July 19, 2020 Worship Sermon - "The Last Judgement"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
If you haven’t been by the church recently, you may need to be reminded that there is a bed of flowers next to the ramp that runs along Madeira Road. That bed has some beautiful flowers in it: early in the spring there were irises; then came the peonies; and right now, the daylilies are about to burst into bloom. Oh, and in addition to all these beautiful flowers, there are weeds… lots of them. The weeds are there, not because we want them to be and not because we are too lazy to pull them out. They are there because I, for one, cannot tell the difference between a weed and a perennial, at least not until the plants begin to flower… and by that time the weeds have put down some really deep roots and are very hard to pull out.
If I’m not very good at distinguishing weeds from perennials, I really have to wonder about my ability to distinguish between “good” people and “bad” people. An experienced gardener can identify a plant just by observing the shape of its leave. People, on the other hand, are much more complicated; and very few of us are in a position to assess another person’s moral character.
America is in a state of crisis right now, because we’ve seen with our own eyes how readily people use race as a quick and easy way to sort out the guilty from the innocent. Racial profiling is just one horrific example of how inept we human beings are at distinguishing good from bad. But that doesn’t stop many of us… we’re quite happy to assume the role of judge over other people.
The question about sorting the good from the bad is just one of the issues that confront us in this parable that Jesus tells us this morning. In these thirteen verses, Jesus deals with some of the monumental questions that have troubled philosophers and theologians from the beginning of human history:
Before exploring what Jesus has to say about these questions, we have to decide whether we’re going to take everything in this parable at face value. Many Christians would be just fine with that. They would read this parable and say, “Yep. There are good people in the world and bad people in the world. We can’t always tell the difference between them, but God can. And after we die there will be this last judgment, like you see on the wall of this Sistine Chapel. All the good people will be sorted to Jesus’ right and go up from there to heaven; all the bad people will be pitch-forked over to Jesus’ left and driven down from there into the cauldron of hell.
While many Christians would be comfortable with this interpretation of Jesus’ parable, as a Lutheran, this approach is a little hard for me to swallow. I agree with Martin Luther when he says that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. We are saints because Christ has claimed us and died for us. We are sinners because we continue to live for ourselves, rather than living for God and each other.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky put it this way: if there is a line between good and evil in this world, that line doesn’t run between these people and those people, that line runs through every human heart… including my heart. If there is going to be a sorting out of good and evil, then that sorting must take place in here - in my heart - not out there.
So, in spite of what Matthew says about the wheat being good people and the weeds being evil people, reading this passage within the Bible as a whole I am much more inclined to interpret the wheat as human inclinations that support life and the weeds as those human inclinations that destroy life. That approach fits in much better with the passage we read in Romans two weeks ago, where Paul described how there was like a war going on within him between the parts of himself that love God and neighbor and those parts that love only himself.
For people like Paul, and me, and perhaps you… people who feel oppressed by the evil inclinations within their own heart, this parable is good news. There will be a divine judgment. Evil, that which destroys life, will not have free reign in this world forever. Even though that is a word of judgment, I also hear it as a word of hope. Poor people will not be oppressed forever. Racism will not be allowed to continue forever. Those who are victims of violence will not suffer forever. Nations and empires that usurp the authority of God will come to an end. And my own unyielding tendency to do things that I know are harmful… that too will come to an end.
But it may take a while. That’s another message of this parable. When the servants discover weeds among the wheat, they ask their master to let them go out and pull up the weeds. Every gardener knows that weeds can deprive other plants of nourishment and water. And gardeners like me are anxious to get rid of those weeds as soon as possible. But this parable tells us about God’s patience. God will act, but maybe not as quickly as we wish. In the mean time, we live in this ambiguous world where good and evil are not always easy to distinguish. Instead of “Shoot them all and let God sort them out,” Jesus tells us, “Love them all and let God sort them out.”
Asking someone to be patient never sounds like good news. We feel like children sitting in the back seat of a car, begging God, “Are we there yet?”
For those who are suffering, the exhortation to be patient is frustrating, but perhaps there is good news in this, too, for all of us. God’s patience is giving the good more time to grow as well as the evil. Thank God the human race has existed long enough for slavery to be eliminated in most places. Thank God advances in medicine have cured so many diseases. Thank God nations have found other ways besides war to resolve conflicts. There is still more than enough evil in the world, but let’s not be so overwhelmed by evil that we fail to notice how God has patiently nurtured the good that has come to fruition in our own lifetimes. The Kingdom of God is bearing fruit in our world.
Before closing, let me offer just one last bit of good news: when judgment happens, it’s not going to be me who’s doing the judging. It will be someone who understands the difference between good and evil far better than I do. It will be someone who loves this universe and every person in it far more than I do. It will be someone who knows what it is like to be executed as a sinner, even though he was innocent. The judge who stands at the end of history is neither me nor Samuel Alito nor Sonya Sotomayor. That judge is the risen Christ, in whom there is hope and there is life.
Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby