It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control.
It is completely out of fashion these days to take Jesus seriously on what he says to us. Sure, there may be some exceptions, like the one about doing to others as they would have them do to us. There seems to be universal acceptance that the so-called Golden Rule is a fine standard with which to measure our lives.
But when Jesus begins to lay out, with precision, what he means about being a child of the kingdom of God, well there are other things that seem more important.
For the most part, the most famous chapter about the kingdom of God (Matthew 13) is meant to be encouraging. The kingdom of God, after all, is like a man who finds a treasure, sells all he has, and becomes infinitely richer! But this is also a seriously troubling section of Scripture. The kingdom of God, after all, according to Jesus, is a place with clear boundaries. There are sure enough sons of God, and as the following story points out, sons of the devil himself. A quick note: there are no free agents.
And so Jesus tells a story about a farmer. He liked to tell stories of farmers. This farmer went out into his field and planted wheat. But in the middle of the night, whilst the good farmer took his rest, his enemy snuck in and sowed thistles. As the days went by, the crop began to bloom, and low and behold, the field was half covered in thistles. His farmhands reported back to him, with the obvious question, Should we uproot the thistles? They were, after all, taking up valuable rain, soil, sun, and space from the good wheat. And I am not much of a farmer, but his answer is at least a bit surprising. No, he says, let them grow together, and at harvest time, we will uproot them. Otherwise, we may uproot the good with the bad. Only when we harvest, he says, will we bind and burn the thistle.
On the surface, the story is mildly entertaining at best. I couldn’t say for sure, but I am almost positive that Jonny Depp would turn down a chance to play the farmer in the movie version. But as Jesus explains the parable, the subject matter becomes a matter of life and death.
The wheat, he explains, represents his people. The enemy is the devil. The thistle are the sons of the devil. The decision has been made. Everybody grows together. We all get the benefit of sun, rain, cool days, nourishing earth beneath us, and interconnected roots. But there is a coming day, Jesus says, when this age will end.
And it is at this point that we are tempted to depart with Jesus. Good teacher? Sure. Good fella? Absolutely. God incarnate? Maybe. Lord? …I’ll get back to you on that one.
Two words stick out. The first is clarity. The second is finality.
It is impossible to miss the point to Jesus’ story. There are children of God and children of the devil. For now, we grow together, with not much more than our appearance to distinguish us from one another. And we all know how reliable appearances are. But once it is all said and done, Jesus himself will send his angels to separate the wheat from the weeds. The sons of God are headed to shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father. The sons of the devil, of darkness, are headed for the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.
And this is a story of finality. Say what you will about the redemption of the lost after death, be it via purgatory or love winning, this is a story about the end.
Which brings us back to John Steinbeck’s account of a sermon he heard traveling through a small town in Vermont. Of the God he encountered in the preacher’s “fire and brimstone” sermon, he wrote:
this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me. He put my sins in a new perspective. Whereas they had been small and mean and nasty and best forgotten, this minister gave them some size and bloom and dignity…I wasn’t a naughty child but a first rate sinner, and I was going to catch it.
Do you hear Jesus caring enough about you to warn you? Do you hear him caring enough about you to call you to repentance? Do you hear him caring about those around you to warn them of the seriousness, the clarity, the finality of the kingdom of God?
Let the one with ears hear.