We are in Matthew 13 again. This time our reading comes from verses 24-30 and 36-43. We’re walking with Jesus, as we’ve been doing all summer, and we’re watching and listening. Last week we heard the story of a farmer who scatted seeds on varied ground—some rocky, some hard, some overrun with thistles, just some of it good. We noticed then that if God’s goal is a high yield rate then God is a failure. This week we are still by the lake shore when Jesus tells another story.
The story is about a farmer who plants a grain field only to find it infested with weeds. Later we listen in as Jesus explains the story to his closest followers. Like last Sunday, I want us to hear this passage in the context of a world where the innocent suffer. Jesus used imagined stories to tell us something about God’s way with the world. Let me tell you a couple of real stories to remind us of how that world, in fact, works.
Bryan Stevenson currently teaches law at New York University. But he grew up poor in Delaware. His great-grandparents were slaves. When Stevenson first became a lawyer he took up work in Alabama and Georgia representing poor clients. He did his best to speak for the wrongly convicted, which often were so because of their race. (Stevenson tells his story in his book Just Mercy and he gives a stirring TED talk here.)
One night Stevenson got home late from work. He liked the music on the radio in his car and so he sat there parked relaxing for a few extra minutes. Before long police pulled up. He was ordered out of his vehicle. He and his car were searched without cause. They didn’t know they were searching the property of a Harvard-trained lawyer; they did know they were searching the property of a young black man. Stevenson says that in his country—the USA—one in every three black male babies born in the twenty-first century is expected to be incarcerated (15). There’s something about his experience and those statistics that isn’t fair. There are innocent people suffering.
Or there’s the personal story the ethicist Lewis Smedes shared in the Christian Century. Smedes died in 2002, but early in his marriage Smedes and his wife tried in vain to conceive a child.
As he puts it, they spent “a decade making love according to a schedule set by four different fertility clinics in three different countries.” Nevertheless, they were unable to conceive.
That is, until one night’s lark on a sand dune in Michigan. That’s his description. After that his wife became a “medically certified pregnant woman.” Six months later, with God’s answer to prayer developing just fine, they were surprised when she went into labour. Their doctor ordered them to get to a hospital as quickly as they could and warned them that their child would be underdeveloped and probably unhealthy. They cried as they drove, but they promised God they would love the child regardless of the outcome.
A few hours later the doctor found Smedes in the waiting room and congratulated him on the birth of a perfectly formed son. Smedes went home and danced in ecstatic delirium!
The next morning, a call: come to the hospital immediately. The miracle child dead. A mother never able to lay eyes on her son. Dancing turned to stumbling horror.
There is immense unfairness and undeserved suffering in our world—as if we needed the reminder. And yet we believe in a good God. We believe in God. We believe in God’s goodness. We believe in God’s power. And then we find this stuff in God’s world. We find these weeds.
In the fact of it we must say this: there is no way to ‘solve’ the problem of evil. It’s inappropriate to try. There is no way to make ISIS okay, there’s no way to make racism not a big deal, there’s no way to solve the Holocaust or the civil wars in Russia or Congo. There is no way to say the suffering of our loved ones is really for the best. There just is not.
I believe that’s true, but here’s what we should notice. For well over a thousand years Christians thought their faith helped them grapple with the existence of evil and suffering. Now we find it hard to reconcile the two. We find ourselves caught in this bind created by our understanding of God’s power and God’s love. It’s not that the world has gotten worse. It’s that our assumptions about God have changed. The modern world taught us to think of God as an architect or a manager. We can’t work out the details of that here. But we can let this parable work on those assumptions a little.
I’m guided here by Tom Long, who suggests that we read the parable of the wheat and the weeds as a conversation. We should imagine the questions of the beleaguered Christians for whom Matthew wrote the gospel. They too would have wondered about suffering and the continued presence of evil. Matthew picks up this teaching of Jesus and plays it back to them. This means that as we hear this parable we should be sure to notice the questions embedded in it.
The field is planted. The grain grows. Weeds appear. Then there’s the question: “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” Did the one who sowed the seed cause the weeds? I think we can put it this way, does God cause evil? I don’t know if you’ve ever had a problem with your computer and called someone for help. You want to blame the machine. The technician almost always says the machine just does what you tell it to do. We tend to think of God’s relationship to the world in the same way: we think it just does what the master engineer tells it to do. But look again at the parable, what’s the response? Did you sow bad seed? Did you command this suffering? The master answers: “An enemy has done this.” One of the reasons we modern people find the problem of innocent suffering so challenging is because most of us don’t believe in evil.
We believe certain actions are evil, but we don’t believe in evil as a force. Ancient people liked to personify evil as a being—as the devil or as demons. I’m not sure we need to do that, but it does seem like we cause problems for ourselves when we ignore scripture’s insistence that there are principalities and powers that are bigger than us. These are destructive forces with their own energy. Maybe we could put it this way. Scripture says, this is Ephesians 6, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces . . . .” We might say that our fight is not against the racist but against power of racism, not against the capitalist but against the power of negligent capitalism, not against our bodies but against the capricious power of a disordered physical world. God created a good world. Something has intruded. There is an enemy. There is a force with an energy beyond those who cooperate with it.
Here’s the next question embedded in the parable: “Do you want us to go and gather them in?” Or maybe it’s this: Can we fix it? Can we somehow set things completely right? Can we somehow go through the world, sorting and sifting good from evil, keeping the first and burning the last?
The master replies: “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat.” There are many obviously evil things in our world. And we ought to fight such things. Yet, we simply can’t get rid of it all without getting rid of each and every one of us. Doing away with the sufferer to abolish the suffering.
There’s a second layer to this. What for us is simply beyond our ability to disentangle, is outside the character of God. We can’t remove the weeds because it’s all too complex, too entangled. God—Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the world—doesn’t do it because it isn’t who God is. Jesus’ miracles showed his divine power but they didn’t stop death in its tracks. Those he healed eventually died. God intervened in a symbolic way, not in a final way.
When we say God is all-loving and ever-powerful we must account for this. It is not a love without a story. It is not machine-like power without personal character. God’s way of being with the world is not to wade in and hack out chunks. God’s way of being, at present at least, is to be with, to be in skin, to suffer.
You might have noticed here in Matthew 13 that between the story of the weeds and its explanation there are a few shorter parables. There is the little story of the mustard seed, a word-picture drawn from yeast and Jesus’ comments about his style of teaching. What all three suggest is that the work of God against the forces of evil is ongoing. It’s like an insurgency, a secret invasion that will one day bear much fruit. This is the way of God’s love. This is the character of God’s power. This was the scandal of claiming Jesus as the Messiah. Yeast, not a bulldozer—at least for now.
This brings us to the final question embedded in Jesus’ story. It’s a little more indirect than the others. It’s the question of whether or not this is always how things will be: always weeds, always unfair suffering, always the death of the innocent? In the picture of God that this parable paints the answer is, ‘no’. The weeds and the wheat grow together for a time, but there will be a reckoning. One of the other reasons the challenge of evil and God’s goodness is so devastating for us is because we have lost our sense of the bigger story. Through and through, the scriptural witness is that God will call all to account.
If the existence of suffering is the challenge for the one who believes the biblical story, the existence of justice is the challenge for the one who rejects it. Yet even those who believe realize the justice we now seek is only a shadow, an outline of the true justice to come. We turn the other cheek, not because violence is fine and dandy, but, at least partly, because we believe in God’s judgment. We do not believe that those who execute evil in secret will “get away with it.” We do not believe the world will always run precisely as it does, like some perfectly lubricated machine. We hope and pray for change initiated by God.
In a world thoroughly tinted by unfair suffering we tell and we enact this story of self-sacrificing grace. The story of divine love stretched through time; divine power insurgent and troubled by patience.
 Check out David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? for a little more.