EPIPHANY V – Adorate Deum
Introit: (Ps. 97) O worship God, all ye angels of his: Sion heard, and rejoiced; and the daughters of Judah were glad. Ps. The Lord is King, the earth may be glad thereof: yea, the multitude of the isles may be glad thereof. Glory be … O worship God …
Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord: Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited. Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give to every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings. (Jeremiah 17.5-10)
Gradual: (Ps. 102) The heathen shall fear thy Name, O Lord, and all the kings of the earth thy majesty. V. When the Lord shall build up Sion: he shall appear in his glory.
Epistle: Brethren: put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, do all in the Name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father through him. (Colossians 3.12-17)
Alleluia. The Lord is King, the earth may be glad thereof: yea, the multitude of the isles may be glad thereof. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus put forth this parable unto the multitudes, saying: The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field. But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (St Matthew 13.24-30)
“Didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares?”
Melville Scott calls this Sunday “the Epiphany of Patience.” He writes: “Previous Sundays have dealt with the Epiphanies of the past as manifested in our Saviour’s life on earth. We consider to-day an Epiphany of the present, for we are now under a dispensation of patience.” (from The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels. A Devotional Exposition of the Continuous Teaching of the Church Throughout the Year, S.P.C.K., London, 1902).
In today’s Gospel parable, a farmer planted his field, perfect and pure, ready to produce nothing but good grain, but sometime in the night an enemy came and sowed ζιζάνια (zizania) among the wheat that had been planted—not simply “weeds” (as in many modern translations), but a very specific kind of weed. And since Roman law prohibited sowing tares among the wheat of an enemy, the scenario presented here is apparently a realistic one. When the wheat began to sprout, so did the tares. So the servants who worked the field came to the master: “Didn’t you sow good seed? Look. Your field is full of tares!” Now, we need to pay attention to the surprises in these parables—to those places where our expectations are upset. One would expect the master to say, “Quick! Pull out all those tares! Get that stuff out of my field!” But instead, he says, “No. Let them both grow together until the harvest.” Thus, Our Lord says, God has no immediate plans to uproot all the evil among us. And here is why: when the servants volunteered to pull the weeds, the master fears that, “in pulling the tares, you would uproot the wheat as well.” In other words, you will do more harm than good.
Notice that he does not say they could pull up the wheat, but that they would, because this specific type of weed, known as lolium or darnel, looks so much like wheat that it is easily mistaken for the real thing. Only when the grain starts to ripen can this “false wheat” be easily distinguished. What is more, the roots of this insidious plant intertwine with the roots of the wheat itself, so in a frenzy of weed-pulling, one would inevitably yank up the good along with the bad. It would have been painstaking and time-consuming to weed this field, and attempts to do so would result in more harm than good to the wheat. Can you see how the same caution might apply to dealing with evil in the world or in the Church? Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the good and the bad, and in pulling up what we think is a weed, we may in fact be pulling up wheat. Now no one needs to tell us we live in a world that is weedy and corrupt; we read the paper, we watch the news, and just shake our heads at the enormous difference between the way the world ought to be and the way it actually is. But what can we do about it? And then there are those times, when we become particularly frustrated, that we think that maybe we can do something about it; and like the farm hands in the story, we want to go out and rip up evil by the roots. But surprisingly, the Master says, “Not yet.”
In this parable, the enemy sows his evil seed and then goes away, seeming confident that the damage he intends will be done. Robert Farrar Capon, in his Parables of the Kingdom, says that the enemy has no real power over goodness anyway: The wheat is in the field, the Kingdom is in the world, and there is nothing he can do about it. But, he adds, “he can sucker the forces of goodness into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work for him. That is why he goes away after sowing the weeds. He has no need to hang around. Unable to take positive action anyway—having no real power to muck up the operation—he simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him” (p. 102). But in this story, that is precisely what does not happen. The master says, “Wait. Let them both grow together until the harvest, and when the harvest comes, I will tell the reapers to collect the tares and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” It is not that the master likes having darnel in his wheat-field; it is rather that he has a different plan for dealing with the problem. His solution is ultimate, rather than proximate. And Our Lord wants us to hear that, more often than not, this is God’s way of dealing with the evil in the world and in our communities, our families, our churches, ourselves—not immediately but finally, once and for all.
It is always tempting to try to sort out the weeds from the wheat in our world. How many times have Christians, assuming themselves to be pure wheat and others to be the pure weeds, set out to establish the perfect community? Think of the Puritans, some of whom crossed an ocean to try to create the perfect ‘City on a Hill,’ to protect themselves from the influence of Papists, hypocrites, and other riff-raff. Their utopian society did not last long, however, because it was populated by people who were, well, human. And then, as so often happens, the next generation was not so enamoured of their parents’ vision. But their leaders and elders would not easily relinquish the ‘perfect community’ they had worked so hard to build, so they escalated the destructive obsession with purity by persecuting those who failed to conform. The Salem Witch Trials, the Crusades, and the Inquisition, were but a few examples of a misguided attempt to create a field free of tares. How much wheat has been mistakenly uprooted by over-zealous defenders of ‘orthodoxy’?
But indiscriminate destruction is not Our Lord’s response to this mixed and messy lot of sinners and saints we call the Church. He is patient. He watches and waits until the time is right. He does not wish to cause the destruction of even the smallest stalk of wheat in order to clear out a whole bundle of weeds. He gives the tender shoots time to fulfil their intended purpose: “A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgement unto victory” (Mt. 12.20; Is. 42.3). He could have destroyed the whole crop and started over, but He does not. He even showers grace enough on the weeds that perhaps some of them may even turn into wheat, as well, as St John Chrysostom says: “that of the very tares it is likely that many may change and become wheat. If therefore ye root them up beforehand, ye injure that which is to become wheat, slaying some, in whom there is yet room for change and improvement” (Sermon xlvi). There will be no weed-free field prior to the great harvest. Impatience is not only futile, it can also be a force of great destruction. But make no mistake, God’s patience is neither apathy nor detachment. The farmer’s zeal for the good of his wheat continues unabated. Likewise, Our Lord’s zeal for Truth and Charity and Justice continues in the Church. The farmer continues to tend the plants, to give them the things they need to grow and to flourish, just as God continues to feed His people with Word and Sacrament.
Our Lord Jesus is concerned with saving people. And He does it in God’s way. To see Him hanging there on the cross, it would be easy to believe that God’s way has failed, that evil has triumphed, that the field of the world has been completely overcome by tares. But that is not what happened. In the death of Christ, evil was ultimately conquered, so that while it might exercise dominion for a time, it will not hold sway forever. One day, all wrongs will be righted and Evil itself shall be destroyed. But in the meantime, we have to accept the fact that we live in a world full of wheat and tares, rather than trying to pull up every plant that looks vaguely tare-like. Because the truth is, that none of us is completely free of evil. There is more bad in the best of us, and more good in the worst of us, than any of us will ever know; which is all the more reason to leave the sorting of good and evil to God and, for our part, to spend more time just trying to be wheat, rather than searching for weeds to pull.
But there is a caveat here: the proclamation of “grace” can easily and quickly turn into a permissive “licence” that suggests it doesn’t matter what one does, for God’s grace is so overarching that it relieves the pressure of obedience to His will. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called this “cheap grace,” carrying with it no responsibilities, quite contrary to Our Lord’s constant call to “lose our life” for His sake. Then the ugly head of “legalism” rears itself as a counterpoint to “cheap grace,” suggesting that Our Lord’s call to live responsibly requires one to adhere to a strict, arbitrarily selected code of “dos” and “don’ts” in order to become acceptable to God. From one extreme to the other – a word of grace becomes a word of licence, and a word of responsibility becomes a word of forced obedience in order to claim God’s approval. And there are many steps in between, as we take the Word of the Lord and twist it to our own ends. The “enemy” comes in the darkness of our best efforts and corrupts them, tainting the wheat of God’s Word with the tares of our human handling of divine gifts. In our weed-stricken lives, we think that God’s glory will best be set forth and His righteousness revealed in our “higher forms of living,” our drive towards perfecting the world (so-called “Social Justice”). Without suggesting that we should not live in full response to the grace of God – to be all that God would have us be – we must still recognise that we will constantly live with tares growing inside us alongside the wheat of God’s grace, while at the same time, our lives will constantly be surrounded by the weeds of this world attempting to suffocate the grace that was born of the waters of Baptism and nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ.
“What has happened to our Church? Why doesn’t God do something?” How many of us have said that at some time or another? But while it may not be God’s way to deal with these things immediately, be well assured, that none of this goes unnoticed by God, and while He may seem to tolerate it, He tolerates it only for a time. What had to be given as instruction to the first-century Church is just as appropriate in the twenty-first. Not all solutions are immediate solutions. Even in the first century there were tares among the wheat, there were those who led people astray, and the apostles had constantly to instruct their people to be on guard. When St Peter said, “Your adversary goes about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5.8), he was not just talking about spiritual adversaries, he was talking about problems within the community of believers. There is so much in the history of the Church that has nothing to do with our Lord Jesus Christ or following His way. It can have all the trappings of religion and still be false, just as the tares can grow amongst the wheat. But God is the Gardener and God is the Judge. Not you and not me. That itself is a great mercy. Jesus loves the Church more than you and I do. After all, it is His Church—His Bride, and His Body.
At Christmas, we were reminded that Jesus came historically as a tiny baby. He is present to us today in the Sacraments, in His Word, and in the Church. But remember too, that the next time He comes, He will come as the righteous Judge. “The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Mt. 13.41-43). There are a lot of people in the physical church who have much they will have to answer for. And they will answer to Christ Himself when He comes as Judge. Jesus Christ is still Head of His Church. He may tolerate the weeds growing in His field, but He will respond—justly and with finality.
In the Epistle lesson, St Paul describes what the Church ought to be—what authentic wheat looks like. This is what we must understand and practise in our own lives. “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.” Forbearing one another and forgiving one another is the counter to our judgementalism—our presumption to know what we cannot know about others and even about ourselves. “Even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.” We were not worthy of God’s forgiveness, and we certainly did not (and could not) be worthy of the Son’s becoming man to die for us upon a cross. Our Lord Jesus demonstrated by a perfect human life that human nature restored to its created dignity could manifest the image and likeness of God. And what He showed us of God’s character was precisely what St Paul demands of us in this Epistle reading. Christ showed us, by the human life of the Son of God made man, “kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, and long-suffering,” forbearing His rights as the Eternal God in order to forgive us by dying for us. To become like God in Christ, we must become kind, humble, meek, long-suffering, forbearing one another and forgiving one another, even as Christ came among us and forgave us. We cannot do this, and we will not do this, until we seek the grace of God to “put on bowels of mercies.” Mercy must fill us spiritually and physically, becoming a part of our nature. Every organ of our bodies must become an organ of God’s mercy, so that the love of our Father in heaven becomes our very heart and soul. Then we will truly be “Christians” in the most precise and original meaning of that word.
“And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.” This is the Epiphany of Christ’s divine life in us, and it is only thus that the Church, His household, is kept in pure religion. Our calling as Christians, called out of the midst of a sinful world and a sinful human race, is to be like Christ. This calling and the fulfilment of it are not within our power to achieve, but they are within the power of God’s grace. We are called to be “children of God” by adoption and grace. We are called back to what God created us to be—His image and likeness in human flesh, just as our Lord Jesus Christ is the perfect expression of God’s character and being in that same human flesh that He shares with us. We are called to become what Christ is, by grace and sanctification, that we might share in the glorification of His Body, and receive the perfection of God’s image in us on the Last Day. If we but followed this teaching of St Paul, the history of the Church would have been different. The Church today would be different. You and I would be different. But first, we must be renewed, regenerated, changed by the grace of God. We must nourish and cultivate the good seed planted within us. As we give ourselves, body and soul, heart and mind, to God, we can truly be Church as He wants us to be. We can truly be the wheat that He will gather into His barn. If we want the Church to be renewed, it must begin with us. David Curry says:
There is a vision here. There is an epiphany of our lives in the light of Christ. We are given to see and to act out of what we are given to see. We are given to see something of the forbearance and the forgiveness of God towards us which compels us to forbear and forgive one another. “Even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye.” It is always what we pray. Our lives are lived in the sight of God “from whom no secrets are hid.” What we are given to see is the picture of his love for us. It counters all our pretensions and all the presumptions of our judgmentalism. Equally, it challenges our all-too-willing subservience to tyranny and bullying by institutional authorities, whether it be Bishops or Synods or whatever, who have betrayed the principles that govern their authority. Why? Because it opens us out to the greater mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
The weeds in our own lives can be a great source of frustration and discouragement. Like St Paul in Romans 8, we become frustrated that we cannot do better and be better. Our Lord’s message in this parable is: Be patient! Don’t concentrate so much on rooting out the weeds; concentrate instead on cultivating the wheat. “We pray that we may evermore be defended by His mighty Power. As we learn also on the Sunday of Perseverance, our patience is more truly the patience of God with us, and our strength is His strength made perfect in weakness. Our hope lies in a patient God.” (Scott, ibid.) For example: the way to control a temper is to cultivate a gentle spirit—concentrate on the wheat, not on the tares. That does not mean ignoring evil, but it means cultivating what is good and faithful and godly, and allowing God to sift away the bad. We have to decide what kind of ministry we will have in this world. We could try to root out all the sources of evil, or, instead of pulling weeds, we could just try harder to be wheat. God calls us to be not merely a bunch of individual stalks of wheat in the midst of the world, but a wheat-field called the Church, faithfully living out and speaking forth the mercy and grace of the One who has planted us in the midst of this world as the sons and daughters of His Kingdom. We will never be the “pure church,” but we will be God’s people, forgiven, justified, living by grace. And then there will be a little more wheat in the field. Remember the words of St Paul from Epiphany III (Rom 12.21):
“Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Collect: O Lord, we pray thee, sow the seed of thy word in our hearts, and send down upon us the showers of thy grace: that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit, and at the great day of harvest may be gathered by the holy angels into the heavenly garner; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.