Sunday, 23 July 2017

Wheat & Tares: Reflections on judgement and judgmentalism

First preached as a sermon by Canon Andrew Bishop at Guildford Cathedral Sunday 23 July, 2017, Sixth Sunday after Trinity. Gospel text, Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

‘Let anyone with ears listen’ Matthew 13.43

In nomine Patris…

The parables that Jesus told his disciples and the crowds who followed him are multifaceted. On first hearing they are deceptively simple, and certainly memorable. Many, but not all, have an obvious and apparent meaning. But a second hearing, or reading, makes us realise that there is a whole lot more to them. The parables become searing and searching. If we are reading them faithfully, with attention and open to the possibility that God will speak through them, we find that the parables read us more than we read them.

Weeds in a field of wheat
And we bring our own experience and insights to the parables. If you spent the day in the garden weeding yesterday, between the showers, or have it planned this afternoon, no doubt you will be thinking practicalities and the merits of glysophate (for those not horticulturally minded, it’s a weedkiller) or the hand trowel. But more than that we start to be searched out by a parable like this. We might begin to wonder what weeds need plucking out of our own lives; what are the weeds that need plucking out of society?

This is a tough parable. Its conclusion really flies in the face of what we might assume the gospel is all about. Surely God does not want the destruction of anyone, be they virtuous wheat or malevolent weeds; so what’s all the talk of furnaces of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth? Surely we moved on from all that after the Middle Ages? It doesn’t feel the sort of modern message we might want to hear.

So do we leave it there, declare that things have moved on a bit and conveniently ignore this parable? I suggest not.

If we remember that the parable reads us as much as we read it, it becomes frighteningly modern and prescient. This is because the parable condemns judgmentalism and commends judgement.

Judgements need to be weighed carefully
Judgement has got a bad name in recent years. This happens when we mistake judgement for judgmentalism. Making good judgements in our choices is fundamental to be responsible human beings in society. Judgements are integral to justice, and in the gospels justice and mercy go hand in hand. Mercy is not a soft option but is the partner of judgement.

Our age is curiously judgemental and not so good at making judgements. Social media firestorms rage in the heaping up of judgements against other people; be they politicians, celebrities, media figures or even, bizarrely, the judiciary. Demands for instant solutions force and hurry poor judgements which results in poor decisions. Judgmentalism evacuates mercy from justice.

In contemporary society very often the word, ‘religious’ or at least ‘Christian’ is assumed to be synonymous with ‘judgemental’. And it has been well earned. The church has often been complicit in believing herself to be the judge, dispensing condemnations and anathemas to those who step out of line.

The church has wanted to do the weeding long before the harvest. This has led, quite literally sometimes, to the burning of those people who dissent or fall outside the norms of the time or those we choose to point the finger at, scapegoat and blame.

The point of the parable is that the weeding, the judgement, is not our task. In the parable when the weeds are uprooted the wheat will be uprooted along with it: put another way, the very act of us judging and seeking to root out others corrupts us at the same time.

Marchela Dimitrova, “Jesus Christ, the Judge.” 2011
The parable resists our human inclination to judge others, and indeed even to judge ourselves. How dare we? How dare we, who proclaim in the Creed, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, seek to be judges ourselves? The judgement is Christ’s not ours.

As individuals, the church and as a society we all stand together under judgement. Here’s the challenge. How can the church show not what it is to judge, but what it is to stand open to judgement? In other words, to be penitential?

Remember: this parable is a vision of the Kingdom of God, not a world controlled by the church. It is as demanding for the wheat – the children of the kingdom – as it is for the weeds – the children of the evil one. Yet we are impatient to start weeding, trimming, tidying: for the children of the kingdom other gifts are required: patience, faith and trust. The judgement is Christ’s.

This has a direct personal implication and impact. As the children’s song goes, ‘Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me’. We can change that to, ‘Let there be penitence on earth and let it begin with me’.

The seeds of pernicious weeds are usually pretty tiny, mobile and germinate easily. They take root quickly and deeply. So it is with our own shortcomings– that ‘persistent buried grudge, the half-acknowledged enmity which is still smouldering’ that envy or jealousy – those things, once they root and take hold, become sin; they impair our vision and sharing in the life of God.

At each Eucharist we open ourselves up and speak words of confession and are assured that God’s judgement is merciful and inclined to forgiveness. For some, and perhaps it should be for more of us, the practice of confession one to one with a priest becomes a way of digging deeper, not to diminish ourselves but to be filled with God’s mercy. The priest does not judge, but the penitent says before God, I am open to judgement.

As a paraphrase of the last verses of Psalm 139 put it:

Investigate my life, O God,
    find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
    get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
    then guide me on the road to eternal life.

And this moves beyond the personal and into life together. What then does it look like for the church to be open to judgement? It requires us to re-position how we speak of the faith. So, rather than condemn, we commend.

It has been said that, ‘through creative, repentant activity in public life, the church participates in God’s healing transformation of the world.’ That is hard. It is also something that will not be understood by the world.

We acknowledge that this has to be spoken to ourselves as the church first so that we can speak it to the world. An example might be how we speak of the ecological crisis and sustainability. We need to retreat from sanctimony and confess the ways that our use of scripture has led to domination and the exploitation of the world’s resources. In end of life matters, we need to commend life and support all that enriches life before we condemn those of a different position: we all stand under judgement.

We cannot claim to be anything other than fallible human beings, but fallible human beings entrusted with a great treasure for and on behalf of the world.

The existence of the church is the guarantee that Jesus Christ remains committed to the world for which he died.

You and I are implicated in that as disciples. The church tells the world that Jesus’ message is to the end of the age. It is not about being superior, or judgmental, but rather, being faithful to Christ in a world that does not know him, simply out of love for that world and ‘all who dwell in it’.

So, the message is: forget the weeding! It is not my job or your job, not the Archbishop of Canterbury’s, nor even the Pope’s job, to make the kingdom neatly manicured or weeded, wielding spiritual glysophate and religious hand trowels, with us judging what is a weed and what is a flower. This is Christ’s ministry.

Let’s reject judgmentalism and take judgement seriously. And may it start right here: in my heart and in yours.

Roger Toulson (1946-2017)

Dedicated in thanksgiving for the life of Roger Toulson, Lord Toulson, sometime  Queen's Counsel, Lord Justice of Appeal, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom: the least judgmental judge I know. May he rest in peace. Amen.

© Andrew Bishop, 2017