A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to be a part of a group of seminarian and medical students to study professional ethics. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right? That is, until I tell you our destination and focus was Auschwitz. That’s right, we were asked to think about ethics in light of this darkest moment in human history, this center of unimaginable desecration of humanity, this place that creates a hole in your heart just by the mention of it. It was no easy task, and I am pretty sure every one of us walked away changed.
When people ask me about my trip, it’s hard for me to really put into words everything I learned and saw and felt. But there is one specific place that stands out to me. Before I went to Auschwitz, I had it pictured in my head as a really desolate place. It was also only black and white, there was no color. Which was why it was so disturbing to me that the place where the Nazis built their crematoria, their gas death chambers, was actually this rich, lush, green forest. And so in one frame of sight, you have these gorgeous green trees, the likes of which us desert people have only dreamed of, and at their roots you have the rubble of the destroyed gas chambers. It’s the most bizarre, surreal place I have been on this planet. I still have a hard time thinking about and reconciling the fact that such beauty and hatred can coexist in physically the same space.
And yet, it’s that co-existence that Jesus is talking about today. We’re in a season in the lectionary where Jesus is in the middle of a series of parables explaining what the “kingdom of heaven” is like. This week’s story is the parable of the weeds. Jesus tells us of a farmer who diligently and patiently plants his crop of wheat, only to be foiled by an enemy that plants weeds.
This poor farmer is left with a crop that most people think is now ruined. Others can only see the destruction the weeds will wreak and want to pull them up right away. But this farmer is smart, and has foresight, and knows that there is a way to preserve the wheat despite the weeds. And he knows that there will come a time when you can harvest the good wheat and get rid of the weeds. But for now, he has to let the two co-exist, despite how counter-intuitive it may be.
Some might be tempted to hear this story in the same way as we hear many children stories—that the wheat and the weeds are in an epic battle while they grow together, and it will end when the wheat is triumphantly harvested and the weeds are thrown into the firey furnace. And they will take that black and white thinking and apply it to Jesus’ explanation. Some people read this and think that Jesus is saying that there are good people and bad people and at some point in the future the good will be exalted and the bad will go to the firey pits of hell.
Such a reading conveniently helps justify out fear and hatred of others. It’s easy to see ourselves as good and others as evil. We see it happening all over the world as we speak—In Israel and Palestine, in Iraq, in North Korea, and even as close to home as Murrieta. It feels like the world is going crazy, with violence and hate-filled rhetoric and division is everywhere we turn.
Here’s a story from an American-Israeli writer: “Jerusalem Day, 2012. I am standing at the Damascus Gate, before the Israeli parade has made its way from West Jerusalem into the occupied parts of the city to celebrate “reunification.” I am watching two small demonstrations, separated by a small police barrier. On one side, there is a group of young Israelis, mostly teenagers. They are waving Israeli flags, and their veins are bulging as they scream “Mavet LaAravim! Mavet LaAravim!” Death to Arabs! Death to Arabs! On the other side, there is a group of young Palestinian men, and they are also chanting and waving Palestinian flags, their fists clenched and their shouts filled with testosterone, “Khaybar Khaybar ya Yehud!” A reference to an incident in the 7th century in which Muslims forcibly expelled the Jews of Khaybar. And I think: they are so similar. We are so similar. We are all swept up in self-righteousness, we are all afraid and violent and capable of wishing expulsion and death on the other side.”
When we think we are all good, that leads us to the belief that those who are different, or who disagree with us, are all bad, and we must separate ourselves from them in order to prove our goodness. Good cannot co-exist with evil, right? Yet, this black and white, good and evil way of thinking doesn’t take into account the many shades of grey that we encounter in everyday life. And Jesus, being not only fully God but also fully human, knows intimately all of those shades. So I’m not convinced that he wants us to hear this story as one encouraging us to see ourselves as wheat and others as weeds. I don’t think Jesus wants us to contemplate separation, but is wanting us to see that the world is more complicated than that.
In our Lutheran tradition we have a saying simul justus et peccator. The direct translation is “simultaneously justified and sinful.” You have probably heard it as “Both saint and sinner.” We have a recognition, shaped by our reading of the Bible and our witnessing of human nature, that no one is fully good or fully evil, but everyone is a mixture of both. And, in fact, our goodness comes not really from ourselves, but from the grace of God. We say that everyone is a little like that field at Auschwitz, where God’s beautiful creation and human sinfulness somehow exist together in tension.
Looking at the parable of the weeds with this Saint and sinner perspective changes it, right? Instead of thinking about the field as the world, with good and bad people, it forces us to see the field as our own hearts. We know that God has planted good in us, and is patiently caring and waiting for it to bear fruit. But we also know that the weeds of sin take root in us. We know that often our carelessness or callousness or self-centeredness choke out the good God is trying to bring forth. If you’re not convinced, because you’ve never killed or outrightly oppressed anyone, take a cold, hard look at what you say and do next time you’re cut off in traffic.
So how does this perspective shift change our relationships to others? When we recognize that our own hearts contain both God’s goodness and human sinfulness, that we are in fact not the best and most perfect people to ever walk the face of the earth—we are better able to accept that same duality in others. We’re more likely to recognize our common humanity when we stop trying to separate and divide. How different would our world look if the rhetoric of conflict was not one group is saints and one group is sinners, but a recognition that all are both? How much more likely would it be that we would sit down with each other being rooted in God’s grace, rather than celebrating death and destruction to the other side?
I am continuously praying that somehow all the hatred and division that is currently going on in the world will give way to peace, and I firmly believe in that God equips us to bring forth a reality of peace in the here and now. We know that God promises a time when the weeds of our hearts will be separated and destroyed, when there will be only goodness in us and not sinfulness, when there will only be trees and not Nazi gas chambers. We know this promise to be true because it has already been accomplished by Jesus’ death and resurrection. In our baptism we remember Paul’s words to the Romans, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” We worship a God who is found precisely in the co-existing tension of death and resurrection, saint and sinner, wheat and weed. We take comfort in knowing that the one who has planted good in us will not abandon us to our own weeds of sin, but waits patiently with us for the day when all will be gathered and reconciled together. The day when we no longer chant death and destruction to our brothers and sisters, but celebrate our life together in a God who loves all the world. Amen.
Note: Read more reflections and stories from the American-Israeli writer mentioned here: http://thelefternwall.com/2014/07/16/clarification-i-do-not-think-palestinians-are-more-moral-than-israelis/