Genesis 28:10-19a | Matthew 13:24-30
A few months ago I was walking back to my cark in the car park at the Westfield shops in Hornsby when I saw a driver cut the wrong way through a junction, and a drive against the one way system to take a short cut to a vacant space. I wasn’t close enough to be in danger, and there weren’t any other cars involved, but I fumed all the way back to my car – “what sort of idiot drives like that? what, he doesn’t think the rules apply to him?”. It was only as I loaded the groceries into the back of my car that I realised the truth: that just an hour earlier, when I had arrived at the shops, I had made exactly the same manoeuvre.
Of course, the difference was, when I did it, I checked and double checked that it was safe. I was a careful driver, finding a creative solution to the problem of traffic flow within a constrained space – he was a careless idiot thinking only of his own selfish hurry.
It’s such a common mode of thought that psychologists have a name for it “fundamental attribution error”. The term describes the way that when we see others behaving badly, we attribute it to a flaw in their character – to internal factors; but when reflecting on our own faults, we tend to explain them in terms the circumstances we found ourselves in – external factors. Or, to put it another way: we read the faults or failings of others as ethical failings, but ours as circumstancial, excusable, unintended.
So we would be wise to hear Jane West’s advice in The Loyalists: “Let us not attribute to malice and cruelty what may be referred to less criminal motives. Do we not often afflict others undesignedly, and, from mere carelessness, neglect to relieve distress?”
Or more concisely, Hanlon’s razor “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity”
How often do we look at the parables of Jesus and see ourselves (in the good bits) and others (in the bad). In the parable of sower, last week, it’s so hard to hear that story and not immediately identify ourselves with the good soil: the ones who have heard Jesus’ words, received them, live them. Or at least, we try to live them – of course we fail, but unlike others, at least we try… our faults are errors, mistakes, weakness, even: others fail because they don’t really try.
And again in today’s reading; we hear the story of the wheat and the weeds, and assume that we are the wheat. We focus on what we assume is the good characteristic and apply it to ourselves.
And I think it’s this tendency that leads to leads to the most common misreading – or perhaps, rather, incomplete reading – of this parable. Any half decent commentary will tell you that the word Jesus used to describe the weeds in this parable is a very particular type of weed: a weed that looks very much like wheat as it grows.
So, since we know that we are wheat, we hear these words, and they say to us: don’t be in too much of a hurry to try to judge those around you. It’s too hard to tell if someone else is good or bad; you need to leave it to God.
And sure, that’s good advice, as far as it goes.
But in the parable, the workers in the field clearly did know the difference between the wheat and the weeds – they were the ones who told the owner that the weeds were there!
We have to go further than that.
Jesus has, as we’ve heard again and again as we’ve read through Matthew’s gospel, been preaching the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. And this parable, like many of those to come, begins “the kingdom of heaven is like….”. The parables are there to tell us something about the kingdom, to teach us something about the kingdom.
And in the case of this parable, it seems as if the fundamental point is: in the kingdom of heaven, there is both good and evil. Wheat and weeds.
And to get that, we have to first of all get past the idea that when Jesus speaks of the Kingdom, he’s talking about some future beyond death. Of course, he does speak our future beyond death, of the many rooms in his Father’s home: but that isn’t the Kingdom of Heaven – or rather, the kingdom of heaven is much more than that.
The Kingdom of Heaven is “at hand”. “The time is coming, and has now come”. And we are its messengers, its ambassadors, its citizens. But that kingdom, that present reality here on earth, is a mixture of good and bad, of beauty and ugliness, of welcoming and rejection, of justice and selfishness: just as the world itself is. We’d like to think that the Kingdom is better than the world as a whole, and it might well be so – but, as any honest assessment would admit, it is far from perfect.
And so the parable raises the question: why is this so? If this Kingdom is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of heaven, why does God allow evil to remain?
Why not pull out the weeds? Because, the master says, in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat as well. Not might uproot: would uproot.
And why? Because, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously observed (I seem to be in a quoty sort of mood this morning):
“the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil. ”
Even when we are under the thrall of Fundamental Attribution Error, I guess most of us will admit to this: that the line separating good from evil passes through us, not beside us. And perhaps, with only a little more thought, we would also admit that the same is true for all others.
And so you cannot take out the evildoers and leave the wheat: for we are all divided, we are all wheat and weed, saint and sinner, made in God’s image and fallen from that image. And the wheat and weeds in us, grow together, as the master in the parable says; the line through our hearts moves, oscillates with the years. And God is patient, would rather wait, giving us chance after chance, opportunity after opportunity, fresh start after fresh start, in the hope that over the years that line will move in the right direction; that we will become more and more Christlike, that there will be more wheat, and less weed within us.
And of course, if God offers that patience to us; how can we not offer it to others? Grant them the same generosity God give us, and we give ourselves?
For it is our prayer, our hope, and the work of God’s Holy Spirit, that as we live as God’s people and as citizens of God’s Kingdom, we will come closer to the character of God – even if we start a long way off – and today’s parable challenges us to give that same space, that same time, that same grace, to others, too.