Detectives in the Wheat Field

Sunday 17th July 2011
Year A, The Forth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Matthew 13:24-30
Matthew 13:36-43

A couple of months ago, unable to sleep, I tuned into Radio 4 Extra and heard a dramatisation of an Inspector Morse story. I was so impressed, not having seen the original television productions, that I ordered the whole Morse series and, in my typically thorough - some would say obsessive - way I read the whole lot from beginning to end.

Such an enterprise had its drawbacks and one of them was the falling away of surprise; in each story the denoument was ingenious but I soon learned the tricks of the detective fiction trade so that it did not take long for me, for example, to eliminate the possible suspects who were portrayed as nasty. Colin Dexter's purpose was to keep me guessing for as long as possible but his very technique critically narrowed the range of guessing so that, by the end, I was enjoying how the murders were committed but was no longer engaged in who committed them because I had learned the Dexter rules of elimination.

Detective fiction's great attraction is that it leads us away from the obvious so that, in the process of reading, we shed our prejudices about good and evil, about social class and behaviour. We learn that it isn't always the skin-head with the tattoos who acts violently, that it isn't always the girl with the short skirt and skimpy top who behaves like a slut; and that the kind of people we tend to dislike are not the obvious suspects. Conversely, we learn that appearances are deceptive; that human beings suffer from a myriad of delusions and obsession below an ostensibly tranquil exterior; that the apparently respectable are capable of great wickedness; and that, quite often, what may appear to be a trivial incident can tip people from tranquility into psychosis or from apathy into heroism. Above all, we learn from fiction in a way that we stubbornly refuse to translate into real life, that you cannot judge people according to their appearances.  On this subject, my favourite aphorism is that there is no such thing as a detected con-man because, of course, as soon as he is detected, he is no longer a con-man.

Now I know you all know from my introduction what I am going to say about today's Gospel of the wheat and the weeds but, nonetheless, I am still going to say it because one of the important elements in a good sermon is the statement of the obvious which, after perhaps decades of repetition, might yet move us to modify our behaviour. You can't tell the wheat from the weeds.


Even if you think you can tell what people are like from their appearance, we are rather equivocal about assigning significance to appearance and context; so, for example, a daisy in a lawn is a weed but in a flower bed it is welcome; a tramp with a can of super strength lager is a pathetic disgrace but a rowing club toff drunk on champagne is just displaying high spirits; and, most absurd of all, a moderately pretty young woman in expensive clothes who has just been made a Duchess is thought more of than countless millions of women who lead harsh and selfless lives for their families, communities and countries. For all her bravery and virtue, Aung San Suu Kyi does not feature so highly on the public radar as either Kate Middleton or, even more incomprehensibly, her sister Pippa.

So here it is. We simply cannot judge worth, even if we should - and I will come to that in a moment - on the basis of appearances. To do so is not only ethically wrong, it is also misleading and, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. So why do we do it? Because, I suggest, our pride drives us to judgment and the most obvious but facile way of reaching a judgment is on the basis of superficial appearance which has three major advantages: first, it does not take all that much effort; it isn't like reading two major philosophers and making a comparative assessment of their coherence and relevance. Secondly, it gives us a surge of power over those we judge which is both satisfying and relatively effortless; and, thirdly, we can always rig the terms of the comparison to ensure that we always end up on top. So, far from being objective, this kind of judgment is not only wrong, misleading and stupid, it is also an exercise in self delusion, a form of cheating.

Now you would have thought that such a severe verdict was quite enough; but it isn't. The primary, the fundamental reason why we should not judge others is that it is the core manifestation of idolatry where we set ourselves up as God to judge others. Time and again the Gospels warn us not to judge others but to leave that to God on the basis that we cannot know even the approximate nature of the relationship between God and individual humans only God knows about the gifts that each is given and the challenges each faces; and only God can weigh the relative infraction of a company executive who does not declare the private calls on his company mobile phone and the starving shop lifter. But I say "only God can" not "only God will" because there is a perverse irony here that the idolatry of judging others is our botched attempt to imitate God who would attempt no such thing. Our civic justice is not God's justice. Our social settlement which allows the powerful to make the rules in favour of the powerful is not God's system. Our coarse prescription to imprison and throw away the key is not God's remedy; our vengeance is not God's vengeance; and our discrimination, nice in its nastiness, is not God's way; and we know this because of the life and teaching of Jesus.

But right down at the root, at the practical level at which Jesus dealt, there is a blazingly obvious truth, so obvious that we have absolutely no excuse to overlook it; and that is that every member of the human race, who has ever been, is now, and will ever be, is made out of perfect love, as God's child in God's image; and so, if we stand at the edge of the field of human life we cannot reap the weeds now and leave the wheat to grow until the harvest because we are not equipped with the capacity to know the difference. We, who would call ourselves wheat and would condemn others as weeds, don't know what we are ourselves, let alone what others are. We can only seek to grow in God's grace, to thank God for his gifts and to live our lives as best we can, accountable in love to each other and to God; and, if that is what we must do as individuals, straining with every fibre of our being to avoid the sin of pride and the exercise of power-based judgment over others that, even more so, is what God's Church on earth must do. It is for our leaders to cultivate the crop, whatever its appearance, and to leave the harvesting, in whatever form it might take, to our loving God.