Monday, November 2, 2009

The harvest is the end of the age

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

- Matthew 13:36-43

Just as Jesus has previously explained the parable of the Sower in private to his disciples after he told it to the crowds, here Jesus explains and elaborates on the meaning of the parable of the Wheat and the Tares, or Weeds. As before, we're now given to understand that He is speaking in private with his disciples, after he has preached this parable to the crowds.

Most definitely, now, the introduction of the notion of Judgment has made its appearance in Matthew's gospel. We know that as "Son of Man," a title by which Jesus has made reference to himself, he alludes to the Messiah as an apocalyptic figure out of literature from which this title is derived, particularly the Book of Daniel. My study bible has an interesting note, which emphasizes the fact that after the good Sower comes sowing the good seed, the enemy comes. In the same way, after the wheat begins to grow, so do the weeds. The point of that particular note is that after the truth, the good, the authentic followers comes distortion, untruth, misleading teachings and people who will seek to mislead. As seed, it's difficult to tell them apart, as growth the weeds resemble the wheat. If we look around us, we see the significance of this: Jesus words elsewhere about "wolves in sheep's clothing" resound for us here. We must be on our guard, we must be watchful, and try to practice discernment. But beyond this, to uproot one from the other would be too disruptive to the good growth, according to this parable. And so, we enter into the notion of Judgment and of the age to come.

I was listening to a talk about the notions of the Judgment, or the age to come, and its impact on the outlook of Christians, particularly in the early Church. This of course is a huge topic and one can find opinions and discussions and outlooks that vary widely all over the place. Particularly now, I think, as the world has become a much smaller place, with various types of threats that may impact the world as a global problem, we now have an angle or perspective that causes many to think about what this means. But the image or idea of Judgment or of an age to come in which wrongs are righted, and a different spiritual life comes to the world, has always been an idea central to the Church and the Christian perspective. It is a frightening idea to many, and of course we know that rather than follow Jesus' words, all too often human beings have assumed the role of Judge. But despite the dangers of failing to follow Christ's teachings on this subject, I think it's important to keep the role and power of Judgment in mind.

Early in Christian history, an orientation toward this understanding created an important focus. Life is not merely about the here and now: we also have a future to consider and to look forward to when we make decisions now. Judgment is not merely a substitute for the parental authority of childhood, as some would dismiss it. It is, on the contrary, about a kind of Reality and a set of values that may differ extraordinarily from those we encounter in our day to day concerns and cares -- so much so that notions about Judgment and Its Reality may completely oppose the way we live our day to day lives. A God, as represented by Christ and so many of the prophets and saints both before and after him, that teaches us about the importance of taking care of one another, and the supremacy of love as the most potent force in the universe, is completely the opposite of the idols we may worship which proclaim by their values that all that counts is our image before others, the things we collect that add attraction to ourselves, how we "Lord it over others" (a direct contradiction to biblical teaching), how many achievements we can count that belong to us as material or tangible possessions (as opposed to the things that moth and rust can consume). I hope I needn't comment as well about the violence done in the name of all of this way of thinking and its opposition to the teachings of Jesus. But clearly, if we juxtapose the things we are taught to do to "be somebody" in the world and the ways of thinking it produces, with notions of God's will that we are taught especially through Jesus' life, then we have an entirely different picture of what the consciousness and awareness of Judgment should produce in us. This is not at all about self-righteousness but about awareness, consciousness, of a force of spiritual reality - this kingdom - that demands of us an awareness of what we do and how it impacts ourselves, and the world, and the spiritual kingdom Jesus is trying to build up through his life and his ministry in these gospels. The notion of Judgment should, rather than causing us to be considered as judges of others, make us aware of just how much effort we are to put into understanding what it is to live a life of love and integrity in that love and in those teachings we read about in this gospel. It is an awareness, not just of the worldly, but of something beyond the world that adds to our sense of perspective on how we treat others and relate to the world as caretakers - rather than merely as competitors and consumers.

In this sense, I see Judgment as an essential component to Christian identity. The fact that it has been exploited to do harm and evil should not deter us from approaching this subject with integrity and understanding about where it should lead us, and how it should lead us to consider the concepts of love in our lives and in our hearts. Rather, we must see those who would exploit any Christian or spiritual concept - those teachings intended to bring justice and the practice of mercy into the world - for their own gains, and to practice that which is against the teachings of Jesus, as the Tares or the Weeds in this story. We cannot leave out the important concepts we don't like; rather, we are to take a look at them and to correct our understanding about them. We are to practice discernment and to pay attention to Jesus' teachings as clearly as we can for ourselves.

When I think of Judgment, I think of this great consciousness that it should bring to us of our actions in our day to day lives. The awareness of a God of love must shape a perspective that asks us about our daily lives based on notions of competition or exploitation. It must certainly confront actions of cruelty and bullying and extraordinary levels of violence. It must ask us why we don't consider instead the importance of an attitude of love and care or helpfulness to one another, the practice of kindness, opportunities for mercy. Jesus teaches us to practice "good judgment" by following this will. The two notions are linked; we must come to understand what it is to become "mother and brothers" to Jesus. We cannot dismiss the notion of justice from the idea of a life lived to help to bring about this time of redemption and freedom from what ails the world, and its rootedness in the practice of love - and especially its hope and participation in building the time of the age to come.

I urge you to think about this notion, take a moment and watch how it may come to influence your perspective on choices you make, and on how you view others around yourself. Watch how it may inspire you to seek that will more deeply for yourself, to enter more deeply into a prayer life. More importantly, does it ask you to open up your heart to receive, to gain discernment about how we practice what is preached in these gospels?

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