Saints and Ain’t’s

Good morning, Friends!

For the last few weeks, we’ve been reading some of the parables of Jesus. A parable is a story that makes you think. The word “parable” comes from the Greek words para, which means “in front of”, and bolein, “to throw down”.

So a parable is literally a story which is thrown down in front of people. Most of the time Jesus didn’t explain what the parables mean. So, Jesus leaves it up to each one of us to listen and try to figure out what these stories mean.

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

– Matthew 13:24-30 

In the same chapter, Jesus tells another parable. It’s little different, but the point is almost the same. Let me read you the second one as well.

“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 

This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth

– Matthew 13:47-50

Do you ever wonder why there’s so much evil in the world? Do you ever wonder why there are so many bad people doing bad things? And do you ever ask yourself, “Why does God allow all this evil and wrong to happen?”

Every place we look, we see a mixture of good and bad. Even folks in the church aren’t perfect. The saints aren’t all here in this room, and the sinners aren’t all hanging around outside.

That kind of bothers us. As somebody put it, we like to divide the world into two groups – the saints and the ain’t’s. We want the saints to be inside, and the ain’t’s to be outside. Be a whole lot easier to understand, that way, wouldn’t it?

The parables we heard today don’t say that there’s no difference between good and bad. There is good wheat, and there are poisonous weeds. There are good actions, and bad ones.

Most of us try to be good people. Most of us don’t spend our time looking around for bad things to do. Most of us are here at worship because on some level, we want to be live right. And we think that being here will help somehow.

So, why are there so many bad people? The first parable says that’s it’s like a field. The farmer plants good seed – finest wheat – but then in the night, when nobody’s looking, an enemy comes along and plants poison weeds.

The particular weed Jesus mentions is one which looks just like wheat when it’s coming up, but it’s completely poisonous – just a little bit can knock you out, then you go into convulsions, then death. Pretty nasty stuff! Jesus says the enemy plants them. He doesn’t say who the enemy is.

Some people say the enemy is the devil. Other people say it’s our own desires, our own selfishness and desire for control and vengeance. I’m not always sure who the enemy is. What matters is that we recognize wrong when we see it.

Jesus says that the good will be separated out from the bad. But he says it doesn’t happen right away. For the time being, good and bad coexist with each other. We live in the same world. We live in the same community.

The good and the bad get separated out – when, did Jesus say? At the harvest. He doesn’t spell out when that is. Maybe it’s when we die. Maybe it’s when the world comes to an end. Maybe it’s when we all stand before God.

It’s sometime, but it’s not now. For now, we live in a world where good and evil, good people and bad people, good actions and bad actions, good news and fake news, are side by side, growing strong in the midst of each other.

Can’t always tell them apart. That’s part of the point of the story. The Bible says repeatedly that wolves dress up in sheep’s clothing, that the devil pretends to be an apostle of truth and an angel of light. Even in the church, there are false prophets.

What do you do? Wait for the results, Jesus says, over and over. See what the fruit is. Good plants give good fruit; bad plants give bad fruit. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There’s no law against any of these things, no matter where you are. (see Galatians 5)

When the Holy Spirit isn’t here, there’s a different kind of fruit. When people are working against the Spirit, the fruit is immorality, impurity, addiction, idolatry, religious manipulation, hatred, factionalism, deliberately stirring up trouble, jealousy, envy, all kinds of stuff like that.  When you see those things, God is not at work, and we should all be heading in the other direction. But it’s not always easy.

One of the things people sometimes do, when we try to be holy, or when we try to do better, is that we think of ourselves as separate from the rest of the human race.

That perception of being better can have exactly the opposite effect from what God wants. Instead of being righteous, we become self-righteous. Instead of being good and humble, we become good and arrogant. And that’s not good.

In Jesus’ time, there was a group of people who tried with all of their heart, mind, soul and strength to be good, to do the right thing at all costs. They saw how dangerous it was to buy into the compromises which ran all through their society.

So they decided to separate themselves from society. This group was called the perushim, which literally means “the separated ones.” We know them, in the Bible, as the group called the Pharisees.

Jesus had a lot of conflict with the Pharisees, and a lot of the stories in the Gospel are about that conflict.

Jesus told a story once. He said, “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this schmuck standing over there, this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give 10% of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at the back, and he wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven. He beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.'” (see Luke 18:9-14)

“OK,” says Jesus. “Which one went home the better person? Which person’s prayer was better?”

Was it the “holy” person, who did everything right according to the book? Was it the person who was separated from the common crowd, and thought they were better than anyone else? Or was it the one who made mistakes, and prayed to God for help?

The gospel tells another story, about a woman who came to Jesus while Jesus was having supper at a Pharisee’s house. It says she was a big sinner. And she wept all over Jesus’ feet. Then she took out some perfume, and she anointed Jesus. And she dried his feet with her hair.

The Pharisee, who had invited Jesus into his house, said to himself, “If this guy Jesus was really tuned in, he’d know what kind a person this woman is. He wouldn’t even let her touch him!”

And Jesus said, “You know, she’s done a lot of things wrong. But she’s loved a lot. And she’s forgiven. But you know,” said Jesus, “people who aren’t forgiven much, don’t love much.” (see Luke 7:37-50)

Let’s not miss the point here. There is right, and there is wrong. There’s good, and there’s bad. There’s virtue, and there’s terrible vice and violence. But holding ourselves apart from our fellow human beings is not the way to be righteous.

Christians do that all the time. We can be as stiff-necked, judgmental, and self-righteous as any of the Pharisees we read about in the Bible.

In both of the parables we heard today, it says that there’s a big shake-out at the end of the day. But one of the key points, which is in both parables, is that we aren’t the ones who do the sorting and judging.

In the parable of good and bad plants in the field, it isn’t the weeds or the wheat who do the sorting. The farmer does that.

In the parable of the net, it isn’t the fish themselves who decide who’s good, and who’s bad. The net scoops up everyone and everything, the saints and the ain’t’s alike, good people and bad people together. The net doesn’t make any distinctions.

It isn’t for us to judge one another. God is the one who decides which fish to keep, and which ones to throw back.

I thin that part of what’s going on, if we really believe what Jesus said about love and mercy, is that all of us are potential “keepers”. I believe that the deepest desire of God is to save everyone. But when we try to decide who’s wheat, and who’s a weed, we’re in big trouble.

We would like to think that we’re the salmon and the swordfish on the crushed-ice counter of life. We’d like to think that we’re the Chosen People, the ones worth catching and keeping.

But you know, maybe God is sort of like a master chef. With a few spices and some expert cooking, God can take a no-good, bottom feeding, plug-ugly catfish, and turn it into a chef’s delight.The two parables we’ve heard today are really powerful.

They strike at the heart of our self-righteousness. They challenge us about our attitudes, about who we admire, and who we hate and despise.

It would be convenient if all the people in one religion were bad or evil. If only we could separate them so easily! But in fact, I’ve met many Muslims who are really decent people.

I’m a Christian. I know we don’t worship the same way. We don’t believe the same things. But I have met many Muslims who are honest, thoughtful, kind and generous – all the things that I myself would like to be.

We’ve talked about this several times in our Wednesday night Bible study — not all Muslims are terrorists. In fact, only a tiny minority are. Most Muslims feel the exactly same way about terrorists that Christians feel about the crazy minority of our own people who hijack the name of Jesus, who use Jesus’ name as a cover for their insane world of violence, hatred and racism.

I have also met many Jews who love their neighbor in ways that put Christians to shame. Many Jews devote themselves to the healing of the world and the improvement of society. In medicine, education, charity and justice, Jews have been leaders who have given out of proportion of their numbers.

By the way, a lot of people think that our country is being taken over by Jews and Muslims. A survey last year found that many Americans think that there are more than 50 million Muslims in the U.S.

The reality?  There are only about 3.3 million Muslims, only about 1% of the population. And there are only about five and a half million Jews, roughly 1.7%. People who get all hysterical about this are listening to fake news.

Most of our neighbors are a lot like us. They care about jobs, their families, a decent education. They want to enjoy them their lives and play with their grandkids.

There are dangerous people, bad people, people who do evil acts. But they’re in the minority. Most people, of all faiths, of every color, of every background, want to live in peace. And given half a chance, most people really want to be good.

In the same way, it would be convenient if all the good people were in one political party, and all the bad people were in the other — a lot of politicians would love for us to think that way.

The reality is that a lot of people in politics would like to break away from their leaders. They’d like to vote their conscience. They’d like to make changes and get some good things done.

Those people are on both sides of the political divide. And I’d like to support intelligent people, of proven competence and who have demonstrated care for their country, no matter what party they belong to.

In the mean, time, I don’t think the church has any business putting its weight behind one party or the other, and I think that religious leaders who do that need to get their business straight.

Actually, there’s nothing in these parables to say that they’re about other people. What if the wheat and the weeds are inside us? What if, in each one of us, there’s a place like an empty field, a place ready for God’s word to be planted?

God plants good seed in us, just like that parable we heard a few weeks ago. But somehow, in among the good seed, there’s also some poison ivy growing in our hearts and in our minds.

We want the world to be divided neatly into the saints and the ain’t’s. But we don’t even know ourselves. We know that good and evil are real. But we can’t always control our own hearts or the things we do.

The job isn’t given to us, to judge each other. All we can do, is pray, and just do the best we can.

Only God knows what’s going on in people’s minds and hearts. Only God really knows what’s going on up here, and in here.

Our job is to do the best we can, to try to keep the log out of our own eye, as Jesus says. Our job is to resist evil, and not cooperate with it, or give evil our approval. But let’s let God be the final judge of hearts and minds, not us.

Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a net, which catches all kinds of fish. That’s what the church is, too. There are all kinds of Christians. There are even all kinds of Quaker Christians. Let’s not judge each other. Let’s let God take care of that.

And who knows? Maybe God likes it this way! Maybe God doesn’t even want the bad fish to get away. Maybe God’s hope, God’s plan, is to catch us all, and redeem even the ones that other people think are bad. I’m still trying to figure this parable out.

You can disagree with me, if you think this isn’t what Jesus was saying. There’s always more than one way to understand these stories Jesus tells.

If there are thoughts and responses to Jesus’ teaching, or questions about anything I’ve said, this time is open. If there are experiences you want to share, or prayers you want to make, or things for which you’re thankful, that’s what this time is for.

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