Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pentecost 5 (Proper 11), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 17, 2011 (Proper 11, Series A)

Why is there evil in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is good, and He is all-powerful, then there shouldn’t be such a thing as evil, should there? Why isn’t life fair? Why do good people so often suffer, while bad people so often prosper and do well for themselves? Questions like these have occupied theologians and philosophers since the beginning of history. These questions have been wrestled with, poked, prodded, and pondered over in every generation. And, of course, it’s not just the scholarly theologians and philosophers up in their ivory towers who have pondered these questions either. The everyday, common, garden-variety, working-class theologians and philosophers such as you and I have pondered them at great length, too. After all, for those of us who aren’t in ivory towers, these are not abstract questions. They are very real and personal. We see the evil that goes along with life in this world every day, all around us. Often it has had an impact on our own lives, where someone who has cheated, lied, or stolen has gotten the better of us by doing so. Or when a random accident claims the life of a bright and talented young person. Or when we who worship God faithfully and receive His body and blood Sunday after Sunday must struggle to make ends meet while many with sinful and disgusting lifestyles get rich and live lives of luxury. These questions are not mere abstract academic exercises; they are very real. Evil is real, and it is in the world around us, and also within our own hearts.

But if God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He do something about it? How can an all-powerful God who claims to be good and just and righteous simply stand by while there is suffering and injustice and wars and persecutions and disease and poverty? Why doesn’t He simply wave His hand and get rid of the evil in the world? Why does He let it go on? This form of the question is similar to what the slaves asked their master in today’s Gospel lesson. “Do you want us then to go and gather the weeds up?” The master’s answer is surprising. “No, I don’t. Let them grow together until the harvest, and then we will gather all the plants and separate them out.” The reason he gives for this surprising command? “If you try to uproot the tares, you will probably damage the wheat as you do so.” The fact is, evil is not just something that exists “out there” in the world. All the evil in the world, all the suffering, pain, injustice, poverty, sorrow, and so forth, is a result of the corruption of men’s hearts, and that includes your heart and my heart. The worst and most decadent sinner is only showing forth the symptoms of the same corruption that we were born with as well. The reason why God doesn’t just simply destroy all the evil and unfairness in the world is because if He did so, we would also be caught up in the destruction, because we, as sinners, are part of it.

This is the reason why, by the way, the Lutheran Church does not have as one of its primary goals the reform of the society around us. There are many other Christian Churches and individuals who see it as their duty, precisely as Churches, to conform the society around them to God’s moral laws. There have even been those recently who have argued that everything that was punished by capital punishment in the Old Testament, including believing differently than what the Bible teaches, should be grounds for capital punishment among us today. The medieval Roman Catholic Church followed this principle as well; being excommunicated from the Church for a moral or doctrinal lapse also meant that one would face execution or exile. But this is not to be a primary goal of the Christian Church. After all, if we started hunting down all who were morally impure, sooner or later we would be hunting down ourselves, because all of us have fallen into some sort of sin at one point or another in our lives. And so that is not how God wishes to deal with the fact that there is evil in the world, nor is it how He wants us to deal with it either.

By the way, I need to mention that some have used this parable as a reason why the Church should not exercise Church discipline. However, that is a misunderstanding of this parable. As Jesus Himself points out, the field in which the wheat and tares are growing together is the world, not the Church. It is true that we don’t seek civil penalties against those who deny our faith or who live in ways which are sinful but legal in our country. In fact, we don’t even seek civil penalties as a Church against those who live in ways that are illegal in our country. That’s the government’s job, not the Church’s job; it may be our job as citizens, especially those whose vocation it is to enforce the law, but it is not our job as Church members. But at the same time we don’t simply allow public, unrepentant sinners to continue as members of the Church in good standing, either. This is not done out of a desire to “purify” the Church, but rather out of love for them so that they may be able to see how serious their sin is, and repent and believe the Gospel. We don’t go out of our way to seek out “sinners” among the Church, nor do we solicit rumor-mongering, but where a sin is public and ongoing and the sinner is unrepentant of it, we need to let the person know, not only in words but also in actions, that if they are not repentant of their sins the Gospel does not apply to them, because the Gospel is for poor, miserable sinners, not stubborn, prideful, unrepentant sinners.

In any case, God does not wish to destroy all the evil in the world the way we might think He should, because in doing so He would end up destroying all of humanity, including you and me. Evil and good are so enmeshed in one another, even within our own hearts, that they cannot be separated while we remain in this life. Even our good works are often damnable sins, because we do them for the wrong reason. We do something that is outwardly in keeping with God’s Law, and then what do we think? “Hey, I’m a pretty good person! Hey, look at me, God!” And by thinking that, and we all end up thinking that when we do something right, we have just broken the First Commandment by praising ourselves rather than God. And so there is no way to separate the evil from the good in us without putting us as a whole to death.

But there does come a time when this will happen. There will come a time, of God’s own choosing, when the evil in us and in the world will be eradicated. Either at the time of our own deaths, or when Christ comes again and this old sinful world is entirely destroyed. The harvest time will come. In fact, in a certain sense, this has already happened. Jesus has already destroyed the sinfulness of humanity by taking it to the cross and killing it in his own body. And it was killed in us when we were baptized into His death through water and the Word. What happens when we die and then when Christ comes again and we are resurrected is merely the fulfillment of what has already happened to us.

The fact that the weeds will eventually be separated from the wheat is a warning for secure and impenitent sinners, but it is a comfort for us. You see, we will eventually be gathered into our heavenly Father’s barns, there to live forever in His presence, free from all sorrows and pains and hurts and death. The question of evil in the world will not trouble us, because there will be no evil in the world. But we can’t see it now. What we see with our human eyes is the pain and suffering around us, and the sin and malice in our hearts. Thus faith is needed, and faith is only given through the Word and the Sacraments. You can’t see it with your eyes, but you can hear it with your ears. Your sins are forgiven. The tares in your own heart are removed. Take and eat, this is My body; take, drink, this is My blood. Our Lord accepts us as His wheat, feeds us with His heavenly food, and joins us together with those who have already been gathered and are celebrating the heavenly thanksgiving banquet in His heavenly storehouse even now. You are His wheat, and you will be gathered into His barns at the end, there to praise and live before Him eternally. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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