This morning we continue our sermon series entitled Questions from the Floor. This morning’s question is: If God is all-loving and all-powerful, then why is there evil in the world?
As the writer Frederick Buechner once pointed out, if we break down that question into three statements—(1) God is all-loving; (2) God is all-powerful; and (3) terrible things happen--then we can easily reconcile any two of those statements with each other, but we have a very hard time reconciling all three statements. Maybe God really is all-powerful but not all-loving, and that’s why terrible things happen. Or surely God is all-loving, but maybe God isn’t all-powerful, and that’s why terrible things happen, which is in essence the conclusion of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But if we try to hold onto the notion that God is all-loving and all-powerful, and we acknowledge that terrible things happen, it’s difficult to reconcile all three statements.
One of my favorite preachers, Thomas G. Long, published a book a few years ago on the Problem of Evil, and he used the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat to explore what Christians can say about evil in the world as well as what we cannot yet say. I want to acknowledge at the outset that my meditation this morning draws heavily from his insights.
|Tom Long's book is an extended meditation on the Book of Job. |
The concluding chapter explores the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat.
The first audience for the Gospel of Matthew may have well have been a young, struggling Christian community in present-day Syria. They were trying to be and do what Jesus had taught them to be and do, and the results were frankly, mixed and discouraging. The culture around them was morally conflicted, and the church itself was turning out to be not so pure. Matthew’s community looked at a hopelessly conflicted world and church and wondered, “What’s the use?” Evil and good are all mixed together, seemingly intractably. How were they to understand this? How were they to understand the trustworthiness of God in such an environment? (Thomas G. Long, What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 2011, p. 124).
The Gospel writer Matthew took a parable from Jesus, this parable about the weeds among the wheat, in an attempt to answer these questions. In the Parable the servants go directly to the Master of the Estate and exclaim, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”
Thus, the first thing we learn about the problem of evil is that we have every right to go to God and ask for an explanation! Evil and suffering are wounds in creation, and a deeply Christian response is to turn to God in pain and protest. In the words of John Claypool, “There is more honest faith in an act of questioning than in the act of silent submission, for implicit in the very asking is the faith that some light can be given.” (John R. Claypool, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, as quoted by Long, p. 127).
|The late John Claypool, a Baptist preacher turned Episcopalian priest, whose book Tracks of a Fellow Struggler is a beautiful and poignant meditation on the grief he experienced when his young daughter died of leukemia.|
So, the first thing we learn is that we have every right to make our protest to God about the presence of evil in our world. In doing so, we refuse to legitimate evil, and we appeal to the honor of God by asking that God do something about it.
When the servants went to the Master demanding to know what happened with the weeds in the field, the Master replied, “An Enemy has done this.” It’s not the worker’s fault. It’s not the landowner’s fault, either.
The answer “An Enemy has done this” raises new questions, but it tells us that a Christian theodicy insists that God is not the author of evil. It is NOT God’s will that the innocent suffer, not even for some larger good.
Years ago, a young woman graduated from Princeton Seminary and received a call to serve a small church. Since the church was small, she vowed to visit everyone in the membership within the first six months. Near the end of that time, she had visited every family in the church except one. Some of the elders advised her, “Oooh, be careful there. They haven’t been here in a couple of years, and they probably aren’t coming back.”
But the young pastor had made herself a promise, and one day she knocked on the door of this couple’s house. Only the wife was home, but she invited the pastor in for a cup of coffee. They sat around the kitchen table and chatted. They talked about this, they talked about that, and then finally they talked about IT. And IT was the fact that more than two years before the couple’s young son had drowned in their backyard pool. “Our friends at church were very kind,” the woman said. “They told us it was God’s will.”
The pastor put her coffee cup down on the table. Should she touch that or not? She decided to touch it. The pastor said, “Your friends at church meant well, but they were wrong. It wasn’t God’s will. God doesn’t will the death of children.”
Surprisingly, the mother’s jaw clenched, her face reddened, and she said in anger, “Well, then, who do you blame? Are you blaming me? Are you blaming me for this? Is that what you’re saying?”
“No, no—I’m not blaming you, the pastor replied, now on the defensive. I’m not blaming you, but I’m not blaming God, either. God was as grief-stricken by your son’s death as you are.” But the woman’s face remained frozen in rage, and it was clear that this conversation was over.
Driving back to the church, the young pastor kept saying to herself, I shouldn’t have touched it. Why did I go there?
But when she got back to the church office, there was a message already waiting for her on the answering machine. “I don’t know where this is going,” the trembling recorded voice said, “but my husband and I want you to come out and talk to us about this. For two years we’ve thought that God was angry at us, but now we wonder if it’s not the other way around.” (story told by Long, pp. 131-132).
Despite the obvious risk, the young pastor was right to affirm that it was NOT God’s will that this child die. If not God, then how do we understand the words “An Enemy Has Done This?” In Matthew’s Gospel, the enemy is the Devil.
As Tom Long writes, "perhaps the devil is best imagined not literally, as some demonic figure lurking in the shadows, but as a symbol of a deep theological truth—namely, that the evil we experience in history is more than the sum of its parts and transcends logical explanation--the horror of the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, the massacre at My Lai—none of these forms of evil can be fully accounted for by political, anthropological, or psychological explanations . . .To say that the enemy is the devil is not to revert to pre-scientific fairytale images but to say through the ancient language of Scripture that evil has a cosmic, trans-human reality. Evil is not just a failing; it is a force. (Long, pp. 134-135).
With the knowledge that an enemy has sowed the seeds of evil in the field, the servants ask the Master, “Do you want us to gather the weeds?” In other words, do you want us to fix it? The landowner’s response is swift, “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”
Tom Long tells the story of a woman he grew up with in South Carolina in the early 1950s. She was stricken with polio as a child just a few years before Jonas Salk perfected his vaccine. She is in her sixties now, her body still twisted by the virus that attacked her in her childhood. She makes her way awkwardly on crutches. But the moment she enters a room, the level of grace is elevated greatly. She lights up with joy every place she touches. She is a college professor and an artist, an accomplished human being with profound gifts. Now, what about the evil she has endured?
Do we think that God gave her polio?
No, a thousand times no!
Did God put polio in her life do give her a beautiful soul?
No, a thousand times no!
Do we think that her soul has been formed by this? Yes.
Tom Long writes, "If someone handed me a magic wand now and gave me the power to change anything about her past, to pluck up the weeds from the wheat, I think I would want to wave it and banish the polio, make it so she never suffered from that disease. But to tell the truth, I really wouldn’t know where the limits of my wisdom were. She is a beautiful and radiant human being, and I wouldn’t know what to take away from the personal history that brought her to this place. In short, I might want to fix it, but I lack the discernment to do so. (Long, pp. 138-139).
If the servants in the parable are not allowed to gather the weeds, then what is the response to the problem of evil? Or to ask the deeper question, what is God doing about the problem of evil?
What the parable suggests about God is that God’s way in the world is not to go into the field and immediately start whacking away with a machete.
Right after this parable, Matthew includes two more short parables from Jesus. He tells a story about a tiny mustard seed that eventually grows into a giant bush that provides shelter for the birds. And he tells a story about a woman taking a little bit of leaven, or yeast, and how it leavens the entire lump of dough. Together, these two tiny parables suggest that God’s ways in the world are hidden, perhaps sometimes frustratingly slow, but nonetheless effective and ultimately victorious.
More and more, I am convinced that God’s way in the world is the way of non-coercive, persuasive love, persuading us to do the right thing in response to the evil we encounter, as best we understand that right thing, to carry on our ministries of compassion and caring as a witness to the final triumph over evil that God is bringing about.
When I was growing up in El Paso, Texas, our next-door neighbor Mrs. Vaughn, a first grade teacher, would spend the late afternoons on her hands and knees in her front yard, uprooting little tiny weeds, before they had a chance to get very big. In El Paso, we didn’t just have dandelions, we also had these tough, prickly desert weeds that were meant to discourage thirsty critters from taking a bite, and they definitely discouraged me from ever touching those things with my bare hands.
|Sandbur, a notoriously prickly desert weed|
Mrs. Vaughn would uproot the prickly weeds when they were no more than an inch high. She would painstakingly go over her entire yard on her hands and knees, painstakingly combing through the Bermuda grass with her hands, uprooting all the infant weeds she could find. The whole process was so laborious that she could never weed more than a tiny square section of her yard each day, but the next afternoon she would be at it again.
Mrs. Vaughn is now in her mid-90s. She lives with her son in San Antonio, Texas. Through the years she did her best to nurture her husband through the deep depression he could never shake, and she did what she could to support a daughter-in-law who lived with breast cancer for over a decade before passing away a few years ago.
In deep faith, she patiently prays and waits as God’s own loving hands comb through the grasses of her long life and ours, ultimately uprooting every cause of evil and suffering, in anticipation of a great harvest and homecoming meal.
And we will see that the fire fueled by the weeds is excellent, and the flour that the wheat makes is excellent, and when the harvest finally comes, the owner of the field will call us all together—farmhands, reapers, neighbors, and break bread with us, bread that is the final distillation of that whole, messy field, and we will all agree that it is like no other bread we have ever tasted before, and that it is very, very good. (This imagery is suggested in a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Live with the Weeds” in The Seeds of Heaven, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990, 2004, pp. 36-37).
May our communion bread this morning be a foretaste of the good things to come.
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.