The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany


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O Lord, we beseech thee to keep thy church and household…
Colossians 3:12-17
Matthew 13:24-30

One of the important books analysing our state at the beginning of the 21st Century is Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone which describes the erosion of what we call “Social capital”, the unseen but vital glue which holds society together. Putnam says that our social mobility and our private cars allow us to spend more and more time with people we like and to avoid people we don’t. Before the First World War people were locked into their own communities with people they liked and disliked, respected and despised, but there was no chance of getting away from these people. You could not even escape through radio, television or cinema.

So it was at the time of Jesus. People lived in a society where the wheat and tares, however defined, were not, as they are for us, some distant band of teenagers staring from the front page of the weekly paper, they were right there. Not that everybody was satisfied with this live and let live policy. The religious authorities, brought up in a tradition of legalist refinement, used all their intellectual energy to draw distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and this is the point of Jesus’ parable. We have to live together, side by side, suspending judgment until the harvest of the Lord which will make a radical split between the wheat and tares, foreshadowing the longer account in Matthew 25.

The Collect recognises the need to rub along together in its use of the terms “Church and household” to describe the collection of those who “lean only upon the hope of Thy heavenly grace”. Paul, a tireless striver for unity, urges the Colossians to exercise forgiveness and to live in charity. He goes on to point out how the church can foster a spirit of unity: “Let the word of Christ dwell richly in you in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in Psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs.”

Hymn singing promotes solidarity but it is not enough and, in that context, there are three points that we might consider. The first is simple; the image in the parable fails because tares cannot be turned into wheat. Secondly, to what extent do our churches, where those who are ‘gathered’, make all kinds of assumptions about those who are not? Paul calls upon the “Elect of God, holy and beloved”; what about the rest?

In the 16th Century (cf The Sunday after Christmas) this idea was taken by many reformers to mean that only a small number of the virtuous would be saved; and there was a natural temptation to include themselves among that number. To a certain extent that ‘gathered’ tradition has remained a background feature of a Church of England which is open to all and, by definition, not exclusivist but this does not necessarily stop us from making it difficult for others to join us. To what extent, as a church, are we a household which has to live with and love the awkward and the unprepossessing? During discussions where people are described as “mission opportunities” are we not in danger of thinking of them as tares and ourselves as wheat? Notice in Jesus’ story how anxious the servants are to get on with the job of rooting out while their master is content to leave things as they are until the critical moment.

The third point is to consider how we think of that critical moment. I have used the word “radical” in the sense that there seems to be no fudging; we are either wheat or weed. In the sense that a door is either open or shut there has to be some kind of decision about the kind of people we have been. But is that really so? The parable implies, as does Matthew 25, that the difference in numbers between the wheat and the tares is not very great. So we form a picture of a society which has a fair number of obviously good people and a fair number of obviously bad people with some in the middle whose cases are too difficult to call.

But we need to question this picture because it is based on a very narrow, human understanding of what God’s love might be like; it makes it very like our kind of love and that is at least questionable. If we are to console ourselves with the thought in the Collect that we are dependent upon heavenly Grace and defended by the mighty power of God, we are surely right to expect a rather more lenient time at the harvest than ordinary human justice would mete out. As we were created freely to love God we need to ask what it is that we have to do in order to cut ourselves off forever from the possibility of being enfolded back into our Creator. We might go further and ask whether, given that we are all creatures of the Creator, any of us was made in such a way that we could take decisions which will cut us off forever from our Creator. In other words, are there any tares at all? In trying to answer that question we are likely to turn to the most obviously wicked occupants of our prisons but only God knows what hand each of us has been dealt and how we are playing it. Of those who have most, most is expected.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Is the parable of the wheat and tares too anthropocentric in the way it understands God’s justice and mercy?
  2. How helpful is it to think of divine judgment in terms of civil justice?
  3. Does your church feel like a household or a club?
  4. How do you know a tare when you see one?
  5. How would you know for yourself whether you are more like wheat than a weed?

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