6 after Trinity

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Readings

Genesis 28:10-19;
Romans 8: 12-15;
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

Sermon

My father, who at one time was a hospital chaplain alongside his parish ministry, told the story of a physician entering a children’s ward in an old hospital where the children were suffering from the effects of polio. Looking down the long ward with its small occupants in such suffering, he began to weep, and said in anger, “An enemy has done this!”

I believe Jesus may well have had the same reaction. For there, in what should have been a field of young bodies growing in strength – as per the Maker’s instructions - something else had sprung up uninvited in their midst, affecting their bodies, causing paralysis, encephalitis and respiratory and gastric distress. Poliomyelitis was one of the most worrying diseases amongst children in the first half of the 20th century, sometimes known as “infant paralysis” because it seemed to affect babies and small children particularly. It is spread by a virus which takes over the ability of the host cells to replicate, and so replicates the virus rather than the healthy cell. It is a vicious attack, changing the body’s own ability to recognise itself.

No wonder that physician saw it as an enemy and quoted that line from the parable Jesus told of the wheat and the weeds. There is a word play in Matthew’s use of the Greek that isn’t as clear in English. The Greek word for weed – zizanion – when transliterated into Hebrew is zonin, a poisonous rye grass which is difficult to distinguish from wheat until the head appears. Remember that in the Law of Leviticus the people of God were told not to mix different seeds to sow in one field. Jewish scholar David Stern explains that in Judaism wheat and zonin were not considered to be different seeds but different manifestations of the same seed, which is why they could be sown together.  Zonin, the rye grass, was a degenerate form of wheat; rather like the polio virus, which appears to harness the body’s own cells and replicate like for like, yet insidiously uses that process to produce infection and illness within the body of the sufferer.

In telling the story Jesus gives the farmer a divine compassion. He looks out upon his field where the wheat should be growing tall and strong and plentiful ready to feed the hungry; and sees instead growth of a different kind. It has not obliterated the wheat completely, but it has made it less plentiful, less nourishing. The plant, so like wheat, yet far from being wheat, has choked some of the beauty and life-giving qualities that the wheat should have had. But the farmer doesn’t just throw up hands in despair and decide to plough up the field and throw the whole lot out. He has invested in this crop, this field. He will have patience. He will wait. Let them grow together until the harvest.

As human beings perhaps we are a mixture, each of us, of wheat and zonin, longing to be all that we could be and yet somehow clogged in the process of healthy growth. We grow in a direction we had not intended, sometimes inadvertently nurturing Zonin because we thought it was wheat. Paul the apostle knew that, struggled with it, argued with himself and his longing to be able to change his own nature, at last reminding us with relief and joy, that it is God’s Spirit that touches our Spirit and reminds us of who we really are.

Waiting can be difficult and painful, for the farmer watching the field, the physician watching the progress of a virus, Creation groaning towards that time of transition. But it is not only around us but also within us; and part of our waiting is to allow God to be working within us. As Eugene Peterson’s translation of these verses in Romans puts it: “That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.”

Jesus was talking to his fellow Jews living under Roman occupation. There were those who wanted revolution, to overthrow the “enemy”, to rid their promised land of the weeds that choked their Jewish identity and freedom. There were others who collaborated with the occupying force for their own ends, forsaking their identity as separate people of God. Jesus suggests a third way – of patient, non-violent opposition which nonetheless showed up the enemy for what it was. This third way is neither violent – tearing up the weeds and risking reprisals that would destroy the wheat, nor capitulation so that the wheat becomes weeds too – but a wise regard for allowing the wheat and the zonin to grow side by side until their true nature, their true identity took their natural course. It takes a skilled and compassionate eye to discern the nuances. Putting things  - and people - into strict categories based on assumptions isn’t always helpful. After all Jesus said of the Roman Centurion – never, even in Israel have I seen such faith as this. And it was a Roman Centurion who stood at the cross and said of Jesus, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”

Whatever “the enemy” appears to be doing, God’s Spirit of life and hope is always at work bringing about healing and transformation. These things take time and compassion as the farmer in the parable understood. As a physician and a chemist and a scientist and an artist  and a parent all know – transformation needs skilled and dedicated care with an openness to an outcome we might not have expected. 

A vaccine was found for polio.

Other viruses have since come to plague and alarm us, sowing both fear and suffering, but also compassion, courage and new insights into how we can change and transform beyond those old norms we had not previously questioned.  Our grief and anger may cry “An enemy has done this!” - but alongside it and within all that drains life from us we might also be able to say with wonder and surprise along with Jacob, who dreamed of angels streaming between heaven and earth: “God is here, in this place, and I didn’t know it!”

Amen.

Questions for reflection

What has looked like wheat in our old way of being – that is now shown to be a weed? And vice versa?

Where do we see God unexpectedly at work while we are sleeping?


Page last updated: 14th July 2020 9:32 AM
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