Text: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.
Though I had been raised 50/50 Episcopalian and Roman Catholic, in my teenage years and 20’s we were part of the Messianic Jewish movement, which usually shares basic theological assumptions with general Evangelicalism here in the United States. Since at least the 1970’s most of American Evangelicalism has defaulted to a Dispensationalist view of the End Times, which includes, among other things, a belief in a pre-Tribulation Rapture, when all true Christians will be taken to heaven prior to the seven-year Great Tribulation, after which Christ will return. Most every person I’ve met who was exposed to this idea as a youngster, perhaps through the Left Behind books and movies or earlier popular level Christian media, such as The Late, Great, Planet Earth or A Thief in the Night, has had a similar experience to mine: I come home from school, expecting the family to be there, but they’re not, and immediately think to myself, “Oh, no! Did I miss the Rapture? Was I one of those who wasn’t ready?” In other words, in a reflexive panic, I wonder whether or not I’m truly a Christian, whether or not I’m truly saved.
Or, perhaps that approach to the End Times is foreign to you. After all, this has not been a historic teaching among Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, or the Reformed. But chances are you’ve had a not dissimilar experience where you see a scandal in the Church, or see a Christian behaving badly, or maybe catch yourself behaving badly, and wonder how someone calling themselves a Christian can be so wicked, and again question how you can know if you are truly saved.
Today’s Gospel speaks to this all-too-common issue: the simultaneous presence of wheat and tares. Please turn in your bibles to Matthew 13:24, found in your Prayer Book on Page 116:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds [tares in the King James] among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”
If you skip a few verses ahead, to verse 36 (not in the Prayer Book), we have Jesus’ explanation of this parable:
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
Isn’t it nice when Jesus gives us the explanation? It makes the preacher’s job much easier! Let’s unpack this a bit, especially with Jesus’ explanation in mind. The first thing I want you to notice is that the field in this parable is the world, not the church. If you’re like me, you probably have read this parable scores of times and missed that little detail. I had always assumed that this was teaching about true and false conversions, but it’s actually a teaching about the Church in the world. This tells us that the world belongs to God. Sin and the devil are trespassers in God’s good creation. Though they’re working their wickedness now, when the time is right, God will send his angels to sort everything out.
Nevertheless, the parable does indeed say that the tares were sown among the wheat. That does imply that among the visible Church will be folks who are not the adopted children of God but are spiritually children of Satan. And we all know people who name the Name of Christ but show no fruits of regeneration. We all know baptized people who are no different than pagans. So, what do we do with that? The Book of Common Prayer treats the issue with what has often been called a “generous assumption.” We see this in what is said in both the baptismal rite and funeral rite. At the end of Holy Baptism, on page 280 in your Prayer Book, we find two striking statements by the priest:
Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits; and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this Child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning.
And later, after the Lord’s Prayer:
We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this child with thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for thine own Child, and to incorporate him into thy holy Church. And humbly we beseech thee to grant, that he, being dead unto sin, may live unto righteousness, and being buried with Christ in his death, may also be partaker of his resurrection; so that finally, with the residue of thy holy Church, he may be an inheritor of thine everlasting kingdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
We see, then, that the assumption is that all who are baptized are regenerate, they are indeed assumed to be wheat, but we also pray and hope that this will bear out to be true, with the proper fruit of a Christian life. Similarly, at the end of the Burial Office, we pray (page 333):
Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.
Again, we have the assumption that the deceased is indeed a Christian and will partake of the Resurrection to life. But notice how this assumption is really a hope based on trusting in Christ’s work and goodness. But is this “generous assumption” of the Prayer Book presumption? After all, doesn’t the Catechism and the Articles insist on the benefits of Baptism being obtained by faith? In short, I would say that this is not presumption on the part of our liturgy, because it is speaking to those who are in the Church, and thus regularly have access to the biblical means of grace. In other words, those who have been brought into the visible Church should be hearing God’s Word read and proclaimed and should be receiving the Sacraments. They should be hearing God’s Law that convicts of sin and God’s Gospel that rescues us from in, being given the constant invitation and opportunity for repentance and the assurance of God’s love and goodness. By coming to Church, as promised in the baptismal vows, they will be positioned to have their hearts changed by the Holy Spirit as he uses the Word and Sacrament for his purposes. And we can indeed trust that the Holy Spirit will indeed use the Word and Sacrament to convict, assure, and regenerate because he has promised in Scripture so to do.
Sometimes, though, this process is less-than obvious. This is the second thing I want you to notice: The Master doesn’t let his servants immediately uproot the weeds, “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.” The Greek word for “weed” used in this passage likely refers to a weedy rye grass with poisonous black seeds, often called darnel. It looks very similar to wheat when the plant is young but is easily distinguished at the mature stage. Taking up this observation, St. Jerome writes:
Between wheat and weeds there is something called darnel, when the plant is in its early growth and there is no stalk yet. It looks like an ear of corn, and the difference between them is hardly noticeable. The Lord therefore advises us that we should not be quick to judge what is doubtful, but leave judgement up to God. So when the day of judgement comes, he may not cast out from the body of saints those who are suspected of misdeeds but those who are obviously guilty.
St. Jerome earlier points out that St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 5:13 to “Purge the evil person from among you,” referring to the professed Christian who is engaged in unrepentant scandalous sin. But from the pages of the Epistles, the purpose for this is clear: so that the person will come to repentance. In fact, the Holy Communion Rubrics tell us to bar from the Lord’s Table someone who is known to be “an open and notorious evil liver, or to have done any wrong to his neighbors by word or deed, so that the Congregation be thereby offended.” But always, before such a step is to be taken, the priest in consultation with the bishop would warn such a person, show them from God’s Word what is said about the issue, and urge them to repentance. In other words, we are use the means of grace, the Word and Sacrament, to bring them to the Lord. For the one who names the name of Christ, the very means of grace, when abused and ignored, act as witnesses against him in the final day of God’s judgement. As ministers of the Gospel, we are not ever use the power of the keys “to bind” people in their sins lightly or arbitrarily. And in all things, we constantly offer repentance. St. Augustine writes:
The field is the world, and the church is spread throughout the world. Let the one who is wheat persevere until the harvest; let those who are weeds be changed into wheat.
This is why in the greater context of our Epistle from Colossians 3, St Paul urges us to “put off the old self with its practices and . . . put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (verses 9,10). As we practice holiness, as we set aside the world, the flesh, and the devil, we do indeed change, assisted and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Perseverance in the faith is no easy task, and we could not do it without the Holy Spirit. But God is faithful and has sent the Holy Spirit for this purpose. As our Lord Jesus said, he did not leave us orphans. We can trust in God’s goodness. We can come to him assured by the Word and by the Sacraments, not presuming, but assured.
And finally, notice to whom Jesus explains the parable: to his disciples who followed him. Jesus left and the crowds didn’t follow. But the disciples did. Those who were his came with them. In Verse 34 or our Gospel chapter, St. Matthew tells us why Jesus spoke in parables:
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
The weeds didn’t follow Jesus into the house, the wheat did. The evidence for being wheat, being “sons of the kingdom,” was the fact that they wanted Jesus to explain the parable. See, the World thinks that Jesus was a good teacher who told us to be nice to each other, but they don’t really know his teaching. The World completely misses the point. Sons of the world, sons of the enemy don’t actually listen to Jesus. They never wonder whether they’re wheat or tares. They never look to Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection for their salvation because they don’t see the need to be saved. This is the very heart of presumption. But if you worry about being presumptuous when it comes to God’s promises, that’s evidence that you’re not. Indeed, this is when the Lord points you back to your baptism. This is when the Lord invites you to his Table. This is when the Lord quickens his Word within you and does indeed give you ears to hear and eyes to see. And one day you will indeed shine like the sun in the kingdom of your heavenly Father.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.