Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Shay is a friend of mine. I met him one January day in California. I had daytripped with my family to Mt. Pinos, the tallest mountain in Ventura County at 8,847 feet, for a bit of fun: sledding, building a snowman, maybe having a snowball fight, picnicking, and otherwise romping around on the snow for several hours.
So there we were: Holly, the four girls, and I—Emily, now 13, was two years old, to give you a point of reference; and she could lie down completely inside the snow saucer—so cute! I just had to get a family picture.
We had a decent enough camera with us—this was long before phones had cameras. But it had no timer feature. So I looked around for someone to take our picture.
And there! Yes, fifty feet to my right, I spied a youngish dad talking excitedly to his young son. “That’s the guy,” I told myself.
Now, I said he was talking excitedly to his son. And well he should have been; for they’d just sledded down perhaps the biggest and fastest run on the mountain. But as I approached him, I realized he wasn’t speaking in English.
So I began going through my mental catalog of languages. Spanish? No. French maybe? No, too guttural. German? No way. I’d taken a couple years of that in college. Yet this language was somehow familiar. What was it? I’d studied a little Hebrew and Greek. Could it be?
Then it struck me. Hebrew is spoken in today’s world. Were this man and his son actually speaking to each other in Hebrew? Were they actually from Israel?
“Hello,” I said. “I was wondering if you could take a picture of me and my family?”
Then the man said, in very good English, “Sure, love to. But would you take a picture of me and my family too?”
“Yes,” I answered. “By the way, is that Hebrew I heard you speaking to your son?”
With a surprised look he said, “Why, yes! How in the world did you know?”
Then I pulled out a trick from my languages bag: I’d once memorized Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew. Want to hear it? (Bereshith. . . .)
He nodded, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. Wow! I’m impressed.”
And from that moment we were fast friends.
We introduced ourselves—Shay, his wife Yael, and their two young boys, Zohar and Carmel. And we took pictures, shared picnic baskets, and played together, our two families, for the rest of the afternoon.
We saw Shay and his family several times over the next year or so. We ate dinner in their home at Yom Kippur; they came to our church the day all four girls were baptized. Talking about spiritual matters with Shay came naturally.
His backstory is one of growing up in Israel. As you probably know, this is a politically volatile place! As children, Shay and Yael commonly encountered soldiers on the streets, right out in the open public, with machine guns strapped over their shoulders. As they got older, both Shay and Yael spent mandatory time in Israel’s army. Yes, mandatory! And if my memory serves, that’s in fact where they met—in Israel’s army.
That done, Shay completed college and went on to earn an MBA from the University of Tel Aviv by the time he was 28. He then married Yael and began his career and a family. Some years later he had the opportunity to work in the United States, in San Diego.
Yael was absolutely thrilled. “A place of no violence,” she exclaimed, “no wars, no threats to us and our children!”
So, that settled, they packed up all their things and moved to San Diego. They arrived, by the way, on Sept. 1, 2001.
No violence. No wars. No threats to us and our children.
Ten days later we all know what happened! Terrorism attacked our shores.
For Shay and Yael (as for us), this was a huge blow. But to make matters more complicated, Shay’s boss was on Flight 11, one of the planes that crashed into the towers. And in this context, Shay, at 38 years old, found himself suddenly promoted to interim CFO of a successful international company.
That’s his context. So I found myself very sympathetic to his worldview when one day he told me his perspective on the big picture.
“I am a Jew,” he explained, “but only in practice, not in actual belief. I want my children to know their heritage. So, yes, we celebrate Yom Kippur, the Passover, Hanukkah, and the other important holidays. These are the festivals of my people. And I want to believe in God. But how can I when so many bad things have happened to my people throughout history?”
That’s his question: if God is real, why is there so much evil in the world?
And it’s a good—albeit very difficult—question.
Now I’m not even going to try to attempt to answer this question today. Biblical scholars with much more theological muscle than mine have been trying to answer this question for more than a millennium. Unsuccessfully too, I might add.
Yet today’s Gospel—this parable about the wheat and tares—gives us some insight into this difficult question—and some lessons to draw from it.
First, God knows our struggles.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a field in which good seed has been sown; but also, it is assumed, a considerable amount of bad seed has been sown too—while no one was looking. An enemy did this, but he was stealthy about it, and thus no one realized it until much later. But the point is, it’s obviously here, now, in the present manifestation of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus never said that following him would be easy. This was a sort of modern American evangelical myth of the 1990s, or at least it was for me. “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” I was told. But how can you say that a family member suffering through cancer is a wonderful plan for anyone’s life? There is suffering, hardship, and downright evil in this world. It’s obvious!
But guess what. It’s not only obvious to us; it’s obvious to God too. Jesus knows our struggles. That’s part of why he teaches this parable in the first place. Draw strength and encouragement from him.
A second insight: there’s no room for spiritual judgment.
We like to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, don’t we? From early childhood we are encouraged to have a pride of place—whether it’s for a home team, a home state, a home nation, or a home political party. We have our people; they have theirs. And anyone who’s not on my team, well, they’re less than respectable.
But not so according to this parable! The bad seeds are indistinguishable from the good, Jesus says, until they bear grain. Did you catch it? No one noticed the weeds, not even the master, until they bore grain!
In the kingdom of heaven today—or, to bring it really close to home, right here in church—good and bad exist together in a sort of harmony. We’re all familiar with stories of the so-called diamond in the rough, right? Or, to use today’s metaphor, the kid everyone thought to be a bad seed turns out in the end to be a good seed. This leaves no room for any sort of spiritual judgment on our parts, as if to say, “Man, that guy! Don’t know what in the world’s wrong with him! I mean, why does he even come to church in the first place?”
We’ve all done it. We’ve all had our judgmental thoughts. But whatever it takes, stop yourself from doing it again! Just don’t go there.
And a third insight: the good is right there with the bad.
“Why doesn’t God just do something?” we want to ask. Right? We hear about problems in the Middle East, or terrorism on our home soil, or about a friend diagnosed with stage four colon cancer—or about a passenger plane shot down as it flew over eastern Europe! And we want to say, “Enough already, God. Do something! Stop this evil!”
The thing is—and it’s not easy to see it—God is already doing something. The good seeds are right there with the bad. Their impact is strong and solid. But, as the parable itself says, if God were to pull up the evil, the good would be uprooted too, right along with it. And none of us wants that!
We cannot know the innerworkings of God’s grand design. That’s impossible! But we can believe that God is what the Bible says—loving, omnipresent, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Don’t lose sight of the good!
So: we’ve looked at a very difficult question today: if God is real, why is there evil? And while there is no easy answer, we’ve gained some insights:
- Trust God: know that he has not abandoned you.
- Don’t be quick to judge others: God is helping them through their difficulties, just as he helps you through yours.
- And, on the flipside, strengthen others: God has put the good seeds right alongside the bad; be that good seed to everyone around you.