Canon Missioner - Revd Canon Jay Colwill
As Canon Missioner in the Southwark Diocese, I have learnt about the amazing work of so many Christian communities across South London and East Surrey
Over 300 square miles, ministering to nearly 3 million people, in more than 350 parishes (not to mention schools, hospitals, prison chaplaincies and others) the people of Southwark Diocese have been demonstrating the love of God in word and deed!
Holiday Hunger schemes for vulnerable children are being set up. Isolated people are being visited. Racism is being challenged, faith is being sustained and strengthened. There is a lot of kindness and goodness at work in the world, through the faith of Christians and other people of good will.
I say this at the beginning of my homily, as we come to address the difficult subject of sin and evil at work in the world. The parable of Jesus, which we call the parable of the weeds and the wheat can challenge us. Jesus tells this parable to help us to understand the mystery of good and evil being active in the world- side by side! Why, you may ask, doesn’t God act and eliminate evil, right here, right now? If God is sovereign and in charge of all things, this must be possible, we say!
This parable comes straight after the Parable of the Sower. Both remind us that the Bible is a series of books about times and seasons. It is an agricultural book, in that sense. It is not mechanical, and events don’t mechanistically happen. Rather they happen within God’s divine timing, within God’s divine providence.
One of the greatest challenges of the last 50 years has been COVID-19. John Lennox, in his little book “Where is God in a Coronavirus world” draws upon scientists such as Peter Pollard, an associate professor in virology.He says: “The word ‘virus’ strikes terror into the hearts of most people. It conjures up images of influenza, HIV, Yellow Fever, or Ebola. Of course we worry about these viruses—they bring us disease and sometimes an excruciatingly painful death. “But the 21 viral types that wreak havoc with the human body represent an insignificant fraction of the 100 million viral types on earth. Most viruses are actually vital to our very existence ... Thus viruses are a critical part of inorganic nutrient recycling. So while they are tiny and seem insignificant, viruses actually play an essential global role in the recycling of nutrients through food webs. We are only just now beginning to appreciate the extent of their positive impact on our survival. One thing is for sure, viruses are our smallest unsung heroes.”
Likewise, in an article entitled “Viruses deserve a better reputation”, Pennsylvania State University viral ecologist Marilyn Roossinck says that viruses are essential to life, and that at most 1% (a high estimate) of them are pathogenic—that is, harmful to their hosts.
So viruses are in the main beneficial, but a small proportion of them, like COVID-19, are harmful to humans.
Good and bad virus’ cohabiting together in nature. What about good and evil cohabiting within humanity?
The parable of the wheat and the weeds probably relates to a weed called darnel. Now if I could I would show you a picture of how similar darnel looks like wheat until it is fully grown. The kingdom of heaven is like this: a man…’ “Weeds” – probably darnel, a poisonous plant virtually indistinguishable from wheat until the ears appear. It was an offence in Roman law to sow darnel among wheat as revenge, which suggests that this kind of thing actually occurred. Jesus might be picking up on a recent cultural scandal of his day and telling the parable to illustrate the deviousness at work in the world. “An enemy did this”. As malicious as this sounds, people actually sowed darnel into wheat fields. Jesus uses this behaviour to affirm is that there is a reality and source to evil. Let both grow together until the harvest- Jesus says – for to separate them prematurely would be to damage the good plants. Good and evil growing alike, often inter-twined, often inseparable. Together in the workplace, in the neighbourhood, in the school and college, in the home, yes and in the visible church. Both good and evil are ripening, maturing, growing.
We know that there is structural, systemic evil as well as, personal and individual acts of evil. As Christians, we are called to stand with Christ against such acts. Yet, here Jesus is saying, there will be a reckoning. In this life, evil will not go unnoticed. In the life to come, it will not go unpunished. One of the great tensions we hold in our Christian faith is that if God is love, then He will not compel/ force or coerce people to his will- God will guide and invite people to follow Him. That, of course allows for people to choose to act in godly or godless, evil ways. Yet, Jesus says: there are consequences to such actions. These can echo through our communities and generations; as well as consequences which echo into eternity. For those who choose to reject God consistently in this life, God’s love is such that He grants them their wish even into eternity.
Jesus' parable makes clear that any attempt to root out the weeds will only do more damage to the crop. He also makes clear that we cannot always be certain- which is darnel and which is wheat until the harvest. Similarly, we cannot always tell who is "in" or who is "out." In fact, God's judgment about these matters may take many of us by surprise. What we should not be surprised by is that there is a time for judgment and it is in God’s hand, God’s time.
I began by celebrating loving service and generous action of many Christians in the name of Christ. Yet Jesus’ teaching on eternal judgement is not popular in our day. His teaching, 2000 years ago and today still causes offence. We strive to be inclusive, faithful, radical. Yet, to be inclusive is to recognise that some choose to stand outside of the grace of God. Jesus was clear about that. The people of Nazareth were perplexed about Jesus (in Matt 13.57) Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offence at him. Yet Jesus never stopped reaching out to them, in love and grace, even when his teaching caused offence.
As difficult as a theology of eternal judgement is, it can offer hope. We do not rage against the evil we see around us and fall into despair? Jesus’ love for all is wide, and God’s judgement is certain, but he is not in a hurry. 2Peter 3.9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
May we demonstrate the patience of Christ, and reach out to all with His love and compassion.