-present God, your good is everywhere. So today we commit to focusing on the good, to helping the good flourish and grow. Today we celebrate all of the joy we see around us, and in so doing, we celebrate you.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher and guide, who also taught us to pray together with Christians around the world by saying…Our Father…